Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How Christians Ought to Talk About War (or In Defense of Systematic Theology)

My first substantive post on CIC covers something I'm tired of: anti-war Christians (a position I respect) defending their anti-war stance with the simple "Jesus said to turn the other cheek and love your neighbor" argument (and here I refer to people who are anti-war in principle, not just anti-Iraq-war specifically).

The most recent Relevant magazine has a pretty fascinating section where 8 or so prominent Christian thinkers (including Brian McLaren, N. T. Wright, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Chuck Colson, et. al.) give their thoughts on various issues in the church and culture. All frustrations with the fact that McLaren has never actually answered a question in his whole life aside ("Brian, do you want to eat at In-N-Out or Chipotle tonight, hunny?" "Dear, you're asking the wrong kind of question- we need to move above these polarizations and look at food in a more inclusive way; we need to form a dialogue between the Mexican and American cultures and the food they produce..."), many of the answers were relatively thoughtful, if a little Christian-culture-trendy. Even a couple of McLaren's "go above the question" answers had some insight that I had to be careful not to immaturely dismiss just because of who they came from.

That said, I was just shocked at how many of these folks wrote off war in a way that came off nothing short of shallow. I constantly read, "Jesus would not have gone to war. Jesus was about peace and love." And of course, they're not completely misreading Jesus- Jesus was (and is) about peace and love.

But then, so is the God who commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites. In fact, Phil. 4 calls that God the "God of Peace." And unless we deny the full deity of Christ and the unity of the Trinity (whether you want to restrict yourselves to those horrible canon-within-a-canon theological categories or not), then we must say that the Jesus who talked about loving your neighbor as yourself also talked about slaughtering the Canaanites. Come to think of it, didn't he get that "love your neighbor as yourself" business from Leviticus (you know, that book in the God-of-Canaanite-slaughter-authored Old Testament)?

My point is this: give Christian just war theorists a little credit. They read the Gospels too. They know what Jesus said about loving neighbors and turning the other cheek. I promise- they aren't skipping that part of the Bible. I am not even really arguing a position; I am arguing that we need to argue better.

So let me suggest a few principles that we need to address/keep in mind for this debate:

1. Don't just say, "Jesus was about self-sacrificial love, so war is wrong." This argument is totally oversimplified, and, as I've tried to say above, is bad systematic theology. Of course, I know systematic theology has fallen on hard times, but you have to reckon with the whole counsel of Scripture on this issue. There's just no way around that.

2. If you do use the "Jesus was about self-sacrificial love" argument, develop it better. Do not just say it and leave it at that. Christian pacifists certainly can appeal to Jesus to argue their point, but not if it is this simplistic. Be thoughtful.

3. Related to the first two, if you are a Christian pacifist, please explain the God-ordained slaughters of the Old Testament. Tell me what pacifism amounts to exactly (was every war in history necessarily evil, or is it only all war now that is necessarily evil?). Further, if you are a Christian just war theorist, tell me how I as a Christian could shoot someone who I am supposed to love and forgive unconditionally. There are difficult questions for both sides, and they should not be written off.

4. Don't start with the Iraq War- there are just too many ins and outs not related to just war theory itself. Start with the theory of a potential just war, attack or defend it, then apply those results and other thoughtful criteria to the Iraq War specifically.

5. Be gracious. This is true of any argument, but this is one of those that gets pretty charged. Just because someone believes in the possibility of a just war does not mean that he is a "shoot first and ask questions later" warhawk. Just because someone is a pacifist he is not necessarily a liberal sissy. Listen to each other.

6. Don't be a reactionary. It's cool to be a Christian Democrat now, probably large in part because people like questioning dominant assumptions. But do not just vote Democrat on an anti-war basis unless you can really honestly defend the position.

7. Don't be unthinking. It's easy to be a Christian Republican, probably large in part because it is the dominant assumption. But do not just vote Republican without thinking about having a consistent ethic of life.

Oh, and the systematic theology thing- I think that might partly be a pet peeve. But I do think this is a good example of a time where jettisoning systematics and "embracing tension" would make Christian ethical decision-making darn near impossible.


George said...

