A Perspective on War, Love and Iraq

By Joel Heimbach
Aug 26, 2008

College campuses around the country are rife with debate over the legitimacy of the War on Terror and, specifically, the war in Iraq. This conversation has also reached the Christian collegiate community, but in a different way. Though the merits of the War on Terror are important issues of contention, for followers of Christ the discussion has focused more on what is the biblical view of the ethics of war—whether war is ever morally justified for moral people and a moral social order.

For some, any stance supporting war at all seems contrary to scripture. To them, thinking that one can ever be justified killing an enemy under any circumstance appears to contradict the Christian obligation to always love our enemies. But to answer these questions in a biblically responsible manner, Christians must take care to first understand the larger biblical framework for treating the ethics of war. Followers of Christ must interpret the meaning of scripture by scripture to arrive at what God truly says about war and peace. We must frame our questions by moral principles clearly revealed in the word of God and avoid interpretations that suggest God is not consistent with himself.

When it comes to questions of war and peace, Christians must take into account five indisputable principles the Bible reveals about the way God views the ethics of war—principles that remain the same in both the Old and New Testaments. First, God reveals that wars and the conditions that cause them will exist until Christ returns to establish his universal political rule. In Daniel 9:26, God says that “war will continue until the end,” and Christ later reiterates the same idea (Matthew 24:6). In Ecclesiastes 3:1,8, Solomon under inspiration of the Holy Sprit also states that, “there is a time for everything . . . a time for war, a time for peace.” Finally, Isaiah reveals there will be a time all wars will end, but only after the Messiah sets up an eternal, political (not just spiritual) kingdom (Isaiah 2:2-4).

Second, God reveals that human rulers have a divinely appointed responsibility to uphold justice and resist evil, even to the point of sometimes going to war. In Psalm 144:1, David—the legitimate King and authority of Israel—credits the Lord as the one “who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” Paul echoes the same idea when referring to the legitimate, divinely supported governing authority of human rulers saying that civil government “does not bear the sword [the “machaira,” which refers to a weapon for death used for war and capital punishment] for nothing. He [the social government] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong doer” (Romans 13:4).

Third, God reveals that military service is a morally honorable profession and there is nothing inherently wrong with a moral person serving as a soldier. In Luke 3:14, some soldiers asked John the Baptist how they should reform their lives (i.e. what sins they should confess and get rid of) to please the coming Messiah, and rather than tell them to leave military service as an immoral profession, he tells them to practice their profession as soldiers in a moral manner, assuming there was nothing wrong with serving in the right way.

Fourth, Jesus as God incarnate approved of kings going to war under the right circumstances and expected even his own disciples would sometimes need to use deadly weapons for self-defense. In Luke 14:31, Jesus commends the wisdom of kings going to war for justified reasons so long as they are winnable; and, in Luke 22:36, Jesus instructed his disciples to carry weapons if reasonably needed for self-defense after he had left this earth.

Finally, the Bible reveals there is a dialectical moral tension in God’s moral order regarding war. On the one hand, God clearly blesses “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), and expects believers to, “if possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). On the other hand, God also requires human rulers to “defend the cause of the weak” and to “rescue, the weak and needy” by “deliver[ing] them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:34). And, this is reiterated in the New Testament where Paul affirms that rulers have divine authority to use the power of the sword to resist and punish “those who do wrong” (Romans 13:3-4).

The moral tension this sets up between preferring peace while upholding justice creates a dialectic moral balance for guiding responsible government in a fallen world comprised of imperfect and often tyrannically evil men and women. Thus, the biblically consistent question for Christians to ask on the ethics of war is, not whether a God-pleasing nation or person can ever go to war, but rather under what condition or conditions it is morally justified to pursue war and then how to conduct a morally justified war in a morally just manner.

Christians should not reduce the meaning of biblical peace and love to nothing other than civil tranquility at all costs. For, while the biblical ethic is certainly not belligerent (does not seek after war as something desirable), it is also something far more complex and substantial than seeking to assure civil tranquility as an end in itself. God through Christ is reconciling sinners to himself. The Gospel of the New Testament is about “peace with God,” and should not be confused with the “peace” of civil non-violence. As far as that goes, Christians must not forget that Jesus rejected such confusion by clearly stating he was not preaching an ethic of civil tranquility (Matthew 10:34).

But despite this, many well-meaning Christians have nevertheless taken the call of Jesus Christ to peace and love in exactly that way, and have as a result used it to arrive at conclusions conflicting with so much else the Bible says about responsible human government and living lives pleasing to God while awaiting the return of Jesus Christ.

We have already noted how the “reduction of peace and love to absolute non-violence” conflicts with the full record of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels (see Luke 14:31; Luke 22:36; and Matthew 10:34). But perhaps the greatest problem with this interpretation for Bible-believing Christians is that it cannot be maintained without rejecting what the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, clearly says about the moral character of God never changing (Psalm 102:27; Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17). Those who argue that Jesus in the New Testament taught an ethic of total non-violence do not deny that God in the Old Testament ordered godly people to go to war, but rather claim that Jesus changed that by changing the moral order by which godly people should live. But since the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments treats God’s view of ethics to be nothing other than conforming everything we do and say to God’s moral character (Leviticus 11:44,45; 1 Peter 1:15-16), then the meaning of right and wrong cannot be changed in the New Testament without changing the character of God.

The ethic taught by Jesus Christ regarding peace and love is not an ethic centering on civil tranquility in which the character of God changes between the Old and New Testaments and the meaning and role of responsible government in a fallen world is redefined, but rather is an ethic centering on reconciling sinners to God regardless of living in a fallen world that will remain imperfect until Christ returns. While not preferring war in this life, the social dimension of the ethic taught by Jesus is not an ethic of non-violence no matter what, but is rather an ethic of imperfectly resisting social wickedness through reasonable human government while looking forward to social perfection in the world to come. And concerning the ethics of war, the Bible reveals that Jesus taught an ethic balancing the good of minimizing social injustice with the good of minimizing recourse to deadly force, while at the same time realizing peace and justice will (and can) never be perfectly reconciled until Jesus himself inaugurates a perfect social order in which sin and death are banished forever.

So, referring to the War on Terror and specifically the war in Iraq, the question Christians should be asking is, not whether war is ever morally justified in a fallen world before Christ returns, but rather whether this particular war is properly justified and, if so, whether it is being conducted in a morally justified manner. Thankfully, there are definite biblical standards for waging war morally and much study is available on this topic.

For the sake of brevity, instead of working step by step though each principle that the war in Iraq must meet in order to be considered a just war—both qualifications before conflict (jus ad bellum) and during the war (jus in bello)—the Iraq war will be analyzed considering only the pre-conflict conditions. Christian scholars largely agree on eight principles that must be met before going to war is considered “just.” These principles are: 1) there must be a just cause; 2) going to war must be decided by competent authority; 3) the result intended by going to war must be to restore peace, not to punish or humiliate anyone; 4) all reasonable non-violent alternatives must be exhausted before resorting to war; 5) there must be a reasonable probability of succeeding; 6) the good expected by going to war must outweigh the expected costs; 7) going to war must be regretted even if necessary, and is probably not truly necessary if decision makers are feeling eager about going to war; 8) the moral merit on our side must outweigh any merit of the enemy’s side.

There have been many reasons given to justify the war in Iraq, but there was only one that truly legitimized the United States’ use of force. This justification was to enforce the terms that ended the 1991 Gulf War and restore the just international order that had been violated by Iraq’s breach of the 1991 terms. The cease fire agreement was contingent upon numerous conditions, including weapons limitations and a “no-fly zone,” but the government of Iraq’s continued disregard for these terms created an injury that upset the just international order and, thus, warranted military action to restore the just peace. This cause out weighed the merits of that of the Iraqi government.

This reason, and only this reason, will provide the foundation for analysis of how the remaining jus ad bellum principles are met by the war in Iraq. Arguments attempting to justify US action in Iraq by citing regime change, spreading a specific moral order and the possibility (but not direct threat) of harm are not legitimate grounds for the United States’ actions in Iraq under just war terms. Such ideas—spreading democracy and regime change—only justify US action under crusade war terms and not just war.

Considering the second jus ad bellum principle, competent authority, the war in Iraq was initiated by those who held the requisite authority for engaging the nation in warfare and had responsibility for maintaining public order, i.e. Congress. The United States Congress, the legitimate authority for declaring war, sanctioned the use of force in Iraq in order to reestablish a just peace and the international order violated by Iraq’s disregard of the 1991 accords. Military action was not taken by a rogue government or branch of office, but by the established and legitimate authority, Congress, which directly represents the will of the governed.

