On March 23, 2003 I preached a sermon in response to the US invasion of Iraq. Here’s the text for that sermon. I got in some trouble for what I said from the pulpit that morning, though reading through the sermon five years later, it seems sort of tame.
Forming a Christian Response to War
A sermon by Ben Daniel
Preached at Foothill Presbyterian Church on March 23, 2003
Micah 4: 1-4
The last time our nation was at war in Iraq, I was a seminary student and I was working at a large Presbyterian Church in a comfortable suburb of New York City. And the senior pastor was an excellent preacher, made no mention of the war on the Sunday after it started. Twice a year, he would take some time off and he would go away and he would write all his sermons for the next six months. The man could plan ahead like no other preacher I’ve ever known.
But there was one problem. Such planning ahead created a superb lack of flexibility. The man stuck to his sermons, and not even a war was going to get him to change is plans for preaching, and so, on the Sunday after the start of Operation Desert Storm, our pastor preached his regularly scheduled sermon. Except for one brief aside, there was no mention of the war. It was then that I learned that planning ahead is not always a good thing. It was also then that I made a vow to myself and to Almighty God that if ever there was a war while I was a pastor, I was going to preach about it the following Sunday.
Now I sort of wish I hadn’t made that vow.
It’s not easy to come up with something to say. Especially since this is a congregation full of differing points of view. It was tempting to toss out my vow—it was 12 years ago, after all—and to preach a good sermon for the third Sunday of Lent. But a vow is a vow.
I’m someone who has strong feeling about this war, and it would tempting to use the power of the pulpit to try to get you all to agree with me. After all, I am the Pastor. But to try to pass off my opinions as being uniquely Christian, as being the only option for a person of faith, I would be doing something that is both unfair and unhealthy, but it also would be out of keeping with the traditions of our faith.
You see, the Bible and the traditions of our faith do not tell us what to think about war. There is room, both in the Bible and in the traditions of faith, for a multitude of opinions about and attitudes toward war. The Bible and our traditions do not tell us what to believe about war, but they do tell us how to think about war, and that’s what I want to talk to you about in this sermon: how a Christian should think about war and what tools should be used by a Christian to form an opinion about war.
Now, I’m of the opinion that all Christian thought should begin with a reading of the Bible. And the Bible’s attitudes toward war are as broad as the opinions of our fellow US citizens. But there is one unifying principle that I’ve found is scripture, and that is that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace. The passage from Micah that was read by Joy is fairly typical in the picture it paints of the Kingdom of God, which is both present and yet to come: in the Kingdom of God, there is no war. Weapons of war are turned into tools of agriculture. Everyone dwells secure, and there is no need to learn the art of war. That doesn’t mean that between now and the establishment of the Kingdom of God war will never be justified. In fact, I think it is understood that sometimes war will be necessary to secure a greater peace, but because war is fundamentally incompatible with the Kingdom of God, war is never justified because it is good. War is only ever justified when it is the lesser of two evils. In a nutshell, I think that is the Biblical witness regarding war.
But over the years it has been left to Christian scholars and thinkers to figure out how to apply that principle to actual wars. During the first four hundred years of Christianity it was universally understood that Christians were to be pacifists. In part this had to do with how the early Christians read scripture, but it also had to do with the fact that in order to fight in a war you’d have to join the Roman army and in order to join the Roman army you’d have to worship the Emperor as a god, and you’d have to arrest and kill your fellow Christians. So it was easy for the early Christians to be pacifists. But then the Roman emperor himself became a Christian and it stopped being illegal to be a Christian and Christians could join the army, and things changed. A new tradition called the Just War Theory replaced universal Christian pacifism and it has remained in place ever since. While some Christians still practice pacifism, most of us subscribe to some form of the Just War Theory.
Now, there are different versions of Just War Theory, but most hold to some combination of the following set of principles:
- In order for a war to be just it must have just cause (in other words a nation cannot declare a war to build an empire or to settle a personal score between leaders).
- In order for a war to be just it must be declared by a legitimate authority (Bill Gates cannot form an army and declare war on the Apple Corporation).
- In order for a war to be just, there must be a reasonable chance of success (it is immoral to send soldiers to a certain death; no matter how just the cause Honduras cannot invade the United States).
- In order for a war to be just, there must be just intention (a just cause cannot be co-opted to justify a war if the real intention of those declaring war is immoral or unjust).
