Let’s Talk About War

As Christians we need to talk about war.

In the last century over 160 million people have died due to armed conflict, a vast majority of them were civilians. The June 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health notes that since the end of World War II the United States has launched over three-quarters of the armed conflicts that have taken place across the globe. Furthermore, the United States, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, accounts for 41% of the world’s total military spending, over 640 billion dollars in 2013 alone. The next closest is China, which spent under 190 billion. For American Christians, war is a prevalent- though, albeit- abstract reality. It is a machine churning in the undertones of our culture. And yet remains largely unattached to and removed from public conversation.

This has all come to a head over the last couple of weeks with the release and subsequent success of Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper. Eastwood’s blockbuster tells the story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle- the most lethal sniper in our history- and has broken box office records across the country. Some Christians openly praise the film, saying that Christians should at least support and appreciate the story, as part of our patriotic duty. Other Christians have had an abrasive reaction to the film, stating that it involves a type of hero worship- an idealization of violence- from which Christ-followers are commanded to separate.

As Christians, we must acknowledge that our faith addresses and speaks to the notion of war. Because the Christian message, the message of Jesus Christ, has more than theological significance. It is grounded, as was Christ himself, in a country which had a history of political turmoil leading up to and following Jesus’ life. Indeed, Jesus’ death on cross, while it also was profoundly theological, historical and personal, was also profoundly political. His death was an act of forced submission on the part of the occupying Roman, a punishment the Romans did not invent but certainly perfected as a means of humiliation and torturing anyone attempting to challenge the empire.

Thus I want to examine three views-positions, if you will- which Christians could hold, as a means of beginning the discussion. I want to try and outline- inasmuch as possible- the flaws and realities behind each. For I think it’s only with an established and understood paradigm that we can begin to ask the questions that must be asked about war.

In beginning this discussion, we must acknowledge the tension it present. The tension lies in our following of the Jesus who told his followers (ironically? metaphorically? literally?) “if you don’t have a sword, sell your clock and buy one” (Luke 22:36) but also commanded us (ironically? metaphorically? literally?) “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

1.) America as Israel

The first viewpoint that I want to examine is the belief that all war is necessary and, for the American Christian, all war is just. This would require believing that America is a just and God-honoring nation. Often this viewpoint is supported by declaring America to be the second Israel, a belief that has (if I may remove my gloves, so to speak, for one moment here) no solid exegetical grounding. But if one were to adopt this viewpoint, it would allow for the implication that whatever America takes on in the way of armed conflict is justified that American geo-politics carries out the will of God.

The easy counter to this position is that America does not prioritize the well-being of the weak and innocent across the globe as James 1 (as well as numerous teachings of Jesus) commands Christians must. Rather American politics have are driven by an agenda of promoting and protecting Western, Democratic styles of government. The modern American military and government is-in its own way- rather imperialistic. Probably in the sense Roman imperialism was also viewed. For if we read the Biblical text, not as a Westerner, but as a non-American living in the Middle East, we might easily read the narrative to be one of condemnation against the Roman/American state. Roman armies, after all, were hardly viewed as barbarous in their time but were viewed as the sophisticated, orderly and ultimately heroic perpetrators within its kingdom that fought for the betterment and protection of its citizens. An honest look at the correlations between Roman military code and modern American tactics -particularly with the release of the CIA torture report- is startling, to say the least.

It seems difficult, then, for a Christian to hold the viewpoint that all wars in which America is involved are justified and that Americans are justified in all their actions within any specific conflict. Of course, such a sweeping statement is a generality. America is, after all, part of the Geneva Convention. But such mandates are in and of themselves loopholes waiting to be discovered and overtaken by a more realistic “might-is-right” mode of politics, as the torture report unabashedly revealed. The victors write the history books, after all, and we Americans are no different. It is possible for a Christian to hold this view with some type of Biblical support. But- and this is my personal belief- for any American to utilize Biblical exegesis in support of this notion they must do so with a westernized reading which is blind to the realities within the Biblical narrative and thus rather dishonest, to say the least.

