Non‐retaliation and Military Force: Their Basis in the Bible

Richard Harries

in The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible

Published in print January 2011 | ISBN: 9780199204540
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology

 Non‐retaliation and Military Force: Their Basis in the Bible

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Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Matt. 5:44). He said we were not to resist those who wrong us, but if hit on one cheek we are to turn the other (Matt. 5:39). Yet this is not the only strand that relates to the issue of violence in the New Testament, let alone the Bible as a whole. For example, John the Baptist appears to have accepted military life as a legitimate vocation and Jesus is reported to have had a positive attitude to centurions, who were soldiers of an occupying power. This article is not a history of how these texts have been interpreted, nor is it a history of the changing circumstances in which force has been used or a history of the Just War tradition. It is attempt to show how there has been a tension throughout Christian history between these two strands in the New Testament — a tension, or at least a contrast, which is inescapable, if justice is to be done to the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is not possible to consider this tension without also being aware of the changing circumstances in which force has been used, how the key texts have been interpreted, and the developing tradition of Christian thinking about the criteria which must be met if war is to be waged on a moral basis. The church has never been easy with this tension, and has tried to ease it or dissolve it altogether in different ways; and it has been expressed differently depending on whether most weight has been put on the teaching and example of Jesus about non-retaliation, or on the apparent need for state-sanctioned force to maintain order both within a state or empire or, reflecting a later period, between states. How this tension is rooted in the New Testament and why it is inescapable is taken up again at the end of the article.

Keywords: Christian history; New Testament; military life; force; Just War tradition; violence

Article.  7222 words. 

Subjects: Religion ; Religious Studies ; Philosophy of Religion

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