God, Scripture & War

Is God anti-war or pro-war? It depends upon who you ask — those inclined to support whatever state they live in (or its current government) or see some outcomes as more God-ordained than others are more likely to see God as supporting war, while those (like me) less inclined to support the state and its government, or who are much less likely to see the aims of the state as God-ordained, are far less likely to see God as endorsing whatever war the state wants to wage.

Because that’s the question. Not “Does God support war?” but “Does God support this current war we want (or don’t want) to wage?” And that suggests why the question is so difficult — in the Old Testament and the New Testament, God does not generally condemn or endorse abstractions, but rather is present in and deals almost exclusively with concrete and specific situations.

When we engage in ethics, we abstract. We cannot do otherwise. We distill general rules of conduct — “Do not steal” — that we also measure in the real world. Not all stealing is the same, and we also understand this. Most people understand that it is one thing, to use a very bad example, for a poor man to steal a loaf of bread because he’s hungry versus a rich man taking a poorer man’s land or property because the wealthy man wants more. A legal system, or elite opinion, or popular opinion, may or may not reflect that understanding, but human beings take their general principles and ground them in concrete situations. Both are stealing, but I suspect most folks understand that both situations are not morally or ethically equal.

Christian ethics has historically justified war (as I understand it) largely on the ground of defending those who cannot defend themselves. This is either an obligation to sovereigns to defend those who swear allegiance to those sovereigns (Luther’s justification for war), those who the sovereigns are pledged to defend, or for states to defend citizens (a modern updating of this medieval understanding), or for powerful states to defend those outside the state who are victims of violence (humanitarian war). The Roman Catholic Catechism (paragraphs 2307-2330), which I take as something of a gold standard on this subject ethically, talks at length about war, when war is morally acceptable, and how it should be fought. People of good conscience can argue about what constitutes defense — of the state, of its citizens, or of innocent victims (and what constitutes innocence).

[Paragraph] 2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

(And people of bad conscience can take advantage of those conversations, peddling militaristic and imperialist agendas as they use the language of defense.)

And this is fine so far as it goes. There are worse ethical positions to take. But my problem with the endeavor of Christian ethics is that the Bible, as we have it, is a story, not a legal code or philosophical speculation. Stories have narratives, legal codes and philosophies generally do not. And the overall narrative of the Bible as a story is God acting to save God’s people. God is the actor, we as God’s people are acted upon. Scripture is a collection of very subjective accounts of how God has acted and what it means that God has chosen us to be God’s people, told by God’s people over time. In some of these accounts, God is constantly present (the five books of the Torah, the pronouncements of the prophets) and in others God is conspicuously absent (Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, most of the post-exilic writings), leaving many different conversations about what it means to be God’s people in whatever circumstances God’s people find themselves (individually or as a community).

(By God’s people, I mean the people God has called to follow — Israel and the Church. They are one in the same, which is why the Old Testament is our history too. God speaking to Israel in Israel’s mess is God speaking to us in our mess as well.)

Christian ethics on war is completely disconnected from the scriptural experience of war and how God is present in war, largely because ethics must consider human beings as actors (confronting alleged evil and injustice) while scripture deals with human beings largely as being acted upon (if there is an evil God confronts, it is us, God’s people). Again, the idea that war can be waged on in defense of the state, or the defenseless, is a good position, but it is not the scriptural position, neither in the Jewish scripture or the Gospel.

Consider these two instances. First, in the seventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, God lays out the rules that Israel is to follow as in conquers Canaan:

When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you — and the Lord your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them them no terms and give them no quarter. You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out. Instead, this is what you shall do to them: you shall tear own their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, JPS Tanakh)

You must doom them to destruction.” There is nothing defensive about this war, this war of conquest to acquire lands currently occupied by others, land defined in scripture not by boundaries or physical borders, but by the people who currently occupy it. And there is nothing merciful about these commands — God is intolerant, cruel and merciless in his commands to Israel to invade Canaan and conquer its inhabitants. God justifies that intolerance and cruelty by saying these measures are necessary to preserve the covenant that God’s people have with God. If the temptation to worship other gods exist, clearly God’s people will take it.

Yet there is absolutely nothing defensive about this war ethically and God is wholeheartedly commanding it. (I can see an Israeli Defense Forces rabbi preaching this to soldiers.)

Second example. Jeremiah is my favorite prophet — he is cranky, disloyal, unpatriotic, and he refuses to support the troops. In the twenty-first chapter of Jeremiah, Jerusalem is under siege by the armies of Babylon. Jeremiah, who has made a nuisance of himself criticizing the war effort and noting that Israel is paying the price for failing to remain faithful to its covenant with God, is asked by King Zedekiah to “please inquire of the Lord on our behalf, for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is is attacking us. Perhaps the Lord will act for our sake in accordance with his wonders.” (Jeremiah 21:2, JPS Tanakh) Even as Jeremiah is constantly in trouble with the king, his ministers, and the temple priests for preaching against the state, they still come to him — recognizing that he speaks the words of God — and ask that he beg God’s help in the current war.

But it is not to be.

