The world is in a spiral of violence. On the streets, in schools, in public places, and even in one’s own home a person cannot be sure that he can live without being threatened. Men, women, the elderly, young people, and children are all at risk.
How is it possible for a person to protect himself? How should one deal with injustice, oppression, threats, and violence? If one is offended or mistreated by someone, are thoughts and feelings of “getting even” appropriate? And in case of serious results or injury, is it permissible pay back in like manner the one who has done wickedly? In other words, even if it is in self-defense, is it right before God for the believer to “do justice” with his own hands? In today’s world, where wickedness is steadily increasing, it is not uncommon for a child of God to find himself in such circumstances. What should be done, then, if we, a relative, a friend, or our family is faced with such a situation?
There are a number of answers to this question–often humanly logical, but not always acceptable before God. Everyone agrees with the general idea that injustice must be dealt with, but how? The most common response is: “You have to do something to stop it, with force if necessary.” And who should do this? “The government, with the support of all of the country’s citizens,” is the usual answer. Many people believe that the citizenry includes believers. The Bible is used to justify this way of thinking by quoting certain laws and Old Testament examples. Believe it or not, such ideas have been around for years among Seventh-day Adventists.
One argument is that force at the public or personal level, be it the death penalty, self-defense, national defense, or something similar–directly or indirectly, voluntarily or involuntarily–to a certain degree includes violence. “Since that was how it was in the Old Testament era, why,” they ask, “should it not be possible in the New?”
An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth
When someone has suffered an assault of some kind and has reacted physically, the justification is generally, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” That is, the person got what he deserved. Saying this goes back to a standard that is part of the law given by Moses, known as the law of Talion; it is based on the concept of making the offender suffer damage equal to that which he inflicted. “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Exodus 21:23- 25. This is quoted frequently, especially if the wrongdoer is punished with extreme severity and must pay for the damage and injustice that he brought about.
Contrary to what one might think, at the time when this law was given, its purpose was not to give an individual carte blanche to commit murder or whatever (as long as he would pay for his deed), but rather to be a deterrent to inflicting injury on someone else, knowing that severe consequences would certainly follow.
Indeed, if one would have to suffer the same pain that he caused someone else, he would think twice before staining his hands with an act of violence. So, this law was given, not as an authorization but–just the opposite–as a brake to injustice and violence.
It is to be understood that above the law was given to protect man’s life, for centuries before the Lord had told Noah concerning the shedding of blood: “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man.” Genesis 9:5, 6.
The same is understood when reading Leviticus 24:17, 21: “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.” “And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.” The norm of the law an eye for an eye was applied not only to problems of physical injuries, but also in the case of financial injury: “And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.” Levit- icus 24:18. This means that the perpetra- tor had to pay the equivalent, sometimes something more, and sometimes even dou- ble, but not excessive.
A limit was placed on restitution payments. Indeed, some people think that the person who did wrong should be made to pay triple, quadruple, or even ten or twenty times more for what he has done; or, in the fury of resentment, demand is made for unlimited repayment. Think of what Jacob’s sons did not only to the one who violated their sister but to the whole city. Genesis 34. Since such excesses can reside in man’s sinful tendencies in demanding restitution for offenses and damages suffered, we realize the fairness of this principle.
Furthermore, we should be clear that this was a legal statute given to a people who were under civil authority and was for the guidance of the judges who were responsible for issuing and applying sentences for wrongdoing. This might come under the jurisdiction of a local or national court, such as the Sanhedrin, but it was exclusively the country’s authorities who had such power. Furthermore, in some cases, a blood avenger was empowered to carry out the sentence after a judgment was pronounced; but that does not mean that such a thing is applicable today. Are Christians today invested with judicial authority and authorized by the Lord to sit in judgment and issue sentences of innocence or guilt, life or death? Is it not solely the authorities who carry such a responsibility? God does not call people to be responsible to enforce civil law.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is therefore not personal authorization to retaliate against a culprit, life for life, violence for violence, and wound for wound, but a principle entrusted to the authorities who watch over the wellbeing of society; they are responsible to punish the wrongdoer.
In the Christian era, the magistrate is “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The “governors” “are sent by Him [the Lord] for the punishment of evildoers.” Romans 13:4; 1 Peter 2:13, 14. Ancient Israel was a church and a state, and the functions of both were carried out. Spiritual Israel is not a state; it is exclusively a body under God and cannot apply standards or exercise authority that do not belong to it. The church cannot assume rights and carry out prerogatives that are entrusted to secular governments.
