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Thinking About War in Iraq

May 15, 2003

How does one think about war in Iraq? It is a complicated issue with many facets. There are international and geopolitical issues. There are moral and ethical concerns. There are theological and philosophical considerations.

The following is a collection of various thoughts on how believers might approach these sorts of questions. It is by no means thorough, complete or systematic; just some random reflections on various aspects of the debate.

First, consider the issue of war itself. I take it that war is not intrinsically immoral. If it were, God would be immoral, since he initiated plenty of them. The question is the use of force to uphold righteousness either nationally or internationally. Romans 13 makes that case of government involvement in upholding righteousness and punishing unrighteousness.

Thus a just war theorist says just as you can be a Christian and a politician, or a Christian and a policeman, so too you can be a Christian and a soldier. In fact, never once, when John or Jesus or the early disciples deal with soldiers, are they told that in order to follow Christ they have to renounce the military. If pacifism were the correct biblical position, we would not expect this to be the case.

Pacifists appeal to the Sermon on the Mount, while just war theorists appeal to Romans 13, but there are of course plenty of other scriptures which can be used on both sides. It seems the Bible does enjoin a personal ethic (turning the other cheek, as in Matthew 5), but it also offers a social ethic (punishing evil doers, as in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2). They can be held simultaneously. Individuals cannot declare war, for example, but states can and should.

Individuals can take personal injury and abuse, but when an innocent third party is assaulted, a believer can take action by preventing the aggressor from his injustice.

As a just war theorist, I believe a war can be fought ethically, even Christianly. See especially the thoughts of Aquinas and Calvin for such thinking. Of course just war theory has sought to delineate what is a just conflict and how it can be fought justly.

It is of course a big debate, and one that Christians can and do disagree on. The way of Christ seems to be that of a peacemaker. Yet we have passage like Isaiah 66 and the book of Revelation which teach that God is not done with warfare yet. More judgement is coming! And Christ will come riding a horse, brandishing a sword, executing justice.

But to argue for a just war is not to say that God is on the side of one, and not the other. God probably has much bigger purposes in mind in any given conflict. This is clearly established in passages such as Isaiah 10. God can use Assyria as his instrument of judgement, to punish Israel. However in the same chapter we read that he will then judge Assyria. All nations can be putty in his hands. No nation is completely right nor completely wrong.

Thus there is a sense in which both Bush and Saddam are God’s servants. Both can be used by God, but so too both will be judged by God. Neither one is fully on God’s side of course. But that is not to argue for moral equivalence. Some nations are better than others. Some are more evil than others. All are imperfect, but some better reflect God’s standards than others.

Most wars today are complex and involve imperfect parties on both sides. But just because a policeman may be a bad husband or a bit of a tippler, that does not mean that he cannot still fulfil his role as a cop. So too, nations (all of whom are imperfect) can still be used for standing up against unrighteousness, aggression, and so on. But they too may merit judgment later on.

So I do not say that this is a morally unambiguous war. Just as all Christians tend to act from mixed motives, so too do nations. God may not be on the allied side here. But he may not be against it either.

It is also true that there are no covenant people in New Testament times. But that does not mean that a Hitler can not be stopped, or a nation cannot pursue national interests. And all nations put self-interest first. France, Germany and Russia all have oil contracts with Iraq. So is the war about money and oil? To some extent yes, but not just for the US, but most nations.

And in a fallen world, ethics is often the case of choosing the lesser of two evils. What else can we expect when living between the ages? War is not good. Neither is aggression and injustice. Sometimes we have to choose between the two.

And it is of course proper to raise concerns about children and other innocent civilians that suffer in war. Collateral damage is part of every war. However, as in all of life, most situations are not so black and white. Yes, we all should care about children killed in war, but we should also care about children (and men and women) killed by ruthless dictators. And if one side seeks as much as possible to avoid or minimize civilian casualties, surely that is ethically better than a side that does not care about non-combatant immunity, or in fact goes out of its way to target civilians (as in terrorism, or in using human shields, or imbedding armed troops in civilian populations, and so on).

The motivations for involvement in Iraq are obviously complex and mixed, but Christians can in good conscience view a war to liberate people from such oppression as just and moral, just as other Christians can question whether war is ever just.

Some believers argue that no one wins a war. This is only partly true. Try telling the liberated prisoners at Dachau that there were no winners. Allied tanks, not hopes for a better world, nor utopian pacifism, saved those prisoners. And there will be more than a few Iraqis who will be grateful for the end of Saddam’s barbarism.

The Biblical concept of peace means more than the mere cessation of hostilities. It also encompasses concern for justice and righteousness. Just as there can be an unjust war, so too there can be an unjust peace.

Does that mean I believe the allies are acting from fully pure motives? Of course not; in a fallen world, no nation acts from fully pure motives, just as no individual does. We all have a mix of godly and selfish motivations. But such considerations should not lead us to paralysis, where we are ever afraid to act, because we are not fully pure.

The rationale for much of this thinking of course is Romans 13, as already mentioned. The use of force to restrain evil and promote the peace is God-given, even if used by less than perfect instruments. This consideration must be added to those verses which speak about loving our enemies, and so on. The whole of the biblical counsel must be made use of, not just portions of it.

No one wants war. Or at least no one should want war, but no one should want to see tyranny and brutality go unchallenged either. It is because I too care about children, that I give qualified support for the removal of Saddam Hussein. It will not be a perfect war and our side will make many mistakes, and maybe even commit morally wrong decisions and actions. But in a fallen world we can expect no less.

The issues here will continue to be debated and argued about. But it is imperative that all believers think hard and long and prayerfully about what Scripture has to say about these important issues. Just because they are difficult and complex debates does not excuse us from entering into them.

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