Is There a Christian Attitude toward War?
- Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Our respective frameworks provide us with the tools by which we answer such questions as: "What is a Christian attitude towards war?" We may also wonder if our ethic as believers differs from the cultural response to war that surrounds us. A common response to the question of an ethic towards war asserts that "in war as in war," implying that the reality of war necessitates a change in our moral understanding and behavior. In other words, the ends justify the means.
An obvious excessive adaptation of this line of thinking is taken by extremist Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly calls for the destruction of the nation of Israel. Here is an example of a worldview that demands the destruction of a perceived evil for the sake of the greater good. Israel, for its part, has called a war on the Hizbollah, perceiving its destruction as a moral end that requires certain means. Where do believers stand on these issues?
A Christian response, unfortunately, can take a similar tack. On August 5, 2006, an associate of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, Earl Cox, was interviewed by prominent Israeli TV anchor, Yaakov Achimeir. When asked by Achimeir in what way a Christian morality helps us learn how to avoid killing the innocent during war, Cox turned to the Book of Joshua for an answer. Cox says, "There was Caleb and there was Joshua, and the Lord said, 'you go in and you destroy men, women, children, whatever ─ you destroy them to let my people in.'" For Cox the answer seems clear; he thus concludes, "so I believe from a spiritual stand… there is a time [for] love, and there is a time to wipe out evil. And I believe evil is what you are facing here, in Israel at the moment." When anchor Achimeir responded with dismay at this response, Cox qualified his answer by saying: "I'm simply saying: go after the radical Moslems."
An appeal to the book of Joshua as a source for justification of extreme and violent measures is nothing new. However, this appeal, which uncritically applies a biblical narrative to our current situation, ignores the specificity of the biblical event and runs the risk of misusing the book of Joshua. The wars of the book of Joshua were not mandated as eternal rules of engagement. The decree was to take place in context, as a command for a one-time event, under the direct theocratic rule of God. The particularity of our context makes it difficult and extremely dangerous to abstractly apply the principles of Joshua to the present conflict. In addition, we must acknowledge the role of human sin as a prerequisite of war. Most wars are not ordained by God. Human beings must take responsibility for the conflict they cause rather than justify it by pronouncing it a divine command. Finally, the book of Joshua must be read in light of the Old and New Testaments. If isolated from the rest of the biblical message, it can be severely abused, to the detriment and degradation of human life.
What then is the calling of the body of Messiah during times of war?
Prior to surveying the three traditional Christian responses to war, it is beneficial to understand what God's people are called to be according to the Bible. The Tanach discusses three different vocational offices: that of the king, the priest, and the Prophet.
The king is the bearer of the sword of justice, God's representative who maintains order and law by the use of power and authority (see I Samuel 8:11-18). Paul too notes the role of the king as a punishing and law-enforcing agent. He says that the governing authority "does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil" (Rom. 13:4 NASB).
The priest is expected to teach the will of God, to attend to the daily needs of his people, and most importantly to mediate between the people and God. The priestly vocation, in other words, is one of pastoral care.
The prophet, by contrast, resides in the king's court and works to preserve the boundary to the authority of both king and priest. The prophet Nathan, for example, confronted David about his transgressions and called him to repent. The prophet is expected to keep a check on the corrupting impact of unlimited power on those in authority, and to speak out when the king acts unjustly.
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