Category Archives: Just War

The Sanctity of Life in the Heidelberg Catechism: the Sixth Commandment

In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).

Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.

Image result for Thou shalt not kill

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.

In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.

The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.

Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.

Read the rest of this article here.


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?

Should the United States Attack Syria?

A week ago I received a report from the International Crisis Group that began with the following warning:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.

The report goes on to identify the various arguments in favor of the attack – and then to refute them.

  1. The United States wants to punish, deter, and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Response: But the use of chemical weapons account for perhaps 1% of the 100,000+ deaths the Syrian people have suffered during the past few years, many of them (but not all) at the hands of the Assad regime.
  2. The United States needs to attack in order to preserve its credibility, President Barack Obama having declared that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line that would not be tolerated. Response: such an argument would hardly persuade the skeptical Syrian people who have the most to lose from the escalation of the current war.
  3. U.S. attacks would be contained and would not lead to “boots on the ground.” Response: Rule Number One about war is that you can never predict consequences. There is no such thing as a carefully controlled war. If Syria or one of its allies retaliates, will the United States decline to defend itself? Not likely. Furthermore, if landing troops on the ground might secure chemical weapons against further use, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued before Congress, such a move must not be ruled out.

This week President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue their vigorous effort to persuade Congress (and the American people) that it should authorize an attack on Syria. President Obama is set to address the American people tomorrow. Although the administration has its supporters – including influential Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as the Republican House leadership – it faces much stronger opposition from across the political spectrum. Strong arguments against an attack have been raised by individuals and groups as diverse as the New York Times Editorial Board, Slate, the Cato Institute, National Review, Pope Francis, R.R. Reno, and Jim Wallis.

If there is a Christian view of the current crisis, it may be Syria’s Christians who can best articulate it. As Mark Mouvsesian writes at First Thoughts,

This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government.

This perspective doesn’t seem particularly distinctively Christian, but it’s not clear to me that it needs to be. Civil government is by its very nature a messy business, and Syria’s Christians can hardly be blamed for taking a strong Romans 13 line on this one.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… for he is God’s servant for your good.

Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has for some time supported American intervention in Syria. When I had the chance to ask him about it a few months ago, his argument boiled down to this: the United States can’t let Iran win in Syria.

Is that the best that just war theory can do?

To be sure, some of the arguments against intervention seem to prove too much. The papacy always promotes peace as its official policy, as it probably should. Yet Catholic First Things editor R.R. Reno writes,

Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime… We would be killing them so that. . . .  the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.

Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.

I disagree with this argument. Frankly, I find it absurd to claim that in order for a war – any war – to be just, it requires decisive victory. I find Reno’s claim just as troubling that waging war in order to send a message – “symbolic killing” – is “fundamentally immoral.” Pressed to its logical conclusions, this seems to imply that if there is ever just cause for the use of military force, it has to be all or nothing.

A glance over human history suggests otherwise. There are many instances in which nations have gone to war with very limited objectives, often simply to “send a message,” and been eminently successful. The whole balance of power that preserved early modern Europe (from the most part) from the cataclysmic wars of the later 20th Century was based on an understanding of the use of force that involved a highly symbolic framework, as well as codes of respect for civilians and the rules of war.

What’s more, Oliver O’Donovan has made a powerful argument that war can only be justified as an instance of judgment, and that all judgment, but especially the death penalty, is fundamentally symbolic. Considered in these terms, it is not so absurd for the Obama administration to claim that the use of chemical weapons violates international law, and therefore deserves punishment, a punishment that may be more symbolic than absolute.

Given this, John Kerry’s argument for an attack on Syria needs to be taken seriously. There will be painful repercussions of an erosion of the international ban on chemical weapons. This case does have fearful implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And no nation can afford to take such concerns lightly. As Kerry warns,

For nearly 100 years, the world has stood up for an international norm against the use of chemical weapons

Are we willing to abandon that position now?

But of course, the actual situation in which we find ourselves is much more complicated than this simple calculus implies. It is true that international law – including a treaty signed by Syria itself – condemns the use of chemical weapons. It is equally true that the same international law offers no clear justification for unilateral enforcement by one nation. President Obama is arguing that America should go to war without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, without the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and without the cooperation of our oldest and best ally, Great Britain. And this despite the fact that Syria has not attacked the United States, nor is it threatening to attack the United States. As the New York Times suggests, there is no precedent for this in international law.

The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense … The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.

By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.

In addition to the objection rooted in international law, there is the objection rooted in the American Constitution. It seems more and more likely that President Obama will not receive the authorization of Congress. If so, the enforcement of international law not only depends on the unilateral use of power by the United States, but the unilateral use of power by the executive branch of the US. government, without the support of the American people. Is that really international law at work?

To be sure, there are emergency situations where the President has the constitutional authority to commit American troops to war without congressional authorization. But this situation is no emergency. President Obama is not arguing that American interests are at stake, or that the United States is in danger. He claims that we have time, plenty of time, to make the right decision. So why act alone? Again the New York Times reports,

The move [to seek authorization from Congress] is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”

It also seems appropriate to judge that if Congress does not concur, the President may want to hold back.

