We’re moving from a conversation about other faiths,
to a conversation with other faiths.
November’s “Faiths in Conversation” program was part of Bob Robert’s “Global Faith Forum” over at Northwood Church in Keller. This is a gathering of international political, media and religious leaders to sit together to think and talk about the issues of the day. And to open the three day event Bob asked our “Faiths in Conversation” team – Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, Imam Zia ul Haque Sheikh and myself – to talk about how our faith traditions respond to questions of war. Each of us were asked to prepare an opening statement and then to be part of a panel for discussion. My presentation piece was an attempt to capture the complexity of the Biblical witness on peace and war and to stake out the ground of compassion as being characteristic of the Christian response. DBS+
When Christ was born the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased” (Luke 2:14). But it wasn’t long after His birth, and it was directly because of His birth, that King Herod in his raging had all the baby boys of Bethlehem executed by his soldiers (Matthew 2:13-18). This captures in a nutshell the dilemma that we who are Christians face when the drumbeats of war sound anywhere in the world. It’s complicated.
We hail Christ as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and we hear His call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). But we also know that in the week when He was crucified that Jesus Christ pulled His disciples in close and told them that “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew 24:6) would characterize life in this world until He came again in glory to establish His kingdom that has no end. It’s complicated.
Jesus told us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44) making pacifism the preferential option for His disciples in times of war, but He also told us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) making obedience to the governing authorities within the dictates of conscience (Acts 4:19-20) a matter of discipleship, and the State “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). It is the divine mandate of the state to establish justice through the execution of wrath on those who practice evil. In fact, the church is commanded to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (I Timothy 2:2). The community of faith benefits directly from the stability that the State secures through its strength.
It’s complicated, and what makes it so is the commitment that many of us who are Christians have to what’s known as the principle of the “whole counsel of God’s Word” (Acts 20:27). What this means is that everything that the Bible says on any particular question of faith and practice must be taken seriously by us. Before settling our position on any issue, a Christian has to take the whole witness of Scripture on that issue into careful consideration. The Christian conscience cannot be settled by an appeal to a single isolated verse, no matter how compelling that single verse may be.
For example, in addition to loving our enemies, Jesus Christ told His followers to love our neighbors. This was the whole point of Jesus’ famous Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). But what if the Good Samaritan had arrived while the man on the side of the road was still being beaten and robbed instead of right after it had happened? Would the command to love his enemy have required him to stand idly by until the brigands were done with their violence before stepping forward to love his neighbor by binding up his wounds and attending to his needs?
Steve Brown, a pastor from Wisconsin observes: “If the command to love your neighbor collides with the command to love your enemy, when an enemy would kill your neighbor, then you must love your neighbor by protecting him against his enemy.” And that’s just one of the many collisions of commands that a Christian who is conscientiously attending to the whole counsel of God’s Word is going to have to learn how to navigate.
It is the complexity of all this that has led most Christians through the centuries – Catholic and Protestant alike – to adopt some version of the Just War theory as their stance on the question of war. It poses each military action of the country in which a Christian lives as a moral and spiritual dilemma that must be conscientiously sorted out before one’s support of or participation in can be offered. When Caesar goes to war, each Christian is left to struggle with how best to keep faith with Christ’s multiple commands: with the social obligation of citizenship that Christ enjoined in His command to His disciples to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, with the love of neighbor that can be the legitimate motivation of a nation’s military action, and with the love of the enemy against whom that military action is taken.
Francis Schaeffer, the Christian thinker on whom I cut my theological teeth, coined the phrase “fighting grievingly” to describe what he believed was the only proper attitude of a Christian in times of armed conflict. If a war is “just” then the participation of a Christian is deemed – by the majority opinion of the church – to be morally warranted. But the way that a Christian then participates in that conflict, no matter how just, must still be governed by the love of God in Jesus Christ as it is known in his or her heart, and this means that he or she can only “fight grievingly,” with real regret and anguish, and with a very clear moral and spiritual obligation to the one who has been determined to be the enemy.
Reflecting the command of Christ for His disciples to love their enemies, the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome –
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This teaching has profound implications for Christians in times of war, whether it be a war of the nation that is their own earthly home, or a war between nations who are their neighbors. These obligations can be summarized nicely by some of the core principles of the Just War theory itself – (1) A predisposition to peace experienced as a real reluctance to fight, seeing it always as the very last and the very worst resort; (2) The absolute refusal to dehumanize the enemy and an insistence that enemy combatants be accorded the dignity that their humanity requires; (3) An overarching concern for the safety and welfare of noncombatants; and (4) A commitment to the genuine reconciliation of the antagonists after the cessation of the conflict and the restoration of order.
A Christian’s support of war is not supposed to be easy, and it’s certainly not supposed to be automatic. Minimally, taking Jesus Christ and His teachings seriously must erect some speed bumps for Christians when the drumbeats of war are rushing their nation’s decision-making, and when a war is actually being prosecuted, the teachings of Jesus Christ have to set some boundaries for Christians in its conduct. Even when it is deemed “just,” war is still tragic, and a Christian’s support of it and participation in it must be reluctant at best. Wars and the rumors of war are symptoms of the sinfulness of this world and its people, and every bullet that flies, every bomb that is dropped, every soldier who dies, and every family that mourns is evidence of humanity’s desperate need for a Savior.
Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably. And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, in closing I want to suggest that this is at least where it must begin. Sadness and not anger is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war. When in the course of human events a war becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes and anguish in our hearts. This is what people need to see first and most from us who are Christians in times of war.