The death penalty
The same reasoning is applicable to the death penalty. In ancient Israel, certain transgressions were punished with the death penalty. These included premeditated murder, cursing or killing one’s parents, kidnapping, idolatry, illicit relationships, adultery, fornication, the evocation of spirits, and more. See Exodus 21, 22; Leviticus 18:29, 30; Deuteronomy 22:13-30; 1 Samuel 28:3, 9. Just because such punishments were inflicted in ancient Israel is no justification for their being applied today. Adventist believers have never taught or practiced such things. Can God’s remnant people today apply or even support the carrying out of the death penalty? Can the church issue and carry out a death sentence? If it could, it would be not be a Christian church but a court! And what about a Christian in the New Testament era? If he could do such a thing, then it would mean that he would be a magistrate or a judge.
While there is a great deal of confusion and apostasy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church regarding the issues of weapons and war, to our knowledge, no Adventist believes that the church has the authority to sentence someone to death and carry out the execution. It is uniformly believed and taught that the punishment of criminals is the prerogative of the state. This is what God’s word affirms for the New Testament church. Romans 13:3, 4; 1 Peter 2:13, 14. So, supposing that the same principles that were valid for ancient Israel should apply to the church today means ignoring the order that currently exists, confusing things, and reversing the roles established by God.
“Thou shalt not kill”
When the Lord gave His moral law in Mount Sinai, He gave the sixth commandment and wrote it with His own finger on the tables of stone. This divine, universal code establishes respect for human life and dignity, upholding life as sacred and untouchable. Genesis 9:5, 6. Therefore, not only manslaughter or murder, but also every action that goes against human life or results in reducing its value, either directly or indirectly, is a violation of the sixth commandment. God is the one who gives life, and only He, not men, is authorized to decide when to give it and when to take it. Property given in a transaction can be withdrawn only by its owner, no one else. However, mankind has in many different ways deviated from and abused this holy principle. Men have tried in every possible way to diminish the sacred order. In fact, there are Adventists who believe and maintain that the commandment is not an absolute prohibition, but relative, limited to the personal sphere.
Thus, exceptions are introduced, according to which killing in self-defense is not a sin, nor is killing in time of war. The commandment is understood by such people to mean, “Do not kill under personal circumstances,” or “You can kill someone in self- defense,” or even, “You can kill if the government requires it.”
The root of evil
As early as 1915, some Adventist leaders did not consider killing in time of war to be murder: “From what has been said here, we have demonstrated that the Bible above all teaches that participation in war is not a violation of the sixth commandment; and, second, that fighting on the Sabbath is not a violation of the fourth commandment.” –J. Wintzen, Der Christ und der Krieg (The Christian and War), p. 18. Under this influence, hundreds of Adventist believers in Europe took up arms and headed to the war front. But the evil spread beyond European Adventist leaders. Its deep roots reached America, to the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. That is why, in 1920, five years after the tragic decision was made by Adventist leaders in Europe to participate as combatants in World War I, the General Conference President, in the presence of four other members of the General Conference, who were from Europe, told the brethren of the Reform Movement at the meeting in Friedensau, Germany, that killing in time of war was allowed and that the commandments had to be read and understood with some freedom:
“What would you have said about Moses if, after the law had been given from Sinai, he had commanded you a few days later to kill the king of Bashan and all
the men, women, and children? Would you have accused him of murder? But God commanded him to transgress the sixth commandment. You see that there are many things to be found in the interpretation of the commandments, and we must have liberty to read and understand the commandments and not to be bound to the way some small body may interpret them.” –A.G. Daniells, Protokoll, Hamburg, 1920, Religious Liberty Publishing Assn., 2016, Denver, CO, p. 49.
It is not difficult to imagine the results of such positions. That it is why, in World War I and others, transgression occurred and Adventists continue to take wrong steps today. The foundation of this is a misconception of the meaning and scope of the all of the commandments, but in this case the sixth, and this is the situation at the highest level of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference. In the church that should be the repository of God’s commandments and the light of the world, a breach has been made in that law, not only in the sixth commandment but also in the fourth. And similar statements have been published openly, not just in many places in time of war or under pressure and a threat of death, but also in peacetime and without any pressure from the state. In different locations around the world, the same ideas are presented to the people in the church as well as to the people of the world. Following are two examples. The following statements appeared in official organs of the Seventh- day Adventist Church: “There have been very good men through the long years who have never viewed the sixth commandment as forbidding, under all conditions, the taking of human life…. In some instances, killing a man is not breaking God’s law.” –Francis D. Nichol, “From the Editor’s Mailbag ,” Review and Herald, February 28, 1963, p. 14.