There is no doubt that the United States needs to do whatever it can to persuade the international community to enforce its prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, and I laud President Obama for making that effort. But where such efforts at persuasion fail, it makes little sense to claim that one president – against his country and against the international community – can single-handedly uphold this standard. No matter how personally convinced Obama is that his cause is just and that he can represent the interests of the world, he is no more convinced than Woodrow Wilson was in 1917 or George W. Bush was in 2003. Our neighbors (and enemies) around the world get that, and they will not hesitate to use it against us.

Yet we should not be naive about the consequences of such a rebuff to the White House. Walter Russell Mead notes that President Obama has said so much, relative to Syria and Iran, about red lines, about regimes having to go, and about his determination to bomb Syria, that for Congress to pull the rug out from under him would be to destroy the credibility of the only President of the United States we will have for the next three years. This crisis may have been a crisis of President Obama’s own making (the President should have secured the necessary support before he said what he was going to do), but that does not make its consequences any less serious. In a Middle East that is already so volatile, in a situation where the big crisis (Iran) is still coming, for the region’s leading power and the guarantor of the current world order to be AWOL is a potentially cataclysmic scenario. As Mead puts it, “We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.”

Mead summarizes the dilemma perfectly. Congress only has two very bad possible courses of action, and the best we can hope for is that it chooses the least bad option.

Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.

Of course, I’m no Syria expert, nor am I a scholar of international affairs. But at a very basic level, it seems to me that if we have two very bad options, war and peace, neither obviously better than the other, we should default to peace. That’s where just war theory places the burden, and that’s where Jesus pointed Christians, at least as a general rule:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.

Is It Just For The United States To Intervene In Syria?

At Acton University, on Wednesday, I had the privilege of hearing Marina Nemat speak about her arrest and torture as a teenager following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Nemat was just a young girl, sixteen years old, when she was arrested. She described her upbringing as a Christian in Iran leading up to the Revolution as quite normal. There was no religious tension between Christians and Muslims; women were able to travel freely, to dress like westerners and, as she put it, “have fun.” That all changed in 1979.

Nemat, along with many of her friends, was arrested because of her involvement in protests against the new regime. She was beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement during an imprisonment of two years. She described to us how she was forced to convert to Islam in the face of threats that if she did not, her parents would be arrested and face the consequences. Nemat was raped and forced to marry her torturer.

But Nemat’s response to this horrific treatment was to draw closer to Christ, whom, she reasoned, had been through even worse suffering, and therefore understood what she was experiencing. Rather than hate or seek vengeance on her torturers, as she was tempted to do, she chose to forgive them. The consequences, and the PTSD, remain with her throughout her life. But despite the pain, the only possible response, she insists, is to show the love of Christ.

Still, Nemat distinguishes between forgiving people and failing to resist their tyranny. Having immigrated to Canada, she wrote the international bestseller Prisoner of Tehran, and has devoted her time and energy to speaking around the world against torture.

What was perhaps most interesting about Nemat’s speech was her insistence that more often than not American interventions in the Middle East make the problems worse rather than better. CIA complicity in the Iranian coup of 1953 helped pave the way for the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Americans like to do things quick and clean, she pointed out, but democracy is a process, not an event. Americans need to abandon their tendency to think that a revolution is always the solution.

In short, despite her torture and abuse at the hands of Islamists, or rather because of it, Nemat is highly skeptical of the benefits of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

These comments, of course, follow closely on President Obama’s decision last week to send U.S. arms to the Syrian rebels. The administration is now convinced that “Butcher” Assad’s regime has crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. There must therefore be “consequences”: America will contribute just enough in the way of small arms to ensure that a balance of power is preserved and the war – which has already claimed 93,000 lives – can drag on.

In this case one might point out, in the administration’s defense, there is no expectation of a quick and easy fix. Against the arguments of Secretary of State John Kerry, but in line with the views of the Pentagon (the Joint Chiefs appear to adamantly oppose intervention), the president is refusing to create a no-fly zone or to use air power to bring Assad’s regime down. The objective (as in Vietnam!), is not victory, but negotiation.

Such a strategy may have the merit of avoiding the sort of interventions that brought U.S. forces into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, but it hardly gives anyone hope that Syria will end up much better than have either of those countries. As Jeffrey Goldberg writes on,

The decision to provide small arms to the Syrian opposition has made no one happy — not the rebels, who understand that these quite-possibly ineffective weapons will take many months to reach them; not Kerry, who, while arguing that these shipments may become a “force multiplier” in the conflict, thinks that only a show of American air power will convince Assad and his Hezbollah allies that the U.S. is making a serious attempt to level a playing field that has been tilting their way for some time; and not the Pentagon, which thinks that Obama, despite saying that he is wary of the slippery slope, might be pushed down that slope anyway, by interventionists on his team or by events on the ground.

It is striking that even longtime interventionists like Walter Russell Mead now admit that it is hard to see how any of this might end well. The administration unnecessarily put itself in a corner with its Wilsonian rhetoric, first by declaring that “Assad must go,” and then by drawing the “red line” that would bring about such hard consequences. Now, if the United States does not act, President Obama will be regarded by countries like Russia and – most importantly – Iran as all bluff and no punch.

