Having just about finished the third book in my ongoing quest to better understand why God allowed such gruesome violence in the Old Testament era and why many modern Christians believe some level of participation in war is justified, I felt it appropriate to pause and assess my understanding–for the benefit of both myself and you who found relevance in my previous posts about such things. Originally, I set out to understand what, if any, scriptural basis there was for a Christian killing another person in the name of their earthly nation, and while I have gained a much firmer conviction about this I’ve also uncovered a web of theology and philosophy underneath all of it that is much more complex than I expected. But that’s fine. The more I read about the two issues (1. OT violence and, 2. Christian applications), the harder it is to just focus on one without running into a discussion about the other. I guess this is to be expected to some extent since the authors I’m reading hold orthodox positions and thus view all of the Bible as canonical and authoritative, and both issues are dealt with in the Bible. So, I have had to approach the two issues simultaneously even though the interpretations and conclusions between the two have been very different.
‘Just’ War Theory
Without going into tremendous detail and writing a grand book report I would like to first summarize the point I’ve reached on Protestant Christianity’s acceptance–albeit a vague one–of the Just War Theory. In doing so I’m not really addressing the specifics of the Theory. This is intentional. My reason is that every church that I’ve been to that openly takes an affirming position on Christians in the military draws on the Just War Theory–either explicitly or implicitly–only in the most loose and general way. Since the Theory is essentially Catholic doctrine and I attend Protestant churches, this is not surprising. So, because Protestants refer to it generally, I am critiquing it generally. While I know more could be said in defense of the Theory, I do not hold the Catholic belief that the Church’s teachings are authoritative therefore I am more concerned with what Scripture says than with dogma, and from what I understand of this issue thus far I can say that the Theory doesn’t work.
While there is much thought and care behind the Just War rules of engagement, I believe it is too idealistic and antiquated to base one’s life upon. This is because the way in which war actually happens today makes it impossible to apply Just War principles, and I see two primary reasons why. 1) Modern warfare is not the low-tech, hand-to-hand combat it was when this theory was dreamed up by St. Augustine. The tactics and technologies that have been used since WWI could not have been foreseen by Augustine even in his worst nightmares–especially nuclear weapons. As a result, modern warfare involves–as a byproduct–the taking of innocent, non-combatant lives. Thanks to worldwide industrialization, soldiers are no longer the only ones who die during conflicts. In this sense, engaging in a “just” war is virtually impossible. 2) World governments, often intentionally, do not reveal to its citizens truthful, unbiased information about the nation’s conflicts or its enemies rendering individual Christians ill-informed as to whether or not they would be ‘justly’ participating in a military campaign should they choose–or be forced–to fight. With respect to the Just War Theory, individual Christian citizens simply do not and cannot know enough to make a correct assessment of a situation. In the United States, this leaves the “moral compass” in the hands of elected officials and military personnel. While that might not sound too bad to many American Christians who trust in the benevolence of our government, imagine if you were a conscripted soldier in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s U.S.S.R., Omar al-Beshir’s Sudan, or even modern North Korea! Would you blindly obey your government’s orders to commit genocide because you thought God wanted you to “be subject to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1)? Of course not. If the Just War Theory cannot be applied timelessly and universally then it is nothing more than a theory and is only useful in the theoretical realm not the practical reality in which we live. This is very unfortunate because a vague ideal of a just war, along with a narrow application of the biblical principle of submitting to authorities, seems to be the best and most widely accepted justification Christians, especially Western Evangelicals, have come up with for killing others in the name of their country.
Old Testament Violence
The next issue I sought to learn more about is why God either commanded or allowed such brutality at the hands of the Israelites. Prior to trudging through these three books I felt I had a pretty good understanding of this but I knew there is always more to learn when it comes to the ways of God. At this point I have heard from 11 different authors, not to mention the many that they cite, and all of them make the same conclusion that the “holy war” of the Old Testament does not provide a model for engaging with the world that the Christian Church ought to follow. All the authors agree that Christians, or any modern nation for that matter, have no right to engage in warfare the way in which ancient Israel did. There is no biblical justification for “fighting for God” or taking up arms to “defend Christianity”. Where there is disagreement, however, is with the explanation for the murder of so many thousands of people, as recorded in Old Testament books like Joshua.
In no particular order, here are the three most interesting explanations that I came across for why this violence took place. 1) God did not in fact command these wars; they were the result of Moses’ imperfect understanding of God’s will. God works with fallen humanity where we are at and therefore allowed the Israelites to carry out such violence, even though it was not done at his command. This is evidenced by the fact that the book of Deuteronomy, where the rules for war first appear, is essentially Moses’ interpretation and retelling of the Law he was given by God at Sinai—it is a not a verbatim quotation of God. The book is filled with a great deal of creative liberty and embellishment when compared to the account of the event in the book of Exodus. Furthermore, Moses’ commands to Israel concerning the rules of war tend to change from situation to situation and at times seem to be totally arbitrary. Additionally, Israel’s understanding of the events of their wars and God’s commands have a progressive quality whereby from Moses to Joshua to the Book of Chronicles things get clearer over time. This suggests that the Israelites, like us today, didn’t always hear God correctly at the time they moved forward with a decision, but understood God’s will more fully in hindsight. In other words, God allowed the violence but he didn’t command it. 2) Holy War in the Old Testament should be best thought of as “Yahweh War” for the reason that the chief objective of war was the annihilation of foreign gods. That this was the case is most clearly articulated by God himself when he states that by killing all of Egypt’s firstborn he “will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12). Because foreign gods could trip up the Israelites, the only way to protect God’s people was for him to exterminate the idols and by extension those who worshipped them. In this way the violence should be termed “deicide”, not “genocide” or even “homicide,” because the gods were the primary object of the Lord’s wrath, not the humans. 3) While the wars of Israel and Judah were historical, some of the details, such as the number of casualties or the method of victory, are most likely not. This is because the judgment on other nations that was carried out by the hands of God, or God via the Israelites, most importantly serves the purpose of pointing to the eschatological reality of God one day destroying evil and all who do it and preserving a remnant for himself: the Church. Thus, the warfare during the Old Testament era is an allegory, created by God, for things to come. The concern then should not be with the violence itself, since many details themselves are probably part of the allegory, but rather with understanding the themes and eternal reality it points to.
Each of these three explanations was new to me and each one of them definitely requires a lot or more study on my part to fully understand. The other explanations, in my assessment, were basically more technical and scholarly ways of articulating what I wrote about in my previous post on this issue. So, having pondered all these explanations by all these smart guys over the last nine months I have reached this noble and commendable verdict as to which one I believe is right: I have no idea. (This stuff is really complicated!) I see convincing arguments within them all, so the best I can say is that they are probably all correct to some degree. While I feel pretty secure (right now, anyways!) in my conclusion regarding a Christian’s obligation to their government, this second issue will probably take me a lifetime to wrap my head around. Thankfully there’s lots of people who have devoted their lives to understanding these things and writing about them so we can all benefit from their insights. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the books I’ve recommended on these topics and please let me know of any additional ones you’ve found helpful. For now, thanks for reading and…