AN INQUIRY INTO THE ACCORDANCY
OF WAR WITH THE
PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY


by Jonathan Dymond


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It is with the apostles as with Christ himself.  The incessant object of their discourses and writings is the inculcation of peace, of mildness, and of placability.  If might be supposed that they continually held in sight the reward which would attach to “peace-makers.”  We ask the advocate of war whether he discovers in the writings of the apostles, or of the evangelists, anything that indicates they approved of war.  Do the tenor and spirit of their writings bear any congruity with it?  Are not their spirit and tenor entirely discordant with it?  We are entitled to renew the observation that the pacific nature of the apostolic writings proves presumptively that the writers disallowed war.  That could not be allowed by them, as sanctioned by Christianity, which outraged all the principles that they inculcated.

“Whence come wars and fighting among you?” is the interrogation of one of the apostles, to some whom he was reproving for their un-Christian conduct.  And he answers himself by asking them, “come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” [40]  This accords precisely with the argument that we urge.  Christ forbade the passions that lead to war; and now, when these passions had broken out into actual fighting, his apostle, in condemning war, refers it back to their passions.  We have been saying that the passions are condemned, and, therefore, so is war; and now, again, the apostle James thinks, like his Master, that the most effectual way of eradicating war is to eradicate the passions which produce it.

In the following quotation we are told, not only what the arms of the apostles were not, but also what they were.  “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty, through God, to the pulling down of strong holds, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” [41]  I quote this, not only because it assures us that the apostles had nothing to do with military weapons, but also because it tells us the object of their warfare: the bringing every thought to the obedience of Christ.  I would beg the reader to notice this object, because it accords with the object of Christ himself in his precepts from the Mount: the reduction of the thoughts to obedience.  The apostle doubtless knew that, if he could achieve this, there would be little reason to fear that his converts would slaughter one another.  He followed the example of his Master.  He attacked wickedness in its root and inculcated those general principles of purity and forbearance, which, in their prevalence, would abolish war, as they would abolish all other crimes.  The teachers of Christianity addressed themselves, not to communities, but men.  They enforced the regulation of the passions and the rectification of the heart, and it was probably clear to the perceptions of the apostles, although it is not clear to some species of philosophy, that whatever duties were binding upon one man, were binding upon ten, upon a hundred, and upon the state.

War is not often directly noticed in the writings of the apostles.  When it is noticed, it is condemned just in that way in which we should suppose anything would be condemned that was notoriously opposed to the whole system – just as murder is condemned at the present day.  Who can find, in modern books, that murder is formally censured?  We may find censures of its motives, of its circumstances, and of its degrees of atrocity; but the act itself no one thinks of censuring, because everyone knows that it is wicked.  Setting statutes aside, I doubt whether, if a Tahitian should choose to argue that Christians allow murder because he cannot find it formally prohibited in their writings, we should not be at a loss to find direct evidence against him.  And it arises, perhaps, from the same causes, that a formal prohibition of war is not to be found in the writings of the apostles.  I do not believe they imagined that Christianity would ever be charged with allowing it.  They write as if the idea of such a charge never occurred to them.  They did, nevertheless, virtually forbid it; unless anyone shall say that they disallowed the passions which occasion war, but did not disallow war itself; that Christianity prohibits the cause, but permits the effect; which is much the same as to say that a law which forbade the administering of arsenic, did not forbid poisoning.  And this sort of reasoning, strange and illogical as it is, we shall by and by find has been gravely adopted against us.  But although the general tenor of Christianity and many of its direct precepts appear to me to condemn and disallow war, it is certain that different conclusions have been formed; and many, who are undoubtedly desirous of performing the duties of Christianity, have failed to perceive that war is unlawful to them.

In examining the arguments by which war is defended, two important considerations should be borne in mind.  First, those who urge them are not simply defending war – they are also defending themselves.  If war is wrong, then their conduct is wrong, and the desire of self-justification prompts them to give importance to whatever arguments they can advance in its favor.  Their decisions may therefore, with reason, be regarded as in some degree the decisions of a party in the cause.  The other consideration is that the defenders of war come to the discussion prepossessed in its favor.  They are attached to it by their earliest habits.  They do not examine the question as a philosopher would examine it, to whom the subject was new.  Their opinions have been already formed.  They are discussing a question that they have already determined.  And every man, who is acquainted with the effects of evidence on the mind, knows that under these circumstances, a very slender argument in favor of the previous opinions possesses more influence than many great ones against it.  Now all this cannot be predicated of the advocates of peace.  They are opposing the influence of habit.  They are contending against the general prejudice.  They are, perhaps, dismissing their own previous opinions.  And I would submit it to the candor of the reader that these circumstances ought to attach, in his mind, suspicion to the validity of the arguments against us.