This is an entirely self-created problem; there was absolutely no objective reason for the administration to lay those markers on the table. There was no requirement in America’s foreign policy that the administration bounce in with the categorical demand that Assad step down….

Meanwhile at VM [Via Meadia], we are beginning to worry that there are now no good options left in Syria. Intervention looks increasingly like it would lead to a nasty quagmire; we supported it at an earlier stage before things had unraveled to their present point but are increasingly convinced that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so much that there is not a lot the US can do that would help. The current policy appears to be to feed the rebels just enough arms to keep the civil war grinding on, further polarizing Syrian society and promoting the rise of fanatical jihadis with ties to rich backers in the Gulf. Victory for Assad, even partial victory, would leave the administration in the position of having its bluff called and standing revealed as an incompetent blowhard on a major world political issue. Russia would gain credit throughout the region and the world for forcing Obama to fold, and Iran’s prestige would grow as Obama’s wilts.

If this is how the interventionists are talking, you know the case for war is weak. Yet war seems to be at the bottom of that slippery slope down which we are sliding. If Obama were to ask Congress to pass a resolution justifying intervention, he would probably get it.

What’s at stake? Mead reminds his readers why America cares about the Middle East in the first place:

The worst thing that can happen to the United States in the Middle East is that the Persian Gulf melts down and the oil flow stops, wrecking the global economy (and, despite our healthy domestic supplies, our own), bringing down the world financial system, causing mass unrest in country after country, and creating a messy situation in which a variety of ugly and expensive US interventions are absolutely required.

While most Americans probably agree that the United States should not seek to be the world’s policeman, the fact remains that America is the power that holds the global economic order together. Europeans and Australians may complain – as one burgeoning economist did to me over a few beers in Berlin last month – that U.S. militarism is out of control, but the fact remains that in the cases of Libya and Syria it is the British and the French who are pushing the Americans toward intervention. Why? They understand that the prosperity of the global economy does indeed depend on a measure of stability and security in the Middle East. Just as importantly, they understand that only the United States has the power to make that stability and security endure.

But does that amount to a case for U.S. intervention in Syria that would satisfy just war theory? I doubt the Obama administration is thinking about it from that perspective, but Christians have to wrestle with these questions. And when it gets down to it, we need to face up to the real question: is the stability of the Middle Eastern oil supply, and its importance for the global economy, sufficient grounds for the United States to intervene in a war in which neither side appears to merit such support? Perhaps the case can be made, but I remain skeptical.

The case for intervention seems to rest on something a lot more like Bismarckian Realpolitik than on anything comparable to just war theory, whether Christian or secular. And for that reason it seems to put us in that dangerous territory of having no idea what the unforeseen consequences of military action will be. Which takes me back to the stirring story – and warning – of Marina Nemat. Revolution, violence, and intervention don’t have a great track record in the Middle East. It’s one thing when war is unfortunately necessary as a requirement of justice; it’s a whole other thing when war is merely an uncertain gamble of international power politics. Perhaps both the safest, and the most just, thing the United States can do is to use its economic and diplomatic power to press for peace.

Is Preemptive War Ever Justified? Iran, Calvin and Just War Theory

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 placed the question of the morality of preemptive war at the forefront of discussions about just war theory. The primary legal justification offered by the Bush administration for the war was that Saddam Hussein was developing a weapons program in violation of legal constraints put in place after the 1991 Iraq War, and in violation of UN resolutions. The moral argument rested on the claim of the United States and other nations that if Saddam developed weapons of mass destruction, he would most certainly use them against Israel, the United States, or other countries. He had used such weapons in the past. Why wait for a smoking gun – an entirely avoidable catastrophe – to justify intervention in the present?

Of course, U.S. intelligence turned out to be wrong about the state of Iraq’s WMD program. It didn’t take long for the administration’s justification to shift its emphasis to a theme that had always been offered as a subsidiary justification for war – Saddam’s oppressive treatment of his people. Looking back, it seems, few non-politically aligned just war theorists defend the U.S. invasion as having been morally  justified.

But the question of the morality of preemptive war has not gone away. Indeed, with Iran allegedly on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has warned – emphatically – that it will use force, if necessary, to prevent that event. Iranian leaders, such as current president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, have spoken menacingly of wiping Israel off the map. At the very least a nuclear Iran would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East – for the worse.


What should Christians think of preemptive war, sometimes referred to in recent years as the “Bush Doctrine”? Christian just war theorists have consistently maintained that war is only justified as a last resort, and when necessary for self-defense, national security, or basic justice. They have generally assumed – and often insisted – that the existence of a hostile power, including the capacity of such a power to do great damage – does not meet this requirement.

John Calvin is no exception. In his commentary on the Torah he uses the story of the Egyptian pharaoh’s ‘preemptive’ genocide of Jewish male children (Exodus 1:9) to observe that nations almost always defend their unjust wars on the basis of the claim that their opponent is a threat to their own security. Very rarely does an aggressor openly acknowledge itself to be such. To “be beforehand in crime,” Calvin observes,

is commonly considered the best mode of precaution, so that only those are accounted provident who consult for their own security by injuring others, if occasion requires it. From this source almost all wars proceed, because while every prince fears his neighbor, this fear so fills him with apprehension that he does not hesitate to cover the earth with human blood.

