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The Whip of Cords of a Christian Nation

January 16, 2014

We live our lives within a protected bubble which keeps us safe and allows us to exercise freedoms that many in the world have no hope of ever enjoying. Aside from defensive technology (which is a significant and growing element of our protection), this bubble is made up of individual people who have volunteered to put themselves in danger in order to protect our nation – in exchange for only the most rudimentary lifestyle for their families, and the diluted honor our society is willing to offer.

The benefits of our military strength are among the most important aspects of our lives. Unless we have loved ones serving, most of us have to stop to realize this crucial truth. Ironically the success of our military goals show themselves by a complete absence of impact on our daily lives – but that truth is there every day. EVERY DAY that we can travel our streets safely, worship in the way we choose, live where we want to live, EVERY DAY that we have access to food and essentials from abundant sources, and fuel for our vehicles. EVERY DAY that a scholar has time to research a topic, an engineer can devote time to new technologies, a doctor can advise a patient on long-term health, a pastor can prepare a sermon, and a parent can teach their children – these are the benefits for which our military is never given credit.

Just as we should thank God that we live in such a great nation, we also owe Him a responsibility to ensure that the military strength we support exists for only the right reasons and is used in only the right ways.

Christian views on warfare span quite a wide spectrum, from Quaker Pacifism to Christian Warmongers. In an era when financial pressures are tempting the U.S. to downsize our military, but at the same time worldwide tensions are rising, we need to discern how to think correctly about both sizing our investment in military power and determining how that power should be used. And we can do no better for wisdom on the subject than the Word of God

Specific Biblical passages are commonly used in support of Pacifism

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. — Matt. 5:38-39

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. — Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28

Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. — Matt. 26:52

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. — Matt. 5:9

These teachings of Christ are often used to support a Pacifist exclusion of military force, or even to argue against keeping a standing army. The peaceful spirit in these words is undeniable, and to consider taking up arms as they ring in our ears is a daunting question indeed.

As we look at these specific words, though, a few things are clear. Jesus teaches how we should respond to hatred and physical insults such as being struck on the cheek, but it is clear that He cannot mean to prevent self defense or military service by these instructions. As He tells us in Matthew 5:17, He came to fulfill the Old Testament law, and not to abolish it, and in numerous places the Old Testament commands both the formation of a national army (e.g. Deut.20:3, Num.1:3, 1Sam.25:13) and self defense (e.g. Est.8:11, Neh.4:18). Beyond this Christ shows us directly that there can be justification for violence when He creates a weapon and uses it to cleanse the temple:

And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. — John 2:15

So although in much of his teaching Christ is certainly challenging common worldly thinking about physical force for His disciples, He leaves room for war – when peaceful efforts have failed or are impossible, and war is the only remaining option available to us which avoids yet worse evil.

The Complete teaching of the Bible Allows – even Commands – Just War

Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked. — Prov.25:26

[The 6th commandment against murder] does not forbid killing in lawful war, or in our own necessary defense, nor the magistrate’s putting offenders to death, for those things tend to the preserving of life. — Matthew Henry, commentary on Exodus 20:13

When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory’. — Deut. 20:1-4

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, … escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. — Hebrews 11:32-34

The commands of God to His people to go to war are too numerous to list; why then is there even a debate about whether war is ever justified and aligned with Christian teaching? For many Christians today, I believe this is a result of too little focus on – or even outright denial of – the Old Testament. Many claim wrongly that the God of the Old Testament is blatantly different from Jesus’ teaching about God in the New Testament – a claim without any Biblical basis, but which is nonetheless commonly held. In fact this claim is proved false quickly by Christ’s own words (Matt.5:17), the example of God’s (Old Testament) forgiveness to Nineveh (Jonah 3:10) and Jesus’ (New Testament) cleansing of the temple (John 2:15) mentioned above.

Clearly God is as much unchanging as the truth in His commandments to us. War can sometimes be warranted. But how can we know when this is the case?

When Do We Know it’s Right to Make a Whip of Cords Rather than Turn the Other Cheek?

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it… But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. — Deut. 20:10,12

Although some aspects of Just War theory remain under debate by committed Christian theologians, the core Biblical principle is that Just War is a corollary to the doctrine of self defense which should apply only if warfare is the last remaining option available to protect the nation from destruction. This is the point at which Christ’s exhortation to turn the other cheek reaches its edge and leaves space to the call for the righteous to stand against the wicked.

A.A. Hodge points to this criteria that war should be the last option for national preservation as the crux of the question of whether a war may be considered “just”:

It is very difficult to decide in particular cases when it is right for a Christian nation to go to war… the following general principles are very plain and very certain: War is an incalculable evil, because of the lives it destroys, the misery it occasions, and the moral degradation it infallibly works on all sides – upon the vanquished and the victor, the party originally in the right and the party in the wrong… No plea of honour, glory or aggrandizement, policy or profit, can excuse, much less justify, war; nothing short of necessity to the end of the preservation of national existence. In order to make a war right in God’s sight, it is not only necessary that our enemy should aim to do us a wrong, but also (1.) that the wrong he attempts should directly or remotely threaten the national life; and (2.) that war be the only means to avert it. Even in this case every other means of securing justice and maintaining national safety should be exhausted before recourse is had to this last resort… — A.A. Hodge, Commentary on the Westminster Confession

To this definition we must add a consideration for treaties for mutual defense and military aid, which have had such an enormous impact on expanding the military conflicts of the last century. Two nations agreeing to such a treaty are agreeing to react to a threat to their ally in the same way they would react to a threat to themselves, which creates a contract/covenant relationship tying the two together for purposes of military action.

Our Nation’s Military Conflicts Cover a Spectrum on Being Defined “Just”

Based on these principles the United States’ many wars can be seen stretching across a spectrum of Just & Unjust rationale. Some of our greatest moments of national honor occurred in Just warfare: the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War (via treaty with Texas), World War II. These stand in stark contrast to some of our greatest moments of moral failure: the Civil War, World War I, and a long string of unjust actions which began with 2 specific events in 1945…

With a rationale of soldiers’ lives saved in trade for the desolation of two entire cities, we became the only nation in history to use nuclear weapons, not on an enemy but on their civilians, women and children back home. There was no self-defense or last option rationale – the weapons could have been demonstrated on a military outpost, on an uninhabited island or in myriad other ways to bring Japan to surrender. We have been hypocrites in every “rogue state” nuclear debate since that time, and we wasted our opportunity to lead the world from a position and record of moral strength.

Since then, from the Cold War conflicts in Korea and Vietnam to the War on Terror, we have fallen away from Just War criteria and been satisfied as a nation with political expediency. We used bombs and bullets against (allies of) a Soviet enemy that later experience proved would have been better confronted with economic pressure. We have made crucial decisions based on threads of weak intelligence in the Middle East. We have initiated full-scale conventional warfare against entire nations in order to defend ourselves against a few thousand people who are our true enemies. Chris Hedges, in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, referred to our “collective humiliation” (as a nation, not just our leaders) as the true driving force of the War on Terror – our combined desire to “do something” after 9/11, which has now led to 3x more soldiers’ deaths (and orders of magnitude more innocent lives lost) than the initial terrorism. Worse, these strategies actually “create” more enemies than we can kill due to the hatred that grows against America.

Our nation is one blessed by God with so much power and so many resources; let us be good stewards of that power, not to weaken ourselves and risk losing the freedoms we all enjoy, but to ensure that our power is only ever used in way honoring to God, who gave it to us, and honoring to those who serve our nation EVERY DAY.


From → Bible, Politics

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