Friday, October 29, 2010

The Toughest Nut?

One of the arguments Christians apologists like to trot out is that we have a system of morality that we can depend on, handed down from God himself in the Bible. Where atheists are "infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Ep 4:14), we can look to the Bible for definitive pronouncements about everything needed for faith and practice. While the Bible is not clear about everything, it is clear about everything that's important.

It is this certainty that has inspired the martyrs over the centuries, and it is the basis on which those stand who believe that "thy kingdom come" will be fulfilled in some degree through the church before the return of Christ, as exemplified by this passage from an article handed me by a friend:

The gospel tells us that all enemies of Christ will be subdued before the Lord returns—with the one exception of death. That enemy will be destroyed by the Lord Himself. All the other enemies—famine, disease, pestilence, war—will be destroyed through the agency of the faithful proclamation of the gospel, adorned by the Church living it out. (Douglas Wilson)

Unfortunately, either war is not an important subject, unclearly addressed as it is by the Bible, or the Bible does not address all important subjects clearly:

But we have good reason for believing that war will be one of the toughest nuts to crack. It well may be that it is the next to last enemy to be destroyed.

I suspect my friend directed me to Brother Doug's article because it contains this:

Winston Churchill defined a fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. The ideologue is similar—he demands submission from everyone to the dictates of the abstraction that holds his loyalty by the back of the neck. This is why, without any sense of irony, the advocate of pacifism can find himself arguing, in the most bloodthirsty way, for the engines of war to get warmed up.

I consider myself more a wimp than a pacifist, but anyone who opposes the present wars is tossed in the pacifist pile, so I guess that's why I was given the article. And since the war is a topic that I find myself addressing often and my opinions are not likely to change soon, I'll concede that I'm a fanatic. I'm not sure "do for your neighbor what you would have him do for you" and "what's yours is yours, what's mine is mine; keep your hands to yourself and tell the truth, and it doesn't matter who you are, we ought to be able to get along" is an ideology, but my friend and Brother Doug might think so. So if I'm a fanatical pacifist ideologue, make of it what you will.

The article's conclusion is reasonable, or at least I think I can agree with it, even the first clause:

I am no pacifist, and so I believe that there are wars that are just in principle, and in which Christians might participate with a clean conscience. I hold this position as one who believes that every just war ought to be aimed, in principle, at the glorious elimination of war that the prophets have wonderfully anticipated for us. If we hold our convictions about war in this way, refusing the ideological lure, we may not see wars abolished as quickly as we might like. But if we reject ideology, we will at least not be breeding additional and unnecessary wars in the meantime.

Now war is an abstraction: while there are no doubt some who find rapacity more rewarding after a good hard battle where even their own side takes casualties, most prefer to show up with overwhelming force, skip the battle, and take the women and the loot. You don't need the Bible to convince most people that war in the abstract isn't a good thing.

This war, however, is no abstraction. It has visible, tangible, measurable effects on millions of people. If nothing else, the money we send to Washington to keep the army over there is money we're not sending to missionaries, who are feeling the pincers of inflation and reduced giving.

So I find rather scary a theme that runs through the article, as encapsulated in the penultimate paragraph:

As a Christian pastor and biblical constitutionalist, I opposed the war in Iraq on constitutional grounds. The president is not authorized by the Constitution to go to war with another sovereign nation and replace its government. Congress has the responsibility to declare war. This conviction of mine is a political opinion, one which I would never dream of invoking in the discipline of God’s people. And godlier men than I believe that the war is perfectly justified, both constitutionally and scripturally. I write this, not as a max nix [sic] relativist, but as someone who believes that the diamonds of some absolute truths are not lying on the surface of the ground. For those, we will have to dig some deep mines. But as the historian Christopher Dawson once put it, the Christian church lives in the light of eternity, so we can afford to be patient.

Christians living in the US can certainly afford to be patient: Uncle Sam isn't dropping bombs on us from unmanned aircraft (yet). Will Brother Doug be as patient when he's dodging bombs? And what will he be able to do about it then if he should decide that Christians shouldn't be part of the imperial army? More importantly, if he does decide that this war is wrong, what will he tell his sheep who have assumed so far that it is OK to be part of it?

Since the Bible apparently isn't clear about how we are to think about the war, let alone what we are to think of it, Brother Doug is left with the Constitution for guidance. But he admits that he can't agree with "godlier men" than he what the Constitution says, so even that's no help.

(Then there's the question of whether a document that is de facto being ignored can be appealed to at all. Worse, as Gary North and Lysander Spooner have written, the ratification of the Constitution was of questionable morality, and its nature as morally binding would be suspect even if it were lawfully and morally instituted.)