Calvin extends the observation to relations between individuals, then condemns the mode of reasoning in both cases:

But this is a wicked kind of cunning (however it may be varnished over with the specious name of foresight), unjustly to molest others for our own security. I fear this or that person because he both has the means of injuring me, and I am uncertain of his disposition towards me. Therefore, in order that I may be safe from harm, I will endeavor by every possible means to oppress him… If thus every one should indulge his own distrust, while each will be devising to do some injury to his possible enemies, there will be no end to iniquities… For when we have once determined to provide for our own advantage, or quiet, or safety, we ask not the question whether we are doing right or wrong.

To be sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Calvin wrote these words. War is both less common and more distant for us than it was for Calvin. At the same time, it is far more destructive and potentially catastrophic. Nuclear weapons and terrorism raise questions that 16th century imperial invasions, territorial rivalries, and religious persecution did not. I do not think classic just war theory can be invoked simplistically to condemn the possible use of military force against an internationally condemned rogue power like Iran.

That said, it is not irrelevant either. Calvin’s observation that doctrines of preemptive war are the basis for almost all wars remains soberingly true. Just think of the great conflicts of the 20th Century. From the absurdity and bungling that led Europe into World War I to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and later the Soviet Union, from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the Soviet Union’s placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba, aggressive powers have always claimed that their military actions were necessary to preempt the far more catastrophic attack of an opponent.

The problem with the doctrine of preemptive war, as Calvin rightly notes, is that it is simply too open-ended. Virtually any rival or power can be deemed to be a threat needing to be preempted. Tension alone becomes justification for violent self-defense. A state of crisis becomes inseparable from a state of war.

On the other hand, we can all imagine scenarios in which a preemptive strike seems clearly to be justified. Israel’s attack on Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967 is one widely cited example.

What principles might be brought to bear to distinguish a legitimate preemptive strike from the vast majority of such strikes that underlie most unjust wars? How imminent must the threat be, before a preemptive strike is morally justified? And how do we be sure that we are not inventing these principles so as to justify the war we want to have, rather than to serve as a relatively objective form of self-criticism that might actually shape our actions? Is the potential development of nuclear weapons by a new power (an ever more pervasive phenomena) sufficient? I have a hard time with this, given that it is unclear morally why one group of nations should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, while preventing another group of nations from doing the same.

Does the agreement of the international community, represented by the United Nations, justify a preemptive strike? In the end the United States lacked such support for its invasion of Iraq. The UN is a problematic institution that is itself politicized and subject to uneven control by conflicting major world powers. Its legitimacy and efficacy is highly contested, and when national security is on the line, few powerful nations like the United States (or Israel) will cede to it veto power over the use of military force. Yet it may be the closest thing the world has to an objective international body that can arbitrate between legitimate and illegitimate justifications for preemptive war.

In the final analysis each nation, each government, makes these calls for itself, accountable to God. But as critics of just war theory point out, the theory has far too often been used simply as a form of moral self-justification than as a genuine means of testing policy options. The task of just war theorists, indeed, of all who deem themselves in a measure morally responsible for the actions of their government, is to face the moral question somewhat more honestly. For this reason, and in this time, we need to come to grips with the difficult problem of preemptive war. The question, as Calvin notes, is not whether or not we believe a war to be in our national interest. The question is whether our actions are just.

Is the American government accountable when it kills its own citizens?

I have not had the opportunity to study in any depth the Obama administration’s wide-ranging use of drones to kill terrorists. I am well aware of the longstanding criticisms of the use of drones coming from liberals as eminent as former President Jimmy Carter. I am also mindful that the increasing use of drones for targeted killings may be one unintended consequence of tightening restrictions both on the detention of suspected terrorists and on interrogative techniques bordering on torture. If it is extraordinarily difficult legally and politically to contain your enemies when you capture them, it becomes a whole lot simpler simply to kill them. That doesn’t make it right, but it does suggest that there are no pretty or ideal answers to the hard questions of how to wage a just war such as the War on Terror. “War is hell,” General William T. Sherman purportedly declared. That’s true even when we try to wage it justly.

Today Obama’s nominee as CIA director John O. Brennan will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing. The use of drones will certainly be discussed. And while most people in this country sensibly recognize that drones – like any other military technology – should be used to full advantage, there is also a healthy respect for the dangers of a kind of war that requires little risk on the part of America’s soldiers, that significantly endangers innocents, and that, most importantly, is potentially subject to massive abuse.

The current issue of controversy is whether or not President Obama – or any of his future successors – are accountable to the American people through their congressional representatives for the use of drones. In particular, can the President order the killing of American citizens involved in international terrorism without any  judicial oversight? I understand the fact that sometimes decisions have to be made without prior judicial or congressional permission. The president is, after all, the commander-in-chief, charged with the defense of this country. But I’m wary of a program that authorizes the government to use lethal force without any accountability for abuse. I don’t think American citizens who join the ranks of terrorists waging war against America retain all of their constitutional rights, but I do find myself agreeing with the New York Times in its criticism of the administration for dragging its feet on the matter of accountability.

