The Common Good

Seven Burning Issues: 5. War

Date: May 1, 2008

As Christians in the midst of a nation at war, how do we respond?

Jim Wallis: Followers of the Prince of Peace should be the hardest to convince to go to war, never the easiest. We should require the highest measure of proof from our government that a particular war is "necessary and just," not the lowest. Final judgment over whether or not a war is just should never be left to governments. It should be left to the moral discernment of the global Body of Christ.

An overwhelming majority of American evangelicals supported President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, at rates even higher than the general population. For those who believe the Church is a global community—not just a holy huddle of U.S. citizens—this disconnect should be deeply alarming. What do American Christians understand that the broader Body of Christ doesn’t?

The real problem here is the cultural captivity of the Church in America. Most American Christians are Americans first and Christians second. National identity trumps commitment to Jesus time and time again. When American Christians show a moral preference for war as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, they have not discerned the true meaning of the Gospel. They’re blinded by nationalism, rather than having their eyes fixed on the Prince of Peace.

Jesus calls peacemakers "blessed" and demands His followers love their enemies. This means Christians must have a strong presumption against war. These aren’t nice ideas; they are discipleship mandates.

N.T. Wright: Over the last 10 years, we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic—and I associate the British decisions with the American decisions on this—a kind of naïve optimism that if only we can do a bit of sensible, redemptive violence like dropping bombs on a few people here and there, then we can actually rid the world of evil. Some of the leaders of America and Britain over the last 10 years have spoken quite openly about getting rid of evil and doing so by means of violence. That seems to me extraordinarily lacking in historical awareness, theological substance and just sheer human wisdom. You must have a Christian vision, which has to have its feet on the ground, but at the same time we need to address some of the sharp edges of our present questions with our political eyes and ears open.

Brian McLaren: I wish more people in America were concerned about this question. People are pretty hunkered down in their positions—the vast majority favoring war as an acceptable option, and a small but growing minority either committed to pacifism or growing more suspicious about war. We need to move to higher ground, and move from binary yes-no questions like, Are you for or against pacifism? to questions that force people to think more deeply. Questions such as: Knowing that America is the richest and most powerful nation in history, what special concerns should we have about how our nation uses its power? What does Jesus say about power and how it should be used? Would we like to give [our children] a world where our nation has gone to war and killed thousands or millions of Muslims in an effort to increase our own security?

All of this is very important because it forces us to go back and read the Bible in fresh ways. The Bible will challenge us if we read it outside the conceptual cages in which we’ve domesticated it. For example, what does it mean to have Jesus tell us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us? What does it mean to have Jesus say, not "Blessed are the well-armed," but "Blessed are the peacemakers"?

Nancy Ortberg: I think individual responses and national responses can be different. Given the world we live in, sometimes there are nations that are oppressing people, and I certainly think there are ways in which we can, with great integrity, intercept those countries.

How do we as a Church become communities in our nation that really advocate for peace? I don’t see a lot of churches doing things that make me think, or give me a lot of hope that the Church could be a force for peace in the country. How do we engage our nation in understanding what peaceful reactions and peaceful responses are?

Steve Brown: I’m attracted to pacifism, and that is primarily because of Jesus. However, I do not believe in moral equivalency. For instance, Churchill and Hitler were both sinners, of course, but to be so blind as to miss the difference is shallow. In a dark world there is real evil and real good even if both are tainted with the other. In this kind of world, there is a necessity for hard choices and, therefore, the necessity for police, courts and armies. I have a biblical and moral obligation to protect the innocent, those who can’t protect themselves and my family, and to do that by whatever means are necessary.

Now, when one gets into the specifics of which war to fight, how to go about obtaining justice, what kind of force should be used and how in particular one should protect the innocent, the way gets kind of muddy. I sometimes fear that Christians (both pacifist Christians and "kill the enemy for Jesus" Christians) have never taken the time to go through the complexity.

Shane Claiborne: I’ve had a journey into this question because my dad was in Vietnam and I organized the Bush/Quayle campaign in 1992 in east Tennessee. I’ve had a growing suspicion and sort of conflict with my allegiance within the nation we’re living in and within the Kingdom of God.

It’s unmistakable to me, when I look at the cross, what love looks like when it stares you in the face and says, "Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing." Now the Sermon on the Mount may not look like the best way to lead the biggest superpower in the world and the biggest military—maybe that should tell us something.

I get letters and calls from soldiers who are in Iraq right now, soldiers who are returning—and they feel deeply conflicted. Over and over they’re saying, "I feel like I’m trying to serve two masters, the cross and the sword, and my arms are not big enough to carry both of those." And I think it was CBS that released the survey that there are 17 suicides a day of veterans—17 a day.

When I was over in Iraq it became very clear that it wasn’t just the reputation of America that was at stake, but it was the reputation of Christianity and what it means to follow after Jesus. Folks are seeing all kinds of things that are evoking the name of Christ and God’s blessing, but they just don’t look like Jesus or feel like Jesus.

Cindy Jacobs: This seems to pose the question of whether or not we should be pacifists as Christians. Sometimes one has to go to war to make peace. Ask the veterans of World War II when they battled against the evil tide of Hitler’s regime. The Bible clearly states there is a time for war and a time for peace.

Chuck Colson: I don’t have any difficulty reconciling Jesus’ message of peace in a nation in which Christians—informed by the just war tradition—support the use of force against radical Islamofascism. I don’t know any Christian who is against peace.

But even a cursory examination of human history tells us that the human condition is bent toward evil, that war has been tragically the more common condition than peace. We live in a fallen world, which is why Augustine first formulated what is known as the "just war doctrine." Thomas Aquinas was perhaps the most articulate on this when he included the just war doctrine under the section in Summa Theologica on love. He considered it a supreme act of charity to give one’s life in defense of innocent civilians. I agree with Aquinas.