So, having eliminated all authoritative backing for any pronouncement he might make about the war, he is left with saying nothing and calling it patience. But I have a problem with the selective nature of his patience:

If an abortionist sought membership in our church, we would refuse him unless he repented. If a homosexual couple sought membership, we would refuse them. If a pornographer wanted to join, we would say no. But would we allow a conscientious objector in? Yes. Would we allow a colonel in the Marines to join? Absolutely. Does this mean that I believe “it is all relative” and that when it comes to issues of war and peace, each Christian can just choose for himself? No. But it is a recognition that the prophetic vision recognizes that when men come to “study war no more,” and the lion lies down with the lamb, and men turn their ingenuity to the task of making the finest plowshares out of the finest spears, we are then at the culmination of the gospel age. The elimination of war is not irrelevant to Christian worldview thinking, but is rather the capstone of that kind of thinking in history.

(Notice that Brother Doug is talking about church membership, not about attendance. He and I both, I think, desire passionately to offer the good news to abortionists, homosexuals, pornographers, conscientious objectors, and Marine colonels as much as to anyone else, and to love them as people no more self-interested and sinful and no less desirous of doing the right thing than we are.)

So the church can be definitive about the killing of the unborn, but not about killing those already born, about sexual sins, but not about the taking of innocent life on a massive scale. Brother Doug might be right, but what does that say about the authority of the Bible?

I'm no church historian, but I understand that in Tertullian's day one had to choose between being a Roman soldier and a church member:

The case is different, if the faith comes subsequent(ly) to any (who are) already occupied in military service, as (was, for instance, the case) with those whom John admitted to baptism, and with the most believing centurions whom Christ approves and whom Peter instructs: all the same, when faith has been accepted and signed, either the service must be left at once, as has been done by many, or else recourse must be had to all sorts of cavilling, lest anything be committed against God – (any, that is, of the things) which are not allowed (to Christians) outside the army, or lastly that which the faith of (Christian) civilians has fairly determined upon must be endured for God. For military service will not promise impunity for sins or immunity from martyrdom. The Christian is nowhere anything else (than a Christian).

When the need to choose disappeared I don't know, but surely it was gone by the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire: "Hot dog! Now we can really make disciples!"

Brother Doug describes himself as a "biblical constitutionalist" and his opposition as being on "constitutional grounds." I hope the label means he reads the Constitution through the lens of the Bible and not the other way around, but to say that his opposition is constitutional rather than biblical is breathtaking. Does the Bible not give him anything to say about this particular war?

"No, Mr. Quill Pig, it doesn't. And if you look in Romans 13, you'll see that the state has been given the power of the sword."

Commenting on Romans 13, the Westminster Confession says that the civil magistrate is bound to enforce "wholesome laws"; he is not free to act as he chooses. If, by Brother Doug's own admission, this particular war is unconstitutional, prosecuting it is a lawless act, and Christians are not to participate in lawless acts, because "all sin is lawlessness" (1 Jn 3:4). I think he would do well to call a meeting of his church elders, lay out his case, invite those "godlier men" than he to lay out their cases, and ask the elders to take a stand about the moral nature of this war, calling on his denominational leaders to follow suit. Again, we're not talking about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary or even whether a drum set should accompany the music team: we're talking about whether or not God is calling Christians to disrupt the lives of millions of people who are on their way to a Christless eternity.

My congregation and denomination have endorsed this war from the get-go without even so much as a discussion or an explanation. We pray more on Sunday mornings for the soldiers who fight for Uncle Sam than we do for our missionaries, and we send more money to Washington to support the war than we do to our missionaries. Yet the topic has never been discussed officially. It's as though we don't dare raise the subject lest the discussion become heated. My church claims to carefully avoid taking stands on political issues, but nothing is more political than war, and not to raise the issue is to side de facto with the warmakers and then to pretend as though which side the church is on is not important.

I'd rather be excommunicated by a church that decided—after deep, lengthy, and passionate discussion—that to oppose this war is tantamount to abetting the murder of Americans than to see God's people refuse to discuss the issue (Re 3:15).

Does the Bible not talk about matters of life and death to millions of people? If it doesn't, can one not be forgiven for asking, "God is good, but what's he good for"? I know atheists who have no desire to hear the gospel precisely because Christians who will wax tearful over the evils of intrauterine devices can't bring themselves to call bombing women and children in a country with which we are supposedly allied evil. They would answer in Stalin's famous words: "When one person dies, it's a tragedy. When a million people die, it's a statistic." And we know Jesus doesn't care about statistics.

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