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Jehovah's Witnesses and War
Watchtower states that Jehovah's Witnesses are the only religion that does not engage in war, and use this as indication they alone follow Jehovah's standards. This is incorrect on several levels, such as:
1 - there are a number of pacifist religious groups, and
2 - the Bible does not discourage all forms of warfare.
Watchtower states Jehovah's Witnesses alone refrain from war.
"Who are no part of the world and learn war no more? Again, the historical record of the 20th century testifies: only Jehovah's Witnesses." Watchtower 1992 Apr 1 p.12
The finger is quickly pointed at other religions for their involvement in war, describing their followers as "children of the Devil slaughtering their spiritual brothers". (Awake! 1985 Dec 22 p.10) Jehovah's Witnesses are proclaimed as unique for being the only loving religion on earth and the only one abstaining from participation in warfare.
"In our century, which religion has obeyed this law of love? Surely not the religions of Christendom, for they have slaughtered one another by the tens of millions in two world wars and other conflicts. Jehovah's servants are unique in obeying the rule spoken by Peter and other apostles to a high court: "We must obey God as ruler rather than men." (Acts 5:29)" Watchtower 1990 Feb 1 p.22
"Who in our time demonstrate such obedience to Gods commandments on love? Who have been persecuted, imprisoned, thrown into concentration camps, or executed because they would not take up weapons against fellow believers or even unbelievers of other nations? The record of this century's history answers: only Jehovah's Witnesses." Watchtower 1989 May 1 p.28
Many religious groups do not participate in war
This self-proclamation of uniqueness is far from correct; numerous religious organisations do not participate in warfare. These statements are another area that highlights the dishonesty of the Watchtower in attempting to convince their followers that they are unique and alone are acceptable to God.
What most Jehovah's Witnesses do not seem to be aware of is;
- There are a number of religions that do not participate in war
- Witnesses are neutral but not pacifists
- There is Biblical support for engaging in war
Religions not engaging in War
The best known religions for their stance against war are the historic peace churches - Society of Friends, Mennonites and Brethren. In addition are a number of nineteenth century groups that share a similar historical background to the Watchtower Society. Every major Christian denomination also contains pacifist factions. Christian churches known for their stance against war include:
- Moravians (one of the very first Protestant religions dating back to the 1500's)
- Brethren (Dunkards) groups, including
- Church of the Brethren
- Anabaptist groups, including
- Mennonites (16th century group numbering 1.5 million)
- Bruderhof Communities
- Amish (numbering approximately 200,000)
- Society of Friends (Quakers)
- Doukhobors - 17th century breakaway from Russian Orthodox
- Molokans - 17th century breakaway from Russian Orthodox
- Some Pentecostal groups such as the Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship
- Seven Day Adventists
- Community of Christ
- Worldwide Church of God
- Pax Christi - A Catholic peace movement
- Fellowship of Reconciliation - A group formed in 1914 to unite pacifists regardless of denomination. All major religious denominations have affiliated associations including
- Anglican Pacifist Fellowship
- Methodist Peace Fellowship
- Baptist Peace Fellowship
- Orthodox Peace Fellowship
- Lutheran Peace Fellowship
- Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
In addition to this list are other peace churches that have become extinct or almost extinct such as Shakers.
The Peace Churches have suffered greatly for their stance against war, with members being subjected to persecution, imprisonment and death. For example, Hutterites were subjects of persecution in America during World War 2 and when two Hutterites died in prison after refusing the military draft many Hutterite colonies moved to Canada.
There is variance amongst the listed groups as to whether physical force can ever be justified in self-defense, as well as differing opinions regarding non-combatant military roles, such holding medical positions, or performing non-battlefield services that assist in war. True peace churches adhere strictly to nonresistance even when confronted by violence.
The best known Pacifist writing is the Friends Peace Testimony from 1651. Some Friends extend the Peace testimony to even refusing to pay the "War Tax" component of income tax in the United States. (See Minute on Conscientious Objection to War approved by FCNL's General Committee 11/14/04 as displayed at www.fcnl.org/priorities/war_109th_printer.htm 25th February 2007) Quakers were instrumental in establishing the option to avoid conscription as conscientious objectors during the United States Civil war.
Pacifism is "opposition to war or violence as a means of resolving disputes" (American Heritage Dictionary). Quite significantly, the Watchtower Society is not a peace church. Despite being neutral in war, Jehovah's Witnesses are not pacifists. A Witness may draw arms in self-defence. Jehovah's Witnesses are only forced to stay neutral until they are in the situation where they are required to defend themselves.
