Interview About Calvin Seminary Appointment With Glenda Mathes

At her blog Glenda Mathes has kindly posted her interview with me, which appeared in the August issue of Christian Renewal, following my appointment as assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary. Glenda concludes the article with my comment on the need for a fresh vision for faithful Christian witness:

We need a vision for faithful Christian witness that is thoroughly Reformed and evangelical. Given the times in which we live, faithfulness will require a greater willingness to be conformed to Christ in his suffering. Standing for the faith, for love, and for justice in conformity to God’s will for his creation is going to be costly. We need to have a clear understanding of the gospel, and we need to recover a clear understanding of what is means for the church to be the church—in preaching, the sacraments, discipline, and the diaconate.

You can read the whole piece here.

Trump, Cruz, and the Politicization of the Gospel

At First Things Richard Mouw joins in on the criticism of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who praised Donald Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Mouw agrees with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore that Falwell’s comments about Trump politicize the gospel. As Moore tweeted, “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”

What is interesting about Mouw’s piece is that he admits that in the past Calvinists have sometimes failed to overcome that third temptation of Christ. Even more interesting is that he points to Abraham Kuyper as a helpful corrective to this tendency. For those who are used to placing Kuyper in stark opposition to Reformed two kingdoms theology, Mouw’s brief description might begin to free them of that misguided tendency. Kuyper believed all of life falls under the lordship of Christ, of course, as did the classic Reformed two kingdoms tradition, but he also argued that Christ’s lordship calls for the sort of politics that embrace a democratic religious pluralism, as have some more recent Reformed two kingdoms advocates.

Mouw writes,

Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.

Falwell is not the only conservative Mouw might have criticized for politicizing the faith. Senator Ted Cruz apparently declared to his followers, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote their values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” “I want to tell everyone to get ready, strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming.”

Christians should be very wary of candidates who identify their campaigns so closely with the purposes of God and the gospel faith, just as they should be wary of candidates who needlessly alienate Muslims and those who practice other faiths. Mouw is correct. Justice is nothing if not comprehensive in its vision for a pluralistic society.

You can read the rest of Mouw’s piece here.

Following Jesus in Every Area of Life

In his second essay on the imitation of Christ Herman Bavinck wrestles with a very old problem. He points out that the New Testament was written by and for Christians who came from the underside of society – the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. As a result, its emphasis falls on the virtues and practices that are appropriate for people in such circumstances, such as patience, forgiveness, and obedience. The question is, how are Christians to work out the imitation of Christ in contexts of power, authority, and influence? If the New Testament’s version of a Christian ethic is a classic example of an “ethics from below,” how are we to implement it when we need an “ethics from above”? Here Bavinck points to the fact that the New Testament itself contains the principles for such an ethic, and suggests that Christians must get to the hard work of using those principles to translate the way of Christ in to a way of life appropriate for our own circumstances.

I believe Bavinck is correct to the extent that the New Testament emphasizes an ethic that is easiest to apply in contexts where Christians are not in control. I also agree that Christians need to work to apply that ethic to contexts in which we have power and influence, while ensuring that we are following the New Testament’s basic principles.

I worry, however, that we are often all too willing to assume that the hard parts of the New Testament’s ethic – the parts about being willing to suffer, to share our possessions, and to serve – must necessarily be translated so as to be amenable to contexts in which we are comfortable resisting evil, growing our wealth, advancing our ambitions, and preserving our rights. I also think that Christians have consistently underestimated the moral and spiritual compromises entailed in using power just like the world does. There is much in the history of Christendom of which we should be critical. To give just one example, why were the early Reformed, including Calvin, so willing to defend the use of the sword to punish heretics? Did they not find it too easy to abandon the example of Jesus and the early church in favor of Israel, at least on this issue?

Read the rest of this article here, at Reformation 21. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Death and Resurrection with Christ

In Part 1 of this series I highlighted the prominent attention the New Testament gives to the call to Christians to imitate Christ. I introduced this theme as the first step in defending my thesis that the central paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics) in the New Testament is union with and conformity to Jesus Christ, in whom all of God’s purposes for creation are fulfilled. Here in Part 2 I want to argue that the imitation of Christ should be understood as the practical outworking of the Christian’s obligation to be conformed to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is, of course, the Apostle Paul whose writings most clearly emphasize the decisive significance of the Christian’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. What I want to emphasize here, following the Heidelberg Catechism, is that Paul consistently makes the believer’s union with Christ the paradigm for his instruction regarding the Christian life… The driving theme of his exhortation is not a return to the law; it is conformity to Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled.

To read the rest of this article, the second part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue here at Reformation 21.

What Would Jesus Do? The Imitation of Christ

One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer – “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian – that “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing” – to its pastoral teaching regarding “what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father” – it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.

Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism’s explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God’s law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer’s conformity to Christ – which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new – as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism’s teaching regarding the substance of God’s moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law’s fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God’s character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, “God with us,” in flesh and blood.

To read the rest of this article, the first part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue at Reformation 21.

Pope Francis and the Need for Christian Political Liberalism

Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.

This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”

Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”

There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,

Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.

The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.

[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.

Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”

Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”

These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.

I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.

Pope Francis Fails to Mention Jesus Before Congress

If the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter were given the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress, do you think they would mention the name of Jesus? Pope Francis allegedly occupies the place of St. Peter, the bishopric of Rome. Though often introduced as the “leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics,” his primary claim is to be the vicar of Jesus Christ. And yet the pope did not find it necessary to name the name of Jesus when he addressed Congress yesterday (transcript here; Nor did he mention Jesus’ name when speaking at the White House reception on Wednesday).

I am not the sort of person to be instinctively critical of Pope Francis, and I have praised his work before. Indeed, I largely agree with what he said in his speech about the importance of hospitality to the immigrant, care for the environment, justice for the poor, the protection of life, and the nurture of families. But I cannot get my mind around the fact that he mentioned all of this without saying why any of it matters. He did not even mention the name Jesus, or Christ, let alone say anything about Jesus’ death, resurrection, or future return.

Some of my Catholic friends are concerned about this too, and rightly so. Is Francis not as committed to the “new evangelization” as we had hoped?

Pope Francis has the attention of virtually the entire United States right now. The media is covering every word, every act, every moment of his visit. And what is the media talking about? Politics. Whether the pope’s comments benefit the right or the left, whether he’s helping Republicans or Democrats. No one, it would seem, cares much about the substance of the pope’s faith regarding Jesus. And why should they? The pope hasn’t mentioned Jesus, so Jesus must not be an important part of the pope’s message to America.

An atheist friend enthusiastically wrote on Facebook yesterday, “I am an atheist, and I love this Pope!” A writer for the Huffington Post happily declares that America has a “man crush” on Pope Francis. All people are speaking well of him.

There was a time when Jesus warned his disciples that such favorable reception on the part of “all men” is not a good sign (Luke 6:26). He warned them that the world would treat those who speak Jesus’ message as it treated Jesus himself (Matthew 5:11; 24:9). Prepared for this, the disciples insisted on doing everything that they did “in the name of Jesus,” using every opportunity, even when confronted by those in authority, to proclaim the good news of his death, resurrection, and future return. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).

The disciples’ opponents didn’t mind the good works, the acts of healing, the care for the poor. What bothered them was that the disciples were doing these things “in the name of Jesus.” As we read in Acts 4:18, the authorities permitted the disciples to carry out their ministry but “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” Peter’s response was that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). When it became apparent that the disciples were more than willing to defy the authorities, they were arrested again. The council reminded them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name” (5:28). What did Peter say? “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).

This was precisely the point of conflict that cost the disciples their freedom and eventually their lives. Even when prohibited from speaking the name of Jesus on penalty of imprisonment, torture, and death, they insisted that this was fundamental to their basic witness.

Yet in the land that the Pope himself described as the home of the free and the brave, to enthusiastic applause, he cannot find it in himself to even mention Jesus’ name.

This was the first time a pope has ever addressed a joint session of Congress, and Francis is a very popular pope. He has the ear of the country.

He didn’t have to beat the heads of Congress with a jeremiad. He didn’t have to get theological or even evangelistic. He didn’t have to highlight any particular moral or political issue. He was more than justified in being, as Jesus put it, as crafty as a serpent and as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16).

But he could have, at the very least, reminded his audience that he speaks for Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who came to dwell among us, died, and rose again, that human beings might have life in his name. He could have winsomely described that hope in just a few sentences, as we know he has done so eloquently before, before moving on to other matters appropriate for a joint session of Congress. No one would have questioned it. He is, after all, the pope, whose most basic claim is to be the vicar of Christ on earth.

Now the whole country is talking about the pope and the pope’s politics, but no one is talking about Jesus or the gospel. What a sad day. What a wasted opportunity.

How Do We Know What God Intended For Sexuality?

In one of his famous dialogues with the Pharisees Jesus skillfully appealed to creation norms to trump the part of the Mosaic Code that permitted men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons.

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. . . . Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:4-6, 8-9)

Here Jesus intertwined the teachings of Genesis 1 and 2 to tie marriage indelibly to the ordering of human beings as male and female, an ordering that was itself indelibly tied to God’s purposes for sexuality and procreation. By linking the sexual relationship between male and female introduced in Genesis 1 to the one flesh union introduced in Genesis 2, Jesus pronounced judgment on all legal engineering that would reduce marriage to something else (in the case of Matthew 19, an opportunity for men to treat women like slaves).

