Instead of a mini-sermon this issue, I thought I would expand on a discussion I had on “The Rev and the Rabbi” portion of The Bill Newman Show I participated in this Thursday, April 28, 2022. I am a guest with Rabbi Justin David of B’nai Israel every last Thursday of the month, and we discuss topics that vary from the Holocaust to our weekly sermons.
This week we touched on the topic of the war in Ukraine and what our respective religious traditions say about war.
Jesus, of course, was the ultimate Pacifist. He implored us to love not only our friends but also our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47), a task which is difficult for even the kind-hearted among us. When we are struck, he tells us to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). When Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives, he did not fight back, but instead healed one of the soldiers arresting him (Matthew 26:51). When it would have been so easy to turn on Rome, the occupying force, Jesus told his disciples to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—meaning a Roman coin (Matthew 22:22), when so many were against Roman taxation.
As I said, Jesus time and time again proved himself the ultimate Pacifist.
In early Christianity, many of the early Christian martyrs emulated Jesus to the extreme. They would not serve out their conscription in the Roman army, citing Jesus, and so were put to death for defying the great Roman Empire.
This was a trend for many centuries and only ended when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity sometime between AD 313 and 325.
Of course, a shift happened in Christianity, and by 1096 the First Crusade was underway to recapture the Holy Land for Christendom. Obviously, a great shift in thought had taken place within seven hundred years. While Jesus was still a pacifist, the evidence is in the New Testament, the belief that the Holy Land, that the places where Jesus lived and preached the Word of God should be in the hands of Christians and not nonbeilevers overtook pacifist tendencies.
The crusades were religious wars, wars that were believed to be sanctioned by God. Any man who went on the crusades had all of his sins, throughout his life, committed and yet to be committed, instantly forgiven. Whatever atrocities that were done in the name of the Lord—were just that—done in the name of the Lord. It was right. It was good. It was holy. But make no mistake, there were horrific atrocities committed throughout the crusades.
Time moved on and the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, which then broke down into individual nation states. Each nation believed that it was beloved by God and whatever war it undertook, God looked favorably on them.
If France went to war with Spain, for example, France knew that God was on their side. Spain also knew that God was on their side. Their causes were both believed to be good and just in the eyes of God.
As we march through the centuries, we come to the Revolutionary War that began in 1776. The battle cry of the British Army was “For King and Country!” The new Colonial Army, so recently having called themselves British Americans, could not claim to fight for King and Country as they were in open rebellion of King George III. And so, in quite a clever change of words, the battle cry became “For God and Country!” for the American Colonists, who believed that God sanctioned their rebellion against an unjust king.
Flash forward to World War I and the Pacifism Movement actually sprang up once again, this time among the Quakers. Quakers are Christian pacifists who refused to bear arms in both World Wars. Many Conscientious Objectors were put in prison, while others were eventually placed in medical units.
This brings us full circle the question about the war in Ukraine. Russia is clearly the aggressor, but what about Ukraine? Should they bear arms? It seems like a strange question because the answer seems obvious, a resounding yes, but in the light of Christianity, sometimes we should take a second look to better understand the question and answer.
The answer to that question is not found in the Gospels but instead in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And there was no more sea. […]. [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will pass away.”
In a perfect world, there would be no war. There would be no Russian aggression. There would be no need to defend one’s own country. However, we do not live in a perfect world, and so, in our unperfect world, Ukraine must defend herself. And our perfect world will not exist until the Second Coming of Christ, when there is a new heaven, a perfect heaven, and a new perfect earth, where there is no longer any pain or death or killing or foreign aggression.
We have not reached that day, however, and we do not know when that day will come. Christians have been waiting for two thousand years. We may only have to wait another day, or we could have another two thousand years to wait. But until then, we pray and do the best that we can.