In Matthew, Jesus tells us not to resist our enemies. Yet the Christian Reformed Church endorses just war. How does it reconcile these two claims?
In the Beatitudes—the first 10 verses of Matthew 5—we read a few things relevant to our question, the most important of which is that we should “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Righteousness” is another word for “justice,” which can be understood to mean something like “treating each person, thing, or situation rightly or correctly.”
But the key idea in Matthew 5 isn’t justice; it’s perfection: agape, or sacrificial love. In verse 19, Jesus warns us not to set aside the commands of justice. That is the context for what follows, namely, how agape grows from and through justice, never against it.
When we come to Jesus’ “Do not resist an enemy,” it is reasonable to assume his first-century audience, steeped as they were in the numerous stories of just violence in the Old Testament, understood Jesus not to be condemning these, but adding to these. It seems implausible to me—as it did to Augustine, Calvin, and other teachers in our tradition—to imagine Jesus meant something contradictory like “Desire righteousness, but don’t try to prevent a would-be murderer from attacking your child.” Indeed, Jesus himself seems to qualify what he means in the next set of verses when he tells us not to hate our enemies because such hatred, though not expressed externally as murder, is still sin.
Just war theory tries to achieve what Jesus lays out here. As lovers of justice, we must “deter the lawless,” as our denominational position statement says (bit.ly/2Lujk8P), and to allow evil when we have a duty to be just is sinful. Nevertheless, even the law and the prophets (and the pagans!) know this. Christians, thanks to Jesus’ teaching, know more and must be more: we must love our enemies, even as we stop them; we must deter the lawless, even as we are willing to forgive them. This is the kind of “perfection” Jesus is talking about at the end of the Sermon.