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Category: In the News

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.


Cold is cold. (

There are times when I’m struck by what I read in scripture, forced to stop and think about where I’m going, about whether my life is consistent with what I claim to believe. Take this passage, for instance, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person.”

Jesus establishes here the centerpiece of Christian peacemaking. But I’ve taken a different path, standing up for my rights, demanding justice when I know I’ve been wronged. And Christian culture applauds. Why is that?

Maybe it’s because turning the other cheek, walking an extra mile or sacrificing the shirt off our backs is too high a moral demand. These things only make the problem worse. After all, such actions reward evildoers. We must destroy those who are evil before they destroy us.

This is the argument we used for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, for ousting Saddam Hussein, for looking into Iran’s nuclear power program. We fear death because we do not have faith in Jesus’ promise of eternal life.

What about our neighbors? Even if we can’t defend ourselves, shouldn’t we stand up for the weak and powerless? When Peter answered this question with the slice of an ear, Jesus rebuked him and healed the wound. And Jesus didn’t fight for the sake of his children. What about the woman caught in adultery? Jesus invited the crowd to throw rocks. And that incident in the temple courts? Jesus didn’t harm anything more than our sense of decorum.

In spite of all this, our arguments continue. We delve into semantic issues, claiming that “Thou shalt not kill” really means “Thou shalt not murder.” Everyone knows that military intervention is different from the actions of a serial killer. For one thing, it’s more efficient.

So what do we do when our arguments fail? We ignore the issue and go on with our lives. Let someone else take care of it.

That’s what I’ve done.

I don’t think God is pleased.

Even if we can’t defend ourselves, shouldn’t we stand up for the weak and powerless?

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