The intent of the military action of the United States as legitimized by Congress also approached the war in Iraq with the right intent (if we are considering the just reason for going to war as specified before), which was not to punish or humiliate Iraq or its people, but one of love (love that sought the restoration of a just peace). The intention was to restore the previously established moral order, a genuine peace, which included the pursuit of a fair and humane order that is not restricted to mere absence of hostility (as under the conditions of the 1991 peace agreement).

Military action in Iraq was a last resort of the United States government. The Iraqi government was allowed to defy the United Nations Security Council regulations. The United States had waited a decade for the Iraqi government to uphold its side of the 1991 cease fire and had exhausted all reasonable nonviolent alternatives.

The Iraq War has not been hopeless and without progress to the overall objective of restoring a just peace for Iraq and has actually been quite successful. The situation in Iraq is becoming better and more peaceful daily. Restoring the complete, just order in Iraq is extremely probable and is happening currently. The tyrannical Iraqi government is disbanded, insurgents are on the run and the confidence of the Iraqi people in their own government is growing daily.

Also the proportion of good that has been done in Iraq greatly out weighs the harm that has befallen our soldiers and the Iraqi people. Though the conflict has caused death and destruction on both our and the Iraqis’ sides, the benefit of restoring the just moral order, allowing the Iraqi people to enjoy freedoms they never had, participate in their government and the ability to live in a more equitable Iraq for all its citizens out weighs what harm has been inflicted. The war in Iraq was treated as a tragic necessity. Leaders in our government have not attempted to glorify the war as something it was not.

From this analysis, it is clear that the war in Iraq meets all of the jus ad bellum just war principles when only considering the justification as defined earlier (to enforce the terms that ended the 1991 Gulf War and restore the just international order that had been violated from the breach of the terms). All other attempts to justify military action in Iraq—spreading democracy, regime change, destroying a perceived future threat—are not justified under just war terms

Further Learning

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5 Comments

1 On Aug 26, 2008, at 11:22pm, Stanley Hope wrote:

Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a just war.

You have it wrong. The Roman Catholic Church has it right. You are basing your judgment on nationalism, rather than Scripture.

You should pray about this.

2 On Aug 26, 2008, at 11:41pm, viki wrote:

How do we justify a war when it was based on wrong intelligence. I am an evangelical and I believe that vengeance belongs to God. What then does the bible mean by not paying evil with evil and turning the right cheek.
May be we should just stay out of politics because it is full of lies and makes christians seem like that.
It makes it difficult to reach out to non christians and share the gosple(esp. those of the islam faith).
We are so self righteous. The virtues of God are love and all the fruits of the spirit with which He reconciled men to Himself through Jesus Christ.
In the old testament, The Holy Spirit was not available to all men, just the priests, prophets and kings. So war was an answer to self defence.
I do not know the plans of God for the rest of time, or what goes on in the realm of the spirit, and Jesus did say there will be war, but we dont have to sound like Jesus endorsed it.

3 On Aug 29, 2008, at 6:47am, Austin wrote:

This was a well-thought out article, and quite complete in both it’s breadth and brevity.

However, -there’s always a however in these things, isn’t there?- I think the analyses is incomplete theologically, socially, ethically, and politically. I don’t have enough word space here to handle a point-by-point, but let me just say as a Christian and as a veteran of the Navy (who served during 9/11), I believe the war to be a grave error and to have left our nations defense largely incapacitated.

I agree with the other comment that this is far to close to making christianity seem to justify the Iraq war and war in general. Using the article’s points, we can construct an equally plausible justification for Russia’s invasion of Georgia, US support for dictators in Central America, and even China’s oppression of minority Christians.

4 On Aug 29, 2008, at 7:00am, Austin wrote:

It is particularly interesting the author’s dependence upon the legal justification for war, which in most other cases, the Evangelical community would criticize as being based on man’s reason, not God’s.

Most of all, this is so unimaginative. Really? The ERLC is mirroring Republican bullet points through Biblical interpretation? It’s just way too expected and redundant. I would love to see the ERLC take the stand that every other Christian denomination took when they petitioned the government not to go to war with Iraq. Not on dreamy, peacenik ideals, but on the basic reality that it was bad policy.

5 On Oct 17, 2008, at 8:41am, John wrote:

In describing causes for a just war, your analysis overlooks the supposed existence of WMD that the US used as a justification for invasion. Upon finding no WMD, that justification ceased to exist and USA should have pulled out.

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