The Common Good
January 2008

A Call to Repentance

by Jim Wallis | January 2008

Christian support for the Iraq war raises the critical question: To whom do we belong?

To whom do we belong? This is really a question of worship, of baptism, and of fundamental Christian identity. It’s a critical question, because other identities—competing senses of belonging—are always tugging at Christians. Are we Christians first, as most believers would in principle agree that we should be, or are we first American, or middle-class, or white—or any other racial, economic, or national identity that would compete with our Christian identity?

When it comes to showing the world to whom we really belong, more and more Christians in America are starting to get it right. We are asking what God’s priorities are when it comes to the big moral issues of our time, and therefore what our priorities should be too, if we belong to God. More Christians are asking that question now and are

trying to change their posture in the world. They want to show, in their own personal and congregational lives, the kind of compassion that God has for people living in extreme poverty, afflicted with pandemic diseases, suffering the violations of their human rights, or being made victims of genocide. They want to show that they belong to their Creator by being concerned with God’s creation—our natural environment threatened with all sorts of dangers, from toxic waste to global warming. The fact that these concerns are growing among Christians around the world offers the real promise of re-establishing the identity of the Body of Christ as a global community of faith.

Because the Body of Christ is an international community, we are called to be Christians first and members of our tribes or nations second. Last fall, several World Vision leaders from Africa told me that simple assertion could change their churches and their countries. But then they noted the “tribal loyalty” that American Christians also seemed to have toward their own nation and its policies in the world—especially in regard to the war in Iraq, the threatened war with Iran, and the U.S. government’s behavior in its “war on terrorism.”

The Global Church and the American War
Support for U.S. wars and foreign policy is still the area where American Christians are most “conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2). This is our Achilles’ heel, our biggest blind spot, our least questioned allegiance, the worst compromise of our Christian identity, and the greatest failing of our Christian obedience.

We live in an increasingly globalized and interdependent world. Our prosperity and even our security are more and more tied to the health and economic well-being of the rest of the world. The Body of Christ is also global—when we think about a Christian in the world today, we should think about a woman living in a rural village in Nigeria or a child in a favela in Brazil—the majority of our sisters and brothers in Christ are now in the global South.

So what is “true security” in the world today?

My favorite prophet of national security is Micah, who says we will not “beat our swords into plowshares” (reduce violence and even terrorism) unless “all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,” where “no one shall make them afraid.” Our security therefore depends on more than military might, but on other people’s security, well-being, and a hope that replaces anger and fear. A world where half of the people live in extreme poverty is neither just nor secure.

We all lament the suffering and violence in Iraq. We mourn the 3,800 Americans who have lost their lives, the tens of thousands wounded in body and mind, and the unknown tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died.

Recent U.S. claims of modest security gains in certain sectors of Iraq do not justify extending the U.S occupation, especially when four years of occupation has not produced the political reconciliation necessary for real security and stability. The fragile security improvements are not sustainable without a political solution, which is simply not forthcoming. And without a clear path to political progress, we will simply see more of the same failed strategy and a scenario of American occupation in the midst of bloody sectarian warfare with absolutely no end in sight—and with a real prospect of compounding the tragedy by attacking Iran as well. The nation sorely needs political leadership to find the most responsible way to end the war in Iraq that protects as many lives as possible.

Both the teachings of Jesus (“blessed are the peacemakers,” “love your enemies”) and the rigorous criteria of the “just war” tradition clearly leave believers with at least a presumption against war. The ignominious origins and now-disputed rationales for the Iraq war, along with its enormous human cost, clearly put the burden of proof on the war’s supporters much more than its critics—that is, if we are to be Christians about all this, and not just American nationalists or neoconservative apologists for American hegemony in the world.

Since the Bible instructs us to be peacemakers and since Christians are to have a strong presumption against war, two things must be said: First, Christians should be among the hardest, not the easiest, to convince, and should require the highest burden of proof, before military force is used. And second, Christians should not delegate to any president or national government the decision about whether a war is just or not. That decision must be made by the collective discernment of God’s people, including the international Body of Christ.

Because of my work and transatlantic family ties, I travel extensively around the world, frequently talk to others who do, regularly read the international press, host international Christian leaders on a regular basis, and often attend international Christian gatherings. My experience convinces me that a vast majority of the world’s people—and the Body of Christ in particular—are steadfastly against the American war in Iraq and current U.S. foreign policy in general.

Even in the subset of born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Christians around the world, an overwhelming majority are against American policy in Iraq. Many Christians I’ve spoken to go further and say that America’s aggressive role in the world today has hurt the cause of Christ globally, especially when an American president dangerously conflates America’s role with God’s purposes.