2. Just War Theory

The second position one could hold with regards to war is a belief in Just War Theory. In fact I would say this is the position which a majority of Christians have adopted. Just war Theory posits that there are certain requirements of an armed conflict that it must meet in order to be justified.

Just War Theory was not invented by Christians. Rather they adopted it from Greek and Roman ideals; as early as the fourth century BC Aristotle taught that war must be waged only for the promotion of higher virtues such as peace and prosperity. In Christian circles, this position was adopted and posited by first Ambrose and then Augustine. The church came to support the position and carried it through the Middle Ages and Crusades. One could now trace its influence to various streams of International Law, such as the Geneva Convention. Though modern laws are, for the most part, divorced from theological reflection, there has been a resurgence of Just War Theory discussion among Christians.

Under this theory, a war can only be waged if it meets a list of requirements. These requirements, briefly summarized, are:

  1. legitimate authority
  2. just cause
  3. right intent
  4. last resort
  5. reasonable chance of success
  6. discrimination or noncombatant immunity
  7. proportionality

A quick glance at the list shows that there are numerous subjective qualities to Just War Theory which make it ambiguous, to say the least. Is it necessary collateral for thousands of civilians to die in a “Shock and Awe” bombing of Iraq? Is it necessary or just for Hiroshima to be decimated by a nuclear warhead? What about the fire-bombing of Dresden? Does ‘right intent’ include nuclear weapons that are never found? Does ‘shock and awe’ count as proportionally appropriate?

Ultimately these questions boil down to one: who ultimately decides if a war is just? The victors? Civilians? A world council? The problem with this theory is clear, as Professor of Theological Ethics Dr. Daniel M. Bell states: “one would have to search long and hard to find a war whose supporters did not claim their cause was just.”

These are questions Christians must- and I think do– ask. But the difficulty with this position if we aim to hold to it with any sort of objective integrity is that no American conflict possibly since the Civil War and certainly since World War II could be considered remotely just. Nor is a medium of art that even remotely promotes and praises warfare- as American Sniper seems to do- one that can be supported or praised by Christians. Just War Theory allows for the reality of war, but condemns this reality at the same time. The crusaders, Dr. Bell notes, who went into combat under the order and blessing of the Pope, were still required to do penance.

Thus the strength of Just War Theory is that if offers a Biblically-grounded and practical position in which to view something as inevitable and horrid as war. Just War Theory acknowledges that yes, there will be war. But it also holds Christians to a higher standard than the rest of the world. It allows for the reality of our fallen nature while placing parameters- with Biblical support- on how that nature will be conducted. In this, I find Just War Theory to be very helpful.

That said, I think the ultimate weakness of the theory is that it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. There have been endless conflicts over the past century that have been supported and fought by Christians while not meeting most- sometimes all– of the requirements for a justified conflict. Furthermore, our culture withholds from condemnation of the horrors of warfare, a Biblical necessity. And if the success of American Sniper tells us anything, it shows that the pendulum swings the other way. Just walk into any youth group or men’s Bible study and ask them if they like the movie Braveheart. Violence is not deplorable, it’s a thrill. We’ve gravely mishandled the concept, to say the least.

3.) Christian Pacifism

The last ideology to take into consideration is that which holds all conflicts as unjustifiable for the Christian and claims that God calls his people to an ethic of non-violence. This has strong Biblical support from the teachings of Jesus who commanded love for enemies (Matthew 5:44), as well as being the historically understood ethic of the early church; Tertullian noted that Jesus “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. Paul commanded early believers to, as much as possible, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:8). It is difficult to take not take this verse as a proclamation of nonviolence among Christian communities. The Pacifist view is also supported with specific understandings Old Testament proclamations of the coming eschatological kingdom, a reign in which swords would be beaten into plough shares (Isaiah 2:4). Instruments of violence, Isaiah offers, will become instruments of civilization and community, instruments of human flourishing.

