Just War, Not Just Another War

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Have we erred on the side of personal responses to the gospel as opposed to a corporate response lived out in a community of faith?

The church is called to serve as the conscience of governments.

Recently on the news I witnessed the flag ceremony marking the end of nearly nine years of U.S. military operations in Iraq. The war, launched in March 2003, had been justified as retaliation for the attacks of 9/11 and was based on the assumption that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

But was that war really justified? Was it a just war? Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Synod 1939 adopted a position on “just war.” At the time it gave members of the Christian Reformed Church valuable guidance for their involvement in the war that was to follow. But how relevant is this position in today’s complex world, which badly needs moral leadership in the arena of war and violence? How can and should the CRC, as a body of believers, lead nations toward greater biblical faithfulness in pursuing justice? How can we embrace the dynamic tension between obeying our governments and raising a collective voice of critique, or even dissent, when appropriate?

As a denomination, we have stated that a war can be seen as just when it defends that which is right or deters that which is wrong. There may be times when war is justified as the means of restraining or overturning the forces of evil, or as a last resort, exercised in line with the U.N. initiative “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), as in the cases of Darfur and Rwanda. Military actions could be declared just if they meet certain criteria. One specific principle of just war thinking is that of proportionality, meaning a war should not do more harm than good. The immense harm caused by the willful killing of God’s image-bearers and the destruction of creation makes the justification of war a very weighty issue.

Counting the Costs

The costs of the Iraqi war are staggering. In our collective silence, some 4,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed. An additional 32,000 have been wounded in body, and an estimated 100,000 have been wounded in spirit, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The estimated death toll of Iraqis, conservatively estimated around 100,000, is likely much higher. And the financial cost of sending 1.5 million Americans to Iraq has exceeded one trillion dollars. Meanwhile, the carnage of civil war continues.

Americans face an uncertain legacy as we weigh what was accomplished against the human and financial costs. The question remains: was it just?

I believe the CRC has failed to grapple effectively with how to measure this war—as well as other wars since World War II—against just war criteria. Perhaps the fact that the war in Iraq was fought by an all-volunteer army made it easier for many in the CRC to keep it at an all-too-comfortable moral arm’s length. Those who were fighting were “willing” soldiers—often from among the poorest and least empowered segments of our society.

From Silence to Faithfulness

Now that the troops are back home, what should we as a church do? First, we must commit to prayer and pastoral care for the soldiers and families and affected by the war. We must also resolve to move from silence to a renewed commitment to biblical faithfulness in our response to war.

I doubt we can honestly say today that the CRC is, in practice, a church of the just war tradition. That should bother us tremendously. In the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the church did not have the courage to do what it should have done. Apart from letters to governments and the pastoral letter sent to congregations to support those considering military service, we kept silent. Issues that should have been dealt with communally were presumed to be primarily matters of personal conscience.

Instead, the church should have served as the conscience of the government, giving wise counsel to church leaders and members. Historically, Reformed people have been reluctant to bind individual conscience and responsibility. But the worth of holding a common position on just war lies in its ability to inform personal and collective responses, with the power to transform both.

I propose that at the next synod we corporately repent of our failures and commit to an active denominational assessment of future military actions that arise. The CRC should revisit and faithfully act upon the “War and Peace” report adopted by Synod 2006. This report issued a strong call for the CRC (collectively) to “speak a word of peace and to be an agent of shalom in a war-torn world.” It encouraged congregations and members to speak out on issues of war and to counsel our nations’ governments on moral issues related to military actions and weapons of mass destruction.

A 1927 synodical report entitled “Ethical Decisions about War” prophetically declared, “We have no modern nation, no sovereign states which are also identical with the people of God. We have no theocracies . . . [and] we regard all tendencies to claim a special national alliance with God as idolatrous and wicked.” It follows that all militaristic ideologies are to be challenged. Our world needs the prophetic voice of the church to state publicly our conviction that war, unless carefully considered or under dire urgency, is inconsistent with the gospel call to peacemaking and justice.

