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COMMENTARY

Is War with Iraq Just?

By Rev. Nate Atwood
Guest Columnist

CBN.com What does God think about war with Iraq? In a recent anti-war ad, Bishop Melvin G. Talbert intoned, "No nation under God has that right. It violates international law, it violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Iraq hasn't wronged us." The choice of Bishop Talbert on the part of the "Win Without War" campaign was well calculated – he is the chief ecumenical officer of the United Methodist Church. George Bush is a Methodist. The intended point was pretty obvious, "Mr. President, get back in line. You're supposed to be a peacenik like the rest of us Methodists."

God's name is being thrown around a lot these days, especially by those in the antiwar movement. This weekend Bishop Desmond Tutu, an outspoken critic of President Bush and war in Iraq declared in the midst of a peace rally, "Listen to the voice of the people, Mr. President, the voice of the people is oftentimes the voice of God." Pretty heady stuff ... claiming to be the voice of God and all. Of course, the voice of the people turned the other way and ignored the gassing of 6,000,000 Jews.

So where is God on war with Iraq? Are Bishops Talbert and Tutu right? I, for one, would prefer for the Almighty to speak for Himself. I suggest that we begin with the Book rather than the Bishops. What does the Bible have to say about God and war? I don't think there's any debate that war is oftentimes profoundly immoral and God grieves over any human tragedy. The question, however, is whether or not war is ever a moral necessity and, if so, would God be behind it if we went to war with Iraq?

We get a glimpse into God's perspective on war in Genesis 14:18-20. Through Melchizedek the blessing of God is pronounced on Abraham because he went to war in order to rescue Lot and his family. It seems that Scripture views Abraham's actions as more than morally permissible – they were morally necessary. The shock of Genesis 15 is this: God rewards Abraham for going to war.

The Book of Exodus is filled with war as the Israelites made their way out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land. Two things stand out. First of all, God sanctioned war against various tribes which threatened the Jews. But, of even greater significance, is the undeniable truth that God Himself waged war against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. He used His Weapons of Mass Destruction – the plagues and the opening of the Red Sea – to crush ancient Egypt. Like Abraham's war of Genesis 14, God used war to end injustice. More than sanctioning war, God Himself went to war. We may not like it, but that's the God of the Bible.

This is not to say that all war is legitimate in the eyes of God. The Old Testament is filled with instances of warfare which God hated (read the description of the Babylonians in the Book of Habakkuk). Yet, if we are to think biblically, then each war must be judged on its own merits (or lack of them). As St. Augustine wrote, "It makes a great difference by which causes and under which authorities men undertake the wars that must be waged."

What about the New Testament? In perhaps the most telling of all conversations, a Roman solider asked John the Baptist what God required of him (Luke 3:10-14). John was preaching and baptizing for repentance. People were cut to their heart and ready for radical life change. In that same moment a group of soldiers asked "What should we do?" Their question was clear. Newly converted and baptized they were asking the question of any soldier who seeks to honor God: "Can I continue? Is my profession moral? What does God think about soldiers?" John's answer was simple and came down to this, "Don't abuse your power or use your position for personal gain." What is most striking is what John didn't say. He didn't tell them to resign their posts or lay down their arms. In a manner consistent with the whole of the Bible, John's position was that soldiers were part of God's universe and that the sword had a legitimate place in the affairs of men.

Behind John's message to the soldiers (which was apparently mirrored by Jesus in Matt. 8:10 and the apostles in Acts 10) is a perspective on the role of government which is deeply embedded in the Bible. The assumption of modern man is that government is our idea, and we were mighty smart to think it up. The Bible begs to differ. Scripture's perspective is that government was God's idea and He is the one who put it in place (Romans 13:1-7). The Bible also teaches that legitimate part of government is the use of the sword. Isn't it obvious that force may be necessary to protect the peace and security of law-abiding citizens? Since when can we count on bad guys to play by the rules?

It is against this backdrop of Old and New Testament teaching that both Catholics and Protestants have developed and held to "The Just War Theory." St. Augustine began the dialogue and St. Thomas developed his thoughts still further. Building on these two theologians, the conclusion of most Christians (and Jews) is that there are times when war is necessary. Unlike pagan cultures which glorify war, we hate it. But to pretend it's always wrong is to turn the keys of the world over to the cruel and vicious.

Bishops Talbert and Tutu have declared that war with Iraq is unjust. Maybe. But they're just new kids on the block. I prefer to turn back to Scripture itself and voices which have been on the scene for hundreds or even thousands of years. What happens when we take the principles of "Just War" and lay them against war with Iraq? Where do we come out? What do the old voices of the church say in response to the "newbies" of our day?

1. Proper authority

Augustine wrote that "the authority and deliberation of war be under the control of a leader." Augustine would have thought of a king, today we think of elected leadership. Individual citizens are not authorized to "take the sword into their own hand." However, legitimate governments hold a degree of responsibility for their state that is well beyond that of the private citizen and therefore hold the power of the sword by decree of God (Romans 13).

Regarding Iraq, there is no doubt that President Bush has the authority to go to war. The Congress has already authorized this and he is the commander in chief. As much as the media wants to paint this as "George Bush's war," he is operating within the framework of the Constitution as a duly elected leader of a lawful and legitimate government.

2. Proper cause

In a 1993 statement regarding just war, the U.S. Catholic Bishops stated that "force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations."

On this count, war against Iraq almost seems mandated. Indeed, if this is the criteria then the world community could be charged with immorality for having not gone to war. Quite apart from the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an aggressive dictator, there are the crimes against the Iraqi people who have been dipped in baths of acid, raped before family members, and have had their tongues cut out. The more I think about it, the more I am troubled. Have we abandoned fellow human beings to Saddam Hussein? In the eyes of God do we have the right to stand idly by in the name of peace while people are gassed and children torn from their mothers?

