Just War or Pacifism? Rodrigo versus Gabriel

This is a speech given in a "Just War versus Pacifism" debate at Perkins School of Theology in September of 2006. The starting point of this debate was the 1986 film "The Mission" in which Jeremy Irons plays "Gabriel", a Jesuit missionary evangelizing South America in the 1700's. It also stars Robert DeNiro, who plays "Rodrigo", a mercenary and slave trader who converts to Christ and becomes a Jesuit as well. The climax of the film happens when the Portuguese government closes all of the Jesuit missions so they can sell all of their inhabitants into slavery. As the army invades to rape, pillage, burn, and destroy the mission, Gabriel and Rodrigo choose to stay with their flock, but they do so in two totally different ways. Gabriel, being a man of peace his entire life and untrained in military tactics, chooses pacifism, and is martyred with the women and children by Portuguese muskets. Rodrigo chooses to wage war as a last ditch effort to protect the people of the mission. Though he kills many of the soldiers, he and the able-bodied men of the mission are martyred as well. This sets the stage for the debate…

Someone has asked: How can you say you love your neighbor and then put them to death? That is a great question. But, perhaps a better question is this: How can you love your neighbor and allow them to be raped, tortured, or put to death? And that is the question which haunts us today.

When given the material resources necessary to defend the oppressed and powerless from those who would oppress them, which course of action best bears witness to the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ? If we have the material resources to forcibly stop victimization of the innocent after all reasonable non-violent methods have been exhausted, which course of action should we take: Should we use force and stop victimization, or should we merely have a prayer meeting as the screams of the innocent echo in our ears?

This is the choice of Rodrigo and Gabriel in the mission. Rodrigo had the means, the training, the manpower, and the reasonable possibility to stop the rape and pillage of the innocents he shepherded. Yes, he was a shepherd, and sometimes shepherds do have to kill wolves. Gabriel chose a different route, a route of non-violence. Given his lack of training in combat and his need to shepherd the women and children who could not fight, this was most probably the right route for him. The purpose of this debate is not to "prove" that pacifism is always wrong and just war is always right. Both Gabriel and Rodrigo did what God had gifted them for. God gifts some with gifts and resources that lead to pacifism, and some that lead to just war. Rather, the purpose of this debate is to show that just war is sometimes the best option in bad circumstances.

Let's face it. Armed conflict of any type is never a good in and of itself. But, it sadly may be the lesser of two evils, if our options are to either allow the innocent to be victimized or forcibly remove the victimizer. Another way to say it is this: Just war is not about giving the oppressors what they deserve. This is God's job (cf. Romans 12). Just war, rather, is about giving the oppressed what they deserve, and that, according to Paul is "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:2-4).

Just war is not about punishing evil, but restraining and limiting it so that oppressors cannot victimize the oppressed. In short, just war is a last ditch effort to seek social justice.

Let us be clear by defining terms: Just war is one of three primary options in moral theology for the resolution of armed conflicts. The first option is the crusade or jihad. In this theory, the Gospel is actually spread by the barrel of a gun as we invade "infidel" territory and make them convert or else. Both Christians and Muslims through the ages have been guilty of this, and it goes without saying that this distorts the teachings of both. It is important to realize that jihad differs from just war in that just war does not use war as a tool of conversion or empire building. It only uses war as a means to protect the innocent. Jihad is essentially offensive, while just war is basically defensive.

The second option is pacifism, which is the refusal to bear arms against an aggressor. Pacifism comes in two varieties: the fashionable and realistic varieties. The fashionable pacifist is against war because they are under the mistaken assumptions that (a) aggressors are always rational people who can be negotiated with, and (b) pacifism will cause less pain and bloodshed if we just play nice and concede to the demands of oppressors.

The realistic pacifist knows that both of these assumptions are flawed. First, there will be nations, leaders, and movements that are not sane, and will not negotiate in good faith. They remember the folly of Neville Chamberlain and Charles DeGaulle thinking they could keep Hitler at bay with concessions. A world war and 6 million innocent Jewish corpses later, we see that this was in error. Realistic pacifists also realize that whether aggressors are met with AK-47's or prayer meetings, there will be carnage. There are Hitlers, Idi Amins, Stalins, and Chairman Maos in the world who will step over as many corpses as necessary to gain the power they want. Regardless of whether we take up arms or not, women will be raped, children will be gutted, cities will be burned, and mass graves will be dug. The realistic pacifist has the courage to face this, while the merely fashionable pacifist in another age would be called a coward. Now they are called enlightened and politically correct.

The realistic pacifist holds on to the conviction that, no matter the consequences, it is an affront to the Gospel of Christ to strike back or kill another human being. This is a courageous and bold stand, unlike fashionable pacifism. It takes as much courage to be an realistic pacifist as it does to fight for the oppressed, perhaps more. But the issue is not whether such pacifism takes courage, but whether it is a righteous way to live out the Gospel in all circumstances. Just war says it is not always righteous, nor is it for everyone.

