Just Ways to Repair an Unjust War

September 3, 2007

Full disclosure: I am among those who opposed the invasion of Iraq before it happened. I opposed it for Christian reasons. Moreover, I think those reasons have a pragmatic function: they would have prevented us from embarking on a pre-emptive war that has proved to be disastrous.

According to the almost two millennia old tradition of Christian teachings about war, there are only two legitimate Christian positions. The first is a commitment to non-violence. Jesus taught non-violence and non-violent resistance to evil. For the next three centuries, Christians were committed to non-violence, and Christian writers explicitly grounded their refusal of violence in the teachings of Jesus. The first three centuries are often referred to as the time of Christian pacifism: Christians were pacifists, loyal to the message they had received from Jesus.

Then, in the 300s, the status of Christians in the Roman Empire changed, beginning with the legalization of Christianity by the emperor Constantine in the year 313. Before the 300s were over, Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

In this historical context, a new question arose: now that Christians were in the majority, did they have a responsibility to defend the empire if it was attacked? Did they, for the sake of their non-Christian neighbors, have a responsibility to engage in warfare when faced with the invasion and pillage of their homeland? Or were they supposed to leave such defense up to non-Christians?

In this new situation, the notion of a “just war” emerged. The notion is especially associated with Augustine who, despite his bad press in some circles today, was a brilliant Christian thinker and the most important post-biblical theologian for a thousand years. Regarding war, he argued that if certain criteria were satisfied, Christians could justifiably participate in warfare. Without providing a comprehensive list of the criteria, I note that they included that Christians may not initiate a war. Just wars must always be wars of defense against an attacker. Pre-emptive war is explicitly excluded. Another criterion is that it must be a war of last resort – every other reasonable way of settling the conflict must have been tried.

Early Christian pacifism and later Christian just war teaching have something in common. Both seek to minimize Christian participation in war – the first by forbidding it, the second by limiting it to wars of self-defense. These are, according to Christian teaching, the only legitimate Christian positions.

I am dismayed that our country violated Christian teaching by launching a pre-emptive war – a war of choice, as it is often correctly called. And I am dismayed that a President who is a born-again Christian could have been so unaware of the history of Christian teaching and wisdom about this issue. It is a galling defect in his re-socialization as a Christian. It is also telling: much, indeed most, of Christian teaching for over a millennium has been focused on individual issues of right behavior and the fate of individuals, whether in this life or in life after death. Of course, individuals matter to the God of the Bible. But the God of the Bible and Jesus is also passionate about justice and peace – about our life together and our behavior together.
So as a country, we are involved in a war that is wrong and that never should have happened. Given that, what is the responsibility of Christians, of people who affirm that Jesus is our Lord? When one commits a wrong act, of course one is responsible for minimizing the consequences of that wrong act. So how should those of us who are Christian respond in this situation?

The first act should be confession – confession that as a nation, we were wrong to do this. Confession is about repentance – which means going beyond the mind that we have. Our national mind in the wake of 9/11 has been shaped and manipulated by fear – despite the fact that one of the most common affirmations in the Bible is “Fear not,” “Do not be afraid.”

The second act should be an appeal to the international community to help us out – to become involved in seeking to secure a stable Iraq. We were wrong – and we need your help. Whether other countries will be generous enough to do so is unclear.
But our unilateralism should not continue – we have been manifestly wrong. To continue in a manifest wrong is wrong. To seek to right our wrong by increasing the level of violence in Iraq is not the solution. The solution begins by admitting what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called in his historical setting “our terrible alternative”: to be humbled by our national and imperial hubris – the notion that we can shape and control the world with the power of military violence.

None of this should be construed as an indictment of those who are serving in the American military in Iraq. The issue is not their valor or goodness. The issue is our political leadership — and putatively Christian leadership — that led us into this “terrible alternative.”

I have no idea if we can still “rescue” the situation in Iraq. It may be beyond our ability to do so. But we can imaginatively consider options other than the ones we are pursuing. We are presently spending about two billion dollars a week on the war. What if the same amount were genuinely used for the rebuilding of Iraq? What if we actively sought the aid of Iraq’s neighbors and our allies in working on a solution?

But for us to continue on our present course because we want to avoid the humiliation of admitting that we made a terrible mistake is not only foolish, but decidedly unchristian.

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