I wrote this post last week, and it’s been sitting in my drafts folder. It’s such a sensitive subject, and I am so very much “in process” in mulling over it. But I know that as my understanding grows, I’ll want to remember the stepping stones along the way, and this is one of them. I’m planning to follow up this post with another one that simply lists some recent sources I’ve found helpful.
On to the post at hand…
This week’s chapter of The Story includes lots of war. Jericho. Ai. The Amorites. Makkedah. “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”
It seems clear that we aren’t supposed to emulate the Israelites in geopolitical terms; we’re not supposed to invade and conquer to gain territory or kill inhabitants in God’s name. Why? Because “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet here it is.
It makes me take a step back and think about the larger perspective on war in the Bible. Recently I read in The Myth of a Christian Nation that we probably wouldn’t have war, even wars with “good” results like Civil War or World War II, if Christians were really living the way Jesus tells us to. What if Christians had stood against slavery? What if pastors had put slaveholding on the same level as other “bad” sins, like adultery? What if Christians had worked with southern plantation owners to make their economy viable without dependence on human trafficking?
Unfortunately, it happens time and time again: Christians don’t actively love — don’t step up to protect the good and the beautiful and the right — and war becomes an alternative.
War is a condition of life in the Old Testament; God is said to command the Israelites to fight often to further his goals for humanity at large. Immediate issues usually involve territory; often there is a spiritual conflict as well. Time and again they are told to thoroughly demolish their enemies, including people of all ages, possessions, and religious paraphernalia. It’s more than what’s necessary merely to gain territory or establish political dominance. It makes me wonder if there are spiritual dimensions to life in the ancient world that are no longer apparent to us today. There are, after all, plenty of miracles, all told matter-of-factly: divine manifestations through pillars of fire or voices descending from heaven; angelic visits, some of them involving visible ascents heavenward (Samson’s mother and Manoah). Sometimes God’s “army” appears visibly, but they seem to be more a sign of God’s presence with the Israelites than supplemental military force. There is a big fish that swallows, delivers, and deposits a prophet where he is supposed to go. Two cities are destroyed with fire and brimstone after several reasonable warnings. These things are all incredible! They imply that the spiritual atmosphere is somehow thinner in the ancient world. In such a context it becomes imaginable that the military conflicts had more obvious spiritual dimensions too.
In Letters from a Skeptic, I read some of the horrific details of Canaanite life: ritual slaughter of infants; tying women’s legs together during childbirth so that they would die; torture and abuse of all kinds. It’s part of the “normal” texture of life for them. It sketches out in much more graphic detail what may have been meant by the terse statement in Genesis 6 that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” It isn’t hard to believe that there may have been demonic forces involved in such cultural practices. Thus it becomes at least a possibility that ancient wars were more obviously spiritual battles than can be seen merely from the written record.
But over the course of Scripture, things change. In the New Testament, Jesus is noticeably less political and less of a warrior. He does not join in with any of the varied political forces vying for power in his day, and he chastises John and James in Luke 9 for wanting to call down God’s wrath. He heals the Roman’s ear that Peter cuts off, and scorns political boundaries by healing Roman and Samaritan people as well as Israelites. But he too seems to regard war as a condition of life in a fallen world: Matt. 24:6 he says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”
He is depicted as a warrior himself in Revelation, but these are not visions he ever delivers on in his Incarnation. They remain veiled to us, accessible only in dream visions and prophecies. I understand Jesus’s warrior status as referring to his authority in the spiritual realm — and authority that Scripture tells us we will one day see him act upon. But this is in marked contrast to the frequent intervention of God in human wars in the Old Testament.
I guess my point is simply that there is a very obvious progression in the attitude Scripture takes toward war. Yet overall war remains something that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us either how to justify or how to condemn. It’s like many other consequences of fallenness that we see in the Bible. Illness. Aging. Corrupt authorities. Abuse. Jesus lives among these grievous realities, and in his lifetime he works to stop suffering wherever he can. He heals. He protects. He tells the truth. Could it be that he sees war as a consequence of a fallen creation, and simply expects us to pray and follow our conscience? For some that will mean pacifism. For some, that will mean fighting to protect certain ideals or people. Neither should be made into an absolute moral rule.
The existence of wars in the first place, like the existence of so many other kinds of fallenness, is what is wrong. How we respond is a secondary question at best. I appreciate the protection of our country’s military. However dysfunctional our foreign policy is, however corrupt our political powers, the armed forces are made up of many honorable and brave people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. But wouldn’t the best possible option be a world in which they didn’t have to? We scoff at the possibility: “Such a world will never be.” Maybe our thinking needs to shift away from abstract questions about whether war can be just, and toward questions about how we can live our faith in ways that prevent war from becoming a possibility in the first place.