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FIRST-PERSON: War: Why does God let this happen?

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Now and then I hear a replay of the achingly stupid anti-Vietnam War song, “War,” sung most famously by Edwin Starr in the 1970s. How about these lyrics?

War, huh, yeah

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing,

Say it again, Y’all

War, it ain’t nothing

But a heartbreaker,

War, friend only to the undertaker

Good for absolutely nothing? Well, except for maybe establishing the United States of America, stopping Hitler, and ending genocide by Bosnian Serbs. You know, that sort of thing.

Friend only to the undertaker? But maybe also a friend to Iraqi Kurds no longer subject to Saddam’s poison gas attacks, to South Koreans free from Communist totalitarian rule, and to the citizens of Singapore liberated from Japanese Imperial rule.

Of course, war is horrific. Of course, much evil occurs in war, much innocent life lost. But much good can and does come from war.

It would be presumptuous to claim you know why our Sovereign God allowed or caused a particular war to happen, but examining history, one can see a variety of helpful results, and it doesn’t hurt to list them as possible reasons. Yes, one could list countervailing negatives, but to answer Mr. Starr, one need only show that his “absolutely nothing” is absolutely ridiculous. Furthermore, it would be theologically lame to suggest that, regarding war, God is left trying desperately to salvage some good from a thoroughly bad thing. He is active, and not just reactive, as he works His perfect purposes in perfect ways. For instance, He might use war:

— To make human “diamonds.”

As with diamonds, the refinement of souls takes heat and pressure. War is the crucible par excellence, where people rise above their normal behavior to exhibit moral excellence. Note, for example, the Don Cheadle character in “Hotel Rwanda.”

— To stop, prevent and punish evil.

Whether freeing the Jews from Nazi concentration camps or protecting Balkan Muslims, armed intervention is sometimes necessary to stop the bloodshed. In fact, “peace” (where tyrants were allowed free rein with their people) was more deadly than war in the 20th century. World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc. killed 25-30 million. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Hutus, etc. killed over 100 million of their countrymen, while left alone by outside forces. (Jung Chang’s and Jon Holiday’s new book on Mao pegs his “peacetime” death toll at 70 million.)

As for pre-emption, Israel supplies important examples. From the day of its founding, the nation was under fire. So its pre-emptive strike on the Egyptian Air Force in 1967 and against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 were quite understandable.

The world is beset with evil people. A few of them come to extraordinary power. When their twisted wills are unchecked, they do grave harm. Saddam Hussein has killed more Muslims, and more innocent Muslims, than anyone on earth, and he needed to be stopped. It is utterly fitting that he be on trial for his life.

— To steer history.

Thank God for the Polish cavalry, which secured Europe from the spread of Islam at the outskirts of Vienna in 1683. And arguably, there would be no state of Israel if the Allies had not defeated Hitler and stopped his annihilation of the Jews.

— To teach theology.

Raised against the biblical doctrine of original sin is the Romantic notion of the perfectibility, or even improvability, of man. War shows this conceit to be laughable. “The Christian Century” soon proved to be a thoroughly devilish century in the trenches of Europe, particularly at the Somme, where the British suffered 20,000 casualties in just one day.

War performs reductions to absurdity. After Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain chose the way of appeasement, declaring “peace in our time.” The ensuing horrors demonstrated the folly of enablement. Similar, the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis demonstrated the absurdity of tribal bitterness and the vacuity of U.N. leadership perspectives. And some have argued that the events of 9/11 buried the relativistic pretensions of post-modernism.

— To parade His handiwork.

Even lost man can prove himself extraordinary in war. Witness the lost GIs who face daily the gauntlet of IEDs on the roads of Iraq. Recall the Jews who battled the Syrians on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. War reveals the resourcefulness and courage of mankind, believers and unbelievers alike. When infantrymen hold a bridge at any cost or pilots fly up flak alley, unsaved warriors provide inspiring testimony to God’s craftsmanship.

— To rally a people.

Many credit World War II with lifting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and galvanizing the comradeship of the “greatest generation.” Across “the pond,” the Battle of Britain produced the UK’s “finest hour.” Read the accounts of the rescue at Dunkirk, of the prayer rally at Westminster Abbey, of the hundreds of small, private craft braving the English Channel to extricate trapped soldiers from under German guns. Such community and nobility on the home front is commonplace in many just wars.

— To advance science, technology and engineering.

Now and then we hear of all the great things that have come from auto racing, e.g., the rear-view mirror. But much more could be demonstrated from war -– radar, sulfa drugs, atomic energy, night-vision devices, body armor. These developments now facilitate commercial flights to volunteer mission points, provide electricity to urban churches, and equip police patrols in gang-infested neighborhoods.

Harbors, interstates, airfields, etc. are built for military purposes but endure for normal usage. (In Bible times, Roman military roads allowed Paul and his colleagues to traverse the Empire.) Today, transport aircraft stand ready for disaster relief.

— To advance the arts and humanities.

As President John Adams put it, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

— To draw people to Himself.

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes. War has a way of concentrating one’s spiritual attention, and many have come to the Lord through such conflict. Indeed, more Americans were converted during the first Gulf War than were killed in combat.

— To secure religious liberty and extend religious liberty.

The Revolutionary War secured the prominent position that America’s First Amendment plays on the world stage. The religious liberty we enjoy is a beacon to the world, and has facilitated the development of our evangelical publishing and missionary base.

Right now, I’m reading “The Bookseller of Kabul,” which lists the rules the Taliban imposed when they took power in 1996 -– e.g., no women in public without burkas; no shaving until your beard has reached the length of a clenched fist; daily attendance at the mosque at prayer time; no kite flying. (Yes, no kite flying.) Thank God — and war -– that those tyrants are on the run.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger