In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. So why does the CRC allow its members to go to war?
While lamenting war as the result of sin, the CRC has indeed encouraged its members to be willing to serve in the U.S. or Canadian military. As you note, this position stands in some tension with the face value of Jesus’ words.
The CRC affirms the traditional “just war” approach of Christianity. The just war tradition affirms that when a nation is confronted with serious aggression, its lawful sovereign may wage war to restore a just peace. This teaching also insists that restraints are needed for fighting to be consistent with justice. This requires using weapons and tactics that target only combatants and avoiding hatred and demonization of the enemy.
Christianity’s full embrace of the just war approach happened when Christianity had gained a position of power in the Roman Empire. Some have suspected that the church’s hunger for worldly influence led it away from faithful adherence to the peaceable way of Christ.
But there were also serious reasons given. For example, Jesus never tells the soldiers who come to faith to leave their profession. And in Romans 13 Paul speaks of God ordaining the “sword” of the state for the common good. Just war thinking rests upon the intuitive idea that serious aggression threatens the good of ordinary life that God intends for the world. And in situations of aggression, it is the vulnerable who are most at risk.
The Reformed tradition has usually seen the words of Jesus as applying primarily to the individual Christian and to the life of the church, not as a general prohibition against the state using force to protect the common good and international peace. If someone attacks me, the call is to respond peaceably. But if someone else (or a whole nation) is attacked, that’s a different matter. Think of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion and subsequent atrocities. What does love of neighbor look like in such a situation?
Recently the CRC has encouraged its members and congregations to take an active role in creating conditions for peace, locally and globally. Only from such a position of active engagement toward a just peace can we wage war as a last resort.