Christians, Pacifism, Iraq

After four years of war in Iraq, some Christians are more insistent in their claim that the Bible requires pacifism. Some say that if we gave peace a chance, we’d live happily ever after. Others, aware of the presence of international murderers, still say we should not resist them, for Jesus did not resist his.

What to make of this? For one thing, it runs counter to much of the Bible, where God and Israel regularly resist evil. In the book of Exodus, when Egypt’s pharaoh mandated slavery and ordered infanticide, God liberated the Israelites and destroyed the Egyptian army. In the book of Judges, God regularly ordained leaders to fight back against oppression. Individuals as well as nations could 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."

The New Testament is not pro-militant, but it’s also not anti-militant. The apostle Paul wrote that civil government is to wield the sword for justice. 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.

And what about Christ’s prescriptive words and actions? Although many pacifists emphasize the Sermon on the Mount, many theologians note that "turn the other cheek" means responding mildly to personal affronts, not looking the other way when someone is mugged. Jesus himself did not resist evil in the Garden of Gethsemane, but his rendezvous with death was a unique calling. We are to follow Christ in doing good, but none of us can accomplish by our deaths what he accomplished by his.

Many great students of the Bible — Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, for example — saw some form of war as inevitable, because of what the Bible teaches about the depravity of human nature. Assuming that we would always have fighting, Christians developed codes of "just war" that emphasized the use of necessary means of warfare but the avoidance of savagery. "Just war" theory was also pragmatic: Leaders were to ask whether success was likely.

How do we apply this to the war in Iraq? In 2003 we had a failure of intelligence data: Everyone, including Democrats and Europeans, thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, so we thought the war was self-defense. Even more significant was our theological illiteracy: Many non-Muslims thought that Iraqi Sunni and Shia were like Protestants and Catholics, historically antagonistic but now able to get along, so we thought we could love our neighbors, including our enemies, by bringing them democracy.

We thought success was readily achievable, and the three weeks of U.S. advance that led to the liberation of Baghdad seemed to affirm that notion. Four years later, it’s easy to see and say that the Iraq war was a mistake — although it’s still questionable whether Iraq and the world would be better off if Saddam were still in power. In any event, the question is what to do now. What do biblical injunctions to love our neighbors mean in this instance?

Some Americans say that if the United States had been paying attention to Rwanda in 1994 and could have intervened effectively to save about 800,000 people from being murdered, we should have. What, then, about Iraq, where a U.S. pullout at this point would probably lead to Rwanda-level slaughter there and increased terrorist activity around the world?

The old line about America’s inability to be the policeman of the world still rings true, and that’s why we need to approach each situation prudentially. The Bible gives leeway here. What we know in general is that Cold War pacifism would have allowed Soviet dictators control of the world, and absolute pacifism now would do the same for Muslim autocrats. But the angels, and the devils, are in the details.