What Are We Fighting For? Part II

What Are We Fighting For? Part II

This is the second article in this series which considers our response to war and conflict. Having reflected on some gut-wrenching statistics, asked why war happens in the light of this knowledge, and looked briefly at what Scripture shows us, Mick Duncan turns to examine three stances towards war.

Every year I get to lecture American University students and one of the topics I raise is war. As the USA is a nation prone to war, my students are alert, sensitive, and understandably a bit defensive. After setting the scene, I ask them to position themselves on a spectrum from pacifism through just war, to pre-emption. I have been teaching this course for around fifteen years and until recently the classes have been evenly split between pacifism and the just war position. However pre-emption (on the far right), is slowly gaining momentum.

Once students have made their stand, I ask them to divide into respective camps and prepare arguments for their view. Half an hour later the debate begins with the simple request that they fight fairly: It’s not uncommon for these classes to have students whose siblings are in the armed forces, including those who have lost their lives. These debates are about real people.

Where would you the reader position yourself? Are you a pacifist or do your sympathies lie with 
a just war? What should the Christian position be? Before we proceed, we need to define our terms of engagement.


Pacifism is a most misunderstood position. It is often interpreted as being passive, possibly because Jesus says we are “not [to] resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39). But is this injunction really saying that in the face of an enemy, the Christian response should be one of non-resistance, letting an enemy walk all over us?

Walter Wink strongly urges us 
to look at the scriptural context to interpret this verse, specifically Jesus’ comments about turning the other cheek, giving your tunic to a creditor, and going the extra mile (Matthew 5:38-42). Winks argues that in each of these three scenarios the initiative is being taken away from the aggressor through an unexpected subversive act. In the culture of the day, you could only use the back of the right hand when striking out and insulting someone. Therefore, if you have already been struck on the right cheek, to turn the other cheek means the assailant can only hit you on the nose. In the case of the creditor, the poor person 
is being asked to give their outer-garment and then their undergarment as well. As no undies were worn 
in the day, this would render the person naked causing the creditor to be shamed by the nakedness of the debtor.

Finally, if a Roman soldier forced someone to carry their pack (usually weighing sixty-five to eighty- five pounds or twenty-nine to thirty- eight kg) one mile (1.6km), then going the extra mile would be in violation of military code placing the soldier at risk of military discipline. (1)

In all scenarios, the response is subversive. This interpretation of Matthew 5:38-42 may be different from how you have read the passage. What this understanding suggests however, is rather than inaction (which risks a victim-like mentality) or violent reaction (which can escalate a situation), there is counteraction which disempowers the aggressor.

Wink reflects that: “Some 
readers may object to the idea
 of discomforting the soldier or embarrassing the creditor. But
 can people who are engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? There is, admittedly, the danger 
of using nonviolence as a tactic
 of revenge and humiliation. There 
is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.” (2)

It would seem that Jesus is saying; by all means respond—even forcefully—but in a non-retaliatory, non-violent manner. Pacifism then, might be better understood as aggressive but non-violent: Killing is never an acceptable option. Can this work? Māori prophets 
Te Whiti and Tohu employed non-violent tactics at Parihaka in Taranaki, when their village was surrounded by troops; Mahatma Gandhi toppled the British Empire; Martin Luther King demonstrated it in America over civil rights; and the Berlin Wall came down in Eastern Europe without armies going to war.

When we lived in the Philippines, former President Ferdinand Marcos was defeated because Catholic nuns lay down on a main highway in front of oncoming tanks. The tanks stopped within an inch of their bodies and Marcos had to flee. They termed it the bloodless-revolution.

Just war

The just war theory, our second position, has strong support from many Christians. Historically it was developed by Augustine and Aquinas. In brief, it has seven planks.

First, there must be a formal declaration made by a legitimate party. It must be noted that New Zealand did not join the ‘coalition of the willing’ against Iraq because the US, UK and others did not constitute a legitimate body. If, however, the United Nations had come out in support of the invasion, it may have changed its mind. Second, war must be a genuine last resort: Everything else must have been tried to resolve the conflict. Third, it must be a just cause with (fourthly) the right intention. In other words, revenge or greed does not justify a war.

Fifth, there must be proportionate means that can ensure (sixth) non-combatant immunity. Finally, there must be a reasonable expectation of success. To simplify, a just war must have righteous cause, the means must be controlled, and the outcome predictable. Many will argue that the Second World War was a just war.

If the challenge for the pacifist is to step-up and do something even at great personal risk, then the challenge for those supporting the just war position is to genuinely try everything else before reverting to violence.


Pre-emption, our third position, 
is a recent development largely because of huge developments in internet and computer technologies. Increasingly, nation-states can ascertain what another individual, group, or state is about to do. In light of that advance knowledge, they can act before they are acted upon. Technologies enable nation-states to act pre-emptively, to do unto others before it is done 
unto them.

The Iraq War was supposedly
 a case in point with ‘the coalition’ claiming their intelligence pointed
 to weapons of mass destruction.
 In July 2016 the Chilcot Report loudly condemned both the US and the UK for basing their invasion of Iraq on faulty, if not dishonest, intelligence. As noted in the first part of this series, the movie Eyes in the Sky clearly portrays the complexities around intelligence gathering and drone warfare.

What about you?

Where then do you sit? Are you a pacifist? Trying pacifism but going for a just war if pacifism doesn’t work isn’t really an option. By definition, pacifism is always non-violent and opposed to taking human life in all circumstances. Are you a just war advocate or a supporter of pre-emption? Admittedly, you can be both. On hearing what another is about to do, you can do everything possible to de-escalate the crisis.

With pre-emption, however, one party usually has the edge and there’s little time to put in place alternative options when it is believed the enemy is about to strike. Returning to my students, each is asked to declare where they are up to on this issue. We all agree that making this decision in a comfortable classroom with no imminent threat is somewhat artificial and academic. Who knows how we would act in an actual crisis. But sometimes we need to face pain in the study before we face it on the streets.

So it’s time to declare ourselves. What about you? Pacifist or just war advocate? To the right of just war and a pre-emptionist if necessary? Where I sit will be revealed in my final article in this series.

Story: Mick Duncan

Mick lectures in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College and describes himself as
a shy, introverted minor kiwi prophet (!)


  1. How does Wink’s interpretation of Matthew 5: 38-42 cause you to respond? Do you agree with him?
  2. What has your understanding of just war been?
  3. Is pre-emption a valid option?
  4. Take time to pray about these viewpoints. Talk them over with others.


1.  Walter Wink 1998. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York. Doubleday.

2.  Walter Wink 1987. Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way. (p.22). Philadelphia. New Society Publishers

Photo credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/dreamstime.com

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 




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