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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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There is a sense in which it is true to say that Jesus gave his disciples no explicit teaching on the subject of war. The application of his ethical principles to the concrete affairs of life was not something which could be seen and taught in its entirety from the very first, but was bound to involve a long series of more or less complex problems; and the short lapse and other special conditions of his earthly life rendered it impossible for him to pronounce decisions on more than a very few of these. Upon large tracts of human conduct he rarely or never had occasion to enter, and hence little or no specific teaching of his is recorded concerning them.

A familiar instance of this silence of Jesus on a matter on which we none the less have little doubt as to the import of his teaching, is the absence from the Gospels of any explicit prohibition of slavery. And what is true of slavery is also true--though to a much more limited extent--of war. Whatever be the bearing of his precepts and his example on the subject, the fact remains that, as far as we know, no occasion presented itself to him for any explicit pronouncement on the question as to whether or not his disciples might serve as soldiers.

It does not however follow that no

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definite conclusion on the point is to be derived from the Gospels. The circumstances of the time suffice to explain why an absolutely definite ruling was not given. Jesus was living and working among Palestinian Jews, among whom the proportion of soldiers and policemen to civilians must have been infinitesimal. No Jew could be compelled to serve in the Roman legions; and there was scarcely the remotest likelihood that any disciple of Jesus would be pressed into the army of Herodes Antipas or his brother Philippos or into the small body of Temple police at Jerusalem.

But further, not only can the silence of Jesus on the concrete question be accounted for, without supposing that he had an open mind in regard to it, but a large and important phase of his teaching and practical life cannot be accounted for without the supposition that he regarded acts of war as entirely impermissible to himself and his disciples. The evidence for this last statement is cumulative, and can be adequately appreciated only by a careful examination of the sayings in which Jesus utters general principles that seem to have a more or less direct bearing on war and those in which he explicitly alludes to it, and by an earnest endeavour to arrive at the meaning that is latent in them.