Over the years, the CRC has made a number of bold and prophetic statements in synodical reports. But I suspect that few congregations and church councils have actually reflected on these reports carefully prepared by study committees and adopted by the church.

Have we erred on the side of personal responses to the gospel as opposed to a corporate response lived out in a community of faith? Are there perhaps painful parallels to be drawn between us and the German Protestant church of the 1930s and 40s—a common lack of vision, blindness to our call, and even cowardice? The German churches had no tradition of dissent and critique in their relationship to the state. Have we followed a similar path?

Killing is wrong, even when it is the lesser evil. Church father Tertullian put it this way: “In our doctrine we are given ampler liberty to be killed than to kill.” The church is called to the gospel pursuit of love—love for the whole world—and love never acts unjustly.

As a communal body, we must struggle with these issues instead of remaining silent. Let us move forward with courage as we reconsider the implications of our Lord’s directive to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place.”

About the Author

Lee Hollaar is a council member of Hillside CRC in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He serves on the board of Citizens for Public Justice and has been a member of the CRC Committee for Contact with the Government.

See comments (9)


When this author says, "the church should have served as the conscience of the government," he also means (has to) that the institutional church (CRCNA) should have served as the conscience for each and every one of its members.


Certainly, the institutional church can and at times should say something about murder, killing, causing death negligently, and even war.  But to suggest that the CRCNA should have taken sides on specific "justness" of specific wars like the VietNam War or the Iraq War -- in behalf of all of CRCNA members everywhere?  I don't think so.

Let's play this out a bit in a real world context. I know of a young man who returned not so long ago from a tour in Iraq and then one in Afganistan.  He and his parents are proud of their son's service.  On more than one occasion, his unit was involved in heavy fire fights that could easily have resulted in his death.  The young man believed and believes he was serving a just cause, as do his parents.  And frankly, sound arguments can be made that the US had cause to engage in war in both Afganistan and Iraq (your or my conclusions one way or another notwithstanding).

So should we really have an assembly of less than 200 people (half theologians with no particular expertise about modern war) in Grand Rapids in order to tell this young man and its family -- and all members in the CRC -- that the CRCNA repents for them that this young man and others participated in these evils?

War is indeed a difficult issue. Frankly, I wince when reading Old Testament accounts where God tells the Israelites to slaughter large groups of people, including men, women and children. The taking of prisoners was even forbidden. I know, this isn't the Old Testament, but neither does any institutional church have the rather direct revelation from God that the OT Israelites had. Nor is the CRCNA, as an insitutional church, particularly expert in the area of just war theory (or other war theories).

If Citizens for Public Justice wish to condemn this or that war, or if the Center for Public Justice, or Sojourners, or any number of Christian populated organzations wish to condemn (or praise) this or that war, they should feel free.  And if any individuals, Lee Hollar or otherwise, wish to do so too, they should feel free.  But the CRCNA should not allow itself to be grabbed as a megaphone for anyone's particular views about any particular war.  See Church Order Articles 28 and 84.

By the way, I happen to believe US decision to invade Iraq was misguided at best, even though there were good arguments to be made for doing it (the best of which was not used by the administration, which was that Iraq was persistently violating the cease-fire agreement post "Gulf I").  Still, I would not dream of writing an overture that would ask my council, classis or synod to declare that all CRC members should think likewise.

Finally, just because the CRCNA hasn't blessed or condemned any particular war doesn't mean the church (as organism) hasn't.  Certainly, the voice of the church as organism may be speaking with different answers, but that might be because the answer isn't so clear.

I served in that war. I rather strongly disagree with the author's assertions on several points.

First, to say a war is not justified because information attained AFTER the war (and which would only become available THROUGH the winning of that war) shows that beliefs held prior to engaging in that conflict were incorrect - that is to impose a requirement of 20/20 foresight that no human being possesses.