The same position is found in the Adventist Review:
“The sixth commandment, then, is a prohibition of murder, not a prohibition, for example, of killing insects or animals, nor, for that matter, a prohibition against capital punishment, or, necessarily, even killing in war.” –Donald F. Neufeld, “Bible Questions Answered,” Adventist Review, March 2, 1978, p. 6.
Similar ideas are expressed by those who support them and preached to believers in different countries, even here in Italy. An article published recently contains similar ideas. What are the consequences? Generally what is not prohibited is allowed. A street with no prohibition to entry is legally accessible; a space without a parking prohibition may be used for this purpose. Therefore, using the above examples, it is being taught publicly that homicide under war conditions is not a crime, which thus makes the taking of human life possible. And then, if killing is allowed, what about the so-called position of “noncombatant”? Is this not all unreasonable and fearfully alarming?
Do not add, and do not take away
In the experiences of life, there are many different situations, but the Lord gave one single commandment concerning life. Why? Because the Biblical principle is always the same. How is that possible? The examples are both individual and collective, both simple and complex; but one single principle applies to everyone. It is succinct, with just four words: “Thou shalt not kill.” Human laws generally contain many clauses and many exceptions, but not the divine law.
Regardless of the circumstances or reasons, the commandment remains the same: “Thou shalt not kill.” The fact that the commandment does not provide exceptions means that no one is authorized to make any. If a person attempts to do so,
he is removing something arbitrarily and adding something else. Exceptions are, in effect, a breach of the law. Its scope is diminished, and some other behavior is added. This is what it means to remove or add something to God’s command.
Christians against Christians
Christians participating in war means not only that they are against unbelievers; but also believers are set against others believers, even against those in the same church. While one group prays for its army, the opposing group prays for the one that it supports; one group asks for victory in battle, while the opposing group does the same. Both groups are Christian, but each pleads for its own cause and assets. Then they both fight to defeat each other. Who is right in this matter? Who deserves to be heard by God? If both sides are Christian and both are trying to spill the blood of their neighbors and fight against each other, no one deserves to be heard! They are both opposed to God’s will! Thus, God does not allow the Christian to kill in war; violence strengthens no one’s faith in Christ.
But, someone may say, the army defends certain rights. Yes, that is what is claimed. And the opposing army defends certain principles as well. Or, one army wants to defend its territory, while the other fights for supposed ideals and convictions. Perhaps an army wants to assert its authority, and the other wants to defend the faith. Meanwhile, this mass of people is considered “brothers.” Opposing sides pray to God, saying, “Father,” while everyone, in the name of God, advances to annihilate the other side! They think this is service for the Lord! While they are armed and engaged in the fight and one tries to defeat the other, they all invoke the words: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Matthew 6:12. –Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit (Violence and Non- violence), pp. 192, 193.
Let us examine a typical example. A few hours earlier, everyone was gathered in prayer, and then the order moves them to fury–soldiers against soldiers, living beings throwing themselves against other living beings; believers launching themselves against believers; brothers of one country firing weapons against brothers from another country; and possibly Adventists from various countries fighting each other, wielding weapons against other Adventists and falling on the battlefield.
This is what it means to participate in war! This is what it means to teach that the sixth commandment does not prohibit participation in war. This is what it means to make exceptions to the divine command. These are the terrible consequences of teaching that the commandment does not prohibit killing in war!
No, brothers, this cannot be the meaning of the divine commandment. The Scriptures teach that all of the commandments–including the sixth–are summarized in this: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Romans 13:9. And one who loves his neighbor cannot kill him!
Take the sword of the Spirit
“The Christian cannot carry the sword of the state in one hand and the sword of the Spirit in the other; this can only be done by a fallen church, one that no longer upholds the principles of the kingdom of God in the heart but bows to the power of the state. No, the Christian, without carnal weapons, adheres to the principle to ‘earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.’ Jude 3. Because he obeys the sixth of God’s commandments, he cannot kill his fellow human beings but acts according to the command of Jesus, putting the sword in the scabbard and saying: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ Acts 5:29. The unarmed Christian chooses to die for the gospel and receive eternal life, rather than act against the will of God and thus lose eternal life.” –Christlicher Hausfreund (Christian House Friend), September 23, 1915.
The Scriptures are consistent in teaching that the heavenly principle is that of non-violence and non-resistance. James refers to the oppression suffered by the poor; and, referring to their rich oppressors, he declares: “Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.” James 5:6. This is what a true Christian does. Inspired by the gospel, he will rise higher than others, honoring the God of heaven.
In the words of the apostle Peter, “Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.” 1 Peter 3:9. It is not easy to love and bless one’s enemies, but it is possible through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord, therefore, help each of us thus to understand, accept, and practice this Christian principle in our lives of faith.
By Antonino Di Franca
Source: Sabbat Watchman