The Common Good

Mr. President, Please Count the Costs in Libya

I'm glad I'm not the president right now. I can't imagine what it would be like to be the commander and chief of the most powerful military in the world and have to grapple with a question as serious as, "Should I use my power to establish a no-fly zone over Libya?" Answer "no" to the question and half the world accuses you of indifference. Answer "yes" to the question and the other half will eventually get around to calling you an imperialist. The question of if, or when it's ever appropriate to use violence to rescue the innocent is a troubling one. It's the kind of moral dilemma that doesn't lend itself to easy answers. While I don't think that the Bible should be read as if it were a public policy manual, I do think it contains nuggets of wisdom that can guide us through our moral dilemmas, and sometimes those nuggets can be found in the most unlikely places, like in the Old Testament.

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Rewind: Elisha is sick and ready to die. Joash is the King of Israel. The Syrian army is a growing threat to Israel's security. Elisha tells Joash to take a bow and some arrows, open a window, and shoot, the arrows representing Elisha's command to strike the Syrians at Aphek until he destroys them. Elisha then tells Joash to take the arrows and strike the ground. Joash strikes the ground three times ... and Elisha is one ticked-off prophet. Why? Because according to Elisha, Joash should have struck five or six times; had he done that, then Joash would have been able to strike Syria until he destroyed it. From Elisha's perspective, if you're going to use force against an enemy, you should go all the way, not part of the way. The same holds true for Moses and Joshua who, at times, annihilated their enemies, sparing not even the women and the children, and for Samuel who had a thing or two to say to Saul for sparing King Agag. All of these men operated under the principle that if you're going to use force against an enemy, you have to see it through, otherwise the enemy may come back to bite you.

Back to the present: President Obama and the American people have a decision to make. We can choose the path of violence and fly our fighter jets over Libyan soil, but if we do that, are we prepared to go all the way? What happens if our actions provoke an even more violent response from Gaddafi and he goes on an even greater killing spree than what he's currently doing? Are we prepared to take it to the next level and invade another Muslim nation? Can we afford to do that while we're gutting our social safety net at home to pay for our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Even Jesus, the famous rabbi who said, "Love your enemies" said if a king decides to go to war against another king, he should consider whether or not he has the resources to win (Luke 14:31). In other words, he (or she) should count the cost.

Mr. President, I wish I had an easy answer for you. I know there are a lot of people pushing you for a more robust response to the situation in Libya. That has to weigh on you. The only thing I can come up with is if you're going to do it, then you have to commit to it ... or don't do it at all. Remember that violence almost always has unintended consequences.

Will you please count the cost?

portrait-aaron-taylorAaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with A Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. To learn more about Aaron's ministry, go to To follow Aaron on Twitter, go to Aaron can be contacted at

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