Second, every intelligence agency in the world assumed Iraq had, and was prepared to use, chemical weapons in support of terrorist activities and in opposition to the U.S., Israel, and other allies. That they did not, in fact, have large stockpiles (although they did have chemical weapons components and the ability to quickly assemble them) could only be determined through defeat of Iraqi forces.

Third, I resent and deny the assertion that those who volunteer to serve in the Armed forces of the United States are merely the dregs of society without other recourse. Of those killed in my outfit, not one fit that description. Indeed, of the Marines, Sailors, and Special Forces operators with whom I served on the ground, I cannot think of ANY who were "from among the poorest and least empowered segments of our society" and many of them were from the upper echelons. The fact is, most of those poor and unempowered of whom you speak would fail to meet enlistment requirements.

We volunteered, and we were proud to do so, and every one of us had other viable, safer options. It was, in fact, very easy to get out of deploying and a few of the Marines in my outfit did so. My father, my sons, both my brothers, one of my nephews, and one of my nieces have all served or are serving (though at present I'm the only one who saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan) and I can guarantee you that we are not the dregs, sir. Not at all.

Iraq threatened aggression - they had already invaded two of their neighbors (Iran and Kuwait), were making threats against the U.S., were refusing to abide by the terms of the armistice that ended hostilities in 1992 (technically we were still at war with them - an armistice is not a peace treaty - and combat operations were merely suspended on the basis of compliance with the armistice so there was a legal and treaty justification for the war as well as a moral one), supported terrorists organizations financially and with intelligence data, fired on American and coalition aircraft repeatedly, and numerous other provocations. They were ruled at the time by a brutal tyrant who had been known to carry out such threats against his own people and neighbors in the past. We had every reason to believe he meant what he said and, from what I know of Hussein's history, if he thought he could have, he would have. What we have left behind, at tremendous cost in blood and treasure, is far superior for the Iraqis than what they had. While the case under the traditional criteria of "Just War Theory" was not air tight, no such case ever is - not even the case of the war in Europe from 1939-1945.

My conscience is clear. I gladly participated in the Iraq war and sought out an opportunity to deploy in support of that effort. I'd go again in a heartbeat, if I could. I've spoken to Iraqis and heard from and about others whose gratitude for our actions is immense. And the fact that we did not stay - that we left - gives the lie to the "blood for oil" calumny thrown about at the time. I am mindful of the cost - far more than you can be. Those are my friends I buried. Those are my buddies I visited in the hospital or prayed for as they were medevac'd. I say it was worth it and so did the Marines and Sailors I fought with.

By the way, regarding the stereotypical assertion that only poor and "unempowered" people join the military, check this study: http://surface.syr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=soc

Some pull quotes:

"It appears that there are few significant differences in the propensity to join the military across race–ethnicity."

"This research shows that the all-volunteer force continues to see overrepresentation of the working and middle classes, with fewer incentives for upper class participation."

"In terms of social class, Kane (2006) found that people who serve in the military come from more well-off neighborhoods than those who have not joined the military although the economic elite are underrepresented in armed service."


While economic factors figure in who joins the military (obviously), it is also true that simple patriotism has a stronger hold on working and middle classes than on upper classes and economic elite (and the poorest). This is also why over the history of the U.S. first and second generation immigrants have been over-represented.  This study comports with my own experience, by the way - quite a few blue-collar and middle-class white collar, a smattering of economic elites and even fewer from the very poor socio-economic strata, lots of first and second generation Americans, folks who took their naturalization oaths very, very seriously.

That is, however, very different from the "poorest and least empowered".

I'd also say that as a communal body the CRC hasn't remained silent.  I've seen several articles in the BANNER over the last 9 years, as well as letters, public statements in various contexts, and quite a few people that we've sent into the service.  Those statements haven't been full-throated endorsement of your objections, although this isn't the first time I've seen them (well, the insult that we veterans are poor and unempowered victims is the first time in the BANNER), but that's not the same as silence.

