This talk was given on August 20 at the Florida Liberty Summit 2011 in Orlando, Florida.
Thank you Campaign for Liberty for the opportunity to speak about a subject I feel so passionate about. I would like to speak to you today about Christianity and War. Although I am a Bible-believing Christian and a theological and cultural conservative, I write extensively about the biblical, economic, and political fallacies of religious people, and especially on the topic of Christianity and war. This is a subject where ignorance abounds in both pulpit and pew, and most of it willful ignorance. This is a subject that exposes Bible scholars as Bible illiterates. This is a subject that turns Christians into disgraceful apologists of the state, its leaders, its military, and its wars. This is a subject that reveals pro-life Christians to be two-faced supporters of wholesale murder.
If there is any group of people that should be opposed to war, torture, militarism, the warfare state, state worship, suppression of civil liberties, an imperial presidency, blind nationalism, government propaganda, and an aggressive foreign policy it is Christians, and especially conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians who claim to strictly follow the dictates of Scripture and worship the Prince of Peace. It is indeed strange that Christian people should be so accepting of war. War is the greatest suppressor of civil liberties. War is the greatest destroyer of religion, morality, and decency. War is the greatest creator of fertile ground for genocides and atrocities. War is the greatest destroyer of families and young lives. War is the greatest creator of famine, disease, and homelessness. War is the health of the state.
But modern-day Christianity is in a sad state. There is an unholy desire on the part of a great many Christians to legitimize killing in war. There persists the idea among too many Christians that mass killing in war is acceptable, but the killing of one’s neighbor violates the sixth commandment’s prohibition against killing. Christians who wouldn’t think of using the Lord’s name in vain blaspheme God when they make ridiculous statements like "God is pro-war." Christians who try never to lie do so with boldness when they claim they are pro-life, but refuse to extend their pro-life sentiments to foreigners already out of the womb. Christians who abhor idols are guilty of idolatry when they say that we should follow the latest dictates of the state because we should always "obey the powers that be." Christians who venerate the Bible handle the word of God deceitfully when they quote Scripture to defend the latest U.S. military action. Christians who claim to be dispensationalists wrongly divide the word of truth when they appeal to the Old Testament to justify U.S. government wars. Christians who claim to have the mind of Christ show that they have lost their mind when they want the full force of government to protect a stem cell, but have no conscience about U.S. soldiers killing for the government.
Many Christians have a warped view of what it means to be pro-life. Why is it that foreigners don’t have the same right to life as unborn American babies? There should be no difference between being for abortion and for war. Both result in the death of innocents. Both are unnecessary. Both cause psychological harm to the one who signs a consent form or fires a weapon. Why is it that to many Christians an American doctor in a white coat is considered a murderer if he kills an unborn baby, but an American soldier in a uniform is considered a hero if he kills an adult? In January of every year, many churches observe Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Fine, but we need ministers who are as concerned about killing on the battlefield as they are about killing in the womb.
Much of the blame for Christian support for war must be laid at the feet of the pastors and church leaders who have failed to discern the truth themselves so they can educate their congregations. They are blind leaders of the blind. It is tragic that many so-called Christian leaders moonlight as apologists for the Republican Party. Many pastors are cheerleaders for current U.S. wars. We hear more from pulpits today justifying American military intervention throughout the world than we do about the need for missionaries to go into all the world. Our churches have supplied more soldiers to the Middle East than missionaries. It is appalling that instead of the next U.S. military adventure being denounced from every pulpit in the land, it will be conservative preachers who can be counted on to defend it.
If there is any group within Christianity that should be the most consistent, the most vocal, the most persistent, and the most scriptural in its opposition to war and the warfare state, it is conservative Christians who look to the Bible as their sole authority. Yet, never at any time in history have so many of these Christians held such unholy opinions. The association they have with the Republican Party is unholy. The admiration they have for the military is unholy. The indifference they have toward war is unholy. The callous attitude they have toward the deaths of foreigners is unholy. The idolatry they manifest toward the state is unholy.