The Times writes of the administration’s controversial white paper:

But it takes the position that the only “oversight” needed for such a decision resides within the executive branch, and there is no need to explain the judgment to Congress, the courts or the public — or, indeed, to even acknowledge that the killing took place.

The paper argues that judges and Congress don’t have the right to rule on or interfere with decisions made in the heat of combat. Some officials also draw a parallel to police officers who use violence to protect the innocent. Even in wartime, there are many ways to review commanders’ and soldiers’ decisions, and while courts-martial are internal to the military, their verdicts are subject to appeal to a civilian judge. When a police officer so much as discharges his weapon, it triggers a great deal of review, based on rules that are known to everyone….

Going forward, he should submit decisions like this one to review by Congress and the courts. If necessary, Congress could create a special court to handle this sort of sensitive discussion, like the one it created to review wiretapping. This dispute goes to the fundamental nature of our democracy, to the relationship among the branches of government and to their responsibility to the public.

It also goes to some fundamental principles of just war theory. No one should be allowed to use lethal force without some form of accountability under the law.

Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Bush: Just War Theory and America’s Wars

[I’m traveling for the holidays today, and in the next week and a half blogging will be somewhat more sporadic and brief than usual. I do hope to get up a few posts, however, the first of which is the following on Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and American wars. Things should be back to normal in January.]

I recently finished reading biographies of two presidents – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower – both of whose legacy was to a significant degree shaped by their foreign policies. In Roosevelt’s case, whatever the controversial legacy of the New Deal may be, the successful oversight of what is largely regarded as the greatest and most just war in human history cements his place in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. As for Eisenhower, although his eight years in the White House can be criticized on many points, he merits significant praise for navigating America through eight years of peace and prosperity, years book-ended before and after by bloody military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

Judging the morality of any given military conflict is a notoriously complicated task. Although it’s easy for armchair ethicists to judge wars once they have been fought and won (or lost), in the heat and passion of most conflicts, very few people have the wherewithal to make level-headed evaluations. For example, for most amateur students of history it is difficult to fathom why so many Americans believed the nation’s cause was so righteous – and why they were convinced so much was there to be won – in the First World War. The same is true of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and to a certain extent of the Mexican War in 1846-1848. It is increasingly the case with the Iraq War, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.

One of the things that really strikes me about the presidencies of Roosevelt and Eisenhower was just how seriously these men took decisions whether or not to go to war, and how hard they worked to ensure that if the nation did go to war, the public would be solidly behind the effort. This despite the fact that during the 1940s and 1950s the United States faced threats to its security far greater – or at least far more obvious – than the country does today.

During Roosevelt’s second term in office Germany launched Europe into its second major war in little more than two decades, overrunning seven countries and crushing the combined armies of the major military powers of Britain and France in a matter of weeks. Britain had a knife at its throat and its survival was most certainly in doubt. Despite the threat to western civilization, and despite his efforts to give Britain as much material support as he could, President Roosevelt did not commit the United States to war. It’s not that he didn’t believe in the cause. The issue was that he believed the country had to be fully behind a major war, and he was determined to lead Congress by leading popular opinion. In many ways it was FDR’s policies that provoked the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and when it was all said and done, Roosevelt, like Abraham Lincoln before him, succeeded in the crucial tactical effort of having his enemies (even Germany and Italy) start a war with America, rather than the other way around. As a result, Americans were always 100% behind the war effort.

Eisenhower, likewise, faced enormous threats to the United States. In the years leading up to his presidency the country had become embroiled in a seemingly endless yet bloody war in Korea, eastern Europe had been decisively consolidated under communist control, and the great nation of China – in which many Americans had placed lofty political and religious hopes – had itself turned red. The Soviet Union and the United States were gearing up for a nuclear arms race – soon to be followed by a space race –  that would leave the two countries in a state of perpetual fear and tension. Despite these threats, despite crisis after crisis, and despite the consistent urging of his highest advisors to go to war, Eisenhower led the United States through eight years of peace. He ended the Korean War, kept the military out of Eastern Europe, and avoided getting entangled in the French conflict in Vietnam. All the while he made himself clear on one crucial point: if America was going to go to war against China, or the Soviet Union, or one of their satellites, the country had to be overwhelmingly committed. The United States was not going to go to war divided or half-hearted.

I can’t help but think of the two wars of George W. Bush in relation to these earlier times. I know that historical comparisons are fraught with danger. No two situations are entirely alike, and often military and political actors make their greatest mistakes by assuming that history is repeating itself, when it is actually not. It is sometimes true that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat it, but it is also true that those who try to imitate the leaders of the past often make the present worse. So comparing Bush’s war on terror with Roosevelt’s struggle against fascism, or Eisenhower’s against communism, is certainly comparing apples and oranges.

That said, it is worth noting that when Bush led the United States into war in Afghanistan in 2001 he had the country solidly behind him. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and virtually no one doubted that our troops were serving the cause of justice when they went after Osama bin Laden, and the regime that had made his terrorism possible. On the other hand, when Bush led us into war against Iraq, Americans were divided from the start. There was no great event to unify the country (the War on Terror was already beginning to run on fumes); instead we were working to wrap our minds around the new doctrine of preemptive war, desperately hoping that Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN would be as dramatic as the one he was seeking to emulate had been (during the Cuban Missile Crisis). True, no one doubted that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a threat to the United States. But was he a greater threat than Nazi Germany, regarding which Roosevelt was so patient before leading the country to war? Was he more dangerous than the Soviet Union, with whom Eisenhower maintained peace for eight solid years?

