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Just war and personal conflict: a Veterans Day reflection

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Veterans Memorial Park: This beautiful new memorial is dedicated to all veterans, but specifically to recognize the first flag-raising on Iwo Jima, on February 23, 1945, with the centerpiece featuring a large statue of Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg who was one of the four Marines to raise the first flag (the more well-known photo of the flag-raising depicts the second flag), Veterans Memorial Park. Richfield, Minnesota, July 30, 2009 (Credit: jpellgen via Flickr)

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”i

With these words, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919, as the first commemoration of what we today call Veterans Day. According to the Census Bureau, there are more than 21 million military veterans in America. Each of them deserves our gratitude, this day and every day.

Veterans Day comes at a propitious time in American history. Jordan’s King Abdullah II recently warned the United Nations General Assembly that our conflict with “outlaws of Islam that operate globally today” constitutes a “third world war.” At this writing, Russian authorities believe that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 passengers and crew; many speculate than an affiliate of the Islamic State was responsible.

President Obama has announced that American soldiers will remain in Afghanistan through 2017 in a “train and assist” role. However, the recent death of an American soldier on such a mission in Iraq shows that our troops will continue to be in danger. Meanwhile, military operations continue in Iraq; conflict is brewing with China in the South China Sea; North Korea’s nuclear weapons remain a threat; Russian’s incursion in Ukraine threatens to escalate into another Cold War; Iran’s nuclear ambitions threaten the Middle East and beyond.

What does God’s word say about conflicts such as these? How do biblical principles help Christians manage conflict in their personal lives? Let’s discuss our options, then focus on practical steps to resolving conflict abroad and at home.

Pacifism

The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. In World War I, 39 million people died (30 million were civilians); in World War II, 51 million died (including 34 million civilians); since World War II, approximately 150 wars have killed an estimated 16 million people worldwide.

“Total pacifism” is the position that war is never justified under any circumstance. Pacifists might adopt non-violent means of opposing their enemies, such as hunger strikes or public rallies, but they refuse to take up arms against others.  

Many cite Jesus’ admonition: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).ii However, our Lord’s words related to personal slander rather than self-defense or war.

The left hand was never used in public in Jesus’ culture. As a result, if I strike you on the right cheek with my right hand, I must slap you with the back of my hand. This is not a life-threatening attack but an insult. The context of Jesus’ words clarifies their relational intent: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (vs. 40-42).

His injunction was not intended to address the issue of war. Nonetheless, total pacifists believe that it is always wrong to harm others, whatever their aggression toward us.

Consider C. S. Lewis’s reflection on pacifism:

Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists. In the liberal society, the number of Pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not. If not, you have done nothing. If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no pacifists.iii

Preemptive war

Preemptive war, by contrast, is the belief that war may be justified to protect ourselves from real or perceived threats. Proponents assert that the technology of modern warfare makes it possible for an enemy to launch strikes such as 9/11 without warning, requiring us to anticipate such attacks and prevent them through any means necessary. For instance, while our declaration of war in response to Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was easy to justify morally, many lives would have been spared if we had launched a preemptive attack against Japan’s fleet on December 6.

Many preemptive war theologians claim justification for their position in God’s command that his people initiate war against the Canaanites (see Joshua 6:5; 8:1-2; Judges 1:1-4).  These people had done nothing to the Hebrews. They had not attacked them and were defending lands that had been theirs for centuries. But God knew that if they were left alive in the Promised Land, their paganism, idolatry and immorality would infect his people and lead to rebellion against his word and will (cf. Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

Of course, this logic is not compelling for everyone.

First, the Hebrews were under direct mandate of the God who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3); what human leader can claim such divine character and omniscience?

Second, the conquest of Canaan was a one-time event necessary to create the nation through whom God would bring the Savior of the world, not a strategy prescribed for all people at all times.

Third, if it is morally appropriate to initiate aggression against a nation or person merely because they have the capacity to harm us, what real or potential enemy are we not justified in attacking?

