The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/30/03
Text: Micah 4:1-5; Luke 6:27-36
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

One of the classic films in cinema history is the 1930 epic of World War I, "All Quiet on the Western Front." In one scene some American doughboys are talking and one asks, "Where do wars come from anyway?"

His buddy replies, "Well, one country gets mad at another country, and they start fighting."

The first soldier asks, "Do you mean that one piece of land gets mad at another piece of land?"

"No," the other replies, "The PEOPLE of one country get mad at the PEOPLE of the other."

The first soldier picks up his rifle and starts walking away. When asked where he is going, he says, "I'm going home. I'm not mad at anybody."(1)

It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn't it? For whatever reason, our President has decided that we cannot walk away from Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi regime, and as of a bit more than a week ago, we are at war. As we well know, this decision has not been universally applauded, regardless of the virtual universal distaste for this individual whom almost everyone agrees is a brutal, barbaric tyrant. As Time magazine reported this week,
What is unfolding in Iraq is far bigger than regime change or even the elimination of dangerous weapons. The U.S. has launched a war unlike any it has fought in the past. This one is being waged not to defend against an enemy that has attacked the U.S. or its interests but to pre-empt the possibility that one day it might do so. The war has turned much of the world against America. Even in countries that have joined the "coalition of the willing," big majorities view it as the impetuous action of a superpower led by a bully. This divide threatens to emasculate a United Nations that failed to channel a diplomatic settlement or brand the war as legitimate. The endgame will see the U.S. front and center, attempting to remake not merely Iraq but the entire region. The hope is that the Middle East, a cockpit of instability for decades, will eventually settle into habits of democracy, prosperity and peace. The risks are that Washington's rupture with some of its closest allies will deepen and that the war will become a cause for which a new generation of terrorists can be recruited.(2)
What are we to think? President Bush has characterized the conflict in stark terms - good versus evil - giving the struggle almost a religious cast. The other side has done the same. As with beauty, good and evil are in the eye of the beholder. All right. If this is in any way religious, how should we who are Christians respond? For that matter, how should Christians respond to ANY war?

I would love to report to you this morning that the answer is clear and incontrovertible from the pages of holy scripture. I would LIKE to, but I cannot. To be truthful, depending upon the passage you choose, you could argue passionately on BOTH SIDES of the issue and cite biblical support.

For example, in the Old Testament, there are passages that have God instructing the children of Israel to engage in holy war with their neighbors and urging a brutality against any noncombatants - women, children, even livestock - that would make Saddam blush. On the other side, the Old Testament clearly presents an IDEAL of a society that lives in peace - as our lesson from Micah has it, "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks...Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."

The New Testament is no more definitive than the Old. There are a number of references to political regimes and the fact that they are divinely ordained as instruments of maintaining order. There are references to conversations with soldiers, none of which suggest that they should refuse to fight or find a new line of work. On the other hand, there are Jesus' uncomfortable words about loving your enemies and forgetting about the old eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth standard of acceptable retaliation. After all, following that to the letter would result in a society that is both toothless and blind. And, of course, we hear him say, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."

As I say, I wish the Bible would be more definitive for us, but it is not. The result is that the church, through 2,000 years of history has tried to offer helpful interpretation.

In our earliest days (the first 300 years or so), the church was strongly pacifist. One of the most influential of the early theologians, Origen, said that Christians "do not go forth as soldiers." Tertullian wrote, "only WITHOUT the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword." Clement of Alexandria wrote "...he who holds the sword must cast it away and that if one of the faithful becomes a soldier he must be rejected by the Church, for he has scorned God."(3)

This changed in the beginning of the fourth century with the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. Suddenly, the church was not on the outside of power looking in; the church was part of the power elite. In the year 314, the Council of Arles said that to forbid "the state the right to go to war was to condemn it to extinction," and shortly after that Christian philosophers began to think carefully about the doctrine of the so-called "Just War." More about that in a moment.

At the other extreme, a few hundred years down the road, the church said, not only was war morally justified, in certain situations it was an absolute necessity. An example would be the crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries that combined religious zeal with economic expansionism. Those were built on the Old Testament model of Holy War.

A middle ground between the pacifists on the one extreme and the crusaders on the other is found in the "Just War" tradition that goes back to Greek and Roman philosophers in the ancient world and was given a Christian spin by St. Augustine in the 4th century and St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas said, "Among true worshipers of God those wars are looked on as peacemaking which are waged neither from aggrandizement nor cruelty but with the object of securing peace, of repressing the evil and supporting the good."(4) The tradition spells out when and how force may be used, not with the intention of justifying wars but to prevent them by setting stringent criteria which must be satisfied before taking up arms:

  1. There must be a Just Cause: force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, (for example, naked aggression or some massive violation of basic human rights); force may also be used to provide self-defense.
  2. The conflict can only be called by a Legitimate Authority: Wars can only be justly waged by duly constituted governments, not aggrieved individuals or tribes. No vigilantes need apply. This would also classify as Unjust any sneak attacks such as Pearl Harbor prior to a declaration of war.
  3. The war must have at its heart a Right Intention: force may be used solely for the just cause, where the goal is to re-establish peace, specifically a peace that is preferable to the peace that would have prevailed had the war not been waged. Nations must be careful in not confusing right intention with simple self-interest.
  4. There must be a Probability of Success. No one goes to war figuring to lose, but common sense says do not go into a conflict which would exacerbate an injustice rather than eradicate it. Going to war for a hopeless cause may be noble, but it is not ethical.
  5. There must be Proportionality. The overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved. In addition, there is an understanding that injury to non-combatants is to be kept to the absolute minimum.
  6. And finally, war is always to be seen as a Last Resort: force may be used only after all sensible, non-violent alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.
Now the question becomes very specific: is THIS war a "Just War?" In a recent letter to President Bush, five prominent religious conservatives, including Charles Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, and Bill Bright, who started Campus Crusade for Christ, gave their full approval to a war effort. To bolster their argument, they pointed to America's experience in World War II. "How different and how much safer would the history of the twentieth century have been had the allies confronted Hitler when he illegally re-occupied the Rhineland in 1936?"