The result of Christian support for war reminds me of a story in the Old Testament about two sons of the patriarch Jacob. In order to avenge the rape of their sister by some foreigners, the sons of Jacob told their leader that if his people consented to be circumcised, then both groups of people could intermarry and the rapist could have their sister to wife. However, after all the foreigners were circumcised, when they were sore, two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, came and slew all the men who were incapacitated and spoiled their city. When their father Jacob heard about this, he told his sons: "Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land."
Christian armchair warriors, Christian Coalition moralists, Religious Right warvangelicals, reich-wing Christian nationalists, theocon Values Voters, imperial Christians, Red-State Christian fascists, God and country Christian bumpkins, and other Christian warmongers have made Christians to stink among the non-Christian inhabitants of the United States. After almost ten years of the senseless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of the greatest defenders of these wars continue to be Christians. The morality of going to war in the first place, as well as the number of dead and wounded Iraqis and Afghans, is of absolutely no concern to most American Christians. Every dead American solider is, of course, a hero, no matter where he fought, what his motive was, or how he died.
Support for the war on terror among Christians remains so pervasive that I’m inclined to agree with Mark Twain in saying that "if Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian." I’m sorry to say that blind acceptance of government propaganda, willful ignorance of U.S. foreign policy, persistent support of the Republican Party, and childish devotion to the military are the norm among the majority of conservative Christians instead of the exception.
Non-Christian Americans should know that Christian enthusiasm for war and the warfare state is a perversion of Christianity, an affront to the Saviour whom Christians worship as the Prince of Peace, a violation of Scripture, contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, and an unfortunate demonstration of the profound ignorance many Christians have of history and their own Bible.
The early Christians were not warmongers like so many Christians today. They did not idolize the Caesars like some Christians do Republican presidents. They did not make apologies for the Roman Empire like many Christians do for the U.S. Empire. They did not venerate the institution of the military like most Christians do today. They did not participate in the state’s wars like too many Christians do today. If there was anything at all advocated by the early Christians it was peace and nonviolence.
Aggression, violence, and bloodshed are contrary to the very nature of Christianity. There is nothing in the New Testament from which to draw the conclusion that killing is somehow sanctified if it is done in the name of the state. As explained by the famed nineteenth-century British Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon: "The Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army; yet its Captain is the Prince of Peace; its object is the establishment of peace, and its soldiers are men of a peaceful disposition. The spirit of war is at the extremely opposite point to the spirit of the gospel."
There has, unfortunately, persisted throughout history the theologically schizophrenic idea among some Christians that mass killing in war is acceptable, but the killing of one’s neighbor violates the sixth commandment. I have termed this the Humpty Dumpty approach. But as the aforementioned Spurgeon said: "If there be anything which this book denounces and counts the hugest of all crimes, it is the crime of war. Put up thy sword into thy sheath, for hath not he said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and he meant not that it was a sin to kill one but a glory to kill a million, but he meant that bloodshed on the smallest or largest scale was sinful."
Back before the so-called Civil War in the United States, a Baptist minister writing in the Christian Review demonstrated that Christian war fever was contrary to the New Testament: "Christianity requires us to seek to amend the condition of man. But war cannot do this. The world is no better for all the wars of five thousand years. Christianity, if it prevailed, would make the earth a paradise. War, where it prevails, makes it a slaughter-house, a den of thieves, a brothel, a hell. Christianity cancels the laws of retaliation. War is based upon that very principle. Christianity is the remedy for all human woes. War produces every woe known to man." There is nothing "liberal" about opposition to war. There is nothing "anti-American" about opposition to militarism. And what could be more Christian than standing firmly against aggression, violence, and bloodshed?
