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FIRST-PERSON On the brink of war: Finding a distinctive Christian voice

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–The New Republic, a major national newsweekly, arrived in my mailbox the other day. Its cover offered an evening-time picture of New York City. In the foreground was the Statue of Liberty. In the background, framing that famous statue, were the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in all their vastness and solidity. The headline read: “It Happened Here.”

Two weeks after the most devastating attack ever launched on the U.S. mainland by foreign enemies, the shock has just begun to wear off. Flags are back at the top of flagpoles. Football games and baseball games go on as scheduled. People go about their daily lives. But this does not mean we have even begun to assimilate what happened on Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, our forces mass in the East for what may turn out to be a ferocious military strike on the nation of Afghanistan. The full attention and power of the U.S. government is now directed to finding and destroying the terrorist network believed responsible for the slaughter that was visited upon our nation two weeks ago. The nation stands behind these efforts in almost total unanimity.

Is there a distinctive Christian voice at a time like this? We are Americans, and we are Christians. Does the latter mark us off as in any way different from the former? Does the church, as church, have anything unique to say?

Many American Christian leaders are making strong just war arguments at this time. That is, we are arguing from Romans 13 and other texts, as well as from the broader Christian tradition, for the legitimacy of the resort to force on the part of our government in order to defend our nation and its way of life from the terrorist network that so viciously attacked us. The fundamental role of the government is to serve God by ordering public affairs, advancing the common good, and deterring and punishing evildoers both domestic and foreign. Those who would fly civilian jetliners into buildings and take thousands of lives certainly qualify as dangerous evildoers, and the government is certainly justified in responding to the threat they pose. Thus we argue, as Christians, and thus others argue, on the basis of other commitments and perspectives. Different paths, same outcome.

The Christian just war tradition also imposes constraints upon governments even as they undertake their legitimate function of deterring and punishing offenses against public order and justice. The tradition requires the right intention (not vengeance, but peace), the right goals (not mere mayhem, but justice and security), the right means (sufficient and proportionate force, not more) and the right spirit (not pleasure at a positive good, but mournfulness about a necessary evil). Here the Christian voice is indeed distinctive from the general public voice; that is, if we follow the just war tradition with fidelity. There can be no holy war, no crusade, no thirst for revenge, no pleasure in killing, no indiscriminate attacks, within the framework just war theory offers. If this kind of just war thinking is effectively communicated by Christians to government leaders, and it has an impact, then a distinctive Christian voice has been heard and has made a difference.

And yet a nagging question remains: Is this all there is to the Christian witness at a time like this? As we contemplate the horror just visited upon us, and the violence our nation is about to visit upon others, is there nothing more to be said? Are we as Christians content merely to bring out the just war theory, run through the categories, see that our nation is justified in making war, and then sit back and watch the bombs fall?

We do have a Savior and Lord who undertook his mission without recourse to violence. Who said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Who argued that peacemakers are blessed, and taught ways to be a peacemaker. Whose presence in the world was not as a partisan ready to kill for a cause but instead a suffering servant ready to die for one. Who taught love of enemies and overcoming evil not with evil but good. Who wept over Jerusalem and lamented that she did not know the things that make for peace. Who was captured by the vision of another kingdom coming, in and through himself, to replace the sad and sorry kingdom we now live in.

If the witness of Jesus is anything more than dreamy idealism, or a vague future hope of a better world, then his followers must be marked by the impact of his words and witness even now, even in the cauldron of grief and anger that now grips our nation.

Christians will think differently than others. We will be aware that violent hatred is rarely eliminated by force; it may be prevented from harming us for a while, but ultimately a more radical kind of treatment is needed — that which in the long run can turn those inclined to be enemies into friends. Christians will dare to ask unpopular questions about how to make life better for the very civilization in which hatred of our nation currently breeds. We will propose initiatives to reduce tensions and enhance mutual understanding between the Muslim world and the West, including our own nation. We will follow Jesus’ teaching about removing the log from our own eye and actually listen to those who can offer insights about how we are perceived by those who hate us.

We will not assume that the only way to respond to what has happened is exactly the way our nation decides to respond, but instead be willing to offer fresh insight and alternative solutions as an expression of our loyalty both to our nation and to Jesus. We will remember that every human being is made in the image of God and will respect the dignity that this imputes to all, even those whose evil deeds are beyond description. We will pray for our nation’s enemies, weep over the destruction that all warfare causes, and yearn for the coming in fullness of the reign of God, when every tear is finally wiped away, and no one — at last — shall hurt or destroy anyone else.

Come, Lord Jesus. Do not tarry long. May you find your church faithful, O merciful Lord, until you come.
Gushee is the Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and senior fellow with the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.

    About the Author

  • David P. Gushee