Facing Conflict under the shadow of the cross
“Justice is in the interest of the strongest” – Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic
“The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war” – Erasmus
“ The purpose of all war is peace” – Augustine of Hippo
“ The LORD is a man of war, the LORD is his name – Exodus 15:3
“Praise be to the LORD my rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle – Psalm 144: 1
These quotes above represent only a small fraction of the diverse opinions on the nature of War and its relation to living a godly life. They come from Christian thinkers, pagan philosophers and the Bible itself. If there is no easy answer to the question is war ever justified then how are we to make sense of a violent world and if our role is to be passive participant, active agent or righteous crusader?
I believe the only war that can be truly called a just war is a war that is holy and fought for the righteousness of the Lord, that is called to be waged by the Lord and that is guided by the Lord and his anointed leaders. But how can we be sure our war is a just war Are we deceiving ourselves into believing GOD supports us because we want to be in the right, not because we are in the right? The Bible tells us that biblical war is waged as a means to carry Gods people forward or as a means to level Gods Judgement against his people as a result of their great and sinful falling away. God seems to use war and call for war even as he condemns it. Is this a contradiction?
Christ, as he so often did, realigned the nature of a thing, in this case war by reminding people that an eye for an eye leads to evil and that we must turn the other cheek saying “you have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven”. Yet we can’t deny that if war is forbidden the Christian then it would certainly have been mentioned as so many other things clearly were. So once again, even with the words of the LORD we are left to contemplate what we are to do. This struggle has led great church minds to formulate philosophies, sometimes logical and sometimes contorted to define rules which we might use to navigate dangerous times.
The need for peace and a love of your enemy and the very real world facts of evil seeking to do evil led St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to formulate what came to be called the just war theory in an effort to fill in the gaps. During St. Augustine’s time the might of Rome was collapsing and the threat of invasion was omnipresent. Could a Christian fail to protect his family, and his faith through pacifism? These were not idle, abstract questions but very pressing matters of life and death. Out of this began to emerge the just war theory, the basic tenant of which are as follows…
- There must be a just cause for the war.
- War must be waged only in response to certain, grave and lasting damage inflicted by an aggressor
- The motive for war must be advancement of good or avoidance of evil.
- The ultimate objective of war must be to bring peace.
- Revenge, revolt, a desire to harm, dominate, or exploit and similar things are not justification for war.
- Every possible means of peacefully settling the conflict must be exhausted first.
- There must be serious prospects of success; bloodshed without hope of victory cannot be justified.
- The war must be declared by a legitimate authority. Private individuals or groups should seek redress of their rights through their governments, not by acts of war.
- The war must not cause greater evil than the evil to be eliminated.
- Non-combatants (civilians) must not be intentionally harmed.
- Prisoners and conquered peoples must be treated justly.
In response to Just war theory some Christians affirm complete pacifism, among them Mennonites and the Society of Friends (Quakers). The difficulty in keeping this position comes when we are forced to confront evil in a scale larger than the personal and when the pacifist maintains his peace safely behind the shield of the soldier. It is easy to turn the other cheek and live pure pacifism when you are the only one on the line, but what about when your children are threatened? Even Christ seems to have allowed his apostles to carry swords and nowhere did he implicitly refute the need to fight against evil. Indeed his very presence on earth was a direct confrontation with evil and his return is described as a victorious leader mounted on a white horse in very clear military imagery. For this reason the gentle lamb could say “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” We should also consider why God chose the time of the Roman Empire to break into our physical world in the person of Jesus Christ? We see the disciple traveling Roman roads, taking advantage of the stability that Rome provided and even Paul relying on the protection of his roman citizenship, none of which could have been possible without Rome’s military might. And can we so easily condemn all war as pure evil when David, a great warrior who was a man after Gods own heart and through whom the messiah would be born. We cannot say that war is evil nor can we say that war is good when we understand that God often uses evil men and evil things to further his purpose.
If you are confused you are not alone. In the Gospel of Mark we see that Christ, understanding human nature recognizes that war will continue and in the Gospel of Luke and in Acts we are led to accept the necessity of militaries. (Luke 3:14 and Acts 10:1-6) so if you are still convinced that your position, just war or pacifism is the only right position then you are blind. Reading this in light of Christ’s complete teachings it is difficult to see anything amounting to total admonition against any and all war, but it is certainly a radical realignment on how Godly men should view and wage war and it certainly should force each of us to reexamine the reasons we are fighting.