Oh, yeah, one more thing - sometimes killing not only isn't the lesser evil, it's not even wrong.  The state has been given the power of the sword and that's not just so they can clean their toenails.  Paul calls those who wield it in the restraint of evil "God's agents".  That doesn't mean Tertullian isn't correct - he didn't say we have no liberty to kill, just less.  Jesus did tell Peter to put the sword away, but he also told his disciples to sell their cloaks to get swords (Lk 22:36).  Christianity is not and has never been defined as pacifist.

@PNR: Regardless of one's position on the war(s), thank you for your service.

I don't believe the author ever mentions "dregs of society". He mentioned, "often from among the poorest and least empowered segments of our society." Are we to consider the poorest and least empowered dregs? A term defined as the most undersireable part, despicable, worthless.

Also, those who have not served can be very mindful of the costs of war, many have also suffered loss. 


Once again, thank you so much for your service.

@JDZylstra - You're right.  I shouldn't have used the word "dregs".  But I am angered and offended (obviously) by the insinuation that intelligent, well off, "empowered" people would never join the military in defense of their country.  It is a standard leftist trope that turns patriots into victims.

We aren't victims.  We're volunteers in an honorable service and an honorable cause.  Every one of the Marines in my outfit had opportunities to leave the service or could have never joined in the time after 9/11, and every one of them knew there was a war on when they made that decision to enlist or re-enlist.

I'm aware that those not in the service suffer loss - CACO calls were among the most difficult duties I ever performed, and that doesn't speak to extended family. 

The second Marine KIA in my unit was a young man, graduate from MIT, who wanted to spend time as an infantryman before returning to civilian life and opening his own business.  He thought he owed it to the country that gave him those opportunities.  I remember visiting with his parents when we got back.  The first of our KIAs was the son of a farmer, and his father begged me to try to persuade his remaining son not to deploy with his unit that spring (as an only surviving son, the Army would have let him stay back). I could go through the list.

Mr. Hollaar writes as one utterly unfamiliar with those kinds of people, with military service in the U.S., with what motivates people to enlist and "head to the sound of the guns".  He merely repeats leftist talking points without evidence or reason to back up his assertions, assumes that his is the default Christian position, and thinks the church should follow him.

His arguments are seriously flawed, but flawed as they are, they can be made without disparaging the men and women who risk their lives in the service of their country.

Re-reading this post, one has to wonder whether this author would have have the CRCNA "corporately" condemn the US/Canadian involvement in WWII, or Korea, or the US government's decision not to acquiesce in the declaration of the southern states' secession (in order to hang on to slavery).

After all, what was the "dire urgency" in those cases?  The US could have said European fights were their business (and many did say that); that South Korea should solve its own problems with the North (and China) (and many did say that); and that if the southern states wanted to secede, they should have a right to self-determination (and at least half the nation did say that).

What is it exactly about the organizational/governance structure of the CRCNA, an a particular institutional church, that makes it uniquely able to proclaim in behalf of all its members precise condemnations/affirmations about infinitely complex political/international matters such as these?

Yes, the "church is called to serve as the conscience of governments," but this author conflates the particular institution known as the CRCNA (church as institution if you like) with the church as a body of believers (church as organism if you like) and demands that all CRCNA members tow the institutional church political party line decided by a very few (who think as he does about just war theory).

A thank you to dougvandegried and PNR on your replies.  I too, thought this article left much to be desired.  In October, 2002 I wrote my U.S. Congressman, Vernon Ehlers, former Calvin College professor, member of the CRC and someone for whom I voted in each and every election.  

My point to him was that if the intelligence President Bush et al were so stridently trumpeting was so good, that they should be communicating it to the dozens of U.N. inspectors currently on the ground in Iraq under Hans Blik (sp.?) so they could unearth Hussein's WMD.  He replied that he was privy to confidential intelligence briefings that convinced him of WMD existence.  We no know he was likely bamboozled.