I think proper cause has already been served by virtue of atrocities committed against the Iraqi people. Yet, the justification of proper cause has also included self-defense. The Just War Theory states that nations have a moral base for war if they have been attacked and are acting in self-defense. The classic example is Pearl Harbor and World War II. We went to war against the Japanese because they first went to war against us.

It's a fair point that the U.S. has not been directly attacked by Hussein and that perhaps we should wait until he does something even more outrageous. It's also a fair point to note that President Bush has charted a new moral course for our nation with his doctrine of "pre-emption." The president has said, in essence, we're no longer waiting around like sitting ducks.

What about it? Has the President, in his doctrine of pre-emption, stepped outside the notion of proper cause based on self-defense? Perhaps, but James Nicholson, the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican makes a stirring point in the defense of pre-emption, "Can you sit and wait to take the first hit before you can respond when that first hit can inflict millions of casualties?" Food for thought, isn't it? For folks who think about these things there's a general recognition that WMDs have changed the moral landscape. Pearl Harbor was a great tragedy but the loss of life was roughly 3,000. President Bush is dealing with a first strike which could cause the death of 300,000 or more. (And the target would be civilians rather than military). It is whole new world we're living in.

3. Reasonable chance of success

War is so costly and terrible that it should only be pursued if success seems like a reasonable possibility. Human life is too sacred to waste on a cause that has no chance of success.

On this count there are no doubts whether or not the U.S. will be successful. There is concern about chemical or biological attack on our troops, but if that were to occur then the justification for war would only be strengthened still more. Even in the face of such attacks the U.S. military seems assured of success.

My own thought is that if there is a danger it is that we may be over confident. Our military is a great asset, and I am grateful for their presence in the world. Without doubt a great deal of evil has been restrained over the years because of the U.S. presence. However, our ultimate hope is not in a well-trained and equipped military but in God. Humble reliance upon the Almighty with the unselfish pursuit of a just cause should be our mindset.

4. Proportionality

The Christian doctrine here is simply that the war itself must not be more terrible than the injustice it seeks to correct. It also means that non-combatants may not be targeted, though war almost always involves unintended casualties. A further subset of proportionality is whatever penalties are exacted on a defeated foe must be just rather than merely vengeful.

I live in a military town and have been struck by the sense of justice and just war ethics that prevails among senior military officers that I have been privileged to meet. Many of them remind me of Colin Powell. My experience is that our forces are led by reluctant warriors. The ones I know think deeply about ethics in the midst of warfare, and they seek to balance the need to win in swift and overwhelming fashion with protecting the innocent and pursuing justice rather than revenge. I'd love for the demonstrators on the streets of Paris or San Francisco to meet some of the men I have known. They might not be quite so quick to characterize them as warmongers.

The truth is that there is a stark contrast between our leaders and Saddam Hussein. Proportionality, justice rather than revenge, and protecting the innocent simply are not on his radar scope. The record makes it clear that he understands only one thing – the use of brute force in order to further his own dream of regional (and perhaps world) domination. I have no doubt that if we go to war we'll wage it with proportionality and that Hussein will be grossly immoral. We'll do it the way we've always done it – with white hats on.

5. Last resort

War must be a last resort, after all other avenues have been exhausted. I suppose this is where the debate really lies at the moment. Are we at the end of the road? Does diplomacy still have a chance? Or has diplomacy become a game in the hands of Saddam Hussein?

What's the record of history suggest? Here we are, 12 years and 17 U.N. resolutions down the road and it appears little has changed. Even Hans Blix acknowledged in his latest U.N. report that Iraq still hasn't been forthcoming with answers to key questions. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking and Hussein digs his troops in still more. Isn't it possible that further diplomacy is likely to yield the same pattern of deception? And who will pay the price if the game goes on? It won't be the French. In all likelihood it would be the men and women of the U.S. military (and those who fight with us) who will face a foe still more readied for war. Give peace a chance? Maybe we're just giving Saddam Hussein a chance. And perhaps it's our own flesh and blood on whose backs the need to be politically correct will be balanced.

I wrote this article for myself. My gut told me that Bush was right and that the best chance for peace was a firm commitment to war. History seemed to be on his side. But I am a Christian, and I can't make my moral decisions quite so simply. I trust our president and his team, but ultimately I am accountable to God for the stances I take. I wanted the chance to think a bit more carefully about this whole business and to put the frame of biblical thought around our current crisis.

I now support the war. It's not that I like war. I have friends who are deployed – some of whom may be operating in Iraq already. Their wives are members of my congregation. If there are funerals to do, I will be presiding. Yet, I find two things compelling. The plight of the Iraqi people is well-chronicled. I remember listening to congressional testimony when the war resolution was debated this past fall. The stories I heard were chilling and a call to action for any moral people. God rescued Israel from Egyptian cruelty, and Abraham rescued Lot from the certain abuse and slavery. Can we do less?

I also think the game has changed with WMDs on the scene. If Iraq strikes first using terrorists as their surrogate we won't be mourning the loss of 3,000. The number could be astronomically higher. Part of legitimate, biblical leadership is the national security of one's nation.

Bishop Talbert and Bishop Tutu make for good sound bites, but the voice of God is ultimately heard in the Scriptures rather than in the people. I trust the Book rather than the Bishops. There is a moral compass by which to make our way through the current maze of current events. Deeply embedded in Scripture, the Just War Theory has been on the scene for 1,600 years. Its verdict is far more compelling in my mind than modern bishops who presume to lecture the President of the United States.

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