Christianity and War
Christianity and War
by Laurence M. Vance
I would like to speak to you tonight about Christianity and War. I intend to make some harsh statements about religious people, perhaps even some provocative and incendiary statements. People that don’t know anything about me might even be inclined to think that my remarks are an attack on Christianity. True, I have spoken or written negative things about every religion, sect, and Christian denomination—including my own, but I speak to you as a Bible-believing Christian, and a theological and cultural conservative. I will put my conservative Christian credentials up against anyone. I think I know Christianity and Christians as well as anyone in and out of this room. So, please understand that it is not Christianity I am criticizing; it is Christians who, by their persistent support for war, the warfare state, the military, and the Republican Party, are giving Christianity a bad name.
Although I write extensively about the biblical, economic, and political fallacies of religious people, the subject of Christianity and war calls for special attention. This is a subject where ignorance abounds in both pulpit and pew, and most of it willful ignorance. This is a subject that exposes Bible scholars as Bible illiterates. This is a subject that turns Christians into disgraceful apologists of the state, its leaders, its military, and its wars. This is a subject that reveals pro-life Christians to be two-faced supporters of wholesale murder. This is a subject that turns otherwise godly, conservative Christians into babbling idiots.
And speaking of babbling idiots, George Bush—who thinks Muslims and Christians worship the same God—acknowledged in December of 2005 that most of the intelligence on Iraq “turned out to be wrong,” but then said that even knowing that he would “make the decision again.” That decision by the war criminal in chief to launch a “crusade,” go on a “great mission,” and do “the Lord’s work” to “rid the world of evil” has sent 5,000 duped American soldiers to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Bush is not alone. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Mattis stated: “It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up front with you, I like brawling.” The problem with this is not so much what the general said, but that he was defended in the conservative Christian magazine World by Gene Veith. We should appraise Mattis’s attitude “from a Christian point of view,” said Veith, who then concluded that “as in other vocations, so in the military, there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s work.” But if this is the case then a Christian should find another line of work. In defending the Iraq war, Jerry Falwell claimed that “God is pro-war.” What he really meant, of course, was that God is pro-American wars. Pat Boone maintains that “more 9-11s are gonna happen unless we try to take the battle to them on their turf instead of letting ‘em bring it to us on ours.” If this is true then what is the United States Army doing in Iraq? I thought most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis? Pat Robertson has not only advocated that the United States assassinate the leader of a foreign country, he also insisted that the Iraq war was being fought on Christian principles. If what the U.S. military did to Fallujah is based on any Christian principle then I have the wrong religion. Focus on the Family president James Dobson, after equating Saddam Hussein with Stalin and Hitler, said that America entered Iraq “as a liberator—not as a conqueror.” Tell that to an Iraqi mother who just had her child blown up by a U.S. bomb. I have had Christians write and tell me that the war in Iraq is just because ancient Israel was commanded by God to wage war against the heathen nations. Well, I’ve got news for these Christians: The president of the United States is not God, America is not the nation of Israel, and the U.S. military is not the Lord’s army.
If there is any group of people that should be opposed to war, torture, militarism, the warfare state, state worship, suppression of civil liberties, an imperial presidency, blind nationalism, government propaganda, and an aggressive foreign policy it is Christians, and especially conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians who claim to strictly follow the dictates of Scripture and worship the Prince of Peace. It is indeed strange that Christian people should be so accepting of war. War is the greatest suppressor of civil liberties. War is the greatest destroyer of religion, morality, and decency. War is the greatest creator of fertile ground for genocides and atrocities. War is the greatest destroyer of families and young lives. War is the greatest creator of famine, disease, and homelessness. War is the health of the state.
But Christianity is in a sad state. There is an unholy desire on the part of a great many Christians to legitimize killing in war. There persists the idea among too many Christians that mass killing in war is acceptable, but the killing of one’s neighbor violates the sixth commandment’s prohibition against killing. Christians who wouldn’t think of using the Lord’s name in vain blaspheme God when they make ridiculous statements like “God is pro-war.” Christians who try never to lie do so with boldness when they claim they are pro-life, but refuse to extend their pro-life sentiments to foreigners already out of the womb. Christians who abhor idols are guilty of idolatry when they say that we should follow the latest dictates of the state because we should always “obey the powers that be.” Christians who venerate the Bible handle the word of God deceitfully when they quote Scripture to defend the latest U.S. military action. Christians who claim to be dispensationalists wrongly divide the word of truth when they appeal to the Old Testament to justify U.S. government wars. Christians who claim to have the mind of Christ show that they have lost their mind when they want the full force of government to protect a stem cell, but have no conscience about U.S. soldiers killing for the government.
Much of the blame for Christian support for war must be laid at the feet of the pastors who have failed to discern the truth themselves so they can educate their congregations. They are blind leaders of the blind. It is tragic that many so-called Christian “leaders” moonlight as apologists for the Republican Party. Too many pastors are cheerleaders for war, bloodshed, death, and destruction; since, after all, Iraqis and Afghans are all just a bunch of dumb ragheads, Muslim heathens, or incorrigible terrorists. We hear more from the pulpit today justifying American military intervention throughout the world than we do about the need for missionaries to go into all the world. Our churches have supplied more soldiers to the Middle East than missionaries. It is appalling that instead of the next military adventure of the U.S. government being denounced from every pulpit in the land, it will be conservative preachers who can be counted on to defend it.
To compound all of this, many of the church and denominational leaders who don’t follow the Republican Party line are strangely silent. Not a word about the immorality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not a word about U.S. imperialism. Not a word about the U.S. empire of troops and bases that encircles the globe. Not a word about the lies of the U.S. government. Not a word about Christians naïvely supporting the latest U.S. government pronouncement. Not a word about the CIA and the military being no place for a Christian young person. Not even a mild word of warning about the evils of the U.S. government. I don’t buy the excuse that these Christian leaders are merely preaching and teaching the Bible and choosing not to dabble in politics. They are not silent about the evils of abortion and homosexuality, yet they are silent about the evils of war.
If there is any group within Christianity that should be the most consistent, the most vocal, the most persistent, and the most scriptural in its opposition to war and the warfare state, it is conservative Christians who look to the Bible as their sole authority. Yet, never at any time in history have so many of these Christians held such unholy opinions. The association they have with the Republican Party is unholy. The admiration they have for the military is unholy.
The indifference they have toward war is unholy. The callous attitude they have toward killing foreigners is unholy. The idolatry they manifest toward the state is unholy.
The result of Christian support for war reminds me of a story in the Old Testament about two sons of the patriarch Jacob. In order to avenge the rape of their sister by some foreigners, the sons of Jacob told their leader that if his people consented to be circumcised, then both groups of people could intermarry and the rapist could have their sister to wife. However, after all the foreigners were circumcised, when they were sore, two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, came and slew all the men who were incapacitated and spoiled their city. When their father Jacob heard about this, he told his sons: “Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land.”
Christian warmongers have made Christians to stink among the non-Christian inhabitants of the United States. They have also given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. After six years of the senseless war in Iraq, some of the war’s greatest defenders continue to be Christians. Sure, overall Christian support for the war has declined. Unfortunately, however, it is generally not out of a principled opposition to war and the warfare state, but only because the war didn’t turn out as planned, the war is taking too long, the war has been mismanaged, the war is costing too much, or the war has resulted in too many dead and wounded American troops. The morality of going to war in the first place, as well as the number of dead and wounded Iraqis, is of absolutely no concern to most Christian Americans. Such has always been the case, just substitute for Iraqis Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, or any other group that has had an encounter with the U.S. military. Every dead American solider is, of course, a hero, at least that’s what monuments for dead soldiers tell us. We romanticize the dead soldier who gave his life for his country even though that is the opposite of what he was trained to do. Soldiers were not trained to die, but to kill as many of the enemy as possible and remain alive while doing so.
Christians who call for U.S. air strikes on some uncooperative Iraqi or Afghan village, like the disciples who wanted to command fire to come down from heaven and consume a village of the Samaritans, know not what spirit they are of. It is certainly not the Holy Spirit. Christian pulpits all across this land are dripping with blood, and it is not the blood of Christ. Support for the open-ended war on terror among Christians remains so pervasive that I’m inclined to agree with Mark Twain in saying that “if Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be - a Christian.” I’m sorry to say that blind acceptance of government propaganda, willful ignorance of U.S. foreign policy, and childish devotion to the military is the norm among the majority of conservative Christians instead of the exception.
Many Christians have a warped view of what it means to be pro-life. Why is it that foreigners don’t have the same right to life as unborn American babies? There should be no difference between being for abortion and for war. Both result in the death of innocents. Both are unnecessary. Both cause psychological harm to the one who signs a consent form or fires a weapon. Why is it that to many Christians an American doctor in a white coat is considered a murderer if he kills an unborn baby, but an American soldier in a uniform is consid ered a hero if he kills an adult? James asks: “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” And says: “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” Back on Sunday, January 18, many churches observed Sanctity of Human Life Day. I wonder how many preachers took the opportunity to mention the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis in an unjust war instigated by the United States? We need ministers who are as concerned about killing on the battlefield as they are about killing in the womb.
Americans who are not Christians but likewise cherish our constitutional freedoms should be very concerned about the Christian attitude toward war. An overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, as do members of the military and Congress. If Christians at all levels of society were to withdraw their support for the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the military, the war in Iraq would end tomorrow, the war on terror would be suspended, and the military would no longer receive a steady supply of cannon fodder from churches and Christian colleges. What a shame that many non-Christians have a moral code higher than that of many Christians. Non-Christian Americans should know that Christian enthusiasm for war and the warfare state is a perversion of Christianity, an affront to the Saviour whom Christians worship as the Prince of Peace, a violation of Scripture, contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, and an unfortunate demonstration of the profound ignorance many Christians have of history and their own Bible. God only knows how many non-Christians have been driven from Christianity because of Christian indifference toward or outright support of war.
The early Christians were not warmongers like so many Christians today. They did not idolize the Caesars like some Christians do Republican presidents. They did not make apologies for the Roman Empire like many Christians do for the U.S. Empire. They did not venerate the institution of the military like most Christians do today. They did not participate in the state’s wars like too many Christians do today. If there was anything at all advocated by the early Christians it was peace and nonviolence. After all, they had some New Testament admonitions to go by:
Blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)
Live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18)
Seek peace and ensue it (1 Peter 3:11)
Follow peace with all men (Hebrews 12:14)
The Church Father Justin Martyr described the peaceful nature of the early Christians: “We who hated and slew one another, and because of differences in customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate us unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same reward from the God who is Master of all.”
Not only did the early Christians, following the example of the Lord himself, refuse to advance their ideals by political or coercive means, they condemned war in the abstract and did not participate in the state’s wars. The Church Father Lactantius describes Christians as “those who are ignorant of wars, who preserve concord with all, who are friends even to their enemies, who love all men as brothers, who know how to curb anger and soften with quiet moderation every madness of the mind.” According to John Cadoux, the author of the definitive investigation of the early Christian attitude toward war and military service: “The early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcations of gentleness and non-resistance in their literal sense. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which fore told the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their policy to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.”
Aggression, violence, and bloodshed are contrary to the very nature of Christianity. True, the Bible on several occasions likens a Christian to a soldier. As soldiers, Christians are admonished to “put on the whole armor of God.” The Apostle Paul, who himself said: “I have fought a good fight,” told a young minister to “war a good warfare.” But the Christian soldier in the Bible fights against sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil. He wears “the breastplate of righteousness” and “the helmet of salvation.” The weapons of the Christian are not carnal: his shield is “the shield of faith” and his sword is “the word of God.” The New Testament admonishes Christians to not avenge themselves, to do good to all men, to not render evil for evil, and to overcome evil with good. There is nothing in the New Testament from which to draw the conclusion that killing is somehow sanctified if it is done in the name of the state. As explained by the famed nineteenth-century British Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon: “The Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army; yet its Captain is the Prince of Peace; its object is the establishment of peace, and its soldiers are men of a peaceful disposition. The spirit of war is at the extremely opposite point to the spirit of the gospel.”
Unlike many Christians today who proudly serve in Caesar’s army, the early Christians were critical of the Roman Empire and military service. Instead of being willing to die for the emperor and his empire, Christians declared “Jesus Is Lord” in direct opposition to Roman imperial claims. The aforementioned Lactantius said of the Romans of his day: “If any one has slain a single man, he is regarded as contaminated and wicked, nor do they think it right that he should be admitted to this earthly dwelling of the gods. But he who has slaughtered endless thousands of men, deluged the fields with blood, and infected rivers with it, is admitted not only to a temple, but even to heaven.” The Church Father Augustine illustrated the folly of this idea by recounting the story of the reply given to Alexander the Great by a captured pirate: “Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.’”
Regrettably, the nineteenth-century Quaker Jonathan Dymond similarly observed of Christians: “They who are shocked at a single murder on the highway, hear with indifference of the slaughter of a thousand on the field. They whom the idea of a single corpse would thrill with terror, contemplate that of heaps of human carcasses mangled by human hands, with frigid indifference.” There has, unfortunately, persisted throughout history the theologically schizophrenic idea among some Christians that mass killing in war is acceptable, but the killing of one’s neighbor violates the sixth commandment. I have termed this the Humpty Dumpty approach. But as the aforementioned Spurgeon said: “If there be anything which this book denounces and counts the hugest of all crimes, it is the crime of war. Put up thy sword into thy sheath, for hath not he said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and he meant not that it was a sin to kill one but a glory to kill a million, but he meant that bloodshed on the smallest or largest scale was sinful.”
The early Christian aversion to war was revived and amplified in the Reformation age by the celebrated Dutch humanist, Erasmus. Although he lived many centuries ago, Erasmus’s age was not unlike our own. Wars and international conflict were the order of the day. Contention was brewing between the West and the Muslim world. According to Erasmus, the only just and necessary war was a “purely defensive” one to “repel the violence of invaders.” And because he believed that war is by “nature such a plague to man that even if it is undertaken by a just prince in a totally just cause, the wickedness of captains and soldiers results in almost more evil than good,” Erasmus insisted that “all other expedients must be tried before war is begun; no matter how serious nor how just the cause.” He chastised Christians for reproaches vomited out against Christ by nations of unbelievers “when they see his professed followers” warring “with more destructive instruments of mutual murder than pagans could ever find in their hearts to use.” Erasmus also recognized that rulers incite war “to use it as a means to exercise their tyranny over their subjects more easily.”
Back before the so-called Civil War in the United States, a Baptist minister writing in the Christian Review demonstrated that Christian war fever was contrary to the New Testament:
“Christianity requires us to seek to amend the condition of man. But war cannot do this. The world is no better for all the wars of five thousand years. Christianity, if it prevailed, would make the earth a paradise. War, where it prevails, makes it a slaughter-house, a den of thieves, a brothel, a hell. Christianity cancels the laws of retaliation. War is based upon that very principle. Christianity is the remedy for all human woes. War produces every woe known to man.”
Another Baptist minister, writing in the same publication, lamented about the terrible truth of Christian participation in war:
“War has ever been the scourge of the human race. The history of the past is little else than a chronicle of deadly feuds, irreconcilable hate, and exterminating warfare. And what is more sad and painful, many of the wars whose desolating surges have deluged the earth, have been carried on in the name and under the sanction of those who profess the name of Christ.”
The Baptist minister, economist, and educator Francis Wayland considered all wars to be “contrary to the will of God.” He believed that “the individual has no right to commit to society, nor society to government, the power to declare war.” Okay, so you are not a Baptist. Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Louis Dabney, who served as a Confederate Army chaplain and chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson, believed that “war should be only defensive. As soon as the invader is disarmed, his life should be spared; especially as individual invaders are usually private subjects of the invading sovereign, who have little option about their own acts as private soldiers.” He considered defensive war to be “righteous, and only defensive war.” According to Dabney, aggressive war “is wholesale robbery and murder.” There is nothing “liberal” about opposition to war. There is nothing “anti-American” about opposition to militarism. And what could be more Christian than standing firmly against aggression, violence, and bloodshed?
So when did the early church go astray? Undoubtedly, it was the accession to power of the emperor Constantine. When the empire allied itself with the church, it was the church that changed more than the empire. Instead of spreading Christianity by persuasion and being persecuted for it, Christians began persecuting those who could not be persuaded. This Constantinian mindset is alive and well today. When Jerry Falwell said that the United States should chase down terrorists all over the world and “blow them all away in the name of the Lord,” he was expressing a sentiment widely held by conservative Christians.
After Constantine came just war theory.
War is mentioned over two hundred times in the Bible. The overwhelming majority of these instances concern in some way the nation of Israel. This fact is extremely important, because, as I pointed out earlier, The president of the United States is not God, America is not the nation of Israel, and the U.S. military is not the Lord’s army. Most of the other references to war in the Bible are just that—references to “weapons of war,” “men of war,” or war in general. We read only a handful of times in the Old Testament of nations other than Israel going to war against each other. There are even fewer references to a future time when the nations will not “learn war any more.” Twice we read of civil war in Israel, either between the forces of David and Saul or between the northern and southern tribes. The various wars of Israel against its enemies can be considered inherently just wars for the simple reason that since God was behind them, they couldn’t be anything else. God is “just and right,” and “just and true” are his ways. And likewise for when the Lord used the king of Babylon to bring judgment against Israel.
But just war theory has nothing to do with war in the Bible. Christian just war theory began as the attempt by Augustine to reconcile Christian participation in warfare with the morality of New Testament Christianity by, among other things, distinguishing between soldiers’ outwardly violent actions while waging war and their inwardly spiritual disposition. Yes, Augustine corrected the distortions of just causes for war formulated by Aristotle for Alexander the Great and by Cicero for Julius Caesar, but he also distorted the New Testament by allowing Christians to make peace with war.
In its essence, just war theory concerns the use of force: when force should be used and what kind of force is acceptable. The timing of force relates to a country’s justification for the initiation of war or military action; the nature of force relates to how military activity is conducted once a country commits to use force. The principle of the just war is actually many principles, all of which must be met for a war to be considered just. A war that is not justifiable is nothing short of mass murder.
Just war theory is untenable because it is difficult to know with sufficient confidence whether all of its conditions have been met, because some of its tenets are impossible to realize, because the criteria of just war theory are too flexible, because it contradicts itself in that it sanctions the killing of innocents, which it at the same time prohibits, and because it is used to justify rather than to prevent war. Indeed, just war theory can be used effectively by all sides to justify all wars. Every government, every ruler, every soldier, every citizen—they all think their country’s wars are just.
But not only is just war theory not based on Scripture, it is rooted in blind obedience to the state, which, the last time I read my Bible, is not a tenet of New Testament Christianity. War is nothing but a form of state-sponsored violence. It is the state that decides to go to war, not the people, most of whom want nothing to do with war; that is, until the state sufficiently propagandizes its citizens. An overlooked just war principle of Erasmus is that the prince must obtain the consent of his subjects before he declares war. The nineteenth-century Christian philanthropist and social reformer Gerrit Smith raised a point about war that can and should be mentioned today: “Had President Polk sent round the hat for contributions to carry on the Mexican war, the sum total would have been insufficient to pay for one volley. His noisiest partizans and the most bloated patriots would have cast in not more than sixpence apiece. They loved the war; but they would have others pay for it.” How long would the war in Iraq have lasted if the architects and cheerleaders of this war had to pay for the war with their money and the blood of their children? Additionally, the state always claims that it is acting defensively, has the right intention, has the proper authority, is undertaking war as a last resort, has a high probability of success, and that a war will achieve good that is proportionally greater than the damage to life, limb, and property that it will cause. What good is just war theory if it can be used by both sides in a conflict?
Just war theory says that a war is just if certain conditions and rules are observed. But how can you make rules for slaughter and mayhem? By sanctifying war while attempting to curtail its manner and frequency, just war theory merely allowed Christians to make peace with war. That just war theory is used to defend the war in Iraq shows just how useless it is. Waging the war in Iraq is against every Christian just war principle that has ever been formulated. A just war must have a just cause, be in proportion to the gravity of the situation, have obtainable objectives, be preceded by a public declaration, be declared only by legitimate authority, and only be undertaken as a last resort. If there was ever a war that violated every one of these principles it is the Iraq war.
There are some just war principles that can be derived from Israel’s wars against its enemies. After all, the New Testament says that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning”; they are written for our examples and admonition. According to the Books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Judges, a just war is a defensive war, a responsive war, a limited war, a voluntary war, a reserved war, and a divine war. If it seems as though these biblical just war principles would rule out almost any war, then you are correct in your assumption. My point is simply this: If Christians are to talk about the principles of just war theory, they should at least attempt to base them on Scripture.
Then, of course, came the Crusades, where conquest was conflated with conversion, followed by the continual wars of religion among European Christians. Many Christians have exchanged biblical Christianity for imperial Christianity. Some of the same Christians who never hesitate to criticize the Catholic Church still view the war in Iraq as a modern-day crusade against Muslims. I’ve got some bad news for them: The Lord never sanctioned any crusade of Christians against any religion. And not only that, the God of the Bible never called, commanded, or encouraged any Christian to kill, make apologies for the killing of, or excuse the killing of any adherent to any false religion or form of Christianity he doesn’t approve of. Dispensationalists who are quick to point out the distinctions between Israel and the Church often invoke the Jewish wars of the Old Testament against the heathen as a justification for the actions of the U.S. military. Although God sponsored these wars, and used the Jewish nation to conduct them, it does not follow that God sponsors American wars or that America is God’s chosen nation. Anyone using God’s holy name to justify the state’s wars and military interventions is taking his name in vain. Indeed, as social activist Lee Griffith remarks in his book The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God: “The claim of divine sanction for violence is among the crudest forms of blasphemy.”
The ultimate picture of the folly of war is the bloodbath perpetrated by the Christian nations in World War I. We have heard a lot lately about how most terrorists are Muslims, about how Islam is a violent religion, and about how Muslims are willing to kill in the name of their religion. That may all be true, but Christians who worship in glass cathedrals should be careful about throwing stones at Muslims. Yes, I am familiar with the tenets of the Muslim religion. And yes, I believe Islam to be a false religion—but no more false than Buddhism, Hinduism, or Shintoism. But we should remember that it was Christians who expelled the Jews from Spain in the fifteenth century, not Muslims. It was Christians who exploited and killed Africans by the millions in the Congo Free State in the late nineteenth century, not Muslims. It was Christians—Christian Americans—who slaughtered thousands of Filipinos in the so-called Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the twentieth century, not Muslims. And then, from 1914 to 1918, in battle after senseless battle, Christian soldiers in World War I shot, bombed, torpedoed, burned, gassed, bayoneted, and starved each other and civilians until twenty million of them were wounded and another twenty million lay dead. The conduct of Christians in the United States before and during the Great War was shameful. Orthodox clergymen in the pulpit and their followers in the pew both succumbed to war psychology and societal pressure just as most other citizens. It is a blot on Christianity that many of the religious dissenters from the drive for war were unorthodox Christians like Unitarians, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But even without the massive government propaganda campaign that was undertaken during World War I, we see the same shameful conduct among Christians regarding the war in Iraq. When Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 with the announcement that our cause was just, Christians lined up in droves to support their president. They enlisted in the military. They put “W” stickers and yellow ribbons on their cars. They implored us in church to pray for the troops. They began reciting their patriotic sloganeering, their God-and-country rhetoric, and their “obey the powers that be” mantra. They dusted off their books on just war theory. They denounced Christian opponents of the war as unpatriotic, anti-American, liberals, pacifists, traitors, or Quakers.
Why? Why have so many religious people gotten it so wrong? As I have explained in many of my articles on Christianity and war over the years, there are many reasons: thinking that the war in Iraq was in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, believing that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler, supposing that Iraq was a threat to the United States, seeing the war in Iraq as a modern-day crusade against Islam, assuming that the United States needed to protect Israel from Iraq, viewing Bush as a messiah figure, equating the Republican Party with the party of God, blindly following the conservative movement, deeming the state to be a divine institution instead of a lying, stealing, and killing machine, failing to separate the divine sanction of war against the enemies of God in the Old Testament from the New Testament ethic that taught otherwise, having a profound ignorance of history and primitive Christianity, reading too much into the mention of soldiers in the New Testament, possessing a warped “God and Country” complex, holding a “my country right or wrong” attitude, and adopting the mindset that brute force is barbarism when individuals use it, but honorable when nations are guilty of it.
I believe the two greatest reasons are American exceptionalism and American militarism.
Many Christians are guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. They have bought into a variety of American nationalism that has been called the myth of American exceptionalism. This is the idea that the government of the United States is morally and politically superior to all other governments; that America is a city on a hill—the redeemer nation, the Messiah nation, Rome on the Potomac, the “hope of all mankind,” as President Bush termed it; that American values are the only true values; that American leaders are exempt from the bad characteristics of the leaders of other countries; that the U.S. government should be trusted even as the governments of other countries should be distrusted; that the United States is the indispensable nation responsible for the peace and prosperity of the world; that the motives of the United States are always benevolent and paternalistic; that the United States—the drug and pornography capital of the world—is a moral exemplar with a unique historical mission; that to accept American values is to be on the side of God, but to resist them is to oppose God; that other governments must conform to the policies of the U.S. government; that other nations are potential enemies that threaten U.S. safety and security; and that the United States is morally justified in imposing sanctions or launching military attacks against any of our enemies that refuse to conform to our dictates. This is the myth of American exceptionalism.
Sometimes this American exceptionalism can be downright blasphemous.
Like when Bush perverted an old Christian hymn about the blood of Christ and said that “there’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” Or when Bush took a reference to our Lord in John’s Gospel and applied it to America at a speech he gave at Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind… . That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” I don’t often agree with Jim Wallis, but he sure was correct when he criticized the American nationalist religion as confusing “the identity of the nation with the church, and God’s purposes with the mission of the American empire.”
The result of this American exceptionalism is a foreign policy that is aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling. This is why U.S. foreign policy results in discord, strife, hatred, and terrorism toward the United States. This is why U.S. foreign policy excuses the mass murder of civilians in the Philippines, Germany, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Iraq as for the greater good. This is why the fruits of U.S. foreign policy are the destabilization and overthrow of governments, the assassination of leaders, the destruction of industry and infrastructure, the backing of military coups, death squads, and drug traffickers, imperialism under the guise of humanitarianism, support for corrupt and tyrannical governments, brutal sanctions and embargoes, and the United States bribing and bullying itself around the world as the world’s policeman, fireman, social worker, and busybody. The United States would never tolerate another country engaging in an American-style foreign policy. How many countries are allowed to build military bases in the United States? It is the height of arrogance to insist that the United States alone has the right to garrison the planet with bases, station troops wherever it wants, police the world, and intervene in the affairs of other countries. I’m afraid Jim Wallis is right again: “America’s foreign policy is more than preemptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant but bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous.”
The other reason is American militarism.
Americans love the military, and American Christians are no exception. Collusion between Christianity and militarized empire is either ignored or celebrated as God’s will. There is an unseemly alliance that exists between certain sectors of Christianity and the military. Even Christians who are otherwise sound in the faith, who treasure the Constitution, who don’t support the war in Iraq, and who oppose an aggressive U.S. foreign policy get indignant when you question the institution of the military. It doesn’t seem to matter the reason for each war or intrusion into the affairs of another country. It doesn’t seem to matter how long U.S. troops remain after the initial intervention. It doesn’t seem to matter how many foreign civilians are killed or injured. It doesn’t seem to matter how many billions of dollars are spent by the military. It doesn’t even seem to matter what the troops are actually doing—Americans in general, and American Christians in particular, believe in supporting the troops no matter what. The aforementioned Lee Griffith observes:
“Currently, public support for military actions is virtually instinctive, especially so if troops have already been placed in harm’s way… . It is claimed that, to question the endeavor, to express less than enthusiastic support is to show callous disregard for the lives of the young women and men who face enemy bullets on our behalf. As if by magic, the charge of disregard for life is leveled against those who oppose placing troops on the battl efield while the potentates who placed them there are held immune.”
Americans are repulsed by the serial killer who, to satisfy the most basest of desires, dismembers his victims; but revere the bomber pilot in the stratosphere who, flying above the clouds, never hears the screams of his victims or sees the flesh torn from their bones. Killing women and children from five feet is viewed as an atrocity, but from five thousand feet it is a heroic act. It is sometimes suspicious when a soldier kills up close, but never when he launches a missile from afar.
Christians of all branches and denominations have a love affair with the military. To question the military in any way—its size, its budget, its efficiency, its bureaucracy, its contractors, its weaponry, its mission, its effectiveness, its foreign interventions—is to question America itself. One can condemn the size of government, but never the size of the military. One can criticize federal spending, but never military spending. One can denounce government bureaucrats, but never military brass. One can depreciate the welfare state, but never the warfare state. One can expose government abuses, but never military abuses. One can label domestic policy as socialistic, but never foreign policy as imperialistic.
I think it is beyond dispute that the purpose of any country having a military is defense of the country against attack or invasion. The U.S. military should be engaged exclusively in defending the United States, not defending other countries, and certainly not attacking them. It is U.S. borders that should be secured. It is U.S. shores that should be guarded. It is U.S. coasts that should be patrolled. It is U.S. skies where no-fly zones should be enforced. But the purpose of the military has been perverted beyond all recognition. What do providing disaster relief, dispensing humanitarian aid, supplying peacekeepers, and enforcing UN resolutions have to do with defending the country against attack? How do launching preemptive strikes, changing regimes, enforcing no-fly zones, stationing troops in other countries, and garrisoning the planet with bases have anything to do with defending America against invasion? Many Christians will not allow their children to set foot in a public school, but then encourage them, or at least not discourage them, to join the U.S. military and not only face government propaganda and immorality on a much greater scale, but participate in bringing death and destruction to the latest enemy, not of the American people, but of the U.S. government.
It is the U.S. government that is the greatest threat to American life, liberty, property, and peace—not the leaders or the military or the people of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, China, Russia, or Venezuela. And as James Madison said: “If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” A Christian can’t serve two masters. It can’t be Christ and the state or Christ and the military or Christ and the Republican Party. Christians should vigorously dissent the next time some politician says there is some great evil in the world that must be stamped out by the U.S. military. As John Quincy Adams said: “America … goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.” Christians should stop regarding the state’s acts of aggression as benevolent. Christians should stop presuming divine support for U.S. military interventions. And because just war theory merely allows Christians to make peace with war, they should reject it just as they would any theory of just piracy or just terrorism or just murder.
I know I have used great plainness of speech. But am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth? Christians should prove all things by the Scripture. The Bible alone is the word of God, not congressional legislation or resolutions, Supreme Court decisions, the Code of Federal Regulations, or presidential executive orders. God trumps the state every time. We should always obey God rather than men. The Christian’s authority is the Bible, not the Republican Party, the conservative movement, right-wing radio and TV talk show hosts, the pro-life movement, or the Religious Right. Christians should be leading the way toward peace and a foreign policy of nonintervention. Christians that are not the salt of the earth are good for nothing.