Just war theory

A third approach to our question is called “just war” theory. Its proponents believe that aggression against others can be justified under certain conditions. Cicero was the first to argue for such an approach, but St. Augustine (AD 354-430) set forth its classic formulation:

  • Just cause —a defensive war, fought only to resist aggression.
  • Just intent—fought to secure justice, not for revenge, conquest, or money.
  • Last resort—all other attempts to resolve the conflict have clearly failed.
  • Legitimate authority—military force is authorized by the proper governmental powers.
  • Limited goals—achievable, seeking a just peace.
  • Proportionality—the good gained must justify the harm done.
  • Noncombatant immunity—civilians protected as far as is humanly possible.

As you can see, the application of each criterion can be debated. Did we “resist aggression” by invading Afghanistan and Iraq to prevent further attacks by al-Qaeda? Did we defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1990 only to “secure justice,” or were our oil interests a motivation? When have we reached “last resort,” so that we can be certain that all other attempts to resolve the conflict have failed?

How are we to define the “proper governmental powers” for each nation? For instance, Saddam Hussein claimed that Iraq’s constitution authorized him to invade Kuwait. Is armed aggression “limited” to military activity, or is nation-building sometimes needed to create a “just peace”? Who determines that the good gained has justified the harm—the winners or the losers? Must armed forces sometimes engage noncombatants in order to end the war, as with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

A theology of conflict

President Bush called the tragedy of September 11, 2001 “the first war of the twenty-first century.” It was a week of horror and shock of a kind our nation had never experienced. As long as you live, you will never forget where you were or what you were doing on that horrific day.

9-11 is a day that will live with America forever. But it is also an event that raises the urgent question: why did God allow it?

There is a political answer to the question, of course. Islamic terrorists planned and executed this act of war, in retaliation for our nation’s support for Israel and to persuade us to leave the Middle East.

But there is a spiritual answer to the question as well. The Bible promises that God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). If he is such a help in trouble, why did he allow this trouble, this tragedy? If he is our refuge and strength, why did this atrocity happen at all? Why does God allow any conflict?

God made us with free will, so we could choose to worship him. Freedom of will is necessary to this purpose. And so God has given us free will, and he will not take it away from us. Could God have stopped the terrorists? Yes, by removing their free will. But then he would have to remove yours and mine as well. He would have to prevent every human attempt to sin and attack others. We could no longer be free to worship God or love each other. We could not be human. And this God cannot and will not do.

As long as there is life on this fallen planet, there will be misused free will and its sin. Not because this is the will of God, but because it is the will of man.

A second spiritual reason for this atrocity is just as clear: Satan is very real. Peter called him “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus warned us that he “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Martin Luther was right: “Still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”

Why should we forgive?

Now let’s get personal. Who has hurt you? Slandered or gossiped about you? Attacked you in some way? Why should you forgive?

After Jesus told his disciples to initiate reconciliation with their enemies, Peter asked a practical question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). Peter thought he was being generous: the rabbis taught that we are to forgive three times, so the fisherman doubled the number and added one.

He must have been shocked at Jesus’ reply: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v. 22). Seven is the number of perfect completion in Scripture, so seventy-seven (or seventy times seven, as some Greek manuscripts have it) would suggest infinity. In other words, never stop forgiving your brother.

Such forgiveness is the consistent requirement of Scripture:

  • “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him” (Mark 11:25).
  • “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:4).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

To illustrate his point, Jesus told a memorable parable. In it, a man owed the king “ten thousand talents” (Matthew 18:24). A talent was twenty years’ wages for a common laborer. Thus 10,000 talents would be 200,000 years’ wages, something like $6 billion today. Stacked in one-dollar bills, it would reach 378 miles high. But when the man asked his master to forgive his debt, the man did.

In turn, the man had a servant who owed “a hundred denarii” (roughly $20). But he imprisoned him until he should pay the debt (a common practice in many parts of the world). As a result, his master imprisoned him until he should pay his unpayable debt.

