More than 650 students, faculty and members of the community gathered at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in February to hear some of the Southern Baptist Convention's top ethicists discuss whether the United States would be morally justified in going to war with Iraq.
The consensus among the four panelists in the "Just War Doctrine: When Is War Really Justified?" forum is that war with Iraq would be morally justified, though the men differed as to why a potential conflict would meet classical Just War doctrine.
The panel included Daniel Heimbach, professor of ethics at Southeastern and well-known authority on the doctrine of Just War; Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Mark Liederbach, an assistant professor of ethics at Southeastern whose contribution was an understanding of the gospel in relation to Just War; and David Jones, also a Southeastern assistant professor of ethics.
Heimbach opened the discussion by laying out why war, in some cases, can be justified and legitimized by the Bible, quoting texts such as Romans 14:19, Proverbs 2:7-9 and Romans 13 to make his case.
Based on the biblical witness, Heimbach said, "We cannot ask if it is justifiable to go to war. We must ask when is it moral to go to war, and how do you fight a war morally?"
Heimbach has a unique perspective on the current crisis. As a member of President George H.W. Bush's administration, Heimbach drafted a memo that the President used as a moral platform for the 1991 Gulf War. Heimbach believes any conflict with Iraq that the current President Bush presses would be justified as a continuation of that conflict because Iraq has never fully complied with the terms of the 1991 surrender agreement.
Heimbach took care to clarify that he thought the Just War principle of last resort — in other words, has every diplomatic channel been exhausted? — had long ago been passed.
"You can send inspectors back over…but if there's no deadline, then you have turned Just War into pacifism," he said. "War with Iraq is justified."
Land, who is already on record as supporting possible war with Iraq, agreed with Heimbach on his major proposals. The two experts disagreed on one point, though. Land argued that a regime change in Iraq would be morally justified, whereas Heimbach said that if the only reason the United States attacked was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, it would not be justified.
"I think just cause can be a just cause of war if the regime is evil enough," Land said.
Land went on to point out another facet of Just War doctrine that the Bush administration has met: legitimate authority. Approval by the United Nations is not required for moral conflict, he said.
"The legitimate authority for committing American soldiers, sailors and airmen to war is the Congress of the United States, not the United Nations General Assembly and not the United Nations Security Council, period," Land said, eliciting loud applause from the audience.
Southeastern President Paige Patterson, who moderated the discussion, posed a question to the panelists that many Christians struggle with: If God is sovereign, shouldn't Christians let God deal with the ramifications of evil?
Heimbach responded with an argument based on Romans 13, which he said clearly states that human government has been legitimately given authority to execute justice in His stead on the earth.
"It's not a limitation of God, it's that God wants to use us," Heimbach said. "He could do it himself, but He wants us to do it."
Land agreed. "The biblical standard is not peace at any price," he said. "The biblical standard is a just peace."
Liederbach raised a question that he has often dealt with in his ethics classes: What are the implications of the gospel on Just War? Using the analogy of a parent disciplining a child, he pointed out that governments have a responsibility to bring those who do evil back into a compliance with accepted laws. But the responsibility for Christians extends to not only forcing evil regimes like Iraq to comply, but also praying that the leaders of those regimes come to faith in Christ.
"That would [mean] a heart change would go on in that part of the world," Liederbach said. "That's what we need to be praying for. That's how a Christian wages spiritual warfare."
The panelists responded to the oft-heard criticism that pacifism is the only option for a Christian. According to that thinking, any violence is evil and therefore war is evil.
But Heimbach responded that it is not God's design for evil to rule and reign on earth; instead, God vested governments with the authority to execute justice.
"Because evil is real in the world, sometimes we have to fight as a last resort against evil," Heimbach said.
Land echoed those sentiments. "The resort to lethal force, authorized by a legitimate authority, is sometimes the price human beings have to pay for living in a moral universe," he said.
Just War Principles
Among the additional principles Heimbach believes President Bush has met:
• Just cause Starting or joining a war must be to restore justice.
• Probability of success It is never right to sacrifice life and property in a hopeless cause. While it is impossible to predict how a war might affect Islamic militants around the world, Heimbach said the probability of success is high.
• Right spirit It is not right to go to war while hating your enemy. President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, made it clear that he and the American people love the people of Iraq and will be generous when Saddam Hussein finally yields, Heimbach said.
• Right intention The external result intended must be restoring peaceful order,
not replacing government, glory, humiliation, or punishment. "President Bush made it very clear in his State of the Union address that our ultimate goal is restoring peace and stability to the region."
Heimbach also cited the following principles for conducting a war:
• Proportionality in the use of force Never use more force than needed to achieve an objective.
• Discrimination Distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and never harm non-combatants on purpose.
• Avoidance of evil means Rape, pillage, desecration, destroying economic life, hostage-taking, and torture are never right (no matter what).
• Good faith Enemies should always be treated with honor and human dignity.