Is War with Iraq Just?
By Rev. Nate Atwood
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
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
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.
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.