I’m not trying to offer any definitive judgments here. But it does seem to me that history affirms the wisdom of applying just war theory quite strictly. When our country is fighting a defensive war, when when we have justice on our side, we tend to be very united. We also tend to win. When matters are more complicated – you might think of Vietnam, in addition to Iraq – we do not do so well. I don’t know when the next war will be. But Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear bomb continues to provoke talk of war, particularly preemptive war. We should make sure we keep some historical perspective, however, and not rush into anything prematurely. Roosevelt and Eisenhower both did a swell job protecting American security. Let’s hope our current leaders have the wisdom to do the same.

Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?

Since starting up this blog about six months ago I have repeatedly encountered Reformed writers – many of them pastors – who are invoking 16th Century Reformed resistance theory to justify rejection of the Obama administration, whether in the form of civil disobedience or more open forms of resistance. The argument starts, of course, with the assertion that the federal government has become tyrannical. It then claims, supposedly on the basis of the old theory of resistance, that tyrannical governments have no claim on the obedience of Christians. It finally turns to propose that Christians take up active resistance in various ways, such as by refusing to pay taxes. Here are some examples of rhetoric I have heard or read:

  • One Presbyterian pastor whose church I visited proclaimed from his pulpit that Americans face worse oppression than the Hebrew slaves did in the land of Israel because we have higher tax rates. His audience seemed to agree with him.
  • A Reformed pastor wrote on his blog that because of its policy on immigration and health care the Obama administration has forfeited its moral authority. Christians no longer owe it any obedience.
  • A Presbyterian pastor wrote on his blog that if the government uses federal money to fund abortions, or even if it simply raises income taxes too much, Christians might legitimately refuse to pay taxes.

None of these pastors were advocating particular acts of violence, but all of them invoked Reformed resistance theory when pressed, at least asserting that violent resistance is a legitimate option.

The question is, do any of these statements actually reflect continuity with classic Reformed resistance theory? To answer this question I have to point out that there is really not one authoritative version of that theory. Over time persecution, religious war, and atrocities such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre clearly radicalized Reformed polemicists. Eventually some Reformed thinkers argued what would have been unthinkable to a theologian like John Calvin, that if a government fails to promote the true Reformed religion believers may seek to overthrow it.

Here, however, I want to focus on the more moderate version of Reformed resistance theory, the version famously articulated by Calvin in his 1559 Institutes. This version, I think it is fair to say, has a lot in common with the sorts of resistance theories appealed to by America’s Founding Fathers, as well as by the South in the Civil War era. But it has little in common with the sorts of arguments made by contemporary Reformed pastors as I highlighted above.

In the last chapter of the Institutes Calvin explicitly argues that Christian believers must obey the governing authorities, no matter how tyrannical they may be, in everything that does not force them to sin. He makes himself quite clear that tyranny on the part of the government does not justify disobedience, whether in the form of a refusal to obey a law or pay taxes, or in the form of seditious or violent activity.

We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office. (4.20.25)

There are many things, he goes on to explain, that a tyrant does that he has no right to do from the perspective of the law, but they nevertheless retain their rights in relation to the people. For instance, relative to the tyranny of a future king described by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 Calvin writes,

Surely, the king would not do this by legal right, since the law trained them to all restraint. But it was called a right in relation to the people, for they had to obey it and were not allowed to resist. (4.20.26)

That is Calvin’s basic rule for ordinary Christians when it comes to tyrannical government. But in the second last section of the Institutes Calvin offers one significant exception, an exception that presupposes his two kingdoms distinction. He clarifies that everything he has been saying refers to Christians in their roles as private persons. It does not refer to persons who hold magisterial office within the civil government.

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (… perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4.20.31)

Note that Calvin’s explicit reference is to the estates in their assemblies. Here there is clear precedent for the sorts of arguments made by the Founding Fathers (i.e., that the colonial governments had the authority to resist the tyranny of Parliament) or the Southern secessionists (i.e., that the states had the authority to resist the unjust policies of the federal government), whether or not either of those cases were in fact instances of tyranny or injustice.

How did Calvin apply his theory in practice? In 1560 a French nobleman came to Geneva seeking the support of Calvin and the other pastors for a military coup against the French government. In 1559 the powerful French monarch Henri II had tragically died in a jousting accident. His oldest son, Francis II, though fifteen years of age, was neither physically nor mentally able to be King. As a result the stridently anti-Protestant House of Guise established an unofficial regency that was inevitably threatening to the Reformed churches in France. Yet the House of Guise had little right to take this step. For it was the Bourbon family, which was sympathetic to Protestantism, that was most closely related to the monarchical line. Thus it was the Princes of the Blood, Anthony of Navarre and his younger brother Louis, Prince of Conde, who should have had the primary role in the establishment of a regency.

