Ethos Education

War Horse: Under what circumstances, if any, is it right for Christians to support armed conflict?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding of different Christian responses to war.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon the difference between things that have a definite answer and things that sustain multiple valid answers.
  • Reflect upon two different attitudes towards war from a scene in the film War Horse.
  • Analyse a set of statements about Christians and pacifism.
  • Analyse the Just War theory from a Christian perspective.
  • Analyse selected Bible passages to determine what they suggest about Christian attitudes towards war.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a discussion between a Christian pacifist and a Christian supporter of the concept of a Just War.


If there is space in the classroom, ask the students to stand in the middle of the room and to move around as a continuum exercise, moving to one end of the room if they strongly agree with the statements you are about to make, the other end if they disagree and somewhere between the two to reflect the strength of their agreement or disagreement. If there isn’t room for this, you could ask them to remain seated and to raise or lower their hands to show simple agreement or disagreement.

Here are the statements:

  • Rock music is better than hip-hop
  • RE is the best school subject of all
  • Roy Hodgson was a good choice to be England football manager
  • Jessica Ennis won the Olympic gold medal for the Heptathlon in the London 2012 Games
  • The London 2012 Olympics were the best ever Olympic Games
  • Marmite is made from yeast extract
  • Marmite tastes great

Explain to the students that there are some things which are simple to work out, and if people disagree it is easy to determine who is right and who is wrong, whereas there are other things where different opinions may be equally valid. In this lesson you are going to be considering a topic where traditionally Christians have come to a variety of conclusions: the legitimacy of war.


Introduce the clip from the film War Horse (Touchstone, 2011, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that the scene starts shortly after Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey have succeeded – against all expectations – in ploughing a particular field, thus saving his father’s farm from repossession. Ask the students to pay particular attention to Albert’s perception of his drunkard father and how his mother challenges his attitudes.

  • Start time: 0.32.54 (beginning of chapter 8 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.36.17
  • Clip length: 3 minutes and 23 seconds

The clip starts with people rushing to help Albert in the freshly-ploughed field. The first line is his friend asking, ‘Albie, are you all right?’. The clip ends after Albert tells Joey, ‘I’ll give it back to him someday.’

Why do the students think that Albert’s Dad is not proud of what he did in the war? Why doesn’t Albert understand his Dad’s response? Do the students agree with his mother (Emily Watson) that her husband is brave to refuse to be proud of his actions in the war?

Point out to the students that even today people have very different responses to the subject of war. There are two different Christian views that dominate the debate on war. Write the words ‘Pacifism’ and ‘Just War’ at opposite sides of the board. (You may need to explain that Just War means a war that is justifiable, rather than being another way of saying ‘mere war’.) Give out the Christians and War worksheet, and read it with the class, asking them to vote ‘true’ or ‘false’ for each statement. Discuss any that provoke disagreement.

Pacifism takes the teaching of Jesus such as turning the other cheek and loving enemies to apply to nations as well as to personal relationships. (True).

Pacifism means never fighting back against an enemy. (False, generally pacifists would resist an invading army but would want to stop short of taking part in bloodshed).

Pacifists cannot join the army. (False, many conscientious objectors joined the army medical services in the second world war).

Pacifists attempt to win a war through breaking the morale of their opponents. (True, it is much harder to kill people who do not fight back or fit the stereotype of ‘the enemy’).

For three centuries after Jesus most Christians were pacifists. (True, Christians were encouraged to be good citizens but they did not generally enlist in the Roman army).

Most Christians today are pacifists. (False, although some are).

Christians today generally say that if a war is in the national interest then it is justified. (False. Most Christians today would say that there are reasons that justify a war, but they wouldn’t necessarily agree that the selfish national interest is a good enough reason on its own).

The interests of our own country are more important than what happens in other countries. (False, both from a moral point of view and from the more pragmatic reason that countries are directly affected by events concerning other countries.)

As an illustration of the range of opinion that sincere Christians hold on matters of war, you might like to point out that both Tony Blair and George W. Bush (the leaders who committed Britain and America to war in Iraq and Afghanistan), profess Christian faith, while many in the churches were vocal in their opposition of the actions of those leaders.

Give out the worksheets with the summary of the Just War theory. Ask the students to complete the first exercise before feeding back to the rest of the class. The second exercise can be set as a follow on (once you are sure that everyone has understood the conditions of a Just War) or as a homework task.

Read out a selection of Bible verses and quotes as below and ask the class to decide whether each verse suggests a pacifist response, a Just War response, or some other response. You may want to remind the class that these are not contradictory statements but are indicative of the tension between the demands of love and justice in the Bible. For a high ability group, you could simply read out the quotes and start a discussion. For other groups it may be better to set the task of assessing each of the quotes, ranking them in order from 1 to 9 (with 1 as the most pacifist leaning quote, and 9 the most war-ready quote). Once the quotes have been ordered, set the task of writing answers to the following questions:

  • Where would you place yourself on this scale?
  • Is it more important to love those we don’t love, or protect those we do?
  • Prepare a response that you could defend in front of the rest of the class.

Here are the Bible passages and quotes:

‘You have heard people say, “Love your neighbours and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.’ – Jesus, Matthew 5:43-44.

‘God blesses those people who make peace. They will be called his children!’ – Jesus, Matthew 5:9.

‘When you hear about wars and riots, don’t be afraid. These things will have to happen first, but that isn’t the end.
Nations will go to war against one another, and kingdoms will attack each other.’
– Jesus, Luke 21:9-10.

‘Obey the rulers who have authority over you. Only God can give authority to anyone, and he puts these rulers in their places of power.’ – Romans 13:1.

‘Try to live at peace with everyone! Live a clean life. If you don’t, you will never see the Lord.’ – Hebrews 12:14.

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…A time to love, and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace.’ – Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (abridged).

‘The purpose of all war is ultimately peace.’ – Saint Augustine.

‘Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.’ – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ – Micah 4:3.

All quotes are from the CEV.


Ask the students to write a discussion between two Christians, one advocating pacifism and the other defending the concept of a Just War. The discussion should demonstrate the students’ understanding of the Christian principles that underpin each position.


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