24 Apr 2024


Is war just human nature? According to a recent article in Scientific American, answers to this question tend to fall into two camps.[1] The ‘Hawks’ hold that taking up arms is an evolved human behaviour aimed at eliminating competitors. War is an expression of natural animal aggression and defensiveness, preferencing survival of the group.Palaeolithic cave paintings of combatants with spears and archaeological evidence of conflict between hunter-gatherers suggest killing the ‘other’ has been instinctive ever since homo sapiens emerged.

On the other hand, the ‘Doves’ insist that human beings are not hardwired for organised collective violence: war only emerges in particular political, social or economic conditions. Whilst violence is common enough, targeted group killing only occurs in social settings that incentivise such behaviour. War, on this view, is not in our DNA but the tragic result of conditions that could have been otherwise. An extended peace is possible and the eradication of war not beyond imagining.[2]

The Hawk v Dove debate rages on, and both camps have their arguments. But what about Christians? Well, Jesus was a realist. At one point He says, “Don’t imagine my coming will mean peace on earth. No, my coming brings not peace but the sword. It will set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Mt 10:34-36) “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He said, “and to God what is God’s” (Mk 12:14-17; cf. 13:2-20)—which might conceivably include not just taxes but military service. Jesus included Simon the Zealot (or insurrectionist) amongst His inner circle (Mt 10:4 et par.) and associated with a Roman centurion (Mt 8:5-13; cf. 27:54). He implied wars were an invariant feature of human history (Mt 24:6 et par.; Lk 14:31-32) and even used force Himself when cleansing the Temple (Jn 2:13-22).

Yet if Christ was a realist about war, He was an idealist about peace. His coming was hailed as the advent of the prince of peace.[3] The Holy Spirit descended upon Him at His baptism in Jordan as a dove not a hawk (Mt 3:16). His customary greeting was עֲלֵיכֶם שָׁלוֹם Shalom aleichem, “Peace be with you.”[4] “Blessed are the poor in the spirit… the meek… the merciful… the persecuted,” He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5:1-12). No more eye for an eye: love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, turn the other cheek; forgive and then forgive some more; be as innocent as doves (Mt 10:16; 18:21-35; Lk 6:29). You must not kill, hate or lord it over others.[5] Jesus refused to advance His ideals by political or military coercion. When His lieutenant Peter sought to defend Him, Jesus’ response was “Put away your sword” (Jn 18:11). He lived what He taught.

And He died as He taught. At His trial Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world: if it were, His forces would have defended Him (Jn 18:36). As He was being executed, He called down from heaven not vengeance but forgiveness (Lk 23:34). His followers did the same: the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, asked God not to hold the sins of his persecutors against them, even as they stoned him to death (Acts 7:59-60). Paul boasts of the Christian inversion of power and the normal response to hostility: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure, when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like garbage to this world.” (1Cor 4:12-14) Many early Christians were pacifists. They claimed that, in disarming Peter on His last night, Christ disarmed every soldier;[6] that Christians never slay their enemies, as the more they are slayed themselves, the more they increase in number and strength;[7] and that for them “there is nothing more precious than peace.”[8]

So, what became of Christian realism about war? Well, clear as our faith is about preferring peace, we’ve always known that the use of defensive force is sometimes called for. Sometimes love demands we protect our families, country, the innocent, the defenceless, and ourselves. Sometimes we have to fight not just for our sake and theirs, but for our opponent’s sake, to stop him doing terrible things and endangering his own soul.

Thus our greatest theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, treated the topic of war, not under the heading of justice or government as one might expect, but in his treatise on love.[9] Even on the battlefield, he taught, Christians must never be about self-aggrandisement or hatred: the goal must be re-establishing concord. On Aquinas’ reckoning, most wars are unjust: you need very good reasons, very pure motives, very appropriate means to engage in a just war. Force must be directed at combatants only, be proportionate and be halted once the enemy is disarmed. So, nuclear and biological weapons can never be morally deployed, as they kill indiscriminately. Torturing POWs is out, too. So are landmines, as they keep on killing, children especially, long after the cessation of hostilities…

I’ve heard it said that Just War Theory no longer speaks to a world with weapons of mass destruction, drones and the rest. But Aquinas’ Unjust War Theory—identifying bad intentions, motives and means for lethal force—is still essential. We must not throw away the rule book as if “all’s fair in love and war”. It isn’t. Christians must continue to be war-preventers and peacemakers, even as they recognise the right to resist invaders and persecutors. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, we must cooperate wholeheartedly in establishing the conditions of a lasting peace,[10] while honouring those who devote themselves to military service as agents of security and freedom.[11]

In our Gospel today Jesus uses the image of a grain of wheat falling into the ground and “dying” to speak of His own sacrifice on the cross (Jn 12:23-28). Only by being “dead and buried” can the grain sprout, the wheat grow, and a great harvest eventuate. That can be true of our deaths too. Anyone who holds onto (“loves”) his life inevitably loses it; but one who sacrifices (“hates”) his life in this world may save it for eternity.