The narrative of the centurion who came to Jesus at Capernaum, to solicit him to heal his servant, furnishes one of these arguments.  It is said that Christ found no fault with the centurion’s profession; that if he had disallowed the military character, he would have taken this opportunity of censuring it; and that, instead of such censure, he highly commended the officer and said of him, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” [42]

An obvious weakness in this argument is this: that it is founded, not upon approval, but upon silence.  Approbation is indeed expressed, but it is directed, not to his arms, but to his faith; and those who will read the narrative will find that no occasion was given for noticing his profession.  He came to Christ, not as a military officer, but simply as a deserving man.  A censure of his profession might, undoubtedly, have been pronounced, but it would have been a gratuitous censure, a censure that did not naturally arise out of the case.  The objection is in its greatest weight presumptive only, for none can be supposed to countenance everything that he does not condemn.  To observe silence [43] in such cases was, indeed, the ordinary practice of Christ.  He very seldom interfered with the civil and political institutions of the world.  In these institutions there was sufficient wickedness around him, but some of them, flagitious as they were, he never, on any occasion, even noticed.  His mode of condemning and extirpating political vices was by the inculcation of general rules of purity, which, in their eventual and universal application, would reform them all.

But how happens it that Christ did not notice the centurion’s religion?  He surely was an idolater.  And is there not as good reason for maintaining that Christ approved idolatry because he did not condemn it, as that he approved war because he did not condemn it?  Reasoning from analogy, we should conclude that idolatry was likely to have been noticed rather than war, and it is therefore peculiarly and singularly unapt to bring forward the silence respecting war as an evidence of its lawfulness.

A similar argument is advanced from the case of Cornelius, to whom Peter was sent from Joppa and of whom it is said that, although the gospel was imparted to Cornelius by the special direction of Heaven, yet we do not find that he therefore quitted his profession, or that it was considered inconsistent with his new character.  The objection applies to this argument as to the last – that it is built upon silence and that it is simply negative.  We do not find that he quitted the service, I might answer.  Neither do we find that he continued in it.  We only know nothing of the matter, and the evidence is therefore so much less than proof, as silence is less than approbation.  Yet, that the account is silent respecting any disapprobation of war might have been a reasonable ground for argument under different circumstances.  It might have been a reasonable ground of argument, if the primary object of Christianity had been the reformation of political institutions, or, perhaps, even if her primary object had been the regulation of external conduct; but her primary object was neither of these.  She directed herself to the reformation of the heart, knowing that all other reformation would follow.  She embraced indeed both morality and policy, and has reformed or will reform both – not so much immediately as consequently, not so much by filtering the current as by purifying the spring.  The silence of Peter, therefore, in the case of Cornelius, will serve the cause of war but little; that little is diminished when urged against the positive evidence of commands and prohibitions, and it is reduced to nothingness when it is opposed to the universal tendency and object of the revelation.

It has sometimes been urged that Christ paid taxes to the Roman government at a time when it was engaged in war, and when, therefore, the money that he paid would be employed in its prosecution.  This we shall readily grant; but it appears to be forgotten by our opponents that, if this proves war to be lawful, they are proving too much.  These taxes were thrown into the treasury of the state, and a part of the money was applied to purposes of a most iniquitous and shocking nature, sometimes probably to the gratification of the emperor’s personal vices and to his gladiatorial exhibitions, and certainly to the support of a miserable idolatry.  If, therefore, the payment of taxes to such a government proves an approbation of war, it proves an approbation of many other enormities.  Moreover, the argument goes too far in relation even to war, for it must necessarily make Christ approve of all the Roman wars, without distinction of their justice or injustice – of the most ambitious, the most atrocious, and the most aggressive, and these even our objectors will not defend.  The payment of tribute by our Lord was accordant with his usual system of avoiding interference in the civil or political institutions of the world.

