Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts on War, Peace and Justice

I have a commitment to work for peace and justice. At the very least I feel I must keep those promises of the Kingdom alive in my conversations. The Practical Commitments of the Church of God instruct us to “speak out on clear-cut moral issues.” They add we have an obligation to correct social injustice and protect the sanctity of life.

Love for others and the recognition of the equal worth of all men in the sight of God (Acts 10:34; 17:26) should compel us to take steps to improve the situation of those who are underprivileged, neglected, hungry, homeless and victimized by prejudice, persecution and oppression (Matthew 22:39; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 3:17). In all of our dealings, we must be sensitive to human needs (Luke 10:30-37; James 1:17) and guard against racial and economic discrimination. Every person should have freedom to worship and participate in the life of the church regardless of race, color, sex, social class or nationality.

God alone confers life (Genesis 1:1-31); therefore, we are responsible to God to care for our physical life and that of others. If the circumstances require, we must be prepared to risk our life in the service of our neighbor (John 15:13); but the general rule is that we must respect our physical life and employ every worthy means to maintain it.

In the early decades of our existence the Church of God was strongly committed to pacifism; members could not “bear arms.” As a result of World War II we shifted our position to one that endorsed personal conscience as grounds for combative service in the military but with wording that specifically supported those who conscientiously objected to bearing arms. In my childhood there was still a strong element of pacifism in the church. My adolescence was bracketed by the war in Viet Nam.

I was filled with the Spirit seven months before my eighteenth birthday and registration for the military draft. My Dad was saved one month before I had to register. I approached the draft with a dilemma of conscience. I did not believe I could serve as a military combatant, but I was convinced that if I registered as a conscientious objector it would be a stumbling block for my father in his walk with God. After much prayer I opted to just register and trust God. I knew everything would be alright.

Over the years I have often reminded congregations the Church of God teaches “nations can and should resolve their differences without going to war.” My posture has always been to question the justice of any given war. I have openly opposed or questioned all of the wars/military actions of my adult lifetime. During the early days of the war in Iraq I identified myself as a pacifist provided I could qualify the definition as being radically committed to the pursuit of peace. I am a pacifist in the sense that I oppose nations going to war. They “can and should” find another way. War should be the very last resort. Further, I have problems with the “just war” theory because it is too often misappropriated to justify wars that are avoidable.

I believe we should be patriotic. We should love our nation and work for its security and well being. I am convinced the United States of America is the greatest nation in the history of humankind. We have been the most just and merciful of all nations. We have sacrificed more for the good of others than any nation. But I also know we must love Christ and His Kingdom more than our country. I am greatly bothered by an idolatrous nationalism, the rampant confusion of the USA with the Kingdom of God. As great as the USA has been, it is also guilty of great sins against our own citizens and other nations. Our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” There can be nothing more American than to question the wisdom of our governmental leaders. To not question our government on something as grave as war is to be less than American and less than Christian.

I am convinced Christians have an obligation to actively promote peace, in personal, societal, national, and international realms; “blessed are the peacemakers.” However, I do not understand radical pacifism to be the only or best approach to peace and justice. I allow there may be times when the exercise of force, even deadly force, may be the appropriate means of promoting peace and justice. Indeed, it may be the only righteous option. I accept, and endorse, the Church of God position on personal conscience dictating the decision to bear arms in times of war. I regret that many of my fellow baby boomers seem to interpret that ruling as a blanket endorsement of combatant service rather than a call for prayerful discernment. If drafted I would have to serve as a non-combatant on grounds of conscience; I could not commit to follow the commands of others to take lives without regard to the justice of the immediate situation. On the other hand, I could use force, even deadly force, to stop an individual from killing or maiming others if the threat was imminent. I recognize there may be logical difficulties in my position.

In theory I can endorse “just war” but only if we understand war can be just only if failure to go to war would be a grave act of injustice. Perhaps stopping the killing fields of Cambodia or the genocide of Rwanda would have qualified. The current situation in Somalia might as well.

These views often place me in the despised middle, too liberal for most conservatives, too conservative for most liberals. Iraq has been especially isolating for me. I opposed the US led invasion of Iraq. I do not fault the Bush Administration for misinformed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Even the French and Germans said they were there. I fault them on the justice of invasion in light of the fact there was insufficient evidence of an imminent threat from Iraq or from within on its own people. On the other hand, during the war I have opposed calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops; that would have been unjust in that it would have created a situation for a civil war with large scale bloodbaths. Once we invaded the country and dismantled its government we had a moral obligation to create an environment conducive for internal peace. Anything less would be unjust.

Coincidentally, we are not well served by the language of “war on terrorism.” Terrorism is an abstract concept (yes, with all too real consequences). It cannot be defeated anymore than the war on poverty, noble as it was, could be won. A war with a concept is too open ended and can too easily be used as a pretext for unjust war with actual people. We should think of ourselves as being at war with specific terrorist groups. Such a war is just and can be won. Nations that openly ally themselves with terrorist groups would thus be accountable for the actions of those groups.

In summary, as a child of God it is my responsibility to work for peace and justice. I can never abdicate that duty. This requires that I call into question all uses of force to suppress the freedom of people and measure the use of force on the scales of justice. It does not require that I condemn all uses of force. For me, to participate in war with all of its ramifications would be to abandon my higher calling of working for peace. It would inevitably put me in conflict between obedience to Caesar and obedience to Christ. Thus, even if I felt the war was just I could only serve as a noncombatant.

That’s the way I see it on Monday, September 21, 2009.


Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

Absolutely BRILLIANT (as usual). Considerate, considered, reasonable, compassionate, careful, biblical, heartfelt, and nuanced. I will definitely have to "plagiarize" this one.

The Harps said...

Dr. Johns, as someone who finds it both extremely difficult and yet increasingly compelling to mix religion and politics, thank you for showing us how it can be done responsibly, biblically, historically, and yet somehow personally.

Much love and respect,

The Boyds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Boyds said...

Dr Johns,
From someone who daily mixes religion and politics and finds it easy and natural to do so, I echo Loyd's thanks for your integrated approach to a difficult subject!

God Bless!
Matt Boyd

Linda Lomas said...

Dr. Johns, I found your article both challenging and balanced. It helped me to have a better understanding of what one would mean by "just" war.

As I understand it, as Christians, we should always defend the weak from tyranny and believe this has been a practice of our nation throughout history.

Thanks for the insight.