Calvin rejected what became known as the Conspiracy of Amboise because it was not led by the Princes of the Blood. And the conspiracy ended catastrophically for the Protestant cause. Within a few years, however, Francis II also died, and the ascent to the throne of his younger brother Charles IX, too young legally to exercise the full power of the  monarchy, required the establishment of an official regency. The refusal of the House of Guise to allow the Bourbons to exercise their own legal rights in the process turned many of the French nobility against them. Although Anthony of Navarre was always indecisive, his brother Conde came to lead a political party known as the Huguenots, made up largely though not exclusively of Protestants, that challenged the Guise hold on power. War broke out in 1562 as Conde launched a failed effort to secure the King and his mother, Catherine de Midici, under his own Bourbon-led government.

In this case Calvin was entirely supportive of the cause because he, like so many other Protestant pastors and leaders, deemed it to be led by the appropriate lesser magistrates and in defense of the actual law of the land, indeed, of the monarchy itself. But what is striking is that the Huguenots emphasized just how secular and political was the nature of their cause. In his Declaration of Protestation Conde declared,

Firstly, therefore, he protests that no selfish passion leads him, but that his sole consideration is of what he owes God, with the duty he has particularly to the crown of France, under the government of the Queen, and finally the affection he bears to this kingdom, constrain him to look for all methods legitimate according to God and men, and according to the rank and degree which he holds in this kingdom, to return to full liberty the person of the King, the Queen and messieurs her children, and to maintain the observation of the edicts and ordinances of his Majesty, and namely the last edict issued concerning religion.

The document went on to list matters of taxation and debt, the intimidation of the King by his councilors, Conde’s loyalty to the King, and his willingness to lay down his arms if his opponents did so as well. The war ended indecisively in 1563 and Calvin died before the next war of religion broke out.

It should be obvious that the sort of resistance theory presupposed by Conde and articulated by Calvin has nothing in common with the claims of contemporary Reformed clergymen that Christians have a right to disobey or resist the federal government. Calvin understood that if Christians were to pay taxes and honor to a regime as tyrannical as that of Rome, the same had to be said of a regime as Catholic as that of France. It doesn’t matter if tax money is going towards unjust purposes or even towards murder (the French government was killing hundreds of Protestants). The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.

Of course, if lesser magisterial authorities determine that the federal government is practicing tyranny, and that it is their duty to resist such action, then matters change somewhat. But in the contemporary United States we are not in that position. As long as it is just a bunch of disgruntled conservative pastors who are calling us to disobey our government, we should utterly reject their arguments, take up our cross, and follow Christ.

Jesus for President? A Closer Look at Shane Claiborne’s Politics

The Institute on Religion and Democracy has again published one of my articles, this time on the neo-Anabaptist Shane Claiborne. Claiborne is in many ways a compelling figure and speaker. Educated in part at Princeton Theological Seminary, yet sporting baggy pants and dreadlocks, he has demonstrated impressive courage in his campaigns for peace. When the United States bombed Iraq in 2003 Claiborne was in the country, at the mercy of the Iraqis due to injuries sustained in a car accident. He is a pacifist but he has seen war firsthand. A great story teller, he repeatedly had his audience in stitches, and there is no question that on numerous points his critique of American Christianity has merit.

I think one of the dangers in election year is to sort of think that politicians are going to solve all of the problems when often they just keep creating them…. And we have to insist that, ‘No, we’ve found the last best hope on earth, we’ve found the light of the world, and it is not Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or America, it’s Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the World.’

That said, when I listened to Claiborne speak, and I observed as the liberal, academic audience nodded in approval of so much of what he said, I could not help but think to myself that Claiborne is compelling in just the same way that the 16th Century Anabaptists were compelling. He firmly believes in Jesus and is willing to pay the ultimate price for his understanding of what that faith entails, and yet his prescriptions, if followed by all Americans, or even all Christians, would lead to absolute disaster (see my article for more on this). Like so many neo-Anabaptists, however, Claiborne tends to hedge on this point. On the one hand he calls believers to the way of the cross, the ultimate embrace of earthly disaster; on the other hand he continues to insist that if pacifism was tried maybe, just maybe, it would make the world a better place.

The consistent Anabaptists understand that you can’t have it both ways. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and Christians shouldn’t pretend that it will solve all the world’s problems. Of course Reformed folks like John Calvin agree with the Anabaptists on this point. But Calvin also emphasized that because of his graciousness towards the world (what Abraham Kuyper called common grace) God established civil government to preserve a modicum of peace and justice. Civil government is not the kingdom of God, as Claiborne rightly pointed out, but neither is it given the sword in vain, a point that Claiborne did not acknowledge.

In all the Reformed debates over the two kingdoms doctrine it is easy to forget why we need the doctrine in the first place. If you wonder, listen to folks like Shane Claiborne. After all, it was in part people a lot like Claiborne that led Calvin to articulate the doctrine in the first place.

You can read my whole article here.

Should Christians sometimes lie to one another for the sake of love?