But the pacifist ethic is often refuted by point to God’s obvious implementation of violence throughout the Old Testament. Furthermore, Jesus did make passing references to violence and also commended the faith of the centurion, a man who’s profession and reputation was built on warfare (Matthew 8:11). And Paul frequently used military imagery (Ephesians 6:10-18).

What is equally unfair to the pacifist argument, in modern times, is that proponents of this view have adopted a rhetoric that is anything but meek or unimposing. In my (albeit limited) experience, many who stand in opposition to warfare often use an us-verse-them mentality in addressing their Christian. I mean this not in condemnation of all pacifists or Christians dedicated to nonviolence, only to say that I see a great amount of this conversation that takes place in such circles often has an (ironically) aggressive nature.

Such disservice to the pacifist argument is great indeed. For many modern Anabaptists implement a rhetoric that is entirely fundamentalist. They use blanket statements to condemn all acts of war, employing alienating terms against those who don’t agree. Whereas the fundamentalist would say “this is what the Bible literally says so you get with the program” their message is: “this is obviously what Jesus would do so you get with the program” Both are black-and-white perspectives on the topic at hand without any acknowledgement of the inevitable gray area in-between, particularly the reality not just of human nature but of Biblical interpretation itself.

What I’m saying is that the greatest objection to this view is in its presentation. Too often, the Christian pacifist movement shows itself to be fundamentalism by a different name. And this camp has been the primary mouthpiece of nonviolence ethics within contemporary Western thought. Again- this is just my observation and I’m hardly an academic, so I can’t comment on fields of higher education. Still, I find this to be a grave injustice. If Christian pacifism is to be considered, it must be presented, not as different words plugged into the same rhetoric and paradigm, but rather as an alternative paradigm altogether. What I mean by this is pacifism needs to be seen not as the black-and-white answer to “what would Jesus do?” (as I find it presumptuous for any of us to know exactly what Jesus would do in any number of situations). Rather, nonviolence needs to be adopted and preferred by Christians as a way of proclaiming Christ and his coming kingdom, which has already arrived in the world.

Christians ought not to adopt a mentality of convincing others to adopt our nonviolent ethic. Rather, if we are to be nonviolent it must be humble and founded within the Biblical narrative. Furthermore, it must speak to the realities of war while acknowledging the nuances of Biblical ethics but also the overarching and permeating reality of Christ and his kingdom. As Stanley Hauerwas stated:

“Christians are not called to non-violence because we think non-violence is a strategy to rid the world of war. Of course, we would like to make war less likely. But rather Christians are called to non-violence in a world of war because as faithful followers of Christ we cannot imagine being anything other than non-violent in a world of war.”

Thus the Christian should not be too adamant about declaring nonviolence in their words (for talk is cheap). But Christians should live it in their actions, actions, which-for the average American Christian- have much less to do with actual warfare itself and much more to do with how the discussion is engaged and handled. If we are going to hold this ethic then then I offer that this is the honest and effective way in which we can go about it. Lest our desire to promote Christ through peace become more of a Babel-ish excursion of liberal progressivism set on eliminating warfare to which end that violence and hero worship is not eradicated but only transferred to rhetoric.

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One thought on “Let’s Talk About War

  1. I like this post, very well thought-out. I’d say I line up with the second view, though I agree with you on its pros and cons. I also think that if you’re going to go to war, you need to steel yourself against a lot of “horrid” things, even if they’re truly necessary. You can’t go to war hoping for peace because that’s the exact opposite of what you’re doing. If you go to war, you must come to terms with what you must do and do them. If you can’t do that, if there’s any moral qualm at all, then don’t go to war. Naturally, an immoral person can hop that fence rather easily, but I still think it’s a good fence to have.

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