That said, I was conflicted about the war:  when Hussein was executed, for once I agreed with George Will that the individual responsible for more deaths on the planet than anyone else alive had met his just desserts due to American intervention.  The author conveniently omits the fact that the consensus is pretty much that Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.  (anyone citing the death toll since American intervention please do not lump together deaths caused by Iraqis and those by servicemen)

It was my opinion and remains so that when Americans rolled into Iraq it was the luckiest day immaginable for them.  What they have failed to do with that opportunity is on their heads.  American servicemen have laid down their lives and American taxpayers have paid dearly for the golden opportunity they have been given.  I know this is a controversial statement but I will make it anyway:  in the current global village where there is a battle for the future value system of the planet, American servicemen are the greatest missionary force the world has seen.  My question to the author: would you rather the Russian or the Chinese army invaded Iraq?  How about the Dutch with their do nothing scandal from Serbia?

I want to thank Mr. Hollaar for a provocative article on a topic that is very close to my heart.  I appreciate dougvandergriend for his perceptive theological analysis and PNR for his front-lines perspective.  As a CRC pastor and Navy Chaplain, these are two strands of my life that are often difficult to harmonize.  I would like to add a few comments of my own.

Mr. Hollaar says,  "I doubt we can honestly say today that the CRC is, in practice, a church of the just war tradition."  My question is, what does a Reformed Church standing in the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and  Kuyper look like in practice as a church in the just war tradition?  Mr. Hollaar suggests that "Those who were fighting were 'willing' soldiers-- often from among the poorest and least empowered segments of our society."  How many of the "willing" soldiers were drawn from the pews of the CRC?  There are nearly 300,000 members of the US Navy.  Last time I checked, fewer than 60 of them identified themselves as "Christian Reformed"-- and five of us are Chaplains!  Perhaps some CRC sailors checked "other" or "no preference," but I think it is fair to say that we have not been well represented in the armed services in recent decades.

It is easy for us to be a self-appointed conscience for Washington or Ottawa, justifying our behavior as prophetic activity.  But, frankly, it comes off as self-righteous and arrogant.  It is much more costly to pursue justice (in the spirit of Micah 6:8) through risking our own lives and the bearing of arms.  Just War theory is about justice as much as it is about war. 

As I understand Kuyper, (and I think this is what dougvandegrind is getting at), he taught that the church had its own particular sphere of responsibility-- worship, catechesis, evangelism and outreach.  Through these activities she equips her members to be agents of God's Kingdom in every area of society, including political/government.  When we talk about "every square inch," we usually illustrate it by pointing to academia, business, and the arts, but we seldom talk about military service as Kingdom activity, much less encourage it.  So instead of having CRC members being an influence at the highest levels of the military for Jesus Christ, we are reduced to making pronouncements from the relative comfort of our church assemblies.   Honestly, I doubt whether anyone in either Washington or Ottawa bothers to listen to what we say.

PNR, I assume since you write on this site that you are a member of the CRC.  I hope your church equipped you as well for the incredible spiritual challenges you face as the Marine Corps has equipped you for the military challenges.  You are reclaiming some very difficult "square inches" of real estate for God's Kingdom-- Parris Island, the war zone in Iraq.  I join JDZylstra in thanking you for your service to your country, but more importantly I want to thank you for your service to the Kingdom of God in a very challenging and often hostile environment.  You have my highest respect.  I only wish I could meet you in person and in uniform so this naval officer and brother in Christ could render you the salute you so richly deserve.  


We have met, Doug.  I, too, was a chaplain. :-)  I didn't serve at Parris Island, but Sigonella, the George Washington, with special forces (Iraq/Afghanistan), and Marines (Iraq).  So, permit me to return the salute.

And now my two sons are in the Navy - one as an RP (USNR), the other a MIDN/3 at the Naval Academy.  If you happen to be up that way, look him up.  He's in 26 Company.

They are trying to be Christians in a very challenging environment, thinking seriously about what the power given the state really entails, what they would do and would not do - and how much they're willing to sacrifice to maintain their commitment to Jesus.  I couldn't be more proud of them.