As president, Mr. Bush commands the armed forces of the United States. His title in this function is “commander in chief.” As a Christian, Mr. Bush says he takes his faith in Jesus seriously. However, the office of president does not confer any special status to believers. In other words, Mr. Bush is not “theologian in chief.” Although it appears that may not be entirely clear to him.
The first sign came during the president’s recent news conference when Mr. Bush said he would have gone to war with Iraq even if he had known they did not have weapons of mass destruction. This represents a significant departure from the traditional Christian stance toward war.
For centuries many people of faith have agonized over the need for war. If we are to be faithful to the moral demands exemplified in the life of Jesus, it is imperative that we find ways other than warfare to settle our differences. Over time, this quest for moral excellence led to the development of the Just War Theory. The idea of a “just war” argues among other things, that we wage war only as a last resort or as an act of self defense.
In the run up to the war with Iraq the administration gave a nod in the direction of Just War Theory. Had it been true that Iraq had WMDs and was about to use them against us, a declaration of war would have been justified.
But if Iraq did not have WMDs then we were not at risk from them. What then would be our justification for going to war? The president appears to believe that because of 9/11 we are now operating under a modified Christian morality. Apparently this new morality allows us to strike at those who may become a threat.
The development of the so-called “pre-emptive war” is a dangerous path to follow. There are many troubling implications in the idea that we can wage war in order to fend off something we think might happen in the future.
This assault on Just War Theory grows out of a peculiar merging of national political interests and the president’s personal faith. In his opening remarks he said: “I have a strong belief that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.” In other words, the war is justified because of our calling to spread freedom.
This is a flawed theological position and should be startling to most Christians. Evangelicals especially have long believed that God’s gift to the world is Jesus. The mission God has for us to embrace is what the New Testament calls a “ministry of reconciliation.” God wants us at peace with him and with each other.
The nature of politics and power makes it difficult for national policy to conform to Jesus’ radical command to “love your enemy,” or “turn the other cheek.” But it is the existence of these ideals and the high moral standard they imply that obliges us to wage war only when absolutely necessary, and always with great reluctance.
But even as we sadly admit the occasional necessity of war, what we cannot do is cloak our wars in the trappings of God’s purpose and claim divine sanction for our violence against each other. God has made it clear that he would have us “learn war no more.” Hopefully, sooner rather than later.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.