Christian faith and the politics of war

In 2007, I have been greatly preoccupied by Christian faith, the politics of war, and — above all — torture. I first started hammering away at the issue here, in March.

The Bush Administration, and the Republican Party in general, appeals to the Christian right to support its aggressive militarism, its use of torture, and its refusal to recognize the human and legal rights of detainees in the “war on terror”. The Bush Administration has thereby made its policies a matter of urgent concern for the Church:  arguably the issue for the Church in the present historical era.

An argument in support of American militarism

It is fitting, as 2007 draws to a close, that I have been debating the topic with John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. John laid out an argument, from a Christian perspective, for going to war. He supports not merely war in general, but preemptive war in specific.

Preventive wars and pre-emptive strikes are typical military strategies. It is ludicrous to suggest that proactive military action is by definition bad whereas reactive military action may be justifiable. There are plenty of reasons for questioning the wisdom of the US-led intervention in Iraq. By itself, its proactive nature is not one of them.

Much of the violence in Samuel-Kings and Chronicles is pre-emptive in nature. You smash them before they can smash you. The anger of the prophet Elisha on his deathbed says it all (2 Kings 13:14-19).

Since then, John has provided a list of concrete examples to bolster his case (while acknowledging that “unforgivable errors were committed along the way”):

for example, in a colonial situation (the Revolutionary War), within the Union (the Civil War); throughout the world (WW II), and in more circumscribed contexts (wars and occupation in the cases of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq-Kuwait, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq). I also applaud the ongoing projection of American military power vis-à-vis North Korea (in favor of South Korean democracy), China (in favor of Taiwan’s democracy), Russia (which restrains Putin’s hand with respect to the Ukraine and Georgia), Iran (in favor of Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine), Afghanistan, and Iraq (against the forces of terror within both countries).

This is John’s strongest argument, in my opinion:  rooted in concrete examples, illustrating that there are real evils abroad in the world, and appealing to the Christian conscience to act, and act decisively, in opposing those evils.

As I said in response, “The use of state power to restrain evil is something I can and do support.”

Torture: a crucial test case

In principle, then, a Christian can legitimately opt to serve in the military or work as a police officer. But —

The torture issue is extremely important in the context of this debate. John attempts to evade the issue by referring to “aggressive interrogation techniques”, which called forth my rebuke:

Call it what it is, John: torture. I have no patience for obfuscation on this point. However much we may disagree on other points, we ought at least to agree that Christians must speak clearly and honestly, and not support our politicians when they utilize bafflegab to mislead the public.

Andrew Sullivan has documented that the techniques employed by the Bush Administration are the same techniques employed by the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis, among other rogue states. I implore you: read this post of Sullivan’s if you haven’t already done so.

The torture issue is crucial because it follows John’s argument through to its logical end. And we’re not in the realm of reductio ad absurdum here. I’m not reducing John’s argument to an absurd result, because the Bush Administration does practise torture.

Moreover, there are no grounds to assume that this is a historical blip which will be associated only with George Dubya Bush. The current crop of Republican presidential candidates likewise supports torture (with the notable and praiseworthy exception of John McCain).

Thus my argument is every bit as concrete and “real world” as John’s list, above.

Competing gospels

The torture issue is crucial because it functions as a test case. It demonstrates that there is a different logic at work here:  the logic of secular statecraft arrives at an end result that the Christian conscience cannot, and must not, tolerate. As I expressed it on John’s blog:

The Christian ideal is, “overcome evil by doing good”. That is the ideal embodied by Jesus. To overcome evil by committing similar evils is simply not something that a Christian can support.

Jesus provided a living illustration of the ideal:  refusing to conform to popular messianic expectations by taking up the sword against the Roman oppressor; declining to call for a legion of angels to rescue him from crucifixion; praying, from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

In life and in the act of dying, Jesus stood for mercy, reconciliation, peace, and non-violent resistance of the sort later imitated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. As 1 Peter summarizes,

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (2:22-23)1

To return to Paul’s formula (Romans 12:21), Christians must overcome evil by doing good.

Secular statecraft follows a different logic that ultimately leads to different results:  results which are repugnant to the Christian conscience. In principle, I stated above, a Christian can legitimately serve in the military or work as a police officer. But in practice, the issue is rather more complex.

If a Christian could serve in the military and yet continue to draw the line where his own conscience dictates, that would be one thing. But of course soldiers do not enjoy any such luxury. They are bound to follow orders and not to substitute their judgement for the judgement of their commanding officers.

Thus a Christian soldier has surrendered his conscience to the secular state, which follows a logic distinctive to itself; and that logic ultimately leads to practices that are repugnant to the Christian conscience.

I would not condemn a Christian for serving in the US military. But I personally would not make that choice, because it would involve surrendering my conscience to a different gospel.

The Deuteronomist Historian’s take

Coincidentally, I have been reading Martin Noth’s book on the history of ancient Israel. Noth argues that the Deuteronomic historian was deeply troubled by the logic of monarchy.

An anecdote in Judges 8:22-23 records that after his brilliant victory over the Midianites Gideon was asked by the Israelites to accept the hereditary office of “ruler” in Israel; he replied as follows to this request: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: Yahweh shall rule over you”.

This brief story may have been drafted long after kings had appeared in Israel, and may therefore have been aimed indirectly against the already existing institution of monarchy.2

Similar examples could be multiplied:  1 Samuel 8 springs to mind! In the northern kingdom, we see ongoing tension between kings and charismatic leaders which destabilized the monarchy:  for example, Elijah’s bitter dispute with King Ahab and his Baal-worshiping, Sidonian wife.

But the Deuteronomist had other concerns:

He judged the kings according to their attitude to the exclusive legitimacy of the Temple in Jerusalem. From this standpoint he was bound, with only a few exceptions, to pass a negative judgement on almost all the kings. The monotonous repetition of these condemnations only shows that he had no intention of describing the individual kings as persons in their own right or in the light of their historical importance. He aimed, rather, to represent the monarchy as a fundamental cause of Israel’s defection from its God.3

According to Noth, it “became clear that the monarchy was bound to follow ‘secular’ laws of its own and for that reason wise, strong and resolute kings … came into conflict with the authentic tradition of Israel.”4

I belabor this point for a reason. I am deeply disturbed by the cozy relationship between the Republican party and the Christian right in the USA. John is not disturbed by it; or at least he argues that Christians should strongly support on religious grounds whoever is President in a time of war.

I am solidly committed to the separation of church and state. Not merely on secular grounds, though it is manifestly true that theocracies are a nightmare. I oppose any cozy relationship between church and state on scriptural grounds, as illustrated by the excerpts from Noth’s history of ancient Israel.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2The History of Israel, 2nd ed. A. & C. Black, pp. 164-65.

3ibid., pp. 233-34.

4ibid., pp. 242-43; emphasis not in original.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. jonolan
    Dec 30, 2007 @ 09:00:44

    While I agree with most of the statement that posted by Mr. Hobbins said, one does have to take his innate bias into account. Anyone from someplace called Ancient Hebrew Poetry can reasonably be expected to be a staunch supporter of Israel. Such a person is going to be biased to aggressive US action vs. Islamic nations.


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