Today, we continue our conversation with Preston Sprinkle, associate professor of Biblical Studies at Eternity Bible College in Southern California about his book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence.
In the earlier post, Preston laid out the common ground between our differing opinions and explained his view on what must ground discussions of ethical specifics. Today, he answers questions about the ethics of allowing non-Christians to do our “dirty work” and how his view deals with biblical and historical examples of Christians lying to protect life.
Trevin: As I read your book, I found that I agreed with you that God uses nations engaging in war in order to fulfill His greater purposes. The difference is that you make sure to excise Christians from the picture. We can be involved, but not in pulling the trigger. Pagans do the dirty work; Christians help in other ways.
Preston: Do we let pagans do our “dirty work” while we help in other ways? The argument is as old as Origen, who was lobbed the same question by the pagan Celsus.
But even before Origen, the apostle Paul addressed the same issue in Romans. He prohibited the church from exercising vengeance and exhorted them to “leave it (i.e. vengeance) to the wrath of God” (Rom 12:19). Then, six verses later, Paul says that one way God exercises such wrath and vengeance is through the government (Rom 13:4). Put simply: don’t do what God will do through Rome.
Does this mean Rome was doing the “dirty work” while Christians helped in other ways? Unless I’m missing something: yes. However, the phrase “dirty work” makes it sound like we want it to be done, but don’t have the guts to do it. This, of course, would be an unchristian understanding of the “work” that needs to be done. Again, ours is a spiritual war against Satan, who can’t be touched by tanks and drones.
Trevin: Wouldn’t it be more consistent to simply say, “Christians should not be involved in government at any level?”
Preston: This is a tough one. My Neo-Reformed leanings want to say, “Yes, Christians can work for the government! We should penetrate and transform all areas of culture.”
However, there may be certain areas of culture where Christians should avoid: the porn industry, corrupt law firms, and working for parts of the government that would necessarily compromise one’s obedience to Christ. I would say, serving as a combatant where you are trained to kill and most probably will kill is tough to reconcile with the teaching of the New Testament.
Trevin: But if our taxes are funding warfare, are we not promoting violence through the back door? I don’t think there is a way for Christians to extricate themselves from warfare, and it seems simplistic to define “violence” simply in terms of physical aggression.
Preston: This is true. But it’s no less true for Jesus and the apostles in the first century. Taxes indirectly funded all sorts of unchristian practices. Paul commanded Christians to pay taxes, which ended up funding Nero’s sexual addictions. Jesus’ coin from the fish helped finance his own crucifixion. The point is, we live in a web of societal evil from which you can’t untangle yourself.
To sum it up: total avoidance of governmental evil is impossible, while directly carrying out its cause (piloting a drone) may be unethical. I think the best approach lies somewhere in-between.
Trevin: I don’t mean for the phrase “dirty work” to communicate a lack of willpower or guts to get involved. Rather, I think the point of that criticism is to say, “Peace is costly.” Sometimes it has to be fought for. We are commanded to love our neighbors and our enemies, but sometimes loving our neighbor means sacrificing ourselves to protect our neighbor from an enemy. I agree that the default posture of the Christian should be non-violence, and yet an understanding of the fallenness of our world makes me think God looks with favor on our ethical choices, when we have to change postures in order to fulfill the higher love.
Preston: Indeed, peace is costly! It cost Jesus His life. Yet, Jesus fought for peace by dying not by killing.
I don’t think we should let our secular world feed us our theological terms; that is, true shalom comes through Jesus. All other forms of world peace are a charade and a Satanic lie. The Romans tried to feed their people the same lie about the pax Romana, “peace of Rome,” but Paul mocked them for it in 1 Thessalonians 5. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, and true peace came from the One who died, not through the hands who killed him.
Put differently: What if America killed all the bad guys, defended its borders, and exported democracy to every nation on earth? What would this accomplish? Would this further the kingdom of God? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it would steer everyone’s gaze away from Jesus as the only true source of peace and toward America as the world’s savior—pax Americana.
Rome almost did this in the first century: robbers were nearly stamped out, the Parthians were kept at bay, and Barbarians to the north posed little threat for hundreds of years. Pax Romana. And in Revelation 12 and 13, John said that they were empowered by Satan. Pax Romana became pax Satana: a false and distracting replacement of the true shalom forged by a cross and empty tomb. Again, our fight is not against flesh and blood. When flesh and blood enemies are defeated, the kingdom of Satan remains unaffected and the kingdom of God does not advance.
Trevin: In a related example, some may say that lying is never right, and yet God blessed the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh in order to save the lives of babies, or Rahab, who hid the spies and asked for mercy. Corrie Ten Boom hid Jews and lied to the authorities, and then would ask forgiveness for her actions, still trusting she had made the right decision. I don’t want to get too far into a discussion of ethics that takes us beyond your book, but I will say this: Our attempt to be pristine and unscathed from the affairs of the world appears selfish if we reap the benefits others are willing to secure.
Preston: Great question! I discuss many of these examples in the book with the question: is it ever okay to choose the lesser of two evils in an ethical conflict. Honestly, Trevin, for many previous drafts of the book I argued that it is okay to lie to save a life, or to kill your enemy to save the life of the innocent. This makes sense to me. It makes sense to you. It probably makes sense to our readers. But is it biblical? Can you argue from the text of the New Testament that it’s ever okay for the believer to use violence against his enemy in order to save the life of his neighbor?
Or, does the love of neighbor trump our counterintuitive ethic of loving our enemies? Man, I sure hope so. I’d much rather blow the head off my enemy than see innocent people suffer. But God’s ways are higher than mine, and Jesus’ ethic often confronts my own moral compass. From my study of the New Testament, I have a hard time finding a convincing biblical argument that Christians are sometimes allowed to kill their enemy to protect their neighbor, or to confront evil with violence.
Thanks to Preston Sprinkle for engaging in a dialogue about his book. Here are some questions for further discussion:
- Is war ever righteous or always the lesser of two evils?
- What New Testament texts would you use to make the case that Christians can engage in violence to achieve just goals?
- Which is the higher ethic – love for neighbor that protects one from an enemy, or loving the enemy that threatens our neighbor?