- In order for a war to be just, civilians may not be harmed, and
- In order for a war to be just the use of violence must be proportional to the cause for which the war is fought (a nation cannot destroy another nation in retaliation for a single attack).
These principles do not tell us what to think about the current war, but they do instruct us on how to think, and we’ll all come up with different opinions using these tools, but it is our responsibility as Christians and our privilege as Americans to form opinions about war that are guided by the principles of our faith.
So. What does it look like to form an opinion of the current war using the traditions of Just War? By way of an example, I’ll tell you how I have arrived at my current opinion using the Just War Theory. I’m not telling you this so that you will agree with me, but I do hope that my example will help you form opinions that are grounded in the Christian faith.
I am opposed to the war. I do not think it just. Looking at the Biblical witness, I do not believe the current war will further the Peaceable Kingdom of God. The war does, however, meet some of the criteria for Just war. In my opinion it has a just cause—it’s always good to rid the world of evil dictators and horrible weapons—and it has a very reasonable chance for success. I believe the war has been initiated by a legitimate authority, although the support of the United Nations would have helped.
But having said that, I am concerned about the war’s intention. Our nation’s leaders can point to a cause that is just, but I’m still not convinced that Oil isn’t the main reason we’ve invaded Iraq. I’m concerned for the civilian population of Iraq. I don’t believe we’re doing enough to avoid civilian casualties. Connected to my concerns about civilian deaths is my concern about proportionality. We are very legitimately concerned about Saddam Hussein’s potential to kill people in Iraq, in the Middle East and to the ends of the Earth. But I suspect that, in the end, more people will die as a result of this war than ever would have died at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
I’ve given you an opinion that is based on my prayerful consideration of the Biblical witness and the Christian tradition. I don’t necessarily want you to agree with me, but I do hope that you will follow my example and from an opinion about the war that is founded upon the witness of scripture and sixteen hundred years of Christian thought about the Just War Theory. Copies of the six principles of Just War that I shared with you will be available in the narthex. You can take them home and think about them.
But of course as Christians and as human beings and as Americans we do more than just think about the war. We also have feelings that are not necessarily connected to rational thought, and that also raises a question: how should a Christian feel about the war, not just think, but feel.
As with Christian thought, there is not a unified Christian felt response to the War. Christians feel lots of different ways, but as with Christian thought, I do believe there is a Christian way of feeling, and that’s where the passage I read to you from the book of Romans comes in.
In the twelfth chapter of Romans we are guided by the apostle Paul to allow ourselves to be remade, transformed by Christ such that we lead lives that are marked by emotions such as humility, love, joyful hope, compassion, empathy, and peaceableness. These are the emotions that must drive our feelings in response to the war. Of course our feelings will be different because we are different and we have different stories, but all of us can form a felt response to the war that is transformed by the Grace of God and is guided by humility, love, joyful hope, compassion, empathy, and peaceableness.
As I seek to be transformed by Christ, and as I attempt to let the emotions of Romans 12 guide my life, I confess that the war breaks my heart.
After all of the political wrangling, after all of the public opinions and private thoughts, after all of the cold analysis, and after all to the time I’ve spent this last week transfixed to the radio or glued to the morning paper, I am deeply sad.
Without a doubt I have a lot of opinions, some of them quite strong, but in the end I am overwhelmed by grief. I like to talk a good talk about what I know and why I’m correct in all of my opinions, but in reality I don’t feel smart enough to know for sure what’s right and what’s wrong. I’m glad I’m not the president. I’m glad I’m not a military leader. More than anything I’m sad.
On Friday I saw a photo of the first person to show up at an Iraqi hospital as the result of the American bombs. It wasn’t a soldier, it wasn’t a leader in the Iraqi government, it wasn’t a terrorist. It was a beautiful five-year-old girl named Doha. She had a piece of shrapnel embedded in her spine, and suddenly it didn’t really matter if I the war was just or not. My opinions about politics didn’t really matter. I just hoped and prayed that little Doha gets better and survives into adulthood a healthy, happy, and fulfilled woman.
And my prayer for this congregation is that we allow for differences of opinion among us. May each one of us form opinions and feeling about the war based upon the witness of scripture and the Christian tradition, and may be continue to love and respect each other, living in peace with one another, until that day when each of us beats our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks, and each of us dwells secure in the knowledge of the Goodness of God’s love.