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.


Who Said It: Adolf Hitler Or An American in Defense of Torture?


Last week, I lost my ability to say ‘I’m proud to be an American.’

I’ll have you, there are many wonderful things about America, aspects of this nation, for which I am incredibly thankful. But if the mutation of justice surrounding Eric Garner’s death weren’t enough, then the CIA torture report finished off what little pride I place in my citizenship.

By way of contextualization and self-disclosure, allow me to say the following: first off: I am a third-generation military officer. I am also a pacifist (I serve in the medical corps). Which is to say that nothing I’m about to write is intended as a general condemnation of those serving in the military, who believe that violence used in protecting our nation is an honorable and necessary pursuit. Though I may disagree, I still respect and admire these men and women who bravely put on the uniform.

Secondly, I remember 9/11 vividly- who doesn’t? I remember the footage of people jumping from the towers; I remember something deep within me twisting into a knot; I remember thinking how possible it was that I could have been in that tower, that someone I loved could be the one jumping to avoid unspeakable horrors from within. And I remember thinking no one should ever have to go through pain like that. Ever.

That said: last week, I thought the exact same thing as I read the Senate’s CIA torture report; no one should ever have to go through pain like that.

And yet the startling fact remains: few people seem to truly care about this report. A poll from the Pew Research Center run after the report’s release last week shows only 29% of Americans think the CIA’s interrogation methods were “not justified.” And this isn’t a partisan problem; the report notes that “even Democrats are pretty split on the justification for the program”- less than half say it wasn’t justified.

What’s truly disconcerting is how un-startling this is to a majority of Christians. Another Pew Poll  found that among white evangelical Protestants only 16% said torture can never be justified, while 44% said it sometimes can be justified. Among those who attend church services on a weekly basis, over 50% said that “torture against a suspected terrorist in order to gain important information” is sometimes/often justified.

The reasoning for this is simple: we care more about our safety than we do about embracing Christ’s call to self-abandonment and love for our enemies. And with our values prioritized as such, American Christians have been convinced that a “war on terror” is necessary, justified and even godly. Take this quote from Joe Carter, writer for the Gospel Coalition:

“We must never hesitate to defend our culture, our future, and our lives against those who seek to destroy us. The liberal cosmopolitan elite appeal to tolerance and understanding in the face of such an enemy is suicidal.”

My concern with this is that the majority of Christians hardly bat an eye at these things. We readily point out that the majority of us are neither witnesses to nor directly implicated in the torture outlined in the Senate report. Inasmuch, we choose to view the report less as a moral red flag and more as a partisan motivated political tactic. And shouldn’t Christians be more concerned about things like gay marriage?

To this line of logic, I’d like to point out two things: first: we should remember that there’s a group of people recorded in the Bible who approved of torture but otherwise led upstanding and morally flawless lives: they’re the Pharisees and Jewish high court, the religious leaders who had Jesus (tortured and) killed.

Secondly, this is not the first time in history that Christian rhetoric has been utilized and implemented as the foundation for egregious, systematic evil under the guise of national security, nor is it the first time for such actions to be met with half-hearted apathy or turning of a blind eye by the general public. This has happened numerous places, but most poignantly in Nazi Germany.

To make this point, I’ve compiled a handful of quotations. The list consist of quotations from Adolf Hitler interspersed between several justifications for the use of torture presented in light of last week’s report. Please understand: I intend none of this as a partisan attack on any specific party or person. Furthermore, I understand there is not a direct correlation, but there is a correlation nonetheless. And that should be disconcerting enough for us.

