The Iraqi War and Christian Convictions
For many years now a large segment of the American population has felt that government must have no interaction with religion at all. They cite Thomas Jefferson, claiming he originated the metaphor of a hard and fast wall of separation between church and state in America. Of course, Mr. Jefferson himself had no trouble distinguishing between the unconstitutional establishment of religion and religion itself. In the very letter he wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, in which he mentioned the “wall of separation,” he added, “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of all man.” Keep in mind that Jefferson was writing as President of the United States.
Clearly Thomas Jefferson did not exclude religion from the American scene, including government (cf. my essay “The Christian as Citizen”). However, it is always dangerous to claim that America is a Christian nation or to say that nations are enemies of God simply because they are enemies of America. Indeed, an all too constant danger in American politics is the tendency to confuse the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of Christ.
This has implications for the so-called just war doctrine. While American evangelicals tend to speak evil of the Muslim concept of Jihad (which, for radical Muslims, means “holy war”), they also have a dangerous tendency to view nearly any US military action as a “holy war.” American foreign policy has become laden in recent days with rhetorical overtones of a war between Christ (America and her allies) and Anti-Christ (the current enemy).
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, for example, President Bush quoted an evangelical hymn that refers to the Christian Gospel. He applied it, however, not to the Gospel, but to the American people. “‘There’s power, wonder-working power,’ in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” he said. The hymn, of course, does not refer to any supposed goodness in the heart of man (which is “desperately wicked” according to the Psalmist), but to the power of the blood of Christ—and there is a huge difference between the two. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, in fact, clearly teaches that the line separating good and evil runs, not along national borders, but inside every human heart.
If we are not careful in these days of war, we might well become guilty of the worst sort of evil the Bible condemns—pride and arrogance. We may end up thinking that we are a godly nation (which we never have been), and that all nations who oppose us are ungodly. Such thinking is perhaps what lies behind what one evangelical leader recently said with reference to the President’s frequent remarks about the US leading the fight of good against evil in the world: “Saddam Hussein is evil, and compared to him we are pure and good.” America “pure and good”? Not the last time I checked!
Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, once noted that the human choice is not between having or not having a metaphysical belief, but between a good and bad metaphysic. He said that faith, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Man has to worship something; and when God is ruled out, he’ll substitute sex or the arts or sports—or the state. Interestingly, an earlier attack on Iraq was named “Operation Ultimate Justice,” claiming in effect that America was God!
Michael Horton, in an excellent essay, recently commented on the sad legacy in Christianity of confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. He writes that “…no nation can claim God as its political protector—if not the modern nation-state of Israel, then certainly not the United States. God does not covenant with nations, but (according to Revelation 5:9) with believing families ‘from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people and nation’ who together constitute ‘a kingdom of priests to our God.’ And if no nation can claim God’s blessing in general, then it cannot presume on God’s blessings with respect to war in particular.”
Neither Horton nor I would deny a place for a Christian understanding of just war as elucidated by Augustine and others. But what many evangelicals forget is that the theory of just war also makes it clear that no wars are divinely authorized in this age, and therefore any declaration of war made by a secular state must eschew any notion of holy war.
Among other things, this understanding means that western nations, including the United States, are fully capable of engaging in unjust aggression and committing flagrant atrocities against civilian populations. The brutal war of aggression in 1861 that cost the lives of 620,000 American combatants (not to mention the many thousands of civilian deaths), the genocide of the native American populations, and the indiscriminate fire bombing of German cities (Dresden, for example) hardly puts the federal government in a position to lecture others about the conventions of war or rules of morality. Also, recall our intentional destruction of Iraq’s water purification facilities during the Gulf War, despite Article 554 of the Geneva Convention, which states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” including “drinking water supplies and irrigation works.” In 2000, UNICEF’s director for Iraq announced that a half million children under five years of age had died during the 10 years of American-led UN sanctions against Iraq. In 1998 alone, UN officials reported that the embargo of Iraqi water purification supplies and equipment was killing 4-5,000 children per month.
My point is not that war is never justified, but rather that there is no monolithic “Christian” or “Evangelical” or “Baptist” position on war, including the question of whether we should have gone to war against Iraq in the first place. Throughout its two-thousand-year history, Christianity has justified, rationalized, restrained, and informed the conduct of warfare. Christians have, in various times and by various means, both upheld and departed from biblical standards, and both ecclesiastical and secular leaders have appealed to Christianity’s teachings for personal and national guidance and support.
American evangelicals need to remember that the mission of the church between the two advents of Christ is uniquely a missionary enterprise. As Horton puts it, “Christians can and should be concerned about and involved in civil affairs, including patriotic support for troops, but in no way confusing national interests with the kingdom of God.”
("There is power in the blood." Pfc. David Kurns is baptized by Task Force Chaplain Capt. Ron Cooper, left, and 1st Lt. Brian Case, right, in the desert north of Kuwait City, Wednesday, March 12. Eight members of the 3rd Infantry Division were baptized in the desert last Wednesday. Photo posted on Dixieinternet.com.)
All this to say the obvious. I have no doubt that this war, as Pat Buchanan has noted, will change the world as we know it forever. The threat of American imperialism, which I have been writing about for several months now, will remain as dangerous as ever. Even as we continue to hold a sober and rational debate over these issues that are vital to America’s future, I agree with Buchanan that it is time to clearly state our support for our troops under arms. Let us pray fervently for the protection of our military in Iraq and for the establishment of a just peace in that land. But let us always keep first things first. The “wonder-working power” of God does not consist of Cruise Missiles or Bradley Fighting Vehicles or our man-made visions of Utopia, but the precious blood of the Lamb.
March 21, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.