Politics,  Theology/Bible

Ben Witherington Puts Just War Tradition on Trial (at least implicitly)

Dr. Ben WitheringtonMaybe he didn’t intend to do this, but New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has put the “Just War” tradition on trial in his most recent blog post.

Commenting on the Family Research Council’s recent summit in Washington, D. C., Witherington complains that many evangelical Christians are inconsistent when they vigorously advocate pro-life policies while supporting the war in Iraq. He writes,

Interestingly, what no one was suggesting at the conservative Christian organizers meeting was that maybe, just maybe it was grossly inconsistent when it comes to being ‘pro-life’ to be campaigning so vigorously against abortion, while supporting the war in Iraq equally vigorously. Indeed, by some polls it appears Evangelical Christians are still some of the most staunch supporters of the war in Iraq. What’s up with that? . . .

What was M.I.A. at this meeting was a recognition that war is just as destructive of life in general and Christian values in particular as abortion or same sex marriage. I suspect that until it dawns on these Christian organizers that they need to be articulating a more consistent and clear life ethic that not only affects personal Christian values but our larger witness to the whole world, that most non-Christians are not going to pay much attention to us.

I don’t know that Witherington is a pacifist, but the logic of his blog-entry is. He has linked the evil of war to the evil of abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage.” To say that Christians must oppose war in the same way that they do abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage” demands that Christians surrender the idea that there is such a thing as a just war—that is, unless one can envisage a Just Abortion-on-Demand theory or a Just Same-Sex Marriage theory.

It is fine for Witherington to argue vigorously that the Iraq War was unjust and therefore anti-Christian. But it is quite another matter to suggest that all wars have the same moral status as abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage.” To me it makes more sense simply to acknowledge that Christians can disagree about whether the war in Iraq is a Just War. Let’s have a debate about that, but let’s not throw out the entire Just War tradition because we think that some on the religious right have misapplied it to the Iraq War.

One Comment

  • dennyrburk

    1. D. Taylor Benton Says:
      In noting that I have only read the quote in this post, shouldn’t it be said that if Evangelicals did NOT support the war we would be inconsistent? Due to the fact that under Saddam literal hundreds of thousands died? Along with the torturous rapes and mutilations of countless people?

      I know that the U.S. hasn’t been perfect but the alternative is drastically worse.

      I pray that we wouldn’t have to fight at all but the reality of the situation is freeing a country from not only torturous tyranny but also opening Iraq’s Borders to the Gospel.

      I must admit it is a fine line to walk but I think it must be walked. In saying this, I am presupposing this was a just war. I do not intend to argue the ins and outs of that theory on this post at least, maybe later tonight ;)

    2. debbiewimmers Says:
      ‘Romans 13:1-5 1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

      The U.S. is taking this passage very seriously. Because we are built on Christian Ethics, we must do everything we can to protect the rest of the world from terrorism. In the old testement Genesis 9:6 If man sheds innocent blood, his blood will be shed.
      When the Isrealites went into Canaan, God told them to wipe out the people in that land because they were currupt. Even the innocent were killed. God told Saul to kill the Amelekites but Saul disobeyed and spared the king and the cattle for sacrifice. There is an upcoming movie on October 13 called ‘One Night With the King’ based on Esther. In the beginning, it opens with the confrontation of Saul, Samual, and Saul. The is an introduction to Haman, an amelekite, asked the king to anniliate the Jews.

    3. Brian W Says:
      I appreciate Taylor’s recognition concerning how difficult this issue is. To me, that’s usually what’s missing in the typical evangelical’s approval of a “just war”. Most of the time, proponents of just war hold their views callously, with little regard for human life. The reality is that in every war, innocent people (children in particular) will die. That should make every Christ-follower sick. A just war advocate will say (rightly), “its also sick to see the innocent die from the hands of the wicked”. Which are we more comfortable with? (or repulsed by?) These are hard issues.

      If evangelicals would simply add or more somber tone in their defense of a just war, that would go a long way (at least for me).

    4. Luke Britt Says:
      What defined a so-called “just war” in the Scriptures? This is the question we must ask if we are to be faithful the teaching of the biblical writers.