"The situation may be such that the only thing a person can do is to use whatever is at hand to protect himself or others. As a result, the attacker may receive a fatal blow. From the Scriptural standpoint, the one acting in self-defense would not thereby incur bloodguilt." Awake 1975 Sep 8 p.28 Should You Defend Yourself?
"True Christians love peace. They stay completely neutral in the world's military, political, and ethnic conflicts. But, strictly speaking, they are not pacifists. Why? Because they welcome God's war that will finally enforce his will on earth-a war that will settle the great issue of universal sovereignty and rid the earth of all enemies of peace once and for all." Awake! 1997 May 8 p.23
"They are not against war between the nations, and they do not interfere with the war efforts of the nations nor with anyone who can conscientiously join in such efforts. They fight only when God commands them to do so, because then it is theocratic warfare.
Were Jehovah’s witnesses today to claim to be pacifists, it would mean for them to denounce all the pre-Christian witnesses of Jehovah who took up arms to uphold Jehovah’s universal sovereignty and his theocratic nation of Israel. But this denunciation we cannot make. Jesus Christ never did so, and he is Jehovah’s greatest witness, who has earned the title “The faithful and true witness”. (Rev. 3:14) Jehovah himself is no pacifist. Neither are his witnesses such, although they are conscientious objectors." Watchtower 1951 Feb 1 p.70 Why Jehovah’s Witnesses Are Not Pacifists
Furthermore, pacifist churches such as Quakers are against the death penalty, which the Watchtower Society is not. The Watchtower Society "recognize the right of governments to do as they wish" in regards to the death penalty, noting that the Mosaic Law advocated the death penalty. (g 96 3/8 p. 23).
Stances against war change over time. For instance, whilst the Church of Christ had a large pacifist faction this is now limited predominantly to followers of the teachings of David Lipscomb. Likewise, changes have occurred within the Watchtower Society.
The Watchtower 1992 Apr 1 p.12 states Jehovah's Witnesses have not participated in war during the 20th century. This is deceptive, as during World War One, Watchtower followers were able to be soldiers, as long as they did not kill others, and until the Second World War they engaged in civilian duties at war.
Originally, under Russell's direction, Bible Students participated in non-combatant duty and even went to the trenches.
"Notice that there is no command in the Scriptures against military service. ... No, it would be quite right to shoot, not to kill. You forget, perhaps, our provisos, which were that we explain our conscientious scruples against war, and seek to be excused: if not excused, that we seek non-combatant positions, as nurses, etc.; but if compelled to go a mile or many miles as a soldier, we still need not kill anybody." Zion's Watch Tower 1898 Aug 1 p.231 (see also jv p.191)
"Obedience to the laws of the land might at some time oblige us to bear arms, and in such event it would be our duty to go into the army, if unable in any legal and proper manner to obtain exemption, but it would not be our duty to volunteer. ... There could be nothing against our conscience in going into the army. Wherever we would go we could take the Lord with us, the Captain of our salvation, and wherever we would go we could find opportunities to serve him and his cause. If it came to the point of battling we above all others need have no fear of death, but we, assuredly, would be obliged to draw the line when commanded to fire, and we could not, in harmony with the divine program, fire upon a fellow-creature with the intention of taking his life. If we fired we should be obliged to fire either into the air or into the ground." Zion's Watch Tower 1903 Apr 15 p.120
Shortly after Rutherford took leadership, he wrote against participation in war.
"No Christian could engage in war and remain a Christian; for the reason that Jesus did not engage in war. ... He can be true to the Lord and faithful to his consecration vow only by taking one course, viz., a refusal to engage in war. ... the laws of the land provide for exemption for those who cannot conscientiously engage in war, then the Christian should take advantage of that. If it should come to the question as to whether or not a Christian would shoot his fellowman or be shot, it would be better for him to choose the latter rather than the former. ... The duty of a Christian is clearly set forth in the Scriptures. There is no middle ground. For him to engage in war would be to disregard the commission the Lord has given him. To refuse military service would perhaps bring persecution; but to engage in military service would be a violation of his covenant with the Lord, and this being true, no one would desire to engage in war, and hence should decline to enlist in the service of the army." Watchtower 1917 Apr 15 p.124
Despite this stand, Watchtower requested prayers for America to defeat Germany during World War One.