Does this mean that we must earn God’s forgiveness? Not at all. Scripture is clear: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our grace does not earn God’s grace. Rather, it positions us to receive what God intends to give. If I will not forgive you, my heart is so far from God that I cannot receive his forgiveness.

How do we forgive?

So, what is it to forgive others? What does this mean? How do we do it?

Forgiving is not forgetting. God can forgive our confessed sins and forget them. In fact, he does: Isaiah 43:25 promises that he “remembers them no more.” But you and I cannot do this. Human beings cannot simply reformat the disk or wipe the hard drive. You can pull the nail out of your soul, but the hole remains.

Forgiving is not excusing the behavior which hurt you. The person chose to do that which hurts you today. Forgiving is not pretending that you’re not hurt. You can carry on, but the pain remains and often grows. Forgiving is not tolerating. You may have to tolerate your employer, or your sibling, or your son-in-law. That doesn’t mean that you’ve forgiven him.

To forgive is to pardon. It is to refuse to punish, even though you have every right to do so. It is the governor pardoning the criminal—he doesn’t forget about the crime, or excuse it, or pretend it didn’t occur, or tolerate the behavior. He simply chooses not to punish, though he could.

How do we do this?

First, admit the reality of your hurt. Name it honestly and specifically. Describe in words how you feel about it and the person who caused it. Describe even what you would like to do in revenge. Get your feelings out, as openly and transparently as possible.

You may want to put them on paper. Write a letter to the one who hurt you, then tear it up. You may want to talk to a friend you trust, or a Christian counselor. Most of all, admit it to God. As someone said, “Tell God on them.” Pour out your pain and hurt. You must admit the cancer exists before the surgeon can help you.

Second, ask God to help you pardon the one who hurt you. You are not expected to offer grace without Jesus’s help. Turn to the Holy Spirit who dwells in your heart and soul. Ask him for the power and pardon of God.

Ask him for ability to see this person as he does. And to see yourself as he does—both of you redeemed sinners. Ask him to help you give to your enemy the mercy God has given to you. And act as though he has. Don’t feel yourself into a new way of acting—act yourself into a new way of feeling. Step out by faith. Every time the pain wells up inside your heart again, tell yourself again that you have released this person from the prison of their sin. That the ink on the pardon is dry, the deed is done, the forgiveness made.

Third, initiate restoration. With God’s help, act in courage. Tell the person honestly what they did to you, and how much this pain has hurt you. They may not even know their injustice or comprehend its severity. If I hurt you, I want to know it. I want you to talk to me, not about me. And I to you. Go to the person in question with honesty.

Tell this person that you have pardoned him. He may not understand what you mean, or believe it, or accept it. She may never reciprocate what you have done. This is not yours to decide. You must begin the process of healing the relationship, whatever your partner in restoration decides to do.

And find an honest way to a new relationship. To forgive is not to be naïve. It is not to allow an unrepentant, unchanged person to hurt you yet again. Neither is it to assume that they will never change. Seek a wise balance with the wisdom God gives to know what and where you can trust. You may never have the old relationship, but you can have a new one by the mercy of God.

Last, be realistic. We humans forgive slowly, a little at a time, usually with anger left over. One day at a time. Remind yourself that you have forgiven as many times as the pain comes back. And over time, it will come back less. And one day, perhaps, not at all.

Conclusion

Jesus taught us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Our Lord’s heart is clear: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). He wants us to reflect his gracious heart to our fallen world.

And he wants us to remember that true peace is found only in Jesus. C. S. Lewis: “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”iv

The bumper sticker says it well: “Know God, know peace. No God, no peace.”


i “History of Veterans Day,” U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp, accessed 11 November 2015).
ii All biblical citations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
iii C. S. Lewis, “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 [1949]) 78.
iv C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperSan Francisco, 2001 [1952]) 50.