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Interviewer: Dr. Luther, Christians are divided over what constitutes a just war. Some argue that war is only acceptable if certain conditions are met, while others would go so far as to say that war is always bad, regardless of the conditions. How would you respond?
Luther: That God has endowed the government with the power of the sword is shown by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans. Christian nations are not to initiate war, but they are allowed to defend themselves when attacked. An upright soldier doesn’t begin a war lightly, or without urgent cause.
Interviewer: How, though, would you deal with Christ’s saying about turning the other cheek?
Luther: For us divines it is a question of grave difficulty, having regard to this passage: “Whosoever shall smite you on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” I am to turn my own cheek; I am not duty bound to take hold of my wife or child and ensure that she turns her cheek to the one attacking. It is for us a law and a duty to combat for wife and for children; we are bound to defend them against maleficent power. That is the difference between laying down one’s pride, refusing retaliation against a personal injury, and rightly defending those in need of defense. If, in my presence, some wretch should attempt to do violence to my wife or my daughter,
then I should lay aside my spiritual person, and recur to the temporal; I should slay him on the spot, or call for help.
Interviewer: So you’re saying that self-defense is not appropriate, but defense of others committed to your care is?
Luther: Not exactly. A Christian has two responsibilities, two roles. There is a spiritual person, the member of the Church, and there is civil person, a member of society. The spiritual person ought to endure and suffer all things. But the civil person is subject to the temporal rights and laws, and tied to obedience; it must defend itself, and what belongs to it, as the laws command. Christ and the Gospel do not abolish temporal rights and ordinances, but confirm them.
If a robber on the highway should fall upon me, truly I would be judge myself, and would use my sword, because nobody was with me able to defend me; and I should think I had accomplished a good work. But if one fell upon me as a preacher for the Gospel’s sake, then with folded hands I would lift up mine eyes to heaven, and say: “My Lord Christ! Here I am; I have confessed and preached you; is now my time expired? So I commit my spirit into thy hands,” and in that way would I die. Martyrdom is to be welcomed, but not any and all violence without exception.
Interviewer: What criteria would a believer use to determine if the war his nation is waging is just? Could there be a scenario where one’s government calls its citizens to fight, but the citizens would be right to resist?
Luther: Political leaders are liable to err, and may in fact wage unjust wars. It would be lawful for Christians to protest such actions. The laws are above a prince and a tyrant; for the laws and ordinances are not wavering, but always sure and constant, while a human creature is wavering and inconstant, for the most part following his lusts and pleasures, if by the laws he be not restrained.
Interviewer: Anything else you would add?
Luther: Yes. In defending the hypothetical necessity of war, I’m not saying it is a good thing in itself. Cannons and firearms are cruel and damnable machines. I believe them to have been the direct suggestion of the devil. Against the flying ball no valor avails; the soldier is dead, ere he sees the means of his destruction. If Adam had seen in a vision the horrible instruments his children were to invent, he would have died of grief.
War is one of the greatest plagues that can afflict humanity; it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge, in fact, is preferable to it. Famine and pestilence become as nothing in comparison with it.
Interviewer: War, then, is not God’s will, but something he allows, given the fallen state of our world.
Luther: Yes. In closing, it needs to be remembered that God has given the sword to the government, his temporal servant, but not to the Church, his spiritual servant. The Christian minister wages war not with carnal swords, but with the Word of God, which the apostle calls the “sword of the Spirit.” Although Rome is full of blasphemies, it must be fought, not with physical violence, but with preaching. They who take to force, give a great blow to the Gospel, and offend many people. False teaching can neither be destroyed nor preserved by force; it must be turned upside down and destroyed with the word of truth.
Interviewer: Some have argued that violence in the name of religion is permissible. You obviously take issue with that.
Luther: It’s been said that since Christ by force drove the buyers and sellers out of the temple, we also may use force against the enemies of God’s Word. But Christ, as God, could do some things we are never entitled to do. He will not consent that we by force assail the enemies of the truth; he commands the contrary: “Love your enemies, pray for them that vex and persecute you;” “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful;” “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and humble in heart;” “He that will follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
* Based on and adapted from Luther’s Table Talk.