Columnists > Voices

Make love, not war

But what if making war is the more compassionate response?

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

One subscriber wrote me, "What's an evangelical to do when tugged at both by neoconservatives and pacifists?" Good question. Stanley Hauerwas, Time's designee as "America's best theologian" and the subject of this week's WORLD interview, knows the answer: Embrace pacifism.

I wondered whether Hauerwas based that position in part on Jesus' refusal to use force against the Pharisees and Romans when they arrested Him, but he responded that Christ's action "plays almost no role at all in my understanding of Christian nonviolence. To so argue would turn pacifism into a position that is separable from His cross and resurrection. As John Howard Yoder argued, pacifism does not turn on any one statement or reaction of Jesus to those around Him but rather is seen in His perfect obedience at the cross."

In a 1993 essay, "Interpretation of Scripture," Hauerwas urges Christians to live in obedience to Christ's message: "Our savior comes offering us the practice of reconciliation necessary for us to be a people able to live in the world without violence or envy. . . . We expected a politics of power from this Messiah and instead we got crucifixion and resurrection." Hauerwas suggests that those who don't share his views are falling back into a politics of power.

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Must we adopt the view of Hauerwas that obedience to Christ should make us unwilling to defend ourselves or others against aggression and threats to kill us? If so, what about our families? What about the innocent? After all, the Bible repeatedly shows us that God loves and protects the innocent and the weak, often by declaring war on tyrants and oppressors. (Note this statement in Exodus following the drowning of Egyptians in the Red Sea: "The Lord is a man of war.") God empowers individuals as well as nations to engage in self-defense: "If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him."

Although many pacifists emphasize the Sermon on the Mount, many theologians have suggested that "turn the other cheek" means responding mildly to personal affronts, but nowhere are we told to stand idly by while the innocent are harmed. Paul told the Romans that civil government is to wield the sword for justice: Well, someone must hold the sword, and nowhere are Christians told to decline to do so. Although arguments from silence can be misleading, it's worth noting that Jesus and Peter commended Roman centurions and did not tell them to go and sin no more.

We should also pause before overturning the wisdom of centuries.

Theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all saw some form of war as inevitable, due to the depravity of human nature. Assuming that we would always have wars and rumors of war, Christians developed codes of "just war" that emphasized the use of necessary means of warfare but the avoidance of savagery. Soldiers were to try to avoid civilian casualties (but not by letting terrorists go free) and to spare the lives of surrendering adversaries. They were to refrain from looting, since fighting for economic gain was wrong.

How do we apply this to the war in Iraq? One part of just war theory is purely pragmatic: Is success likely? In 2003 we had a failure of intelligence. Everyone, including Democrats and Europeans, thought Saddam Hussein had lots of weapons of mass destruction, or at least the capacity to make them. Even more significant was the failure of vision: Many non-Muslims thought that Iraqi Sunni and Shia were like Protestants and Catholics, historically antagonistic but now able to get along. We've learned that assumption was and is wrong.

With our poor intelligence and theological illiteracy, the decision to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein made sense. We had an unusual convergence of national interest, humanitarian opportunity, and military ability, with the decision to go to war resting on the assumption that the United States could win quickly enough to keep down the number of deaths among American soldiers and innocent Iraqis.

The Bush administration's decision to keep the number of occupying soldiers low and not bust up terrorist havens gave would-be tyrants a chance to regroup. What to do now? Cold War pacifism would have allowed Soviet dictators control of the world. Pacifism now would do the same for Muslim autocrats.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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