      Sometimes we Americans blur the lines of political freedom and spiritual freedom. Pride for a nation is blended with identity in a Kingdom. So-called ‘rights’ are blended with Christian doctrine. In some cases, these things are too difficult to mix. As my thoughts run together, my hope is that we draw closer to Scripture and in turn, further from American Christian-political subculture ideologies.

      Any idea war or physical conflict for a Christian must be confronted with Romans 12:19 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” The problem is is that sometimes we don’t think the Lord is strong enough to get even on our behalf, let alone bring righteous judgment.

    5. Paul Says:
      Mr. Benton: so does the Iraq war become unjust now that more Iraqis have died due to our invasion than died under Sadam?

      Debbie: I tire of seeing that piece of scripture come up in such a hypocritical way. If the “religious right” wants to hold onto that as reason to steadfastly support Bush through thick and thin, then I am forced to ask why those same people pushed to forcibly remove Clinton. If God’s choices are sovreign when you elect GWB into office, then His choices are also sovreign when Clinton was in office. So, until apologies are rendered unto President Clinton for such un-Christian behavior, the “conservatives” need to stop quoting Romans 13:1-5 every time a liberal Christian questions them.

      Finally, Denny: the way you frame the word pacifist, it comes across as a slam. Which makes me wonder if you think pacifism is a non-Christian virtue. If that is the case, then I would like to enter into a serious discussion about the legitimacy of the historic peace churches. Because as a mennonite, I think that pacifism (to a degree…I’m not the best mennonite on the planet when it comes to such things) is a perfectly valid stance. As I think that this is a serious discussion that needs to take place among Christians, I’ll leave out the raging rhetoric and await your response.

    6. Matt Stokes Says:
      So, Luke, I suppose we should have sat at home during the early 1940s, trusting that the Lord would have his vengeance…
    7. Debbie Wimmers Says:
      I’m sorry you’re disturbed by the Romans 13 passage. I know it gets repeated by most pastors when talking about war. There are still some things that Clinton has done in office such as the affair and lying about it are absolutely unacceptable in a public office. Some people have forgiven Clinton on both accounts but he continues to support abortion and gay marriage. I know Bush has asked for some tolerance in certian circumstances but not as bad as the Democratic Party.
    8. Paul Says:

      Henry Hyde did the EXACT same thing. Why did no one try to run him out of office on a rail?

      Tom DeLay laundered money and lied about it. Why is that acceptable?

      Bush lied about WMD’s, and now 2700 of our soldiers are dead, as well as over 100,000 Iraqis. How can that be acceptable?

      Don’t quote a scripture for Bush that you wouldn’t quote for Clinton. It’s hypocritcal and nothing short of it.

    9. Debbie Wimmers Says:

      I have heard on certian Christian worldview shows that the WMD’s were found in Syria. A year later. Don’t ask me to tell you which one because I can’t remember.
      One, I think, was Dr Jerry Johnson’s program. Someone in the government said they did, in fact, find that Saddam sent WMD’s to Syria. I had a feeling all along they would be there.

      As for Clinton and others, Those who are not guilty cast the first stone. There are several past criminals in the house and the Senate. And I don’t believe DeLay is guilty of this money laundering scheme.

    10. Luke Britt Says:

      I guess so…

    11. jeff m Says:
      Luke Britt has the right question in #4.

      Jeff M.

    12. D. Taylor Benton Says:
      First of All,
      Paul, I do not know where you are getting your facts from but I would double-check them. Over 200,000 people died under Saddam and that is just the estimate of the Kurdish extermination. That is not counting the daily public executions that his son Udday did for seeming entertainment. Last time I checked, we were not anywhere near that number, just to give you a general quote by a “liberal” Tom Grey of Stanford University answers David Crow’s request the empirical basis for his statement on the number of dead under Saddam Hussein. “See http://www.gbn.org/ArticleDisplayServlet.srv?aid=2400&msp=1242 Here is an excerpt:”:Along with other human rights organizations, The Documental Centre for Human Rights in Iraq has compiled documentation on over 600,000 civilian executions in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that in one operation alone, the Anfal, Saddam killed 100,000 Kurdish Iraqis. Another 500,000 are estimated to have died in Saddam’s needless war with Iran. Coldly taken as a daily average for the 24 years of Saddam’s reign, these numbers give us a horrifying picture of between 70 and 125 civilian deaths per day for every one of Saddam’s 8,000-odd days in power”

      *I would also like to note the fact that this estimate was given BEFORE the war in Iraq, so we cannot claim partisan book cooking. As well as the fact that these estimates do not account for many of the unknown mass graves that have been uncovered since the war.