Jeremiah answered them: “Thus shall you say to Zedekiah: Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: I am going to turn around the weapons in your hands with which you are battling outside the wall against those who are besieging you — the King of Babylon and the Chaldeans — and I will take them into the midst of this city [Jerusalem]; and I Myself will battle against you [plural] with an outstretched mighty arm, with anger and rage and great wrath. I will strike the inhabitants of this city, man and beast; they shall die by terrible pestilence. And then — declares the Lord — I will deliver King Zedekiah of Judah and his courtiers and the people — those in the city who survive the pestilence, the sword, and the famine — into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, in the hands of those who seek their lives. He will put them to the sword without pity, without compassion, without mercy.

And to this people you shall say: Thus said the Lord: I will set before you the way of life and the way of death. Whoever remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but whoever leaves and goes over to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live; he shall at least gain his life. For I have have set My face against this city for evil and not for good — declares the Lord. It shall be delivered into the hands of the King of Babylon, who will destroy it with fire. (Jeremiah 21:1-10, JPS Tanakh)

If ever there were a proper, ethical defensive war, one in which the people are fully justified in waging war to defend themselves, the state, and those who cannot defend themselves (women, children, the elderly), then this is it. God’s people are in Jerusalem, besieged by the armies of Babylon, defending their homes, their land, their country, themselves. If there’s something that two milennia of Christian ethics on the subject ought to teach us, it’s that this is a righteous war. One God ought to support.

And yet where is God? “I Myself will battle against you with an outstretched mighty arm, with anger and rage and great wrath. I will strike the inhabitants of this city, man and beast; they shall die by terrible pestilence.” That’s where God is, in the invading army, in those besieging the City of David, in those killing and looting and destroying. The city, the place where God resides in the temple, will be destroyed by fire. God, using the armies of the Babylonians, will put the residents of Jerusalem “to the sword without pity, without compassion, without mercy.” The only survivors will be those who run away, who surrender to the Babylonians, who leave the city.

(I can see an Israel Defense Forces rabbi, without any sense of irony and stripping it completely of any context, quoting this passage to the residents of Gaza or Ramallah as an example of what Israel intends to do to them and the places where they live.)

Of course, for Jeremiah, Babylon — God’s “war club” (Jeremiah 51:20) — will itself not go unpunished for what it has done to Judah. “Thus said the Lord: See, I am rousing a destructive wind against Babylon and the inhabitants of Leb-kamai [Chaldea], I will send strangers [or winnowers] against Babylon, and they shall winnow her. And they shall strip her land bare; they shall beset her on all sides on the day of disaster. Let the archer draw his bow, and let him stand ready in his coat of mail! Show no pity to her young man, wipe out her host! Let them fall slain in the land of Chaldea, pierced through in her streets.” (Jeremiah 51:1-4, JPS Tanakh) Just as Babylon has been God’s vengeance upon Israel, so will Persia be God’s vengeance on Babylon.

The conquest of God’s people and the scattering of its elites in exile is not a permanent condition. Speaking through Jeremiah, God promises:

And I Myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have banished them, and I will bring them back to their pasture, where they shall be fertile and increase. And I will appoint over them shepherds who will tend them; they shall no longer fear or be dismayed, and none of them shall be missing — declares the Lord.

See, a time is coming — declares the Lord — when I will raise up a true branch of David’s line. He shall reign as king as shall prosper and he shall do what is right in the land. In his days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And the name by which he shall be called: “The Lord is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 23:3-6, JPS Tanakh)

In this instance (or in many), God does not micromanage human history — arrange events so that they make abstract moral sense to us — but rather God promises a future deliverance, a deliverance as unseen by Israelites in Jeremiah’s time as the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars or the sand was unseen to Abraham. Faith is trust that God will fulfill that promise, whatever conditions God’s people find themselves in. The brutality of human history becomes a way for God to make God’s love and mercy for God’s people known.

It is actually the same with the passage from Deuteronomy. We know how hard it is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and you’d think, given the human capacity for evil and destructiveness, that it would be a whole lot easier for human beings to kill their neighbors than to love them. But it turns out, that isn’t true. God instructs Israel to conquer, kill and destroy the Canaanites without pity. Israel proves incapable or unwilling to do this (indeed, something this passage suggests to me is that there may be some commands from God that human beings shouldn’t obey). Israel loots the Canaanites (they are not supposed to) and enslaves some of them, but it quickly becomes clear in the Book of Joshua that Canaanites, for whatever reason, remain in the land. And their gods become an attractive nuisance, something Israel simply cannot ignore or leave well enough alone. So God makes a pronouncement to Israel:

An angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you up from Egypt and took you into the land which I had promised on oath to your fathers. And I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you, for your part, must make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you must tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me — look what you have done! Therefore, I have resolved not to drive them out before you; they shall become your oppressors, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” As the angel of the Lord spoke these words to the Israelites, the people broke into weeping. So they named that place Bochim, and they offered sacrifices to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5, JPS Tanakh)

The Lord again repeats this pronouncement later in the same chapter (vv 20-23). And again, this eventually becomes a way for God to show mercy to God’s people, to redeem them from their troubles, to forgive them their sins and renew God’s promises. In fact, my favorite prayer in all of scripture comes in the stories of the Judges (figures analogous to ancient Rome’s dictators, those who temporarily led the city-state during times of war and crisis) in the tenth chapter. Israel has, again, fallen under the oppressive rule of the Philistines and the Ammonites because God was so incensed with Israel’s idolatry.

Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, “We stand guilty before You, for we have forsaken our God and served the Baalim.” But the Lord said to the Israelites, “[I have rescued you ] from the Egyptians, from the Amorites, from the Ammonites, and from the Philistines. The Sidonians, Amalek, and Maon [Midian in the Septuagint] also oppressed you; and when you cried out to Me, I saved you from them. Yet you have forsaken Me and have served other gods. No, I will not deliver you again. Go cry to the gods you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress!” But the Israelites implore the Lord: “We stand guilty! Do to us as you see fit; only save us this day!” They removed the alien gods from among them and served the Lord; and He could not bear the miseries of Israel. (Judges 10:10-16, JPS Tanakh)

We stand guilty! Do to us as you see fit; only save us this day!” That’s the prayer of the desperate sinner, someone who has nothing but the grace of God to rely upon. Again, I suspect it makes no rational sense to us because we wonder — if God truly cared for God’s people, how could God allow that kind of misfortune to befall them? But God is not an abstraction to Israel, God is not an idea to be contemplated or considered, God is not a Platonic ideal. God is a reality that is experienced in every bit of human life, bound up as much in sorrow as joy, and enmeshed deeply in the seemingly senseless events of human life and history.

And that includes the brutality and cruelty of war.

Time and again, God uses the wreckage of the human condition to incarnate God’s grace, to be present with and for God’s people. Because it is all there is. Israel is commanded to annihilate the Canaanites, and does not. In disobedience, there are consequences, yet God does not abandon Israel. Israel demands a king, and God sees this as a rejection of God’s rule over God’s people and warns Israel what having a king means (1 Samuel 8), and yet God clearly makes promises to Israel that will be fulfilled through this king (Jeremiah 23, among others). David promises to build God a permanent temple in the city he just conquered (Jerusalem), a house God rejects (2 Samuel 7), and yet that temple gets built (by Solomon) and becomes the presence of God among Israel, so significant that at the end of Chronicles (and the end of the Hebrew Bible), the King of Persia pledges to rebuild that very temple (2 Chronicles 22-23), to restore God’s presence among God’s people.

And God most clearly makes God’s salvation known to the world in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We human beings encounter God’s grace at its most immediate and incarnate — a grace we can touch! — and we reject it. Not the idea of grace and salvation — oh, those are nice ideas — but actual grace and salvation in the flesh. We hand that grace over to our empire and demand the empire kill it. Dead. As dead as possible, so grace incarnate need never disturb our pleasant notions of grace ever again. But God won’t have that. God rises from that, from that encounter with us at our murderous and fearful worst, forgives us and invites us to follow. God shows us that our empire, our power, is meaningless, that it can kill but it cannot destroy. That’s God’s promise is bigger than the empire’s power.

Because Jesus is where the story that begins with God making a promise to Abraham comes to an “end.” Jesus is how all those promises are fulfilled and made true.

Nothing in the New Testament tells me that God empowers those of us who have been called to follow Jesus to use violence to compel or coerce others. Or even to save ourselves or ensure our survival. In this, I think much of Christian ethics (including Martin Luther’s writings on the subject) has gone off the rails. It has us constantly balancing abstractions (and mediated images from far away are abstractions, even as they portray real events) and when we do that, we lose contact with the very real suffering we inflict upon others. Nor does anything I have encountered in scripture empower those called to follow to confront evil, because the greatest evil God confronts is us, God’s people, and God surrenders completely to that evil to show us that our evil in pointless and meaningless. That it has no real power over anything. That what truly matters is God’s love for us.

And yet while nothing in the Gospel prepared the followers of Jesus for inheriting the empire, inherit it we did. Like the monarchy Israel shouldn’t have wanted, the empire we shouldn’t have ever wanted gave us a great deal worth having. As well as much worth rejecting. But it’s the only history we have, and God has been present in all of it, even when the church has been at its worst, forgiving and loving and caring for and redeeming God’s people. Using human means — you and me — to be that love, care and forgiveness, whatever circumstances we are in.

War and empire are human realities, realities we will never be without this side of the eschaton. We can choose not to participate in them — I believe that non-participation in empire, war and violence is what Jesus has called us to do and be — but we cannot say God is not present in them. It is, however, not a self-righteous non-participation, not a demand the world comply or obey with what we believe to be God’s command, not an attempt to rearrange the world to our liking. Rather, it is an understanding that the temporal struggle is not all there is, that God is present in all of history (and not just ours when it goes as we think it ought to, when we win), that winners and losers in temporal struggles don’t matter in terms of God’s saving acts in and for the world. So we must be present in empire and war too, to be God’s means in their midst.

That reality, rather than the abstraction — “Is God for or against war?” — is what matters.

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