Christianity and War

“We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation”

~ George Bush

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?”

~ James 4:1

“War is the health of the state”

~ Randolph Bourne

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives”

~ U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler

“War prosperity is like the prosperity that an earthquake or a plague brings. The earthquake means good business for construction workers, and cholera improves the business of physicians, pharmacists, and undertakers; but no one has for that reason yet sought to celebrate earthquakes and cholera as stimulators of the productive forces in the general interest”

~ Ludwig von Mises

“War is God’s judgment on sin here; hell is God’s judgment on sin hereafter”

~ Bob Jones Sr.

“I saw in the whole Christian world a license of fighting at which even barbarous nations might blush. Wars were begun on trifling pretexts or none at all, and carried on without any reference of law, Divine or human”

~ Hugo Grotius

“Our wars, for the most part, proceed either from ambition, from anger and malice, from the mere wantonness of unbridled power, or from some other mental distemper”

~ Desiderius Erasmus

That the ongoing undeclared “war” in Iraq is supported by apologists for what World War II general, and later president, Dwight Eisenhower, called the “military-industrial complex” is no surprise. What is surprising, however, is the present degree of Christian enthusiasm for war. Our Christian forefathers thought differently, as will presently be seen. “Just war theory,” although it has been misused by political leaders to encourage soldiers to needlessly fight, kill, bleed, and die, with the full support of the civilian populace, including many of its Christians, is nevertheless still relevant in this age of tanks, bombs, land mines, and “weapons of mass destruction.” In his 1625 treatise De Jure Belli Ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace), the famed Dutch Christian, Hugo Grotius (1538–1645), universally recognized as the “Father of International Law,” set forth six jus ad bellum (just recourse to war) conditions that limit a nation’s legitimate recourse to war: just cause (correct intention [self-defense] with an objective), proportionality (grave enough situation to warrant war), reasonable chance for success (obtainable objectives), public declaration (fair warning, opportunity for avoidance), declaration only by legitimate authority, and last resort (all other options eliminated).* Or, as the historian and economist, Murray Rothbard (1926–1995), said, in making his case that America has only had two just wars (1776 & 1861), “A just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.” Grotius also articulated three jus in bello (justice in the course of war) conditions that govern just and fair conduct in war: legitimate targets (only combatants, not civilians), proportionality (means may not exceed what is warranted by the cause), and treatment of prisoners (combatants are through capture rendered noncombatants).* Grotius’ fellow Dutchman, Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), was certainly no pacifist, yet he lamented: “War would be understandable among the beasts, for they lack natural reason; it is an aberration among men because the evil of war can be easily understood through the use of reason alone. War, however, is inconceivable among Christians because it is not only rationally objectionable but, even more important, ethically inadmissible.” The fact that a government claims a war is just is irrelevant, for American history is replete with examples of American presidents who have exaggerated, misinformed, misrepresented, and lied to deceive the American people into supporting wars that they would not have supported if they had known the facts. In 1846 President James Polk, after Texas’ accession to the union, deliberately put US troops into an area still complicated by the existence of a boundary dispute with Mexico so as to be able to go to Congress with an incident and get a declaration of war. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln waged war on his own people after declaring in his first inaugural address: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” In 1898 President William McKinley began a “splendid little war” with Spain over Cuba. Its sequel to secure U.S. colonial power in the Philippines left dead 4,000 US troops, more than 20,000 Filipino fighters, and more than 220,000 Filipino civilians, all based on the news-media slogan “Remember the Maine!” In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson sought reelection on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” but then proceeded, soon after his second inauguration, to ask Congress for a declaration of war: “the war to end all wars” to “make the world safe for democracy.” In 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for his third term, saying, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” It was not long, however, before our “boys” were back once again on European soil. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson announced to a crowd at Akron University: “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” This was followed by the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that saw over 500,000 “American boys” fight an “Asian boys” war. Over 50,000 of them came home in body bags. In 1991 President George Bush I used faked satellite photos to gain Saudi participation in the first Gulf War, and to convince the American people that Hussein must be stopped from conquering the whole region. In 2003 President George Bush II insisted on the need to “end a brutal regime, whose aggression and weapons of mass destruction make it a unique threat to the world.” The holes in this statement have been unfolding before our eyes. Yet, the gullible Christian theologian Loraine Boettner (1901–1990), in his book The Christian Attitude Toward War, claims that the