On the other side of the fence, some 70 American and British church leaders, including Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian General Assembly, recently signed a document declaring current plans to attack Iraq to be "illegal, unwise, and immoral."

Consider the current situation in light of the standards for engaging in a "Just War." First, is there a Just Cause? Some say yes, Saddam is a despicable dictator who should be taken down because he is a danger to the world. Some say no, Saddam is indeed a despicable dictator and a danger, but not to the world, rather to his own Iraqi people. We have no right to go in and depose him any more than we have the right to go into North Korea or China, two more despicable regimes, both with REAL weapons of mass destruction.

Number 2 - the question of Legitimate Authority. This one is relatively clear. President Bush does occupy a position as head of government that allows him to make such a move. Those who say that he needs the permission of the United Nations Security Council, even though that would have made this conflict much more palatable in the eyes of the rest of the world, are asking more from the Just War standards than is actually required. So saying, as a member of the UN, we are bound by that charter, including Article 2.4 which says that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force." Sadly, this invasion of Iraq is the first time the United States has ever unilaterally violated that provision.

Number 3 - is this war entered for a Right Intention? Some say yes, to disarm a madman from his weapons of mass destruction which he refuses to admit having and the relief of the suffering of the Iraqi people. Some say no, if it were not for all the oil under the Iraqi sand, we would not bother. Others are saying this war is nothing more than a smokescreen to cover the administration's domestic failures, the same thing that was said, by the way, by the other side when President Clinton bombed Iraq in 1998.

Number 4 - Probability of Success. I suspect most folks would say yes to that. We do possess utterly overwhelming military strength compared to Iraq. We do have weapons of mass destruction and we have been using them in ways the world has never seen before. Militarily, we should prevail. But at what cost?

Which leads to Number 5 - Proportionality. Does the eventual benefit from overthrowing Saddam justify the cost in human life, both military and civilian; the cost to any positive American influence around the globe in the face of the largest anti-war protests in the history of the world; the cost to our domestic needs here at home? Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower, obviously no pacifist, in an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."(5) Does this war meet the test of proportionality?

Finally, Number 6 - war must always be a Last Resort. Is that the case here? Some say yes, Saddam would not respond to anything else. Others say no, this administration never had any intention of allowing diplomacy to succeed, and as news reports this week attest, the president has been planning this invasion since March of last year. Hmm.

So. Is this a Just War or not? I leave you to draw your own conclusions. My own are well known.

Lewis Smedes, who taught ethics at a seminary in California for many years, has written a prayer: "Oh Lord, once I was smart enough to know a just war when I saw it, the kind of war you would approve of. I am not so smart anymore. Every war looks evil to me now. And even the war well begun becomes evil before it's over. So let us have no more of just wars; they are the worst kind. Now, at last, give us a just peace. It's time, Lord. Past time. Time for Shalom. Shalom for our breaking hearts. It's time."(6)

As you may know, I am a Rotarian, and one of Rotary International's priorities is the elimination of polio around the world, a goal that, I am pleased to tell you, is almost achieved now. I once heard a story about a family that was discussing the work of Dr. Jonas Salk. "Who is he?" asked one of their teenagers, and the response was that he was the man who developed the vaccine to prevent polio. The youngster then asked, "What is polio?" By the grace of God, one day it would be wonderful if our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will look up at us and ask, "What is war?"

On April 19, 1951, General Douglas MacArthur made his farewell address to a joint session of Congress. Most folks remember his conclusion that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away," but what he said before merits remembering even more. Listen:
I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes.(7)
As Christians sit in worship this morning, no question that there are wildly divergent opinions on this war with Iraq. But there are also some things on which we all agree:
  • we all want the very least possible human suffering and death;
  • we all want comfort for those who mourn;
  • we all want good to come out of this conflict, not evil;
  • and we all want this war over!

One of my friends suggests this war is like the coming of the Kingdom of God. The outcome is not in doubt, only the timetable. There WILL come a time when swords will be melted into plowshares and spears into pruning more war.

Glory, glory, hallelujah; God's truth is marching on.


1. Herschel H. Hobbs, My Favorite Illustrations, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990)

2. Michael Elliott and James Carney, "First Stop, Iraq," Time, 3/31/03, p. 173 ff.

3. - an excellent web site that presents a balanced view of the ethical questions involved in waging war.

4. Summa Theologica II, II, ae, 40, 1

5. Simpson's Contemporary Quotations, compiled by James B. Simpson. Copyright © 1988 by James B. Simpson. Published by the Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

6. Quoted by Rev. Linda Hoddy , sermon, "Can War be Just?" May 23, 1999


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