In testimony to such, take a moment to read these and see if you can properly assign an author to each quote:

  1. “Think thousand times before taking a decision. But – after taking decision never turn back even if you get thousand difficulties.”
  2. “They have absolutely no legal rights that they can claim anywhere. So whatever treatment we give them, if there is any mercy involved in it, they have no right to that; that is simply because we are a merciful people who are driven by Christian principles.”
  3. “As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.”
  4. “It is morally correct to protect innocent lives from barbarians…. It’s not theory it’s reality. We are a nation of laws, but we are involved in a brutal on-going war.”
  5. “If I were (in charge, they) would know that water boarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
  6. “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers…summoned men to fight …and who, God’s truth, was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.”
  7. “I know what they were asked to do and I know what they did. And I’m perfectly comfortable that they deserve our praise. They deserve to be decorated. They don’t deserve to be harassed. No pardon needed. No crime was committed.”
  8. • “It matters not whether these weapons of ours are humane: if they gain us our freedom, they are justified before our conscience and before our God.”
  9. “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.”
  10.  “I’d do it again in a minute.”

Now here are the authors of the above quotations, in subsequent order:

  1.  Adolf Hitler; Mein Kempf
  2.  Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association
  3. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
  4. Bill O’Reilly, Political Commentator on Fox News Channel
  5. Sarah Palin, addressing the NRA annual convention
  6. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
  7. Dick Cheney, in reference to the CIA operatives who executed torturous interrogation techniques
  8. Hitler’s Speech in Munich, August 1923
  9. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
  10.  Dick Cheney in an interview with NBC News

In his book Ordinary Men, historian Christopher Browning studies the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, a battalion of mostly civilian soldiers in Germany who were tasked with the implementation of the “Final Solution” in Poland, the systematic execution of thousands of Jewish citizens.  The Reserve Police Battalion 101 consisted of nearly 500 men, most of which were in their 30’s and 40’s making them too old for conscription. A minority of them were members of the Nazi Party, a sparse few belonged to the SS. But for the most part they were businessmen, dockworkers, truck drivers, construction workers, waiters, pharmacists, and school teachers. They were, as Walter Reich puts it: “truly ordinary men.”

As ordinary citizens, they were instructed by their leaders that the extermination of Jews was an on-going and necessary action for the safety, protection and sustainment of their great nation. Following which, Browning describes the methods by which these men assembled, transported and shot thousands of Jewish women, children, infants and elderly citizens (all Jewish men capable of labor were separated and shipped off to work camps). Ordinary citizens, from a population of Christian majority, learned how to properly set the muzzle of their rifles at the base of a child’s neck and pull the trigger, day after day, victim after victim. All members of the battalion were allowed to opt out of executions if necessary; but Browning cites disturbing first hand accounts saying that very few of them took leave.

Perhaps, you might say, this tangent is hardly relative. The torture listed in the CIA report was not my fault; it was the product of someone who was a trained killer working against terrorists, national threats. A few innocent men might have died in the process, but I had nothing to do with that.

And this is true: you didn’t pull any trigger, didn’t waterboard anyone. But if we, as Christians, adhere to the kind of logic necessary to approve or become apathetic to the possibility of our government using tactics such as those listed in the report, then we are being naive to think that we, given the right motivation, couldn’t also become killers.

And that, I would suggest, is something to consider very deeply. For as Browning states in his closing line:

“If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group (of us) cannot?”

Violence Isn’t The Only Solution To the Iraqi Genocide

ISIS executes members of the Iraqi National Army. Photo from CNN.com

During the Winter War of 1939 & 1940, the entire Finnish population of Karelia, some 422,000, people were evacuated to avoid potential civilian slaughter. In May and June of 1940, Operation Dynamo removed 339,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk, France, shuffling them across the English channel before they were annihilated by oncoming German tanks.

More recently, from August to October of 1990, Air India found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people evacuated by a civilian airliner. They removed over 111,000 people from Amman to Mumbai via 488 flights over a span of 59 days. In 1999, the Kosovo War resulted in 800,000 refugees sweeping into other parts of Europe and even Israel, where locals opened up their homes and took them in. 

Right now, there’s approximately 40,000 Iraqi civilians facing dire circumstances at the hands of ISIS. The above examples are just a few of the many which prove that humanity is capable much larger evacuations than what it would take to prevent a genocide in Iraq. And yet, America has chosen to continue with it’s standard operating procedure which entails bombing the enemies and dropping a few humanitarian supplies.