Great post. I too am frustrated with the current Christian debate over war.

I've posted a more lenghty commentary on my blog:

Thanks for bringing this issue to light!

Doctor Winters said...

I think that verses like Rom 13:3-4:  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you *will receive his approval,  for *he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, *an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.

and 1 Pet 2:13-14:  *Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution,* whether it be to the emperor* as supreme,  or to governors as sent by him *to punish those who do evil and *to praise those who do good.

----raise the possibility that relationships between individuals are different than relationships between nations. I should love those in my neighborhood who wrong me, but my government should have an army to protect its citizens.

I don't see anywhere in the NT where soldiers are told to leave the army after conversion.

Would it have been better to let Hitler win?

I also found it interesting that in the Garden, after 3 years with Jesus, Peter was still wearing a sword. Perhaps self-defense was still allowed even for apostles?

As a physician in the military I find this an important question, I'm not sure I have the answer though.....

Joanie D. said...

In Luke 22:36-38 we read, " He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."

The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."

"That is enough," he replied." (TNIV)

But then we also read in Matthew 26:52, "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (TNIV)

How do we resolve those passages?

I think Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples had swords as a means of defense. There is a saying: "One sword keeps another in its sheath." Jesus knew that he was going to be taken and killed, but he didn't want his disciples to get hurt.

And in the second passage I quoted, I think he is saying that we are not to be the initiators of violence. But do I think Jesus would have wanted us to stop Hitler even if it meant killing him and his followers? Yes, I do. Some other wars may be more difficult to call.

Joanie D.

Joshua Rieger said...

I may post more, later, but I think that the difficult context is not necessarily in looking to these verses that have been quoted, but to the larger context of the kingdom which we are now a part of. Under the Mosaic Covenant God's commands for war were directed to a particular nation state. Our kingdom is now heavenly. Most would agree, I think, that advancing the kingdom of heaven is a matter of missions and not war. I often struggle to justify many of the wars that I see around me when I think of 2 Cor. 518-21 and the fact that my ministry is a ministry of reconciliation, or that I'm an ambassador of God and not of the United States, Rome, or any other nation on earth. However, there comes a time, when it seems that even loving your neighbor requires a call to arms. I think specifically of the example of the covenanters at Dalry, who came to the aid of a man about to be killed by soldiers for his faith. Even many of the pacifists who I have talked to want to see something done in Rwanda, Darfur, or Kenya, right now. Sometimes defense of the defenseless seems to fit with loving your neighbor, but it seems to me that it's a matter of conscience where exactly the line is drawn.

Dr. Winters, the problems with your argument is that in the case of war those rulers are not using the sword on the people that they rule over, but on others, who have their own God given rulers, even if they seem tyrannical to us. It's easy to make the emotional argument in asking if it would have been better if Hitler had won, but does that mean that he was not a ruler put in place by God. It is certainly true that the church and many others would have come under greater persecution under Hitler, but God has often brought this to the church for its good and some of the best times for the kingdom of heaven have been times of persecution. I am like you, struggling with this as someone who just got out of the Navy after 7 years as an officer.

I would suggest that Baxter, in his Christian Directory on Christians in the military, or Rutherford's Lex Rex help one think through these issues.

Bryan said...

It's a complex issue, but but not impossible. Being Christian puts us in what would appear to the worldly to be an unfair position. We are to be the image of Christ for others to see, to the best of our fallible human ability. I'll get just war out of the way quickly by saying the only just wars were those in the Old Testament which fall under some pretty narrow guidelines. One of those being that in every case God personally delivered the command to go to war. I don't think that's happened in a very very long time. As far as self defense or the defense of others, I believe that Christians have a responsibility to respect and, when necessary, defend the negative rights of others against violations. This means Christians should not avail themselves of the benefits derived from the coercive theft called taxation except in cases where the government holds the monopoly on the good or service in question, leaving no practical alternative. For example, we homeschool our son. The Bible says that's our responsibility, plus I don't believe it's right to force someone else to pay for his education. I do, however, drive on the government's stolen roads. There's simply not a practical alternative.

