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.”