Read the rest of this article at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Cutting Ties With the Founders

The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.

Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.

The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.

But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.

But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.

It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.

Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?

What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.

We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.

Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.

The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.

Hiroshima, 70 Years Later: My Country Right or Wrong?

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima. On this day, seventy years ago, the United States used an atomic bomb in warfare for the first time in history. Another would follow, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. It is no exaggeration to say that since that time the world has been fixated on making sure that no nuclear weapon is ever used again. At this very time the American Congress debates whether or not to support President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran, designed to prevent Iran from attaining the capability the United States already used against Japan a lifetime ago.

The single bomb used on this day, August 6, was not used against a military target. It was dropped on an urban area, a major population center with hundreds of thousands of civilians, including the elderly, women, and children. Some 85,000 people were killed either instantly or within the first day. Many, many more died in the days and months following. Within four months the death toll reached as high as 165,000, the vast majority of whom were civilians. For the survivors, that was just the beginning of the ordeal.

As one who experienced it writes today,

As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometers from Ground Zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out….

Of a population of 360,000 — largely non-combatant women, children and elderly — most became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As of now, over 250,000 victims have perished in Hiroshima from the effects of the blast, heat and radiation. 70 years later, people are still dying from the delayed effects of one atomic bomb, considered crude by today’s standard for mass destruction.

Many Americans are as convinced that the United States was right in using the atomic bomb against Japan as they are that the United States has the right to bomb Iran in order to prevent it from developing the same capability. The two situations are hardly the same, of course, and there are sophisticated arguments in defense of each position. But quite often, I fear, the opinion stems from little more than an instinct that amounts to “My country, right or wrong.”

In fact, both arguments – that the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and that the United States is justified in bombing Iran should it develop nuclear weapons today – are flatly contradictory to classic Christian just war theory. This is hard for patriotic American Christians to admit, but it is no less clear for that.

During the 1940s, it is true, Japan was a dangerous, imperialistic aggressor that had rashly launched the United States, Asia, and the Pacific into World War II. Millions of innocent people paid for Japan’s imperialism with their lives, and many more suffered unspeakably. The U.S. government accurately reasoned that thousands of American soldiers would have to die to bring the Empire of the Sun to its knees. Given this scenario it is understandable that President Truman decided that it was better for many more Japanese people to die than for more American soldiers to die. But that does not make it right, nor does it lessen the horror of what America did.

It was a decision that emerged within the context of the Allied strategy used against both Germany and Japan during the final years of the war. Major cities were targeted because they contained hundreds of thousands of civilians. They were carpet bombed and firebombed. The Allied strategy was not only to destroy the Axis powers’ military and industrial capacity; it was to terrorize their populations into refusing to support the war effort. The culmination of a long road of military reasoning that began with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s determination to make the people of Georgia know that “War is hell,” it was a blatant violation of the just war principle that says that innocent civilians are never to be targeted with lethal force in military operations. It was rationalized by the assumption that it was justified by in the context of civilization-threatening Total War.

The Cold War showed us just where this attitude toward Total War could lead; the attitude itself threatens civilization. In recent decades America’s approach to war has shifted accordingly. The United States military worked hard not to target civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the motivation for the invasion of Iraq and the potential use of military force against Iran are driven by the determination to secure the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But the irony is that this determination has led to a new violation of just war theory, a violation of the principle that war is only to be waged when necessary to defend a nation from an aggressor that is already in the act of waging war or some commensurate injustice. This violation is rationalized based on the principle, first clearly articulated by President Bush’s administration, that preemptive war is sometimes necessary to prevent an aggressor from waging war before it begins. Once again, it is assumed that this course of action is necessary in order to preserve civilization from otherwise imminent destruction.

My point is not to reduce our memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to its relevance for present day policy (though we can’t afford to ignore its lessons). These events – and the people who suffered from them – should be commemorated in their own right. But one of the appropriate ways to commemorate them is to reflect on the consequences of human sin – the sheer depths of evil to which nations can fall even when they are acting according to what they deem the purist motives and the obliterating destruction with which humanity is now threatened on a permanent basis.

Does God see it? Does God care about this and other injustices? How long, O Lord? The answer to the problem of evil remains unsolved, but God has made it clear what side he is on. He hears the oppressed and he answers their cry. He judges evil, though not ultimately in the way that we might expect. To paraphrase Ellie Wiesel, where was God at Auschwitz? He was on the gallows. Where was God at Hiroshima? He was among the charred remains, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

One hundred and sixty-five thousand human beings, each with their families, their stories, their hopes, their struggles. One bomb. And that’s what the good guys did. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t forget it. How long O Lord?

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