“Let him that has no sword sell his garment, and buy one.” [44]  This is another passage that is brought against us.  “For what purpose,” it is asked, “were they to buy swords, if swords might not be used?”  I doubt whether with some of those who advanced this objection, it is not an objection of words rather than of opinion.  I doubt whether they themselves think there is any weight in it.  To those, however, who may be influenced by it, I would observe that, as it appears to me, a sufficient answer to the objection may be found in the immediate context: “Lord, behold here are two swords,” said they, and he immediately answered, “It is enough.”  How could two be enough when eleven were to be supplied with them?  That swords, in the sense and for the purpose of military weapons, were even intended in this passage, there appears much reason for doubting.  This reason will be discovered by examining and connecting such expressions as these: “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” said our Lord.  Yet, on another occasion, he says, “ I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword.”  How are we to explain the meaning of the latter declaration?  Obviously, by understanding “sword” to mean something far other than steel.  For myself, I see little reason for supposing that physical weapons were intended in the instruction of Christ.  I believe they were not intended, partly because no one can imagine his apostles were in the habit of using such arms, partly because they declared that the weapons of their warfare were not carnal, and partly because the word “sword” is often used to imply “dissension,” or the religious warfare of the Christian.  Such a use of language is found in the last quotation, and it is found also in such expressions as these: “shield of faith,” “helmet of salvation,” “sword of the Spirit,” and “I have fought the good fight of faith.”

But it will be said that the apostles did provide themselves with swords, for that on the same evening they asked, “shall we smite with the sword?”  This is true, and I think it may probably be true also, that some of them provided themselves with swords in consequence of the injunction of their Master.  But what then?  The reader of the New Testament will find that hitherto the destined teachers of Christianity were very imperfectly acquainted with the nature of their Master’s religion – their conceptions of it were still gross and Jewish.  The very question that is brought against us, and the succeeding conduct of Peter, evince how little they yet knew that His kingdom was not of this world, and that his servants might not fight.  Even after the resurrection, they seemed to be still expecting that his purpose was to establish a temporal government by the inquiry, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom unto Israel?” [45]  Why do we avail ourselves of the conduct of the apostles before they themselves knew the duties of Christianity?  Why, if this example of Peter is to be authority to us, do we not approve the subsequent example of this same apostle, in denying his Master?

Why, indeed, do we urge the conduct of Peter at all, when that conduct was immediately condemned by Christ?  And, had it not been condemned, how happens it that, if he allowed his followers the use of arms, he healed the only wound that we find they ever inflicted with them?

It appears to me that the apostles acted on this occasion upon the principles on which they had wished to act on another, when they asked, “Shall we command fire to come down from heaven to consume them?”  Their Master’s principles of action were also the same in both cases: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of, for the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”  This is the language of Christianity, and I would seriously invite him who now justifies “destroying men’s lives” to consider what manner of spirit he is of.

I think, then, that no argument arising from the instruction to buy swords can be maintained.  This, at least, we know, that when the apostles were completely commissioned, they neither used nor possessed them.  An extraordinary imagination he must have, who conceives of an apostle, preaching peace and reconciliation, crying,” forgive injuries … love your enemies … render not evil for evil,” and at the conclusion of the discourse, if he chanced to meet with violence or insult, promptly drawing his sword and maiming or murdering the offender.  We insist upon this consideration.  If swords were to be worn, then swords were to be used; and there is no rational way in which they could have been used but some such as that which we have been supposing.  If, therefore, the words “Let him that has no sword sell his garment and buy one” do not mean to authorize such a use of the sword.  They do not mean to authorize its use at all, and those who adduce the passage must allow its application in such a sense, or they must exclude it from any application to their purpose.

It has been said, again, that when soldiers came to John the Baptist to inquire of him what they should do, he did not direct them to leave the service, but to be content with their wages.  This, also, is at best but a negative evidence.  It does not prove that the military profession was wrong, and it certainly does not prove that it was right.  But in truth, if it asserted the latter, Christians have, as I conceive, nothing to do with it; for I think that we need not inquire what John allowed, or what he forbade.  He, confessedly, belonged to that system which required “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” and the observations which we shall by-and-by make on the authority of the Law of Moses, apply, therefore, to that of John the Baptist.  Although it could be proved (which it cannot be) that he allowed wars, he acted not inconsistently with his own dispensation, and with that dispensation we have no business.  Yet, if anyone still insists upon the authority of John, I would refer him for an answer to Jesus Christ himself.  What authority He attached to John on questions relating to his own dispensation, may be learned from this: “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Such are the arguments that are adduced from the Christian Scriptures by the advocates of war.  Of these arguments, those derived from the cases of the centurion and of Cornelius, are simply negative.  It is not pretended that they possess proof.  Their strength consists in silence, and of this silence there appears to be sufficient explanation.  Of the objection arising from the payment of tribute, I know not who will avail himself.  It is nullified by itself.  A nearly similar observation applies to the instruction to buy swords,and with the case of John the Baptist I do not conceive that we have any concern.  In these five passages, the sum of the New Testament evidences in favor of war unquestionably consists.  They are the passages that men of acute minds, studiously seeking for evidence, have selected.  And what are they?  There is not one of them, except the payment of tribute and the instruction to buy swords, of which it is even said by our opponents that it proves anything in favor of war.  A “not” always intervenes.  The centurion was not found fault with.  Cornelius was not told to leave the profession.  John did not tell the soldiers to abandon the army.  I cannot forbear to solicit the reader to compare these objections with the pacific evidence of the gospel that has been laid before him; I would rather say to compare it with the gospel itself, for the sum and the tendency of the whole revelation is in our favor.

In an inquiry into whether Christianity allows war, there is a subject that always appears to me to be of peculiar importance: the prophecies of the Old Testament respecting the arrival of a period of universal peace.  The belief is perhaps general among Christians that a time will come when vice shall be eradicated from the world, when the violent passions of mankind shall be repressed, and when the pure benignity of Christianity shall be universally diffused.  That such a period will come we indeed know assuredly, for God has promised it.

Of the many prophecies of the Old Testament respecting it, I will refer only to a few from the writings of Isaiah.  In his predictions respecting the “last times,” by which it is not disputed that he referred to the prevalence of the Christian religion, the prophet says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.  Nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” [46]  Again, referring to the same period, he says, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” [47]  And again, respecting the same era, “Violence shall be no more heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders.” [48]

Two things are to be observed in relation to these prophecies: first, that it is the will of God that war should eventually be abolished.  This consideration is of importance, for if war is not accordant with His will, war cannot be accordant with Christianity, which is the revelation of His will.  My business, however, is principally with the second consideration: that Christianity will be the means of introducing this period of peace.  From those who say that our religion sanctions war, an answer must be expected to questions such as these.  By what instrumentality and by the diffusion of what principles will the prophecies of Isaiah be fulfilled?  Are we to expect some new system of religion by which the imperfections of Christianity shall be removed, and its deficiencies supplied?  Are we to believe that God sent his only Son into the world to institute a religion such as this – a religion that, in a few centuries, would require alteration and amendment?  If Christianity allows war, they must tell us what it is that is to extirpate war.  If she allows “violence, wasting, and destruction,” they must tell us what are the principles that are to produce gentleness, benevolence, and forbearance.  I know not what answer such inquiries will receive from the advocate of war, but I know that Isaiah says the change will be effected by Christianity, and if anyone still chooses to expect another and a purer system, an apostle may perhaps repress his hopes.  “If we, or an angel from heaven,” said Paul, “preach any other gospel than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” [49]

Whatever the principles of Christianity will require hereafter, they require now.  Christianity, with its present principles and obligations, is to produce universal peace.  It becomes, therefore, an absurdity, a simple contradiction, to maintain that the principles of Christianity allow war, when they, and they only, are to eradicate it.  If we have no other guarantee of peace than the existence of our religion, and no other hope of peace than in its diffusion, how can that religion sanction war?  The conclusion that it does not sanction it appears strictly logical.  I do not perceive that a demonstration from Euclid can be clearer, and I think that if we possessed no other evidence of the unlawfulness of war, there is contained in this a proof which prejudice cannot deny, and which sophistry cannot evade.

The case is clear.  A more perfect obedience to that same gospel which we are told sanctions slaughter will be the means, and the only means, of exterminating slaughter from the world.  It is not from an alteration of Christianity, but from an assimilation of Christians to its nature that we are to hope.  It is because we violate the principles of our religion, because we are not what they require us to be, that wars are continued.  If we will not be peaceable, let us then at least be honest, and acknowledge that we continue to slaughter one another, not because Christianity permits it, but because we reject her laws.

The Christian ought to be satisfied, on questions connected with his duties, by the simple rules of his religion.  If those rules disallow war, he should inquire no farther, but since I am willing to give conviction to the reader by whatever means, and since truth carries its evidence with greater force from accumulated testimony, I would refer to two or three other subjects in illustration of our principles, or in confirmation of their truth.


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[40] James 4:1.

[41] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[42] Matthew 8:10.

[43] See a future quotation from the Moral and Political Philosophy.

[44] Luke 22:36.

[45] Acts 1:6.

[46] Isaiah 2:4.

[47] Isaiah 11:9.

[48] Isaiah 60:18.

[49] Galatians 1:8.