29 November, 2022

What About War?


by | 20 January, 2008

By Robert F. Hull Jr.

For almost 50 years I have been haunted by this question. It began, I suppose, with Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed,” which I first read as a junior high school class assignment:

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him and he at me,
And killed him in his place.


I shot him dead because—
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like—just as I—
Was out of work—had sold his traps—
No other reason why.


Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

I wasn’t quite sure what a “nipperkin” was, but I thought how awful it would be to aim your rifle at someone you had never met and had no particular reason to dislike and shoot him dead just because your country was at war with his country.

A few years later I memorized for a recitation at the annual “Armistice Day”—we still called it that—John McCrae’s famous World War I poem “In Flanders Field.” Here it is not the living man, but the dead, who speaks, and not to lament the irony of war, but to urge the reader to “take up our quarrel with the foe.”


It was the participation of God in war that began to trouble me in college. The Hebrew conquest of Canaan is described as a series of “wars of the Lord.” The rules of God’s wars of conquest sometimes required wholesale destruction of every man, woman, and child of a region, as well as the animals and all property. Here is the chilling summary of Joshua’s defeat of the five kings of the Amorites: “So Joshua defeated the whole land . . . and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40, Revised Standard Version). Later texts made it clear that God could visit similar punishment on his own people when they were disobedient (Amos 2:6-16; Jeremiah 4:5, 6; 15:5-9). I did not know how to integrate such texts into my theology; I still do not.

How can we deplore the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, Darfur, and Rwanda, and celebrate it in Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Joshua? I took some comfort from those beautiful passages looking ahead to the time when God’s rule would prevail over all peoples and they would “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). I was shocked, however, to find God reversing himself in the post-exilic prophet Joel and commanding the nations to “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears” (Joel 3:10).

In a college church history class I learned that Christians had been largely opposed to military service during the first three centuries, for reasons partly political and social and partly theological. Some of them took their stand strictly on the teachings of Jesus about not doing violence to one’s enemies. Thus Tertullian’s memorable comment, “When Christ disarmed Peter, he unbelted every soldier.”

Yet it was not altogether surprising to learn that, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman world, the cross became a military emblem and Christians were permitted to serve in the army and to engage in wars that were declared to be “just,” that is, justified.


It was Augustine (354—430) who largely codified the early just war tradition of the church. He did not think it possible for governments to dispense with force against invaders, any more than against common criminals. He thus made a key distinction between the use of force as an instrument of the state and the use of force for personal defense. It was not a long step to the promotion of aggressive wars, if undertaken for the noble purposes of rescuing the holy places and protecting the Byzantine Empire against the Turks. “God wills it,” said Pope Urban II, in launching the first Crusade in 1096.

In my Reformation of the 19th Century class I learned that the history of the churches in the Stone-Campbell Movement largely mirrors the positions taken by mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Alexander Campbell delivered a stirring “Address on War” in 1848, strongly condemning all Christian participation. On the other hand he greatly approved the bloody American Revolution. David Lipscomb moved to a pacifist stance during the Civil War. Many Disciples leaders were strong advocates for pacifism during the 1930s, as was Reinhold Niebuhr, probably the best-known theologian in American history. But Niebuhr did an about-face in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. After Pearl Harbor, few outside of the historic “peace churches” (Amish, Mennonites, Quakers) remained pacifists.


It is Robert O. Fife whose teachings and writings have affected me most deeply in my pilgrimage toward some reasonable settlement of the troubling issue of Christian involvement in war. An army chaplain during World War II, Fife served with the famous 42nd Infantry Division (the “Rainbow Division”) through much of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge. In my classes at Milligan College I heard him with breaking voice and tears describe the day his unit liberated Dachau. Looking at the railroad cars filled with corpses and the diseased and emaciated prisoners, his conscience said to him, “This had to be stopped.”

Instead of the time-honored categories “pacifism,” “just war,” and “crusade,” Fife settled on Miguel de Unamuno’s “tragic view of life.” He believed all wars are waged by sinners, that there are plenty of injustices on all sides in the conduct of every war, but that sometimes Christians must participate in violence because only so can they prevent even greater violence.


The books I have read in this pilgrimage of mine would fill several feet of shelf space, and I still have many unanswered questions. I am certain of one thing, however: Every position taken by thoughtful Christians with regard to war is complicated; there are no simple solutions.

Ken Burns’s searing documentary series The War brought this home as nothing else I have seen or read. The sheer scope of the carnage was shocking: the brutality, the unspeakable hellishness of combat on Peleliu and Okinawa, the sadistic treatment of prisoners of war in the Bataan Death March—all these were mind-numbing. But so were the Allied fire-bombings of Dresden, the Russian revenge on Berlin, and the incalculable suffering and death inflicted on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However necessary that war was, it ought never again be called “the good war.”

After observing the results of a gas attack on British troops in World War I, poet Wilfred Owen told his reader that if he or she could hear the gurgling sounds, see the blood and ghastly faces of the dead, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country”). Necessary it may sometimes be; sweet and beautiful it is not.


In case you think these reflections about war are theoretical, know this: Hanging in our living room window is a small, white banner bounded by a wide, red border. In the center is a blue star. On August 16, 2007, our son Eric was deployed to Iraq for the second time with the Tennessee Army National Guard.

Out of love, fear, and deepest respect for him I have written these words.

Robert F. Hull Jr. was born in Welch, West Virginia, the son of a coal miner and lay preacher. He was a National Merit Scholar at Milligan College in Tennessee (BA, 1965), where he was influenced by such teachers as Beauford Bryant, Henry Webb, and Robert O. Fife. In 1965 he joined the first entering class at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee, where he earned the MDiv in 1971. He went on to study with Bruce M. Metzger at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he finished his PhD in 1977.

Since 1977, Bob has taught Greek and New Testament studies at Emmanuel School of Religion. He has also served as dean 1989-92 and 2002 to the present. He has been a visiting scholar on sabbaticals at Duke University (North Carolina), The University of Tubingen (Germany), Emory University (Georgia), Macquarie University (Australia), and the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s University (Minnesota).

Bob was minister with the Loyall (Kentucky) Church of Christ, 1964-71, and was minister of youth and education with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland, 1972-77. He is a member of Grandview Christian Church in Johnson City, where he sings in the choir and serves with the worship ministry team.

He is interested in the history and culture of the Southern Appalachian highlands, especially its folk music. He enjoys walking, fly-fishing, and woodworking.

Bob is married to his former Milligan classmate Loretta (Pennington). They have three adult children and five grandchildren.

Christian Standard

Contact us at cs@christianstandardmedia.com


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