And if you take a sweeping glance through social media, you’ll see insurmountable support for the use of violent intervention and the belief that more killing is the only solution to saving the scores of civilians fleeing the wrath of ISIS:

“Kill ISIS!”

“They deserve to be slaughtered like pigs!”

“They (ISIS) need to be fought…with great abandon.” 

But violence is not the answer. It shouldn’t be and it can’t be.


Or have we forgotten the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr?

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

How about Mahatma Gandhi?

“Permanent good can never be the outcome of untruth and violence.”

“There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.” - Mahatma Gandhi
“There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.” – Mahatma Gandhi


Or what of Jesus Christ?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven'” (Matt. 5:43-45)

How about Paul? And the Levitical law?

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:18-19, cf. Duet. 32:35)

Have we forgotten that those who live by the sword will die by the sword? And are we unaware that, in a cruel twist of irony it is often innocent civilians who will die as a casualty as well?

Have we forgotten?

Violence as a solution to violence is like pouring dirty water into a wound in an attempt to prevent infection; it may seem like we’ve accomplished something, but really we’ve made the problem infinitely worse.

After all, as Benjamin Corey and numerous others have pointed out it was the United States’ implementation of violence that put Iraqi Christians in this situation to begin with. When we invaded Iraq and disposed of Saddam Hussein, we created a power vacuum in a dangerously unstable area of the globe. The chaos and frustration the United States experienced when trying to stabilize Iraq were red flags to the endless problems that would await the struggling government upon our withdrawal. History textbooks do not leave one much to hope for what occurs violence precedes power vacuums in unstable areas (do I need to bring up World War I followed by the economic instability of the 1920’s in Europe?). Years before the last Yankee boot left Iraqi soil, shadows of what would follow appeared in reports that conditions for Christians in the country had significantly worsened with the instability brought on by the war. 

And yet, here we are again, calling wrath upon our enemies and refusing to believe that there’s any solution other than violence.

But why isn’t evacuation an option?

Look, I get it. I know it’s not as easy as landing a Boeing 747, opening the door and asking everyone to get in a line according to seat number. Evacuations are difficult, they cost money, they take time and there is a risk that violence might be involved. Plus, where would we take all the refugees? Heaven knows, Americans don’t really like immigrants.

It’d be a messy situation. But don’t pretend dropping bombs isn’t just as messy, just as expensive and just as hazardous. The difference is we don’t deal with the effects of bombs dropping half a world away; our hands don’t get dirty. But if we evacuate refugees to our country, they might.

And that’s my real issue with this whole dilemma. Excuse me for being cynical, but I have to wonder if we actually care about what’s happening to these people, if we actually care enough to find a solution that doesn’t involve the quick and easy ‘kill’ button.

Because, as it stands, we don’t care enough to follow Christ’s command and pray for our enemies, to demand that our government sends our tax dollars towards an something better than just dropping bombs. We don’t care enough to support something like an evacuation, enough to be willing to open up our homes, our towns, and our cities in order to house these people in our own country. The atrocity is on the other side of the world and as long as we drop bombs and take names to lift up in our Sunday morning prayer hour, then that’s where it will stay. Only God, after all, can judge the dead. But we’d actually have to house the living if we evacuated them.

Violence towards ISIS isn’t the only solution to what’s happening in Iraq. We are not helpless save for the option of directing our missiles and hate towards ISIS. There are other options, better options, options that involve praying for the people we really wish were dead, opening up our homes to refugees, opening up our minds to the possibility of taking these people into our country. There are options that involve dropping our weapons and thinking of creative ways in which we might help those in need without more bloodshed and more killing. Things like this has been done numerous times before, so why not now?

There are solutions to the Iraqi genocide that don’t involve violence, solutions that honor Christ.

It’s time we start considering them. It’s time we start caring like Christians.

This past week, the United States started making humanitarian air drops of food and water to refugees stranded in northern regions of Iraq. Photo from NBC.com
This past week, the United States started making humanitarian air drops of food and water to refugees stranded in northern regions of Iraq. Photo from NBC.com