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Former BJC leader challenged over comments about Iraq war

WASHINGTON (BP)–Comments on the U.S. cultural divide and the war in Iraq by a former official of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty have sparked challenges by two Southern Baptist ethicists.

Oliver (Buzz) Thomas, former BJC general counsel, in a USA Today column titled “A Christian view of war,” asserted that “those running around claiming we are ‘in the army of God’ or slapping up copies of the Ten Commandments on government buildings threaten to turn us into the very sort of society we are fighting against in this new war.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, challenged Thomas’ comments in an interview with Baptist Press.

“Americans are not in fact running around slapping up the Ten Commandments on government buildings,” Land said. “But even if they are, to equate any group of American Christians to the Taliban, Al Qaeda or radical Islamic jihadists is slanderous and shameful to all Christians.” Land added, “It is also a violation of at least one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

“When Buzz Thomas can produce American Christians who are advocating murdering those who disagree with them, cutting off their heads on videotape and seeking to establish a theocratic government that rejects democracy, then his illustration might be apt,” Land said. “Until then, perhaps he should read the Ten Commandments and practice them.”

Thomas now serves as executive director of the Niswonger Foundation at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn. A foundation spokesperson told Baptist Press that the opinions Thomas expressed in the mid-September column are his alone. According to USA Today, Thomas also is the author of an upcoming book: “10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job).”

Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., noted in a statement to Baptist Press that Thomas mistakenly assumes that believers who support the war in Iraq are in conflict with Christ’s call to love and pray for their enemies.

Heimbach served in the first Bush administration and was credited with drafting the moral framework adopted by President George H.W. Bush for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Thomas wrote that Christ said three things about war that American Christians are not applying to Iraq: “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek” and “pray for your enemies.”

Heimbach disagreed, saying that “Thomas mistakenly assumes that supporting the war in Iraq necessarily conflicts with Christian responsibility to love and pray for enemies. In truth, the Bible says nothing about Christian love and prayer for enemies being inconsistent with self-defense in private affairs (Luke 22:36) or with the duty of government to use whatever force is needed to maintain good order and justice by restraining the wickedness of men (Romans 13:4).”

Heimbach said Thomas erred in applying the teaching of Jesus on turning the other cheek “in a way that Jesus could not have meant.”

“Jesus applied turning the other cheek to the interaction of individuals as private citizens, not to the interaction of nations, or of persons with assigned responsibility to maintain justice and order on behalf of the nation,” Heimbach said. “The way Thomas interprets the meaning of ‘turning the other cheek’ puts the teaching of Jesus in conflict with other aspects of his own teaching and with duties of government [the Apostle] Paul affirms in Romans 13.”

Thomas “confuses the duties and responsibilities of a nation with duties and responsibilities of the church,” Heimbach continued. “It is the duty and responsibility of the nation, and not the church, to use the sword to uphold justice and restrain wickedness. Conversely, it is the duty and responsibility of the church, and not the state, to love, pray for and seek the eternal welfare of enemies. One is not the other, and one cannot be faithful to the entire biblical record while insisting one is the same as the other.”

Thomas asserts that now, “at this late date, it really doesn’t matter if St. Augustine’s ‘Just War Theory’ can be stretched to accommodate our invasion of Iraq. We invaded.”

But Land said Thomas incorrectly characterizes the American-led coalition’s military actions in Iraq. “We liberated Iraq. We did not invade it,” Land said.

“On the Just War Theory, in reality, the liberation of Iraq was a continuation of the first Gulf War, which ended with a cease fire, not a treaty,” Land said. “The cease fire was dependent upon the Saddam Hussein government abiding by the U.N. resolutions imposed after the first Gulf War. His government abided by none of those resolutions for 12 years, at which point we ended the cease fire and resumed Gulf War 1. Remember, Gulf War 1 started with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.”

Overall, Thomas is guilty of reading the Bible selectively and failing to consider and apply all it says on dealing with enemies and war,” Heimbach said. “So for example, he appeals to what Jesus taught about peace in a way that is completely contrary to the force Jesus Himself used in driving merchants from the temple (John 2:15), to what Jesus taught on needing to carry weapons for self-defense after he was gone (Luke 22:36) and to what Paul says on the responsibility of rulers to use force to uphold justice and restrain wickedness (Romans 13:4).”

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  • Daniel W. Guido