      Now on to an interesting post by Luke,

      I wanted to point out that you are calling out blurring the lines between God and country, yet you quote Romans in your defense? I agree the lines are blurry and I cannot stand Americanized patriotism in the pulpit, it makes me irritated. This is coming from someone that feels called to missions.
      I want to give an unabashed plug to MY ill treated out of date blog, I wrote some thoughts about this very issue.
      Scroll down the page to September of LAST year…I hope that gives you an idea of where I am on the whole God and country thing.

    13. Mr. Teko Says:
      My question is, how many evangelicals do you know who even have heard of Just War theories versus those who support the war because for them, evanglical = Republican?
    14. Paul Says:
      give Mr. Teko a fish. he’s dead on point.
    15. jeff m Says:
      What does just war theory have to do with the people of God?

      Under the Old Covenant When God had His people engage in War, did he have them abide by “Just War” criteria? No.

      Under the New Covenant When God said love your enemies did he subject that instruction to the exception of when you can “justify” killing them? No.

      If disciples of Jesus Christ want to be faithful to Him won’t we (disciples of Jesus) have to be more precise in our use of the first person plural pronoun “we” as it relates to Identity? Yes.

      Jeff M.

    16. Debbie Wimmers Says:
      I’m sorry but the Romans 13 passage is still valid for just war. If you are a terrorist, you deserve the sword or in the case guns, tanks or bombs.
    17. Paul Says:
      Mr. Benton,

      Nobody is excusing Sadaam’s behavior. It was disgusting, and his legacy will indeed be that of a brutal dictator.

      But, by your same logic, should we have gone into the old USSR to save the Russians from Stalin? Shouldn’t we have gone into China to save people from Mao? And where were we during Pol Pot’s reign anyway? And where we during the Rwandan genocide (I know, Clinton’s fault, but we had a Republican Congress that didn’t do anything either…)? And where are we now, in Sudan?

      Also, taking your cold numbers game (your words, not mine), let’s think about something for a moment…we’ve already seen about 100,000 Iraqis killed by either us or by each other since we invaded. Either July or August (I can’t remember which) saw 6900 Iraqi casualties. That’s a death rate, taken daily, of twice the rate of Sadaam’s tenure.

      Not to mention, since when have we been worried about Iranian lives? The same Republicans that were more than eager to help Iraq go to war against Iran are now claiming that the Iran-Iraq war was an unjust war? You have GOT to be kidding me.

      Afghanistan was and is a just war. They harbored and aided the very people who attacked us. Their training camps were on Afghan ground. The problem is, we should have turned Afghanistan into one big solid piece of glass. Instead, we pussyfooted with 11,000 troops where we needed 200,000, and we let Bin Laden get away. And we’ve let Afghanistan turn into a scary situation where the Taliban is slowly taking control again.

      Iraq, however, was not and is not a just war. Maybe you could have convinced me it was a just war if it was started on correct information. Maybe you could have convinced me it was a just war if the Republicans didn’t change the meaning behind the war the second that they knew that the WMD thing was a falsehood. Maybe you could have convinced me that it was a just war if we had a track record of deposing terrible dictators. But we don’t have that track record, the Republicans DID change their talking points, and they DID go to war with incorrect information because, in GWB’s OWN WORDS: “Sadaam tried to kill my daddy.”

      and as for Debbie, one last time: If God chose Bush to be our leader, then He also chose Clinton. If HE chose Clinton, then the Republicans were acting against God by trying to take him out of office. Sorry.

      And Denny, I’m still waiting for your take on the peace churches. C’mon, be a man here and let me know what you think…

    18. Luke Britt Says:
      D. Taylor,

      I quoted Romans to try to come to a biblical view on revenge or retaliation, not to form political policy. Anytime we are wrong either by terrorists, rapists, murderers, lawmakers, our neighbors, our spouses, or our employers, we should have an attitude of Romans 12:19.


      I’m not sure how you can justify Romans 13 as a ‘just war’ verse, considering the the content of the verse. It seems to me (and Denny, correct me if I’m wrong, most excellent professor) that the “wrongdoer” is not someone who does wrong to your nation, but rather, someone inside that people group who has committed an offense, thus “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (v. 4)”

    19. Bill Barnwell Says:
      The UN estimated that 500,000 mostly innocent Iraqi’s died as a result of U.S sanctions during the Clinton era alone. These were mostly women, children, and the eldery. Such sanctions did nothing to stop Saddam who continued to build his multimillion dollar palaces. Sure, this is different then Hussein directly persecuting dissident groups, but this should create moral concern amongst American Christians. Americans by and large are completly ignorant of the complexities of these issues.

      Also, there has been absolutely NO evidence that proves Iraq hid their WMD’s to Syria or anywhere else. That was just one of many reports that never materialized.

      Where were all the fundamentalist Christian Republicans quoting Romans 13 when Clinton led the charge for the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 which was mostly a US effort? They weren’t because most of them (us) opposed that war. They also by and large had no problem opposing the war while “supporting the troops” and had no problem “criticizing their Commander-In-Chief during a time of war.” But all those rules changed a few years later when a Jesus professing Republican took office.

    20. Scot McKnight Says:
      I read your post, but did not read all the comments — and my battery is running out.

      But one thing is clear: the Iraq War was not a just war issue, though it was at times defended that way by Colin Powell and our President. I debated a military philosopher and he and I agreed: the Iraq invasion was not a just war action but a crusader war. We invaded in order to spread democracy, not because they invaded us and we responded justly.

    21. Debbie Wimmers Says:
      In Daniel, He speaks to Nebuchadnezzar
      Da 2:21
      He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.

      In Psalms 2:10-12
      10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

      Proverbs 8:12-21
      12 “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. 13 To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. 14 Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. 15 By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; 16 by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. 17 I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. 18 With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity. 19 My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. 20 I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, 21 bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full.

      This is how God rules the nation. If the President does not submit to God, God will remove him. That is why the Republicans control the House and Senate. That is why Jimmy Carter was defeated by Reagan.

    22. Paul Says:

      1) Then the Republicans should have let God remove Clinton. They are not God, for God does not sin.

      2) Jimmy Carter: born again Christian. Ronald Reagan: nobody knows.

      3) don’t let those who say that republican = Christian fool ya. There’s the entirety of Sojourner’s Magazine and website who would disagree with you. Not to mention all of those members of the Peace Churches that Denny is afraid to speak on.



    23. Debbie Wimmers Says:
      jimmy carter is a christian yes. But, he supports same-sex unions and abortion.
      Reagan was a christian as well.

      another problem we have is this: The democrates don’t fund the military as much as they should. That’s why Clinton wouldn’t go agains’t Osama. He just wouldn’t admit it.

      The rebublicans did force an impeachment on Clinton. The elections were coming up and
      clinton was through anyway. It just meant the democrates would lose.

    24. Luke Britt Says:
      Go Democrats!!
    25. Paul Says:

      1) So, you admit that the republicans used adultery as a political tool, not as a righteous indignation? Yeah, really Christian of them, eh?

      2) Debbie, very few people “support abortion.” Even those who are pro-choice usually aren’t out in the streets cheerleading every time a woman has one. Some people see it as a necessary evil. Personally, I am disgusted by it, but I also realize that at this point, it is too ingrained into our culture, and that criminalizing it would only make it less safe, putting even more lives at risk. So, instead, I sadly agree with Justice Alito on this one: we should place restriction upon restriction upon abortion on demand until it becomes impractical to get one.

      2a) that said, if that is to become a reality, we REALLY need to kick all of the republicans out of office, so that when all of those unwanted, out of wedlock, underfunded kids come into the world, that someone will be there to help give that kid a fighting chance. After all, it was your man, President Bush, that signed into Texas law a law that allows hospitals to pull the plug on terminal cases if they don’t have the money to pay (but what about the sanctity of life?).


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