I was teaching Sunday school class not long ago. It’s a class of more or less young adults – most with children of school age. And I asked them if they’ve ever heard of “just war” doctrine. It was a throw away question intended to lead to a discussion of where the church and government must sometimes part ways on the question of war. But no one had ever heard of “just war.” Not a one.
Now, this is a class of over 30 adults, nearly all with college degrees, some with graduate degrees. Many had attended a Christian college. Most had attended church all their lives. They’d all been adults during the Iraq War. And not a one had even heard of the church’s teachings on just war.
Why not? I have a theory or two.
For people my age (56), we grew up during the Cold War – where the US and other Western nations joined forces to oppose godless communism – and “godless” is no exaggeration. Communist parties in the old USSR, China, Cambodia, and other nations worked to destroy Christianity and replace it with communism. The communist state must command the total loyalty of the people, and there was no room for rival loyalties. The communist party understood better than we Christians often do how dangerous Christianity is to any state that demands unquestioning loyalty from its people.
Therefore, for my generation, all wars seem automatically just because they were nearly all fought to oppose communism until Iraq I. Obviously, Viet Nam is a major exception, but the issue for most Christians wasn’t whether to fight the war but whether to fight it as it was being fought (very foolishly). Most white, Christian churches supported the war in Viet Nam in principle.
For those a generation older than me, World War II was the very definition of a just war. Hitler remains the very definition of evil in this country.
But WWII and the Cold War created a rare exception to human history. After all, before WWII was WWI –which seems hardly just at all. And before that was the Spanish-American War, which was plainly a war of conquest by the US.
The injustice of WWI is amply demonstrated by the mess the winners made of the world, imposing unjust, foolish laws on Germany (helping to create Hitler and WWII) and the mess that is Iraq, drawing boundaries for the convenience of the reigning world powers – France and the UK – giving no thought to what was fair or right for the people they ruled.
Of course, many have questioned the justness of Iraq I, Iraq II, and Afghanistan, and some are more defensible than others. The point is that the church has gotten so used to just wars – at least, wars that seemed just – that we’ve forgotten the necessity of testing the government’s decisions against God’s will.
After all, it would be absurd to argue that all wars the President or Congress wants to declare are necessarily just and God-approved. Surely we can agree that God doesn’t approve all US wars because we are God’s special nation executing his will perfectly here on earth!
And if we concede that not all wars fought by the US are just – that is, consistent with God’s morality – then surely we need to be studying what the Bible says are just and unjust wars.
Now, it’s not an easy study. Christians disagree – and have for nearly as long as there have been Christians. Some of us are pacifists, refusing all military service and considering all war unjust. Others believe that some wars are in fact just and that Christians may fight in just wars – but absolutely may not fight in an unjust war. And evidently there are Christians who believe Christians may fight in any war the United States wishes to fight, regardless of whether the war violates God’s will. And if you think about it, that’s a position that really can’t be defended.
But it’s the de facto position of many churches, because many churches never even ask whether war in general or a particular war violates what the Bible teaches. And it’s at least possible that there’s been a war or two that was against God’s will. It’s possible.
During WWI, many in the Churches of Christ were pacifists, based on the writings of David Lipscomb, and so they refused the draft and many went to jail rather than sin against God.
By WWII, the Churches had largely rejected the views of Lipscomb and, following Foy Wallace, Jr., had become avid proponents of war against Germany and Japan. And soon, the entire notion of judging wars as just or unjust disappeared from our teaching. I doubt that Churches of Christ are unique in this regard.
It’s not an easy thing to develop a thoughtful theology of just war. Many have tried, but modern warfare greatly complicates things. But for now, that’s not quite where I want to go with this. Rather, I just want to observe that a denomination without a theology of just war is a denomination caught up in idolatry.
After all, if we are to judge wars solely on prudential grounds – can we win? Will we become more prosperous? Will we become safer? – then our approach is selfish because the standard is entirely about us – not others, not our neighbors, and not our enemies. And if “love your enemies” means anything, it means treating them as humans made in God’s image whose lives and fortunes matter, just as ours do.
That is not to say that never is war permitted, but that whether war is justified in the eyes of God must be determined consistently with his word – including the Sermon on the Mount and the two greatest commandments. Indeed, any theory of just war that gets far from those roots is likely not a very good one.
On the other hand, I’m not of the school of thought that therefore all war is necessarily impermissible. After all, sometimes violence is needed to prevent greater violence – and violence against evil is necessary to protect the innocent against violence – and this is, I believe, the God-given role of government.
Back in the series on Pacifism, we considered the arguments for and against pacifism at length, and I’m not anxious to re-engage the subject. Rather, I just want to observe that it’s very wrong for the Churches of Christ to have no moral teaching regarding war. Indeed, it’s idolatry because we’ve replaced God’s judgment with our political leaders’ or our own. And I don’t think we’re only American denomination to have done so.
(Mat 4:10 ESV) Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”