So how do we square our talk about war and peace? Well, many answers have been proposed. I suggest we revisit Christ’s theme of service.[12] “A new commandment I give unto you,” he said, “that you love one another, as I have loved you… For no greater love has any man than that he lay down his life for his friend.” (Jn 13:34; 15:13) The key to the good life is not self-protection and self-advancement, but self-spending for others. Thus we call our sailors, soldiers and pilots “servicemen and women”. Those who risk their lives fighting for their country, not for self-aggrandisement or hatred, but to defend life and advance peace, are serving something greater than themselves. Such sacrifice, such service is worthy of honour and celebration, without romanticising war. Their lives of service to others make them the ‘virtuous souls’ of the Book of Wisdom (Wis 3:1-9).

And so we pray this night to the Prince of Peace, that He fill the hearts of all people with virtue and grace, so that our hawkish instincts might be constrained and war become a thing of the past. We pray that He fill the hearts of leaders with virtue and grace, so they build bridges and strengthen bonds between peoples. And we pray for those who have paid the ultimate price for our country, that “their names liveth for evermore” in God’s book of eternal life!

[1] Brian Ferguson, ‘War is not part of human nature’, Scientific American, 1 September 2018.

[2] Robin Lally, ‘We are not hardwired to go to war’, Rutgers 4 December 2018.

[3] Isa 9:6; Lk 1:79; 2:14,29.

[4] “Peace be with you” as Jesus’ customary greeting: Mt 10:13; Mk 4:39; 5:34; Lk 10:5; 24:35; Jn 14:27; 16:33; Jn 20:19,21,26. As His customary farewell or dismissal: Lk 7:50; 8:48. Related exhortations: Mt 5:9,21-22,44-45; 10:13;26:52; Mk 9:50; Lk 10:5-6; Jn 16:33.

[5] Mt 5:21,38-44; 18:1-4; 20:25; Lk 13:1-3; Jn 11:1-11.

[6] Tertullian, On Idolatry, ch. 19.

[7] Origen Contra Celsus, Bk VII.

[8] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 13.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae  IIa IIae, q.40.

[10] Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World 88-90.

[11] GS 79.

[12] Mt 5:44; 10:39; 20:28; 22:37-39; 23:11; 25:35-40; Lk 10:33-34; 22:27; Jn 13:1-17.


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney for this Vigil Mass for Anzac Day. Tonight we remember not only those who served in Gallipoli 109 years ago, but all who have served and sacrificed for our nation hoping that theirs would be “the war to end all wars”. Regrettably, war today mars Armenia-Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gaza, Haiti, Israel, Libya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen, and is so widespread that Pope Francis describes it as “a veritable world war”. The cost of war in lives lost, bodies and minds damaged, livelihoods destroyed and persons displaced is a grim reality for so many, whether combatants or civilians, and it disfigures all humanity. So we pray for peace, even as we gratefully commend to the Lord of life those who gave themselves for our freedom and security.

I acknowledge the presence tonight of: Her Excellency Hon. Margaret Beazley AC KC, Governor of New South Wales and Mr Wilson; Her Excellency’s Official Secretary Colonel Michael Miller RFD; and General Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove AK, CVO, MC, former Governor-General of Australia, and Lady Cosgrove.

I salute from the Royal Australian Navy: Commodore Michael Flynn (Retd); Commodore Michael Harris; Commander Andrew Dale; Commander Nicholas Hedberg; Commander Simon Kelly; Commander Michael Letts; and other officers and sailors.

From the Australian Army: Brigadier Robert Calhoun; Brigadier Nathan Juchniewicz; Colonel Reuben Bowd; Colonel Warwick Young; Lieutenant-Colonel Angus Johnson; Lieutenant-Colonel Glenn Mackenzie; Major Brett Cooper; and other officers and soldiers; as well as Lieutenant-Colonel Paul King of the New Zealand Army.

From the Royal Australian Air Force: Group Captain Herman Wong; Wing Commander Frank Di Stefano; Wing Commander Merridy Thompson; Squadron Leader Chris Gibson; and other officers and pilots.

From the Defence Reserve Association: the Vice President, Squadron Leader Col Gilbertson (Retd). From the Returned Services League NSW: the President, Mr Mick Bainbridge; the Chief Executive Officer, Mr Giles Hurst; and other office holders and members of the League.

I also greet: all other past or present members of our Defence Forces, Reserves, Cadet Brigades and Veterans organisations, with their family members.

From the Consular corps: the Consuls-General or representatives of Malta, Pakistan, Türkiye and the United Kingdom. Also: representatives of NSW Ambulance, the Courts and the Academy.

Concelebrating with me or assisting me tonight are several present or former service chaplains. Also present are representatives of several religious congregations, church agencies and affiliates. From the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese: Very Rev Fadi Nemme.

Every year on the Vigil of ANZAC Day we gather here to pray for eternal life for those who have fallen in war, especially our own; to intercede, likewise, for healing for those affected by their time of service or grieving a lost one; to pray for safety for those presently in harm’s way; and to recommit ourselves to their worthy ideals.