We should value the human soul and care about its condition. If someone tries to do me harm and I retaliate, do my actions reflect those of Christ and bring that person closer to a relationship with Christ? What if he's not saved and in the act of defending myself, I take his life? I believe that defense of the rights of others is OK, but defending your own rights? The fact that individuals have rights at all is answered in the commandments not to steal, murder, etc. But what about Christian rights? (I'm going to rile a few here.) There should have come a time in the life of every Christian when he decided to give his life to Christ. That's unconditional and includes our earthly wealth to which we've been given stewardship, our actions, our hearts and minds. We are to throw off every selfish thing which might stand between ourselves and our relationship with Christ. We Christians don't like to think about it, but we have tons of idols hidden in our hearts. Our idols can be our selves, friends, earthly wealth, security, earthly governments, football, TV, and, (here it comes), our rights. I'm a huge advocate of respecting and defending the rights of others, but as for my rights? I gave them to Christ long ago.

This world will persecute us. There's no doubt about that, the Bible says it, so it's true. What's important in the eternal scheme of things is how we handle and react to that persecution. Do we reflect the actions of Christ or are our actions selfish in nature?

jazzact13 said...

I can think of three accounts given in the NT concerning soldiers--John the Baptist when some soldiers came to him, Jesus and the Centurion with the sick servant, and Peter preaching at Cornelius' house.

In none of those three instances are we told that the soldiers were commanded to leave the army, or not fight, or needed to repent of their work.

I think this extreme pacifism is something that they are reading into the NT and to Gospel, not something that is really there.

And to show my cynicism, I'm betting politics has something to do with it.

Norman Jeune III said...

Thanks for your comment jazzact13.

I see your point about the passages, but I have to admit, that I question your interpretation. I think it might have been beyond the scope of the passages for an injunction not to fight to be added.

In other words, the gospels are shaped by the writers to make certain theological points; they are not exhaustive historical accountings of particular events. I think that it simply would not have fit with the purpose of those passages for such an injunction. These passages deal with things like faith, Jesus' identity, etc.

And just so I'm clear, my opinion is not motivated by politics, but narrative interpretive method. All of this does not mean that I am necessarily against war in all scenarios, its just some of my thoughts about how we use the Bible to talk about the issue.

jazzact13 said...

I'm not sure I understand that, Mr. Jeune. If peace as defined by the pacifists was so important to Jesus' message, then such examples would have been ideal opportunities for Him and His followers to make their point--tell them to leave their swords and their military, say some things about the supposed evils of their work, and so on.

Instead, we have Jesus saying some pretty high things about the faith of a military man, and God sending Peter to a military man's house as a way of opening the Apostles up to the idea that salvation was for the Gentiles as well.

A lack of any criticism of their work, combined with some pretty high praise of the faith of the one man and the character of Cornelius, leads me to support the conclusion that there is no anti-military sentiment in the New Testament.

Matthew Wilcoxen said...

Hey jazzact13,

First of all, you are making what is typically called an "argument from silence." That is, since Jesus didn't say "no war" Jesus meant that war was cool in the right circumstances. That may or may not be the right conclusion, but you have reached it in a way that is illegitimate. Think of it this way: if I recall correctly Jesus ate with prostitutes. He didn't explicitly say to them that they should leave their prostitution. Does Jesus then mean that prostitution is okay? I think you'll see what I'm saying.

Second, you say that there "is no anti-military sentiment in the New Testament." I will simply refer you to passages that say things like "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." Or perhaps the injunction to love your enemies and bless them. Typically a bunker-buster bomb is not regarded as a blessing.

Anyways, that is just my two-cents.


jazzact13 said...

--First of all, you are making what is typically called an "argument from silence." That is, since Jesus didn't say "no war" Jesus meant that war was cool in the right circumstances. That may or may not be the right conclusion, but you have reached it in a way that is illegitimate.--

Interesting. I was thinking more that the pacifist-only position was the one using the "argument form silence", seeing as they can't find any direct condemnations of military people when the NT gives accounts of encounters with them.