So when did the early church go astray? Undoubtedly, it was the accession to power of the emperor Constantine. When the empire allied itself with the church, it was the church that changed more than the empire. Instead of spreading Christianity by persuasion and being persecuted for it, some Christians began persecuting those who could not be persuaded. This Constantinian mindset is alive and well today. When Jerry Falwell said that America should chase down terrorists all over the world and "blow them all away in the name of the Lord," he was expressing a sentiment widely held by conservative Christians.
After Constantine came just war theory.
War is mentioned over two hundred times in the Bible. The overwhelming majority of these instances concern in some way the nation of Israel. This fact is extremely important, because the president of the United States is not God, America is not the nation of Israel, the U.S. military is not the Lord’s army, the Christian’s sword is the word of God, and the only warfare the New Testament encourages the Christian to wage is against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But just war theory has nothing to do with war in the Bible. Christian just war theory began as the attempt by Augustine to reconcile Christian participation in warfare with the morality of New Testament Christianity. In its essence, just war theory concerns the use of force: when force should be used and what kind of force is acceptable. The timing of force relates to a country’s justification for the initiation of war or military action; the nature of force relates to how military activity is conducted once a country commits to use force. The principle of the just war is actually many principles, all of which must be met for a war to be considered just. A just war must have a just cause, be in proportion to the gravity of the situation, have obtainable objectives, be preceded by a public declaration, be declared only by legitimate authority, and only be undertaken as a last resort. A war that is not justifiable is nothing short of mass murder.
Yet, just war theory is untenable because it is difficult to know with sufficient confidence whether all of its conditions have been met, because some of its tenets are impossible to realize, because the criteria of just war theory are too flexible, because it contradicts itself in that it sanctions the killing of innocents, which it at the same time prohibits, and because it is used to justify rather than to prevent war. Indeed, just war theory can be used effectively by all sides to justify all wars. Every government, every ruler, every soldier, every citizen – they all think their country’s wars are just.
Just war theory says that a war is just if certain conditions and rules are observed. But how can you make rules for slaughter and mayhem? By sanctifying war while attempting to curtail its manner and frequency, just war theory merely allowed Christians to make peace with war. That just war theory is used to defend the war in Iraq shows just how useless it is. Waging the war in Iraq is against every Christian just war principle that has ever been formulated.
But not only is just war theory not based on Scripture, it is rooted in blind obedience to the state, which, the last time I read my Bible, is not a tenet of New Testament Christianity. War is nothing but a form of state-sponsored violence. It is the state that decides to go to war, not the people, most of whom want nothing to do with war. The state always claims that it is acting defensively, has the right intention, has the proper authority, is undertaking war as a last resort, has a high probability of success, and that a war will achieve good that is proportionally greater than the damage to life, limb, and property that it will cause. What good is just war theory if it can be used by both sides in a conflict?
After just war theory came the Crusades, where conquest was conflated with conversion, followed by the continual wars of religion among European Christians. The ultimate picture of the folly of war is the bloodbath perpetrated by the Christian nations in World War I. From 1914 to 1918, in battle after senseless battle, Christian soldiers in World War I shot, bombed, torpedoed, burned, gassed, bayoneted, and starved each other and civilians until twenty million of them were wounded and another twenty million lay dead. The conduct of Christians in the United States before and during the Great War was shameful.
Why? Why have so many religious people gotten it so wrong? As I have explained in many of my articles on Christianity and war over the years, there are many reasons: thinking that the war in Iraq was in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, believing that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler, supposing that Iraq was a threat to the United States, seeing the war in Iraq as a modern-day crusade against Islam, assuming that the United States needed to protect Israel from Iraq, viewing Bush as a messiah figure, equating the Republican Party with the party of God, blindly following the conservative movement, deeming the American state to be a divine institution, failing to separate the divine sanction of war against the enemies of God in the Old Testament from the New Testament ethic that taught otherwise, having a profound ignorance of history and primitive Christianity, reading too much into the mention of soldiers in the New Testament, possessing a warped "God and Country" complex, holding a "my country right or wrong" attitude, and adopting the mindset that brute force is barbarism when individuals use it, but honorable when nations are guilty of it.