United States has “never had a militarist president.” He even advocates that the government “should be given the benefit of the doubt” when it comes to waging war. But contrary to Boettner, and as mentioned previously, our Christian forefathers, being much better read and having a much better grasp of history than the modern Christian who spends all his time in front of the Internet and the television, had no enthusiasm for war at all. Back before the Civil War, when the Christians published theological journals worth reading, two Baptist ministers writing in The Christian Review demonstrated that Christian war fever was contrary to the New Testament. Veritatis Amans, in his 1847 article “Can War, Under Any Circumstances, Be Justified on the Principles of the Christian Religion? “approached the subject from the standpoint of war being justified only in cases of self-defense. Another Baptist preacher, in an unsigned article from 1838 entitled “Wickedness of War,” approached the subject from the standpoint of the nature of war in general. Both articles look to the New Testament as their authority. Amans begins: “War has ever been the scourge of the human race. The history of the past is little else than a chronicle of deadly feuds, irreconcilable hate, and exterminating warfare. The extension of empire, the love of glory, and thirst for fame, have been more fatal to men than famine or pestilence, or the fiercest elements of nature.” “And what is more sad and painful, many of the wars whose desolating surges have deluged the earth, have been carried on in the name and under the sanction of those who profess the name of Christ.” “It has not been till recently, that the disciples of Christ have been conscious of the enormous wickedness of war as it usually exists. And even now there are many who do not frown upon it with that disapprobation and abhorrence, which an evil of such magnitude as an unjust war deserves.” “Wars of every kind may be included under two classes – offensive and defensive. Concerning the former we shall say nothing. We need not delay a moment to discuss a question so directly at variance with the dictates of conscience, and the principles of revealed religion.” “But under what circumstances is war truly defensive? We reply, when its object is to repel an invasion; when there is no alternative but to submit to bondage and death, or to resist.” The anonymous Baptist preacher writing in a 1838 issue of The Christian Review continues: “The war spirit is so wrought into the texture of governments, and the habits of national thinking, and even into our very festivals and pomps, that its occasional recurrence is deemed a matter of unavoidable necessity.” War “contradicts the genius and intention of Christianity,” “sets at nought the example of Jesus,” and “is inconsistent not only with the general structure and nature of Christianity and the example of Jesus, but it violates all the express precepts of the New Testament.” “Christianity requires us to seek to amend the condition of man. But war cannot do this. The world is no better for all the wars of five thousand years. Christianity, if it prevailed, would make the earth a paradise. War, where it prevails, makes it a slaughter-house, a den of thieves, a brothel, a hell. Christianity cancels the laws of retaliation. War is based upon that very principle. Christianity is the remedy for all human woes. War produces every woe known to man.” “The causes of war, as well as war itself, are contrary to the gospel. It originates in the worst passions and the worst aims. We may always trace it to the thirst of revenge, the acquisition of territory, the monopoly of commerce, the quarrels of kings, the intrigues of ministers, the coercion of religious opinion, the acquisition of disputed crowns, or some other source, equally culpable; but never has any war, devised by man, been founded on holy tempers and Christian principles.” “It should be remembered, that in no case, even under the Old Testament, was war appointed to decide doubtful questions, or to settle quarrels, but to inflict national punishment. They were intended, as are pestilence and famine, to chastise nations guilty of provoking God. Such is never the pretext of modern war; and if it were, it would require divine authority, which, as has just been said, would induce even members of the Peace Society to fight.” The “criminality of war,” as Howard Malcom, president of Georgetown College, wrote in 1845, is not “that tyrants should lead men into wars of pride and conquest,” but that “the people, in governments comparatively free, should so readily lend themselves to a business in which they bear all the sufferings, can gain nothing, and may lose all.” That people would act this way, Malcom says, is an “astonishment indeed.” “But,” he continues, “the chief wonder is that Christians, followers of the Prince of Peace, should have concurred in this mad idolatry of strife, and thus been inconsistent not only with themselves, but with the very genius of their system.” The founding fathers of this country, many of whom were deists, had more sense than many twenty-first-century Christians when it came to espousing a policy of peace through non-intervention; in other words, not being “a busybody in other men’s matters” (1 Pet. 4:15). George Washington: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Thomas Jefferson: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none.” John Quincy Adams: “America . . . goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.” So the War on Terrorism, like the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs, is in so many ways just a tragic joke. But why Christians support any of these bogus “wars” is an even greater tragedy. *I am indebted for these paragraphs on Grotius to Laurie Calhoun, “Just War? Moral Soldiers?” Independent Review, IV, 3 (Winter 2000), pp. 325–345, and for Joe Stromberg of the Mises Institute for bringing her article to my attention.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts