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Category: Theology

News of War

This column previously appeared in 2003 as a feature of the Barclay Press Conversation Cafe. I’ve reprinted it here as a follow-up to last week’s blog about Iraq:

I woke up Monday to news of further war. Israel staged an air strike inside Syria Sunday in response to the latest suicide bombing. Syria protested to the United Nations Security Council. President Bush said Israel has a right to defend itself. “I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel’s got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in defending the homeland,” Bush said.

The President is operating on the idea that self-defense is a natural right, and many agree. American dads teach their kids to stand up for themselves in a fight. American moms argue with referees at Saturday soccer games. What are our rights? Nowadays, the list starts with life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and ends somewhere around eye for eye and tooth for tooth.

When I moved to Idaho, I had to take a test to get an Idaho driver’s license. I’d been driving for five years, but I was nervous about failing the test, so I spent hours memorizing the Idaho Driver’s Manual. I remember a piece of wisdom I discovered in the section on 4-way stops. The manual explained how the sequence of turns takes place. And then I read these words at the top of the next page. “Right of way is something you give, not something you take.”

That day, I recognized the core message of peacemaking. It’s a difficult message. It’s a message we ignore at the peril of increased conflict.

Since that time I’ve pondered these questions:

What about people who talk behind my back and slander my reputation? I should hold them up in love, noting their positive traits and building their reputations every time I get the chance. What about those who threaten or manipulate in order to get their way? As far as it is within my power, I must give them what they need, not what I think they deserve.

The only way to make peace, the only option for diffusing conflict is to refuse engagement. If they grasp, I let go. If they accuse, I refuse to argue my defense. When they break in, I make them welcome.

Jesus lived and died this truth. I pray for courage to follow.

As far as it is within my power, I must give them what they need, not what I think they deserve.

Just War

In the last three days, three different students have approached me with questions about the war in Iraq.

If the war was meant as a swift response to our own loss in 9/11, then why did we attack a country with no known ties to Al-Qaeda? If the war was meant to safeguard the U.S. from future attacks, then why did we invade a country that had no means with which to carry out such attacks (weapons of mass destruction)? If Pat Tillman was a hero, then how do we explain our government’s cover-up of the fact that he was killed by his own trainees (not insurgents)?

I’ve avoided answering questions like these that focus on this specific conflict. The real issue isn’t whether this war is just (or unjust). Instead, Christians must consider whether any war can be justified.

Jesus introduced a new ethic in Matthew 5, when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For almost 300 years, Christians were so united in their acceptance of Christ’s message that they refused to fight for their country, in rebellion against it, or in their own self-defense. Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 312 changed all that as the Roman ruler made the cross of Christ the banner for Rome’s military conquests.
Before A.D. 173, there was no such thing as a Christian soldier. By A.D. 417, the Roman army only accepted Christians (Christian Attitudes Toward War, 1960).

This acceptance of the “just war” led to the Archbishop of Pisa writing of the crusades that Christians triumphantly proclaimed Christ while riding “in the blood of the Saracens up to the knees of the horses.” Apparently, Muslim infidels and Christian soldiers alike failed to appreciate the irony.

Jesus taught that we should turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who mistreat us, love those who have given us reason to hate them. He taught that even hateful anger is evil.

Here are some quotations from early Christian leaders, who believed Jesus knew what he was talking about:

Tertullian (150-225): “Christ in disarming Peter ungirt every soldier . . . . Shall the son of peace, for whom it is unlawful to go to war, be engaged in battle?”

Justin Martyr (c. 165): “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war – swords into plows and spears into agricultural instruments. We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but gladly die confessing Christ.”

Clement (c. 200): “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. What then are his laws? ‘Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To him that strikes thee on the one cheek turn also the other.'”

Maximilianus (c. 295): “I cannot serve as a soldier. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian.”

Lactantius (c. 304): “It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war.”

The real issue isn’t whether this war is just (or unjust). Instead, Christians must consider whether any war can be justified.

On Biblicism

Two weeks ago, I came close to losing my job.

I was confronted by a colleague who wanted to know if I believe the Bible is true. I’d earlier made the claim that the Creation story in Genesis is myth. Of course, I explained that the word “myth” in literature refers to any explanation of origin. It’s a question of genre not of truth.

The conversation ended well, and I was encouraged by my colleague’s attempt to understand rather than judge. But the incident reminded me of a concern I have with Christian culture and biblical interpretation.

Many Christians – particularly evangelicals – claim the Bible is completely and literally true, a claim that fails to account for human subjectivity or theological nuance. Take the book of Leviticus, for example. Christians are quick to point out that the book is completely true, especially when quoting 18:22, a verse that is widely interpreted as a prohibition of homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.” But these same Christians too often cast off the rest as “cleanliness rules” that no longer apply, especially the bits about mildew and baldness.

There is some reason for this reading. A controversy in the early Church considered how to apply the book of Leviticus to Gentile believers. A special council of elders and apostles was held at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and James recommended that the new followers of the Way be encouraged to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. In one fell swoop, the council erased all of Leviticus except 7:26-27; 17:10-12; 18:6-25; 19:4, 26 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

Later, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul acts without the benefit of the council and further erases all that’s left of Leviticus except for 18:6-25; 19:4 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

In the first case, the council members didn’t claim certainty or special knowledge. It just “seemed good.” In the second case, Paul appealed to logic in making his argument.

But Christians today widely accept both “reinterpretations” of Leviticus because it’s stated in one case that the Holy Spirit inspired or confirmed the decision, and it’s implied in the other.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

The Jerusalem council didn’t question its ability to hear God and respond in obedience.

Neither should we.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

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