I believe the two greatest reasons religious people have gotten things so wrong are American exceptionalism and American militarism.
Many Christians are guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. They have bought into a variety of American nationalism that has been called the myth of American exceptionalism. This is the idea that the government of the United States is morally and politically superior to all other governments, that American leaders are exempt from the bad characteristics of the leaders of other countries, that the U.S. government should be trusted even as the governments of other countries should be distrusted, that the United States is the indispensable nation responsible for the peace and prosperity of the world, that the motives of the United States are always benevolent and paternalistic, that foreign governments should conform to the policies of the U.S. government, that most other nations are potential enemies that threaten U.S. safety and security, and that the United States is morally justified in imposing sanctions or launching military attacks against any country that refuses to conform to our dictates. These are the tenets of American exceptionalism.
The result of this American exceptionalism is a foreign policy that is aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling. This is why U.S. foreign policy results in discord, strife, hatred, and terrorism toward the United States. We would never tolerate another country engaging in an American-style foreign policy. How many countries are allowed to build military bases and station troops in the United States? It is the height of arrogance to insist that the United States alone has the right to garrison the planet with bases, station troops wherever it wants, intervene in the affairs of other countries, and be the world’s policeman, fireman, social worker, security guard, mediator, and babysitter.
The other reason religious people have gotten things so wrong is American militarism. Americans love the military, and American Christians are no exception. There is an unseemly alliance that exists between certain sectors of Christianity and the military. Even Christians who are otherwise sound in the faith, who treasure the Constitution, who don’t support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who oppose an aggressive U.S. foreign policy get indignant when you question the institution of the military. It doesn’t seem to matter the reason for each war or intrusion into the affairs of another country. It doesn’t seem to matter how long U.S. troops remain after the initial intervention. It doesn’t seem to matter how many foreign civilians are killed or injured. It doesn’t seem to matter how many billions of dollars are spent by the military. It doesn’t even seem to matter what the troops are actually doing – Americans in general, and American Christians in particular, believe in supporting the troops no matter what. Americans are repulsed by the serial killer who, to satisfy the most basest of desires, dismembers his victims; but revere the bomber pilot in the stratosphere who, flying above the clouds, never hears the screams of his victims or sees the flesh torn from their bones. Killing women and children from five feet is viewed as an atrocity, but from five thousand feet it is a heroic act. It is sometimes suspicious when a soldier kills up close, but never when he launches a missile from afar.
Christians of all branches and denominations have a love affair with the military. To question the military in any way – its size, its budget, its efficiency, its bureaucracy, its contractors, its weaponry, its mission, its effectiveness, its foreign interventions – is to question America itself. One can condemn the size of government, but never the size of the military. One can criticize federal spending, but never military spending. One can denounce government bureaucrats, but never military brass. One can depreciate the welfare state, but never the warfare state. One can expose government abuses, but never military abuses. One can label domestic policy as socialistic, but never foreign policy as imperialistic.
It is the U.S. government that is the greatest threat to American life, liberty, property, and peace – not the leaders or the military or the people of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, or Yemen. And as James Madison said: "If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." Christians should vigorously dissent the next time some warmongering politician says there is some great evil in the world that must be stamped out by the U.S. military. As John Quincy Adams said: "America . . . goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy." Christians should stop regarding the state’s acts of aggression as benevolent. Christians should stop presuming divine support for U.S. military interventions. And because just war theory merely allows Christians to make peace with war, they should reject it just as they would any theory of just piracy or just terrorism or just murder. It is Christians that should be leading the way toward peace and a foreign policy of nonintervention.
August 22, 2011
Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] writes from central Florida. He is the author of Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, The Revolution that Wasn't, and Rethinking the Good War. His latest book is The Quatercentenary of the King James Bible. Visit his website.
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