The reality is that this is one of those areas each of us is left to navigate. Trust that we not asked to do this alone but to open up ourselves and allow Jesus Christ to become the captains of our hearts. It may well be that this is an area that is deliberately left grey because Gods plan for mankind is still unfolding. So take care not to be quick to judge the soldier or the pacifist too harshly.
Why am I writing this now? A radio call in show features a caller who was no doubt a decent man, a moral man even yet one who seemed to be rushing to war as a means of vengeance and anger. A delusion perhaps, but one that is recognizable and even understandable. The consensus was that we should fight fire with fire and beat them at their own game. These are just some of the phrases used to describe opinions as to how we should conduct the war on terror. In light of our current leaderships refusal to rightly define the threat and their efforts to downplay the danger and the ever growing risk of domestic attack it is little wonder that so many people are willing to fight terrorists at their own level but this is a terrible mistake. Liberals by contrast seem to offer a more Christian view but they too make a fundamental error of logic in viewing human nature as good and at risk through violence. The Liberal argument suggest that to fight fire with fire risks harming something within ourselves. But the harm we face is not from within as if to say that human nature is good, because it is not. In fact human nature dictates that we seek vengeance and if left to human nature surely war and violence would be embraced by everyone. Rather the harm we risk doing harms something far more precious that exists without us in the form of Gods saving grace.
How, when and under what circumstances is America at war justified?
How often do we hear about America being the greatest nation on earth? Just as ancient Israel, that conceit presupposes that America is on the moral high ground, not counting for the fact that Israel was chosen by God while America simply chose itself. To be sure we are on far higher ground than the terrorists but are we really operating from a moral base? Remember that when Israel waged war righteously she was protected but when her unrighteous behavior went unchecked she saw only defeat and ruin. How are we then greater than Gods chosen nation when it is so easy to look around and see our sins manifest and manifold in horrible abundance?
Human nature demands that we go “old-testament”, a common reference to holy conflict, but are we as a nation, as communities, as local churches or as individuals living lives of righteousness worthy of calling on Gods might? This was the hallmark of the old-testament way of War. To put it simply, we cannot invoke Abraham or Joshua or Gideon or David or Josiah and their success on the battlefield without also understanding that they lived righteous lives, doing gods will for God’s purposes. Under these godly men Israel saw victory and we should emulate them. But we should not ignore the lessons of the wicked Ahab who persecuted the Prophet Elijah and who “sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord”. Or Jeroboam whose wickedness resulted in judgement on the whole people. Are we to forget that “God will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and which he caused all Israel to commit”? Or what of Rehoboam whose sinful ways and pagan worship led to Israel’s plunder by Egypt
Are we better than the wicked rulers of Israel and the people who followed them? Are we greater than the Israelites who made the golden calf? Are we better than Ahaz who sacrificed his son to Moloch as we have sacrificed 55 million of our precious children at the altar of convenience and self- autonomy through abortion?
The Bible gives us many examples to learn from but too often Christians skim over the uncomfortable parts, assuming that America is a Christian nation and is somehow exempt from calls to righteousness. But we are to live for something finer than human nature and make no mistake, it was human nature these wicked rulers followed. It is this human nature liberals speak of as a reason for not sinking to the level of the terrorist, in effect protecting the very thing that leads us to ruin. But if we live to protect human nature then we have already fallen as low as the terrorist because we have forsaken Gods purpose for us.
When the Puritan father John Winthrop gave his famous City upon a Hill speech he was calling for his people to build a new city in the mirror of what Israel was at its most Godly and righteous. He may have been mistaken on many of his goals and his means but his heart I believe was in the right place. It was to be a beacon not of freedom and liberty for the sake of man, but of Godly virtue and that has been the mold of America save for the last 75 years as we have seen God has been stricken from the public sphere and faith isolated more and more to the narrow confines of a nebulous, shadow area removed from public view. There is still hope, we still have countless churches and people of faith but unless we realign ourselves immediately these too will fall away.
There are no easy answers and perhaps this is a good thing because it forces us to be prayerful, to engage in a deeper communion with the Lord and seek his guidance in these turbulent times just our ancestors once did, when prayer came out from the pulpit, from schools, from the halls of congress and in local communities from elected officials to humble farmers and workers. Are we today morally superior to our forebears? It is time we take Jeremiah to heart and stand at the crossroads and ask for the old paths. We may not find easy answers, but we will find the comforting presence of the Lord to walk with us as we navigate difficult decisions.