Just war could be called "Defensive War" theory. It states that there is a use for armed conflict to protect the innocent, as a last ditch effort when all reasonable non-violent means have failed. Over and again the Hebrew Bible tells us things like: "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalm 82:3-4). Defend, maintain, rescue, and deliver here are military words. They are used in the Hebrew Bible of BOTH physical AND spiritual force to stop victimizers.

Likewise, Paul says of the power of those in Governmental Authority that "He is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). I do not need to tell you that the sword in mind here is the Roman Gladius, the tool used by the Romans to bring peace and order over the entire Mediterranean. The sword is sometimes necessary to stop those who would increase their own power at the expense of others.

The commandment "You shall not kill" (Deut. 5:17) uses the Hebrew word "ratsakh", which means to kill with intent to destroy the innocent. But this does not prohibit forcibly stopping people who are guilty of ratsakh. Indeed, in the Law it also says "If anyone kills a person, the murderer (guilty of ratsakh) shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses" (Numbers 35:30-31).

But of course, we are not under the Law but under the grace of Christ. And Christ tells us to "love our enemies" and "turn the other cheek" when we are struck on the face (cf. Matthew 5). This is the proof text of proof texts for pacifism. We neglect to notice that Greek expression for the striking the cheek mentioned here is the back-handed slap of insult, not the full frontal assault of someone trying to put you to death. Jesus forbids repaying insult with injury. He says nothing about the aggressor who is trying to take someone's life. And while we are supposed to love our enemies, what do we do when love of our enemies conflicts with our love for the oppressed and victimized?

Shall we say "I love my enemies, so I am going to stand by and watch them rape, torture, and kill you"? Would it be right to allow your next door neighbor to abuse his family, steal from others, and attack them with weapons, all because you "loved" him? What if he broke into your house and attacked your family? What if it wasn't a man, but government that abused its citizens, and attacked other countries? What response bears the best witness to the Gospel which is supposed to liberate the oppressed? Which response does not conspire together with the powers that would keep them in bondage and destroy them?

We must face the reality that there are people, and governments, who cannot be reasoned with, and who are bent on wealth, power, evil, and destruction. History makes it abundantly clear that they must be stopped physically or else they will harm and murder others. God wants to protect all life, but it is a higher good to protect the life of the innocent, than to protect the life of the guilty. God wants no one to die. Yet, if the only choice is between killing the guilty to protect the innocent, or allowing the guilty to live and victimize the innocent, just war is the lesser evil.

Just War states that If war seems to be the only alternative left, it may be pursued according to the following principals:
  • First, war must truly be a last means to peace. Every other alternative, such as negotiation, protest, and economic sanction, must be tried first.
  • Second, war must be waged by the right authority, and not by individuals, organizations, or the Church. War can only be waged by an authority who has the rightful responsibility to protect a group of people from unjust oppression.
  • Third, war must have the right cause. A just war is caused as a response to injustice done to a group of people which deprives them of their lives or their rights, such as an invasion or a genocide.
  • Fourth, war must have the right goal. The only right goal is to ensure the protection of the innocent, and to establish a new government of peace and justice, which protects and does not victimize its citizens or those of other countries.
  • Fifth, war must have the right means. War cannot be fought unjustly or in a way that intentionally targets the innocent. The damage caused by the war must be less than what could have happened if the evil government was allowed to stay in power. People who are not in combat must be protected, and there can be no cruelty, rape, pillage, or stealing of property.
  • Sixth, war must have the right timing. As soon as a government is unwilling to honestly negotiate, and unwilling to stop warfare or military buildup, it must be stopped by force.
  • Seventh, there must be a possibility of victory. If going to war would almost certainly destroy our nation and not stop an evil government, it is best to wait and negotiate.
To use a medical analogy, just war is to human society as surgery is to the body. As a rule, it is bad to dissect one's flesh just as it is bad to kill another human. But, sometimes there are diseases and cancers in the body, and in society, that must be cut out or else they kill the whole. Pacifists are like those who feel called against all the odds to pray for a miracle recovery. Just war represents the surgeons who feel called to cut out parts of it so that the whole may be saved.

Just war agrees with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes who says that: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die… a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build… a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace." (Eccles. 3:1-10).

It agrees with Jesus who made a whip and forcibly drove oppressors out of the temple. It agrees with Jesus who told his disciples to sell their cloaks to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). And it agrees with Jesus that those who live by the sword shall die by it (Mat 26:52). Some are called to take up the sword to defend the oppressed, and even to die by that same sword in righteous conflict.

Rodrigo was one of these people. He knew that bearing the sword was evil, but it was a lesser evil than not using his military gifts to try and defend the victims. And he was ready to die in witness to that Gospel of social justice and liberation, just as Gabriel was willing to be martyred for the same Gospel in a way more befitting the gifts God had given him. May we all have the same courage these men had to live and die with Christ using the unique gifts and resources He has given us.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.