--of it this way: if I recall correctly Jesus ate with prostitutes. He didn't explicitly say to them that they should leave their prostitution. Does Jesus then mean that prostitution is okay? I think you'll see what I'm saying.--

Then upon what basis are we to conclude that prostitution is not ok? By appealing to the OT and it's moral laws. And one thing the OT doesn't condemn, in fact it at times encourages, is military conflict.

--Second, you say that there "is no anti-military sentiment in the New Testament." I will simply refer you to passages that say things like "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."--

Which raises the question of whether "peacemakers" means only those of a pacifist mind.

--Or perhaps the injunction to love your enemies and bless them. Typically a bunker-buster bomb is not regarded as a blessing.--

Nor is calling people hypocrites and saying that their nation's temple is going to be torn down in the near future, but the Man said what you quote also said the other things.

Norman Jeune III said...

Thanks for your response to my comment jazzact13.

Perhaps I was not clear, but let me use your response to me illustrate the point.

First, you say--"I'm not sure I understand that, Mr. Jeune. If peace as defined by the pacifists was so important to Jesus' message, then such examples would have been ideal opportunities for Him and His followers to make their point--tell them to leave their swords and their military, say some things about the supposed evils of their work, and so on."

Admittedly, my original point begins in a somewhat abstract way. Just to be clear then, I am not first trying to deal with the pacifist definition of peace. What I want to do is begin by establishing an agreed upon point from which we use narrative interpretation because all of the argumentation pivots on how we use the Biblical text.

Your argument is primarily established by reading between the historical lines. Or to put it another way, rather than basing your argument simply on what the text explcitly does say, while also looking at how the passage fits into the gospel writers' larger theological thrust, and how that point is reinforced by the passage's literary and structural position with narrative framework, you read the passage in conjunction with historical supposition about what would have made sense for Jesus to do in this or that circumstance. My point is that we, as readers, do not have access to the original historical event. Therefore, supposition is not only speculative, but also move the reader away from the point that the gospel writer was trying to make.

The gospels are not comprehensive accountings of historical events surrounding Jesus, they are selected events in the life of Jesus to make a point about Jesus and the kingdom of God. Your suppositions may be reasonable or even right accountings of what happened, but the point is that we have no way of knowing, that historical supposition moves us beyond the Bible, and is largely irrelevant to the message presented in Scripture itself.

Consider John 21:24-25
"This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."

John even admits that not all details about Jesus is in the text. The gospels are primarily theological. This is not to say that what is recorded is not historical, but that it is a selection of historical events, not a tight chronological or exhaustive account. Thus, reading between the historical lines, in my opinion, is a dangerous approach to the biblical text.

jazzact13 said...

Luke 3:14 And soldiers also asked him, saying, And we, what must we do? And he (John the Baptist) said unto them, Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse [any one] wrongfully; and be content with your wages.

One thing that may be good to ask is, do the main people in the New Testament, such as John the Baptist, hold back much in call people out on their sins? In Matthew 3, John the Baptist comes down hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees, and later speaks out against Herod's immoral relationship with his brother's wife. One could also point to such accounts as Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, where he both gives her grace while also telling her to not do it again; Jesus and the woman at the well, where He faces her with her failed marriages and current immoral lifestyle; when the rich young ruler leaves Him because of his love for his riches; Jesus calls Peter Satan because he speaks against what is willed to happen.

If we accept this, can we accept that it is likely that if John thought being a soldier was an immoral occupation, or that doing the violent acts a soldier is often called upon to do are wrong, he would have said so, and that if the person recording and writing the Gospel account had thought so, a statement on that subject would have been recorded? Instead, he basically tells them to not abuse their powers and be contend with what they have earned.

I don't think that it is illegitimate to note what is said and what is not said. If in a situation where we may have an expectation that a rebuke or condemnation of soldiers and military but we are not given that, then I think we may take note of that. To say that John could have said something but that it wasn't recorded is not a sound argument, because that could be said for any idea or statement. We have these statement, and what they mean and don't mean.

We have John, and later Jesus and Peter, speaking to people within the military, and in none of those cases do we have a word spoken to or about them against what their work. Why should such a silence not be noted? Especially if there are people trying to teach that there is an anti-military element in the New Testament, such a silence on the subject I think is rightly noted.