Pacificism and the Christian

Bible Studies

Some Reflections on the United States and Iraq
(Written on March 21, 2003, the day after the “shock and awe” air attacks began the Second Persian Gulf War and edited after I read General Mattis’ remarks in 2005. )

A completely pacifistic position cannot be sustained biblically.  Saint Paul teaches the Church that the civil authority “is God’s servant to do you good.”  And he warns believers that worldly government has been given divine authority to enforce justice using deadly force:  “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4.)

Furthermore, when the greatest prophet of the Old Testament was asked by soldiers concerning their obligation in view of the coming of the Kingdom, he replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:14.)  In other words, John the Baptist does not tell soldiers to lay down their arms and quit the army.  Rather, he tells them to do what is just and honest as they go about the business of being soldiers, bringing to bear the force of the Tenth Commandment when he warns these soldiers to be content with their pay.

However, while a completely pacifistic position is contrary to Scripture, enthusiasm for war is ungodly and pagan.  The New Testament fulfilment of the Old Testament nation of Israel is the Church, and the Church’s weapons “are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4.)  The “weapons” of the Church are exclusively Spiritual, such as the proclamation of the gospel and prayer, but they are the most effective “weapons” on earth.  No nation on today has the divine commission of ancient, ethnic Israel to drive out the inhabitants of another land, offering up those who do not flee to the ban by utterly destroying  the entire population, including men, women and children. (CHEREM)

Please notice the wording of my last two sentences.   I did not say that it is always sinful for one nation to invade another nation, simply that no nation on earth today stands before God as did ancient, ethnic Israel, and therefore that no modern nation has the authority to remove the entire population of another as did Joshua’s Israel.

Believers live and function in the world with a different kind of attachment to their own nations than did the ancient Israelites.  We are still under the Moral Law of God, but our loyalty to our own country is always tempered by our being citizens of a heavenly Kingdom that will come on earth.  Whether we are citizens of the United States, Russia or France, we must participate in the work of our nation, including serving in its armed forces.  But we always do so with an ultimate allegiance only to King Jesus, understanding that his Law may sometimes require us respectfully to decline to obey an order from a worldly authority.

Furthermore, within a fallen world, Christians understand that “the enemy” often includes brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing their patriotic duty according to their understanding of Romans 13:1-7.  This means that a Christian must reject the carnal impulse to delight in war.  Witnessing a Southern victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee commented to Confederate General James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible: we would grow too fond of it!”  Is not battle a psychologically paradoxical thing, fear and grief being mixed with the excitement of the hunt and the lust of vengeance? 

Fast-forwarding a bit over one hundred, sixty years later, one finds General Lee’s confession confirmed by another American general:  “Actually it’s quite fun to fight ‘em, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up front with you, I like brawling . . . You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil . . . You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” Lieutenant General James Mattis (Commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia. General Mattis led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and made these comments in San Diego on February 1, 2005.)

The present war in Iraq presents several concerns.  It is not that Saddam Hussein is not a terribly wicked tyrant, because he surely is an unspeakably cruel and evil man.  Nor is it that I subscribe to the notion that Islam is the great religion of world peace and that Saddam is merely an aberration.  My concern is that one reason why much of the Muslim world hates the United States is our exporting our national decadence.  This is undeniable.  The culture into which I was born has substantially vanished.  Today, many mainline American denominations embrace non-celibate homosexuality, no fault divorce and abortion on demand.  Our entertainment industry glorifies gross immorality, even adultery, a capital crime under the civil code God gave to Israel.  This mischief is profitably exported to the rest of the world via our films, television and music.  With our having such a terrible influence on the rest of the world, surely repentance should be our first action.  That certainly would be our Lord’s counsel to us as individuals:

“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5.)

While I have never doubted the ability of the United States and Britain relatively easily and quickly to seize control of Iraq, I do wonder what the ultimate cost and outcome will be. God’s decree is both a profoundly comforting thing to believers and a profound warning about the results of any given human action.  Unlike that of Islam’s capricious, unknowable Allah, our Lord God’s providence is never fatalistic, but it warns us against self-righteousness and pride.

Human actions, especially when they are rooted in self-righteousness as over against humility before God, have unknown consequences that can haunt people for generations to come.  Revolutionaries always begin with a self-righteous hubris against authority, yet what the revolutionaries create is often far worse than the evil they sought to overthrow.  I would take Nicholas II and Louis the XVI any day over Lenin and Robespierre.  “My son, fear the Lord and the king; do not associate with those who are given to change, for their calamity will rise suddenly, and who knows the ruin that comes from both of them?” (Proverbs 24:21-22.)

If one takes a careful look at the underlying purposes of Islamicism, he concludes that these radicals view the relatively secularistic regime of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party as apostate, the only two things they share in common being Arabic ethnicity and hatred for the United States and Israel.  Was one purpose of the attacks on New York and Washington to provoke the United States into actions that would galvanize and radicalize the masses of the Islamic world against the West, particularly against the United States and Israel?  If Hussein is successful in provoking Israel into getting into this conflict, he could ignite a potentially global conflagration, including unleashing a torrent of terrorism by suicidal, religious fanatics.

Those unresolved questions are one reason why I at times feel as if I am sitting with Aeschylus, watching Sophocles’ Oedipus kill Laius and marry Jocasta.  I think I know where all this dreadful business is going, but poor Oedipus hasn’t a clue.

War is sometimes necessary, but it is always dreadful, always liable to the judgment of our Lord God, and ultimately unpredictable in its outcome.  How often in history did people who were defeated in war not believe that their cause was just and that the victory would be swift and relatively easy?  In his call to discipleship, our Lord speaks of a king who must first count the cost of war:

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.” (Luke 14:31, 32.)

Is the conquest of Iraq simply the first phase of a greater war?  The unseating of Saddam Hussein will probably happen very soon, and it will be relatively easy.  Establishing and maintaining a stable government out of Baghdad, managing Iraq’s natural resources in order to pay for this “nation building” and recovering our own costs, while keeping the entire region stable will be much, much more difficult and far more unpredictable.

That is why the first focus of prayer in American and British churches should not be for the victory of our military forces, but earnest prayers of corporate repentance for our manifold and manifest sins.  In saying that, I am not anti-war, anti-military or anti-American, nor am I against praying for God to protect our soldiers—on the contrary, I have two former assistants who are now Navy Chaplains and many Christian brothers and sisters in the military—of course, we must pray for our armed forces.  But we must first face our own national apostasy and the egregious covenant breaking of the American and English churches.

Bob Vincent