Originally published in Lard’s Quarterly, April 1866. Read Part 1 here.
The Absolute Character of War
Now let all my brethren suppose me to have affirmed this proposition [Christ in some cases binds Christians to go to war], and to be standing before an audience about to attempt its proof. Just at this juncture, let them imagine an angel to appear and to take his stand beside me. Let them now suppose him to say to me: “You shall die before tomorrow morning. If from the word of God you make good the proposition you have affirmed, you shall be saved; if not, you shall be lost.” What would be their sensations on hearing this announcement? The universal feeling would be – lost, forever lost. But why? Because not one passage in the word of God binding me as a Christian, or in any other sense, from not one incident in the life of the Savior, from not one in the life of any apostle, would it occur to them that I could make good my task. They would at once appeal to their memory of the New Testament to suggest them the proof; and this their memory could not do, for the proof is not there. But one feeling would pervade every heart, and that one of universal horror. They would believe me to be as certainly doomed, as they believe the Bible to be the word of God. Even he who most confidently affirms it to be the duty of the Christian, in certain contingencies, to go to war, would involuntarily utter: Lost. But this would not be the case if the New Testament, in any form or in any way, supplied the requisite proof. I must hence feel the proposition, in the only form in which it really ought to be stated, to be difficult indeed, if not wholly incapable of proof.
But let me present a similar case. The proposition to be discussed, allow, is this: The New Testament makes it the duty of Christian parents to have their infants sprinkled. Let us suppose the person who affirms this proposition to be a Methodist Episcopal Bishop, venerable for his great age and pure life. He is before an audience to begin its defense. An angel appears, as supposed in the preceding case, and the same startling announcement is made. Instantly my brethren would shriek: Gone. But does not that bishop as firmly hold his proposition to be grounded in the word of God as you, my brother, who affirm that Christians should sometimes go to war? Men may be mistaken. And I am free to say that I see quite as much in the Bible to favor the bishop as I do to favor by brother who stands for war; and that I think their mode of treating the Scriptures is alike.
Let is constantly be borne in mind, that to be either bound or permitted to go to war, is to be either bound or permitted to take the life of human beings. When, then, the question is reduced to its simplest form it amounts to this, that Christ binds or allows his followers to take human life. Are we not shocked at the very announcement of such a thought? That He who came into this world, not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them, has yet ordained that in certain cases his disciples shall not save them, but destroy them, is a tough position for the Christian to defend. The mode in which this is done alters not the case. I hold that I have just as good a right to step out into the street and in cold blood shoot my enemy dead, and I have to do it on the battlefield. On the battlefield, every time I shoot I aim to kill a man; in the street I could do no more. But it will be replied, that in the street I shoot from malice, but not so on the battlefield. Perhaps so. The only difference I see is, that in the one case the malice is directed against a single individual, in the other against a troop; in the one case I aim to kill only one man, in the other as many as I can. I apprehend that the human heart is capable of no more deadly hate than adverse warriors carry into the melee of the battlefield; and hatred is as intense as it ever becomes, only the code that regulates it is different. Its mode of actions is not the same; itself is not the less real.
Before proceeding to adduce the arguments which are hereinto follow, and as much as possible to guard against the influence of prejudice, I wish to say, that the position will not be here taken that the Christian by going to war necessarily unchristanizes himself. If Christ neither binds him nor permits him to go, then by going it is held that he does no wrong; unless, as already said, war is in itself a thing so harmless and indifferent, that he may go or not, as he chooses. But the wrong of going to war can be allowed to have no other effect on him than any other wrong act. It is a thing to be forgiven, as is every other wrong; and hence is not necessarily decisive against him. If not forgiven, of course, it is fatal; but this is not because it is an act of going to war, but simply because it is in itself wrong. Any other wrong act, if unforgiven, would have precisely the same effect.
But to do this it will be replied, that many Christians go to war who not only do not believe their act to be wrong, but positively believe it to be right; and that in all this they must be allowed to be strictly conscientious. Granting this, which must be true before the Christian can act with his own approbation, and still the nature of the act remains the same. The act has its own absolute character, as right or wrong, independently of the convictions of him who engages in it. To go to war and take men’s lives is not at thing made right or wrong merely be the accident of being believed right or wrong. It is right in itself, or wrong in itself; and no human convictions can divest it of this attribute. If wrong, though all men believed it to be right, still it is not right. How far conscientiously believing it to be right, when it is wrong, will go to soften the rigor of Heaven’s sentence against it, is a question which I am wholly incompetent to decide. That it will have its effect I am glad I have not the inclination to deny. We have all long since learned how extremely dangerous it is to decide acts to be right simply from the motives which control them. Few acts could be named which could not be shown to be right in some part of the world, if this were to be accepted as the standard. An act may be right in itself, but if controlled by wrong motives it will not be accepted. The wrong motives affect not the act, however; they affect only the actor. He will be rejected, not because his act is wrong, but because his motives were wrong. To be accepted himself and have his act accepted, two things are necessary: the act itself must be right and the motives which control it must be right. If the act be right and the motives wrong, the actor is rejected, and the act goes for nothing. But if the act be wrong and the motives right, still the actor can not be accepted; for it was his duty not to act till he knew his act to be right. Had he been at the proper pains to investigate the nature of his act before he performed it, he would have learned that it is wrong. For this neglect his motives can constitute no sufficient excuse, at least they can constitute none so far availing as to render an act wrong in itself right. Acts, in the case of the Christian, have not their character as right or wrong from the convictions of him who performs them, but solely from the will of Christ. They hence have a character which is absolute and positive; and this no motives or convictions of men can change. Though all the men on earth believed the act of sprinkling water on an infant in the name of Christ to be right, and to be baptism, still would it be a crime and deeply offensive to the Savior? So with the act of going to war. If it is right, it is because it is either commanded or in obvious and necessary accordance with the will of Christ; if wrong, it is because it is contrary to his will; and in this case nothing can render it right, but it remains a sin forever. Hence what remains is to determine the character, under Christ, of the act of going to war. Is it right? Is it wrong? Or is it indifferent?
Continue reading here:
War Defined and Examined (Moses Lard on War; Part 3 of 11)