Shortly after the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Alexander Campbell delivered his “Address on War” (you can read it in its entirety here). At the conclusion of his address, Campbell summarized eight reasons why he believed that Christians should be opposed to warfare.
The Innocent Suffer
The right to take away the life of the murderer does not of itself warrant war, inasmuch as in that case none but the guilty suffer, whereas in war the innocent suffer not only with, but often without, the guilty. The guilty generally make the war and the innocent suffer from its consequences.
Campbell believed the Bible authorized taking away the life of murderers. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9.6). He did not, however, believe that capital punishment authorized Christians to go to war. In fact, Campbell believed that the “most convincing argument against a Christian becoming a soldier may be drawn from the fact that he fights against an innocent person.”
“Politicians, merchants, knaves, and princes” are usually the ones who make war, but “the soldiers on either side have no enmity against the soldiers on the other side, because with them they have no quarrel.” Campbell observed that opposing soldiers were to meet each other “in any other field, in their citizen dress, other than in battle array, they would probably have not only inquired about the welfare of each other, but would have tendered to each other their assistance if called for.”
These reflections led Campbell to ask,
How could a Christian man thus volunteer his services, or hire himself out for so paltry a sum, or for any sum, to kill his brother man who never offended him in word or deed?
Old Testament Wars Do Not Authorize Christians to Go To War
The right given to the Jews to wage war is not vouchsafed to any other nations, for they were under a theocracy, and were God’s sheriff to punish nations; consequently no Christian can argue from the wars of the Jews in justification or in extenuation of the wars of Christendom. The Jews had a Divine precept and authority; no existing nation can produce such a warrant.
Campbell recognized that the Old Testament “certainly commended and authorized war among the Jews”, yet he believed it was important to observe that “He gave authority, however, to one family or nation, whose God and King he assumed to be.” In other words, the Jews were “under His own special direction and authority.” Therefore,
What the God of Abraham did by Abraham, by Jacob, or by any of his sons, as the moral Governor of the world, before He gave up the scepter and the crown to His Son Jesus Christ, is of no binding authority now.
Christianity is based upon the observation that “Jesus Christ is now the Lord and King of both earth and heaven.” We are now under “the new administration of the universe.” Therefore, when it comes to the question of war, we must look to the teachings of Jesus for authority to go to war.
The Messiah’s Kingdom Was Prophesied As Peaceful
The prophecies clearly indicate that the Messiah himself would be “the Prince of Peace” and that under his reign “wars should cease” and “nations study it no more.
Campbell wrote, “His kingdom neither came nor stands by the sword.” He believed the the “native influence and tendency of the Christian institution” could be seen by reading the words of the prophets when they first announced the coming of the kingdom. He reflected on passages such as Isaiah 2.4:
And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nations,
And never again will they learn war.
The prophet Micah used almost the same words as Isaiah when he wrote:
For from Zion will go forth the law,
Every word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between many peoples
And render decisions for the mighty, distant nations.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hoocks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war.
Each of them will sit under his vine
And under his fig tree,
With no one to make them afraid,
For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
– Micah 4:2-4
Upon reading such prophecies, Campbell concluded that “the spirit of Christianity, then, is essentially pacific.”
The Gospel Produces “Peace on Earth”
Reflecting on Luke 2.14, when the heavenly hosts sang in praise after the Savior’s birth, Campbell observed:
The gospel, as first announced by the angels, is a message which results in producing “peace on earth and good will among men.”
The Precepts of Christianity Positively Inhibit War
The precepts of Christianity positively inhibit war – by showing that “wars and fightings come from men’s lusts” and evil passions, and by commanding Christians to “follow peace with all men.
Not only is the spirit of Christianity peaceful, but so is the actual letter of it. Campbell makes his point by raising an interesting question. Suppose that the chaplain of an army were to address the soldiers on the eve of a great battle, and suppose he were to address them from the following passages:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous an the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.44-45
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone… If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21
Campbell then asks:
Would anyone suppose that he had selected a text suitable to the occasion? How would the commander in chief have listened to him? With what spirit would his audience have immediately entered upon an engagement?
Reflecting upon these questions, Campbell concludes, “A Christian man cannot conscientiously enter upon any business, nor lend his energies to any cause, which he does not approve.”
The Beatitudes Pronounce Blessings on Peacemakers
The beatitudes of Christ are not pronounced on patriots, heroes, and conquerors, but on peacemakers, on whom is conferred the highest rank and title in the universe: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
As much as Campbell disliked the horrors, death, and grief brought on by wars, he felt that the moral desolation brought on by war were far worse. “Behold its influence on mothers, sisters, and relatives; note its contagion, its corruption of public taste.” During times of war, people become “fascinated by the halo of false glory thrown around these worshiped heroes.”
He observed that as a result of war, even churches “are ornamented with the sculptured representations of more military heroes than of saints – generals, admirals, and captains who “gallantly fought” and “gloriously fell” in the service of their country.
This worshipful attitude towards soldiers stands in stark contrast to the teachings of Christ, which pronounce blessings on peacemakers rather than on war heroes.
War is Ineffective in Resolving Conflict
The folly of war is manifest in the following particulars: First. It can never be the criterion of justice of a proof of right. Second. It can never be a satisfactory end of the controversy. Third. Peace is always the result of negotiation, and treaties are its guaranty and pledge.
In Matthew 26.52, Jesus warned, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Campbell observed that this has continually been proved true. Throughout history, all nations that were created by the sword have eventually fallen by it. Therefore Campbell had “no doubt” that it would continue to be proved true in the future.
Wars don’t end wars. They produce greater controversy.
War Constrains Soldiers to Kill Their Brethren For No Personal Cause
The wickedness of war is demonstrated in the following particulars:
First. Those who are engaged in killing their brethren, for the most part, have no personal cause of provocation whatever.
Second. They seldom, or never, comprehend the right or the wrong of the war. They, therefore, act without the approbation of conscience.
Third. In all wars the innocent are punished with the guilty.
Fourth. They constrain the soldier to do for the state that which, were he to do it for himself, would, by the law of the state, involved forfeiture of his life.
Fifth. They are the pioneers of all other evils to society, both moral and physical.
Campbell believed it would be morally wrong for an individual to do that in obedience to his government which he could not do in his own case. He asks the reader to consider a scenario where two neighbors were involved in a property line dispute. If one neighbor were to command his servant to burn the other neighbor’s fields and to kill several of his neighbor’s servants, would any judge or jury excuse the servant’s actions simply because the servant was following the orders of his master?
Campbell thus concluded,
We cannot of right as Christian men obey the powers that be in anything not in itself justifyable by written law… A Christian man can never be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights. No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself. If this is conceded, unless a Christian man can go to war for himself, he cannot for the state.
For these reasons, Campbell believed “no Christian man who fears God and desires to be loyal to the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, shall be found in the ranks so unholy a warfare.”
Campbell’s views on war were grounded in both logic and scripture. Since Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, the cause of Christ should not be defended militarily. If the cause of Christ is insufficient for taking up arms, surely no lesser cause would be sufficient for taking up arms.