I recently came across an argument in a book by Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes, in which Barrs explains the conduct of Rahab, who lied to the men of Jericho in order to protect the Hebrew spies, as evidence that Christians may lie when it serves the good of their neighbor. Barrs argues that this is true not only of times of urgent necessity (i.e., to save a life) but in the routine affairs of daily life. And he argues not simply that we ought not judge people who lie in such conditions, or that lying may be a necessary evil at times, but that in these cases lying is a “righteous act,” demanded by God.

Barrs writes,

[E]ven at the level of family life there are many occasions when we all conceal truth and tell half-truths out of love for our children and out of love for one another. A child wakes up, feeling sick, at 3 AM and comes crying to get you out of bed. Do you tell him exactly how you feel? I hope not. You conceal what you feel because you love him. This is true in our marriages as well. We must not always say what we feel. If we do, we will destroy a marriage very rapidly. We are required to be faithful to our commitment to love our husband or wife rather than to the feelings and words that may be in our heads or in our hearts at a particular moment. (96-97)

But may a person lie to his or her spouse or children? The above paragraph is, after all, in the context of a discussion of lying. In the discussion questions at the end of the chapter Barrs asks,

What everyday situations do you find yourself in that bring you to concealment or telling half-truths and even falsehoods to protect the feelings of other people, or in order that you might be true to the love you have in your heart for them rather than to the sinful feelings that are also in your heart? (100)

It’s an interesting approach to ethics. My wife, who drew my attention to Barrs’s argument, grew up in an unbelieving family in which certain members routinely concealed the truth or spoke half-truths in order to protect one another’s feelings. The effect, needless to say, was not conducive of relationships built on truth or trust. In contrast, my wife and I are committed never, ever to lie to one another. To be sure, Barrs is right that we should not simply say whatever evil thought or opinion pops into our minds. But if we are called to conform to the image of Christ rather than of the Devil, the father of lies, the key to building relationships with one another is to speak the truth in love rather than to distort the truth in love.

But what about times of war?  Barrs maintains,

In wartime there has to be constant concealing of the truth and outright lying and falsehood… Consider the present struggle against terrorism connected with Islamic radicals and in particular Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Reflect on how necessary it is for our governments to have agents who infiltrate groups that plan bombings and other terrorist acts. We should pray for such men and women, and we should regard their work as not only dangerous but also righteous, though it will certainly involve lying and deceit. (96)

Again, it’s an interesting claim. When I was in training to be an intelligence analyst for the FBI one of the portions of that training involved a presentation on the possible demands placed on covert agents, including those in the CIA working overseas. One of the things that became quickly obvious to me was that as a Christian I could never serve in such a role. Why? To be an effective agent one is not simply required to commit occasional acts of lying or violence. One is required, in obedience to an oath to a secular power, to put on an entirely false identity, an identity that shapes everything one does, from cultural activities to moral behavior to worship. In short, to fulfill such a task it is impossible for one to conform to the image of Christ by taking up the cross and following him.

To be sure, I will not stand in judgment over Christians who find it necessary to lie in order to save a life, nor am I saying that I would not necessarily do the same thing. But what I find troubling about Barrs’s approach is his very confidence that lying can be such a routinely righteous act. In contrast, compare the attitude of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was writing his Ethics whilein prison under the Nazis for his complicity in the plot against Hitler. Bonhoeffer insisted that acts of lying and violence (by one who is not a magistrate) violate God’s moral law. Yet he found that loving his neighbors in a manner responsible to Christ demanded that he lend his support to the plot against Hitler, support that involved lying and complicity in violence.

Sorting through the problem, Bonhoeffer refused to offer a final justification for his actions. Instead, he argued that the primary concern of a Christian should not be to be innocent and pure with reference to the law. Obsession with conformity to the law could quickly become quite Pharisaical when isolated from love for one’s neighbor, or from the virtues of mercy and justice. In contrast, freed from the law in Christ and transformed by the mind of Christ a believer’s driving concern will be to act responsibly in Christ towards his or her neighbor. In that sense there will be moments when the call to serve one’s neighbor will trump the call to obey a particular precept of the law. In Bonhoeffer’s case that meant that helping to stop Hitler trumped the commandment not to lie.

Does Bonhoeffer’s argument ultimately make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure he entirely pulls it off. But what impressed me about Bonhoeffer was his refusal to justify himself or his actions. He never said, “it was righteous for me to lie.” Instead, he did what he felt he had to do to follow Christ, though disobeying the law, and he took refuge in the grace of the gospel. He even analogized his willingness to take on genuine guilt for others to Christ’s willingness to take on imputed guilt for sinners. The result was that although Bonhoeffer acted in good conscience, he did not trivialize or explain away his violations of the law. He took that violation absolutely seriously and was willing to suffer the consequences for his actions.

What makes Bonhoeffer’s approach convincing to me is that he maintains his focus on following Christ and on living in the grace of the gospel rather than establishing a set of (inherently dubious) principles or examples in which it is righteous to disobey God’s commandments. There are some difficult situations in life, moments in which we are called to make terrible decisions, decisions that are incredibly morally difficult. But if we are going to lie or break God’s law we need, like Bonhoeffer, to be willing to come to grips with what we are doing, to be willing to take the full consequences without insisting on self-justification, and to rest in the grace of the gospel. Anything else, Bonhoeffer would say, is cheap grace.

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