So given the fact that the global Body of Christ disagrees with much of the American church on these issues, what can we conclude? Is the rest of the church just wrong? Do we have access to information that they don’t have? (Actually, they have much more access to information and different perspectives than most Americans have, which is a big part of the problem.)

Some on the American Christian Right are now calling for all-out war against “Islamofacism,” and recent presidential endorsements from the Religious Right even suggest that winning the “clash of civilizations” with Islamic fundamentalism is really another “life” issue, perhaps even a higher priority than their traditional concerns such as abortion. Shouldn’t it give us pause that virtually no other Christians or churches around the world take this position, finding it utterly appalling and contrary to the gospel of Christ? Do these militant Christian nationalists, who would again call us to war, know something that the rest of world Christianity does not? Even many Christians who live in or near Muslim countries, and sometimes suffer for their Christian identity, find the warlike theology of their aggressive American brothers and sisters very frightening.

Could it be that far too many American Christians are simply Americans first and Christians second? To say, “We are to be Christians first and members of a particular nation second” is more about our understanding of church than it is about our politics. That simple affirmation, if ever applied, would utterly transform the relationship of American Christians to the policies of their own government.

For all the vitriolic debate about politics in relationship to the war in Iraq, I think the real issue is our theology and ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature of church. Many U.S. Christians listened more to a version of American nationalism than they did to the Body of Christ. The two are now in conflict, and we must decide to whom we ultimately belong. That’s the real issue.

With the international Body of Christ, I believe that the pre-emptive and unilateral war in Iraq was not a war of last resort. In my most prayerful and prudential judgment, the war was one of choice and not of necessity. Before the invasion of Iraq, some people sincerely believed it could be a just war. But after five years of conflict, continuing war in Iraq cannot be reconciled with the standards of a just war—nor could the threatened U.S. military attack on Iran. Ending unjust wars, as well as preventing future wars, is an obligation of faith.

Sadly, I believe this war has undermined our best religious and national values and severely damaged America’s moral standing in the world. Even worse, international perceptions of American church support for the war have hurt the cause of Christ around the world.

I believe the world is still looking for American moral leadership, but not American domination. When I debated Richard Land at the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit last fall, I told him that I appreciated his caution to Christians that our patriotism and country must not become an idol. Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, has said we “must resist the temptation to perceive Americans as God’s chosen people and America as God’s chosen nation. … The argument that God has a special role for America to play in the world is a doctrine of obligation, responsibility, sacrifice, and service—not pride, privilege, and arrogance.”

A Time for Repentance
I’ve had several visits and phone calls lately from evangelical Christian leaders. In the privacy of personal conversations, they’ve told me they now believe they were wrong about the war in Iraq, and that the disastrous war policy of their nation and the president they supported have provoked a profound soul-searching in them. Many have specifically told me they feel a need to “repent” of their support for the war. They say that they believed their government too quickly and too easily, and in the future they vow to be much harder to convince to go to war.

The failure of the war policy to either bring democracy or to make us safer has prompted these Christian leaders to ask if war-making is the best way to achieve either security or stability. They are much more interested in how generous leadership to combat poverty and disease, for example, might be a more effective way to make friends in the world. Many of them are also more engaged now in talking to other church leaders from around the world and are more open to listening to the perspectives of others than they were before. They still take the reality of evil seriously, but they wonder if a primarily military response to evil is either the most effective or the most Christian approach.

Repentance means more than just being sorry. It means both admitting that the course you have been on is wrong and committing to begin walking in a new direction. That is the biblical meaning of “metanoia,” the New Testament word used for “repentance,” which comes from the root for the word “metamorphosis.” Repentance has to do with transformation, and that’s exactly what the American church needs to break out of its conformity to the American government’s foreign policy of fear and war. There is a better way. The global church feels it, and the world is hungry for it.

Given how important the issues of Iraq, Iran, and U.S. foreign policy will be in the 2008 elections, there is no better time than now for the American churches to offer words and acts of repentance for their misguided and misleading support for America’s mistakes. It’s finally time for the American churches to find their voice for Jesus’ way of peacemaking and to demonstrate—in matters of war, peace, and the critical area of conflict resolution—just who we belong to.

Nationalism doesn’t go well with the kingdom of God. The church is the international Body of Christ, and “God Bless America” is not found in the Bible. To take a global perspective on politics, to value other countries’ interests as much as our own, and, perhaps most critically, to count all the world’s children as important as our own—all will significantly alter our political views.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners and author of The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America (HarperOne, January 2008).

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)