Of hawks and doves: A personal journey of discovery of war
hen I first heard about the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre, I was at my dining table trying to pen a paper entitled, ‘Understanding Religious Resurgence: Devotion, Reform & Sacrifice.’ I had tried to read extensively on religious conflict for the better part of two years to understand the socio-political forces at work. There were times I could barely contain the tears at the atrocities committed against the defenceless and innocent. Still, nothing prepared me for the spiritual trauma that followed. I alternated among feelings of distress, anger, benevolence and malevolence. “If God is just,” I thought then, “He must avenge.”
Scarcely a little more than a month later, the war on Afghanistan began. Protests were muted and the whole quick exercise seemed cathartic, not only for the US but strangely also for the rest of the world. God, it seemed, had once again worked out His righteous purpose. Eighteen months later, however, the US was at war again, this time organising one of the most violent assaults in history against a country – Iraq. This time, my feelings were very different.
Some months before, I had been bothered in my spirit. The issue it seemed was not what sort of person God wanted me to be but what worldview He wanted me to have, that is, what things to cherish and what to put away. I have always been a little too blasé at the thought of death and destruction. I was perfectly comfortable with the idea of the necessity to take life in circumstances that warrant it. Now it was apparent that a values change was in the works. I became a ‘hawk’ longing to be a ‘dove’. The tensions between intellect and spirit, however, were strong. I wrestled with faith, teachings and conscience until that kairos moment when they converged to form my own little epiphany.
Christians have, of course, been vexed for the past two millennia over the issue of war. As one would expect after such a long period of time, the problem is not that there are no answers but rather too many. The battle lines of argumentation have become neatly drawn and positions deeply entrenched. It is only a matter then of choosing which side to defend, from ‘just cause-just war’ to ‘unjust cause-unjust war’ and every combination in-between. With the rise in humanism on the one hand and political participation on the other, doves have possibly increased in numbers but given the numerous conflicts around the world, there are still enough for subscribe to violence as the answer to their problems.
Augustine was the one who originally said that Jesus’ admonitions against violence were not to be taken literally but were a state of mind. If the mind is conditioned first and always by a love for God, he said, even forbidden acts are permissible. In any case, the individual never had a James Bond-like personalised licence to kill. He could only do so if instructed by God or by those in whom God had invested legitimate authority. Aquinas likened the person who engages in a just war as a mere instrument of the state. Paul Ramsey, a 20th century Catholic theologian credited with rediscovering the tradition, could say that it was not an exception to the command of “thou shall not kill (murder)” but an expression of “moral and political responsibility.”
The reformed church also bought into the idea that there is a morally and ethically right time to kill. During the Second World War, Reinhold Niebuhr, a disillusioned pacificist, developed the concept of ‘Christian realism’ to mobilise church support against the Nazis. Embedded in this concept is the idea that Christ’s teachings can only be approximated in the world. It represents an ideal towards which Christians strive but never grasp in a sinful world. Logic and common sense would seem to rule that we really cannot do otherwise. If Niebuhr had not been successful at convincing the large numbers of pacifist American churchmen that fighting the Nazis was right (or if Pearl Harbour had not happened) we might have ended up under German-Japanese rule.
On the other side of the ‘Kingdom of God’ are the so-called ‘peace churches’. Brethren, Quakers and Mennonites, for example, have all maintained a consistent stand occasionally at great sacrifice to themselves. Their insistence is on the literal and specific application of scriptures. The evangelical community itself seems to be divided into a war school and a peace school. (Indeed, there are those who positively jump for joy at the prospect of war since this “heralds” the Second Coming of Christ.) The former argues that Romans 13:1-5 gives nations the right to prosecute wars and to require Christians to fight in them. Like the early church fathers, a distinction is made so that what applies to the individual does not necessarily also apply to rulers and those in authority.
Unlike times past, however, the citizens of many countries elect their governments and have the right not only to express a view against war but also demand that the government of their choice does the same. It is now no longer possible to so easily draw the line between governor and the governed. Perhaps the most damning indictments of just war theorists (and Niebuhr for that matter) is one which Alan Johnson made in his 1985 article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society: Proponents of just wars, he says, just do not engage and reflect on the whole scriptures, not even highly respected theologians and churchmen writing on the subject.
A month before the Iraq war started, I presented my disjointed thoughts at a Research Commission meeting. In it, I said that the eschatological imagery was that Christians were meant to be “powerless sitting ducks,” oppressed and defeated in the flesh so that only Christ was able to save. As I delved deeper, this view changed. A number of things of which I had been either unaware or unclear kept surfacing.
First, God has, in the past, we know engineered or allowed wars in order serve His purposes. There are also suggestions that He will continue to do so. Thus, I have no right to adopt an absolutist position that rules war out of hand in a way that transcends His sovereign will.
Second, I must make a clear distinction between what is truth and belief. Often, when I say that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ or bad’, I am expressing values, preferences and incomplete knowledge rather than any objective and verifiable truth. Only He is omniscient and infallible.
Third, even with the benefit of “God-breathed” truth (2 Tim. ), we can only “see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” and “know (only) in part. (1 Cor. 13:12). I have been guilty many times of being so sure of myself that it amounts to unfounded pride and arrogance.
Fourth, those who allow just wars are faced with constantly having to make decisions about where the boundaries are. In the end, it is always someone’s call and the term ‘just’ can be no more than a religious salve to kill without guilt. I should not wish to be responsible or party to such decisions.
Fifth, notwithstanding the above, Christians of every persuasion are equally loved and capable of fitting into His divine plan. If Cyrus, the Persian king could be His Anointed One, I have no grounds for disrespecting and ridiculing those who seek different goals using different methods.
Sixth, my divinely-ordained mission is not to judge for others what is just or unjust or righteous or unrighteous, as if that authority were ever invested in me. It has not and will not. My commission is to love God with my whole being and my fellow man as myself.
Seventh, it is possible to hold any position if there is no price to pay. He has called me to bring healing, freedom and encouragement even if that conviction costs me freedom and my life. It is something I must be prepared to pay. His assurance is that it will be worth it.
 Alan Johnson, ‘The Bible And War In America: An Historical Survey’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1985. Also available at www.faithmaps.org