Where are the just war prophets?

January 28th, 2015

Christian just war theory says it is morally permissible to wage war for a just reason. It says, for specific purposes and through specific means, indeed, for the betterment of the world, violence may be a permissible last resort. Just war theory has a long tradition within the church. It is not, strictly speaking, based on the teachings of Jesus. But it attempts to bridge biblical principles from throughout Scripture to modern contexts.

However, if we’re working within Christian just war framework, we must remember that the very Christian principles it uses are secondary to the primary, clear teachings of Jesus in Scripture. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to see our enemies as human beings. He taught us that we not only aren’t permitted to hate our enemies or even call them names. He taught us that we must see our enemies as human beings created in the image of God, to strive for the redemption of our enemies and the reconciliation of our relationship to them. He told us that we must see our enemies as fully human because, even God does not delight in the death of the wicked, but wishes all persons to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Of course, all of this forces the obvious question raised by many pacifists: Can just war advocates remain faithful to these primary teachings of Jesus while killing their enemies? I think this is a worthy discussion, but not one I want to engage here. I want to assume the best and assume that, yes, it is possible to both love your enemy the way Jesus does and also kill them if necessary.

So beginning with the assumption that it is possible to both love your enemies and wage war against them, I have to say that in my near 20 years as a Christian, I’ve seen very few proponents of Christian just war theory actually honoring and defending the primacy of love. I am always hearing defenses of just war theory, which is fine and good, but I hear very little defense of or embodiment of the radical enemy-love that is supposed to go along with the distinctively Christian ethical position.

The Christian response to the recent “American Sniper” book/film sets this on display. I’m not going to argue whether or not Chris Kyle is a Christian. That’s not my job; I don’t get to decide such things. Nor am I arguing that he was participating in an unjust war. Those are important discussions, but not ones I want to engage here.

However, Kyle claims to be both an advocate of just war theory, and a Christian. Which suggests to me that, even if he feels he ethically must kill his enemies, he has a certain framework — a Christian ethical framework — that ought to tell him how he should engage his enemies and his ethics.

It surprised me, then, to read that Kyle then spoke of his enemies — even civilians — as if they were not truly human beings* created in the image of God and therefore persons to be loved. Well, actually it didn’t surprise me … What really surprised me, and continues to surprise me, is how many in the Christian community have lifted Chris Kyle up as a model soldier, citizen and Christian. How many of us have set him up as the exemplar of how our faith and war go together.

But it begs the question: Is he really a role model for how war and faith go together? Do his words embody the fullness of the Christian faith? Does he, while feeling it is necessary to kill his enemies, also speak of his actions as a “last resort,” or does he speak of it as a sport? These are honest, not theoretical questions.

I understand war is brutal. I understand that soldiers do things we civilians can’t even fathom. To that end, I can show grace and deep appreciation. But what I can’t do is pretend like the highest calling of the Christian faith — to love — is somehow negated because of the presence of an enemy. I can’t pretend that the highest calling of the Christian faith is negated because the guy was “on my side.”

Rather, the Christian faith’s call to love is a call that must be enacted in the midst of our enemies, even when that is complicated. And we Christians have a responsibility to critically evaluate the words and actions of our brothers and sisters precisely because they are “on my side.” The Christian community ought to be the most self-reflective community, especially when it comes to something like taking the lives of others. This is not about picking on soldiers or nitpicking about words and actions that I couldn’t possibly understand as a non-soldier.

This is an honest attempt to honor the Christian ethical tradition of Christian just war theory. It’s an attempt to ask whether or not Christian soldiers and we who love them are doing our necessary duty to ask necessary and good questions about both the wars in which we engage and the actions of those we send to engage those wars.

I know plenty of Christian men and women serving in the armed forces. I am not saying their service is illegitimate or unwarranted. I am, however, asking if the Christian community has lost its prophetic voice and, at times, its moral compass. No, not because we participate in war (though, the pacifist might say that), but because we don’t even know how the Christian tradition has said we ought to participate in war.

How many of us even know the components of just war theory, let alone stand up for them? How many of us could even articulate what makes an action in combat just or unjust? And how many of us are even willing to question, let alone outright disagree, with a decision the nation has made to go to war or how it chooses to wage that war?

I appreciate my military friends. I appreciate that they lay down their lives for something bigger than themselves everyday, and in ways I can’t imagine. My dad was a military man. I have respect for all of our service people and want to honor them.

But I have to ask, where is the prophetic voice of the just war community, which exists, not merely to prop up the wars of the nation, but exists to make sure that the nation and its soldiers (especially Christian soldiers) are held to a higher standard? Where is the reminder that we must never forget that the people our nation kills are still people, and that their humanness is not somehow subtracted from the equation just because they wear a turban or live so far away? Where are all the Christian just war advocates who are also telling the Christian community that Chris Kyle doesn’t represent the Christian faith when he speaks the way he does about his enemies in his book?

I think these are questions worthy of our reflection as a Christian community. Though I’m sure many will be angry that I even ask such a question, I press on anyway. That’s what I’m supposed to do as a Christian. That’s what the Christian community is supposed to do. We are not the cheerleaders of the nation; we are prophets and prophetesses called to question, criticize, and offer an alternative way of living — an alternative grounded in cruciform love for enemies.

*Clearly this Storify article has an agenda. My interest posting it is not to push that person’s agenda, but to show you the direct quotes from his Kyle’s book.

Tom Fuerst blogs at Tom1st.com. You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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