"In accordance with the resolution of Congress of April 2nd, and with the proclamation of the president of the United States of May 11, it is suggested that the Lord's people everywhere make May 30th a day of prayer and supplication. ... As says the spirit through the Apostle Paul: "I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour." (I Timothy 2:1-3) Let there be praise and thanks-giving to God for the promised glorious outcome of the war, the breaking of the shackles of autocracy, the freeing of the captives (Isaiah 61:1) and the making of the world safe for the common people--blessings all assured by the Word of God to the people of this country and of the whole world of mankind." Watchtower 1918 Jun 1 p.174
Brothers continued to serve the war effort in alternative service, as shown by the following letter published in the 1919 Watchtower.
"I write you a few lines, as it might be of interest to you to know where the young brethren are who are in the military service of the U.S.A. I am from the Chicago Ecclesia, and was drafted in service last May, sent to one of our training camps, and was placed in the medical department of the 106 Engineers." Watchtower 1919 Mar 1 reprints p.6402
Civilian duty was not forbidden until the Second World War.
"The official position of the Watch Tower Society, developed in the early 1940s during the Second World War, was that if one of Jehovah’s Witnesses accepted such alternative service he had “compromised,” had broken integrity with God. The reasoning behind this was that because this service was a “substitute” it therefore took the place of what it substituted for and (so the reasoning apparently went) came to stand for the same thing.12 Since it was offered in place of military service and since military service involved (potentially at least) the shedding of blood, then anyone accepting the substitute became “bloodguilty.” - Crisis of Conscience, R Franz, 2004 4th edition, p.124
The stance against civilian duty resulted in the jailing and even murder of many young Jehovah's Witness males.
"An examination of the historical facts shows that not only have Jehovah's Witnesses refused to put on military uniforms and take up arms but, during the past half century and more, they have also declined to do noncombatant service or to accept other work assignments as a substitute for military service. Many of Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned because they would not violate their Christian neutrality." United in Worship of the Only True God (1983) p.167
In 1996, Watchtower capitulated their stance, once again allowing military service and civilian duty as a matter of conscience, presumably only in non combatant roles.
"What, though, if the Christian lives in a land where exemption [from military service] is not granted to ministers of religion? Then he will have to make a personal decision following his Bible-trained conscience. What, though, if the State requires a Christian for a period of time to perform civilian service that is a part of national service under a civilian administration? That is his decision before Jehovah." Watchtower 1996 May 1 pp.19-20
It is sad to think of the many Jehovah's Witnesses that languished in prison during their youth, were persecuted and even killed at Watchtower direction, only to find that civilian service is now considered an acceptable option.
Is War Justifiable?
Christian engagement in warfare is an issue beyond the scope of this article. Warfare is one of humanities greatest evils, and we can only long for a time when all are pacifists. However, Pacifism and Neutrality are untenable positions. We cannot overlook the constant rise of political despots, and Pacifism simply allows thugs to dominate our world. Pacifism and Neutrality can only work for smaller religions, which need to be grateful for the protection afforded them by national armies and police forces, without which they would not exist. When a religion grows to the point of becoming the state religion it is required to defend itself militarily.
An example of what happens when a group refuse to take arms are the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands. In 1835, Maoris from New Zealand invaded the island, “announcing that the Moriori were now their slaves, and killing those that objected. … The Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully. They decided in a council meeting not to fight back but to offer peace, friendship, and a division of resources.” (page 53 Guns, Germs, and Steel – The Fates of Human Societies Jared Diamond W. W. Norton and Company 1999) The Maori proceeded to kill and cannibalise the Moriori people. Only 101 were allowed to survive, kept as slaves. There remains no pure blood Moriori today.
There are always aggressors, and an organised means of defence is required to prevent aggressive leaders and cultures from dominating the more peaceful. The world is a more peaceful place because cultures interested in human rights have been prepared to defend those rights.
The Bible and War
There are two dominate arguments used by pacifists against war. These regard love of neighbour, and Biblical commandments against murder.
The Law of Love is at the centre of reasoning against war. This raises an emotive issue - does love of God and neighbour allow unchristian tyrants to run unchecked through the world, or does love require defending ones beliefs and loved ones?
The other line of reasoning is that "The sixth of the Ten Commandments also declared, "You must not murder."" (w86 9/1 p.18) However, Old Testament support of Israelite war and the death penalty shows killing under these circumstances do not fall within the Biblical definition of murder.
One of the principle arguments against war is to quote Jesus warning at Matthew 26:52 "Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword." John shows the reason for these words was that Peter was not to prevent Jesus arrest, saying at John 18:11 "Put the sword into [its] sheath. The cup that the Father has given me, should I not by all means drink it?" Peter's carrying a sword during Jesus last hours indicates Jesus accepted being armed.
The Bible supports warfare.
Ecclesiastes 3:8 "[There is] a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace."
The entirety of Israelite history is steeped in brutal warfare. Over 250 times the Bible refers to God as "Jehovah of Armies" and he regularly commanded that his followers execute all that did not worship him, apart from the virgin girls that the soldiers were allowed to keep for their own pleasure.
Joshua 6:21 "And they went devoting all that was in the city, from man to woman, from young man to old man and to bull and sheep and ass, to destruction by the edge of the sword."
Numbers 31:15-18 "So Moses said to them: "Have YOU preserved alive every female? Look! They are the ones who, by Balaam's word, served to induce the sons of Israel to commit unfaithfulness toward Jehovah over the affair of Peor, so that the scourge came upon the assembly of Jehovah. And now kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with man by lying with a male. And preserve alive for yourselves all the little ones among the women who have not known the act of lying with a male."
Watchtower justifies Old Testament Jewish war as necessary to cleanse the promised land of infidels. In the same manner, Christian Churches express their engagement in warfare as a role ordained by God. The very existence of Jehovah's Witnesses is a result of the global expansion of Christianity at the end of the sword.
The Bible never specifically forbids Christian engagement in warfare, and since this was such a significant aspect to Bible history, if continued engagement in war had become an unacceptable practice to the writers of the Christian Scriptures they would have stated so. In fact, several New Testament passages indicate acceptance of war.
When military officers came to John for baptism, John did not direct them to leave the service.
Luke 3:14 "Also, those in military service would ask him: "What shall we also do?" And he said to them: "Do not harass anybody or accuse anybody falsely, but be satisfied with YOUR provisions."
At Matthew 8:5-13 Jesus did not turn the soldier away when asking to heal his manservant, rather commending him saying "I have not found anyone In Israel with such great faith" In the account at Acts 10 Cornelius was not required to step down as commander of Roman soldiers before being baptised.
Paul shows that governments have a right to use the sword to prevent bad, and that we should be in subjection to what they demand of us. This would include going to war when called for.
Romans 13:1-4 "Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. Therefore he who opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment to themselves. For those ruling are an object of fear, not to the good deed, but to the bad. Do you, then, want to have no fear of the authority? Keep doing good, and you will have praise from it; for it is God's minister to you for your good. But if you are doing what is bad, be in fear: for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword; for it is God's minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad."
Russell recognised this scripture required early Witnesses to engage in civilian service and even attend the front line.
"The early Bible Students took this scripture to mean that if a Christian was drafted in wartime, he would be obligated to put on a uniform, shoulder a gun, and go to the front, to the trenches. It was felt that since a Christian could not kill a fellow human, he would be compelled to fire his gun into the air if worst came to worst." Watchtower 1995 May 15 pp.21-22
Though claiming to be the only religion to show neutrality and love, war atrocities pale in comparison to the Watchtower message of Armageddon, which claims "billions" (w93 10/1 p.19) will be slaughtered at the hand of Jehovah, never to receive a resurrection. Witnesses take Scriptures such as at Isaiah 13 as applying literally to anyone not associated with their Organization.
Isaiah 13:9-16 "Look! The day of Jehovah itself is coming, cruel both with fury and with burning anger, in order to make the land an object of astonishment, and that it may annihilate [the land's] sinners out of it. Every one that is found will be pierced through, and every one that is caught in the sweep will fall by the sword; and their very children will be dashed to pieces before their eyes. Their houses will be pillaged, and their own wives will be raped."
If the Watchtower interpretation of Armageddon were correct, then Witnesses would be engaged in an act of love by killing "worldly" people in warfare prior to this gruesome event. At least those who die in warfare will be in line for a resurrection and perfect eternal life in paradise, a far better option than be destroyed by God at Armageddon, the most horrifying event of human history.
I have heard many Jehovah's Witnesses indicate the key reason they believe the Watchtower Society represents the only true religion is their refusal to participate in warfare. What most Jehovah's Witnesses do not seem to be aware of is that a number of religions do not participate in war. I admire the strength of individuals that suffered refusing to go to war. If every person followed this ideology, the world would be a better place for it. But for as long as tyrants start war, there will be the need for armies to defend themselves and their countries inhabitants.
Related to this topic is Watchtower's claim of being politically neutral. Though members are discouraged from voting, Watchtower is actively involved in political engagements, as discussed at Watchtower Political Involvement.
Written Jul 2009. Latest update Jan 2015
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2023