The Bible and Iraq

In a recent article, God is Pro-war, the Reverend Jerry Falwell attempted to provide a Biblical justification for George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq. Tucked away among the Bible proof texts near the end of the article, Falwell added his own rationalizations for the war: "President Bush declared war in Iraq to defend innocent people. This is a worthy pursuit," and: "One of the primary purposes of the church is to stop the spread of evil, even at the cost of human lives. If we do not stop the spread of evil, many innocent lives will be lost and the kingdom of God suffers."

These are chilling statements, especially since they were written by a well-known minister of the Gospel whose views are shared by millions of church-going Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. They do, however, bring to light the unholy alliance between the American State and the Christian religion as it is currently practiced in the U.S.

Falwell seems unaware that when Christians support the president-of-the-moment without demanding that he obey the law which applies to everyone else they are stepping out onto very thin ice indeed. His attempt to give a religious imprimatur to the Iraq war is a case in point.

For centuries the Christian Church has worked to mitigate the horrors of war and to restrain the war-powers of the State by insisting that certain conditions must be met before a war is deemed morally justifiable and worthy of Christian support. Among these conditions is the requirement that the resort to war be decided only by those persons who possess "right authority."

Under the Constitution of the United States, "right authority" to commit the nation to war is vested in Congress alone. A president has no more legal standing to "declare war in Iraq" than you or I do, regardless of how "worthy" the pursuit may seem to some.

Since the end of World War Two the United States has involved itself in dozens of conflicts around the world, at the cost of more than a hundred thousand American and uncounted millions of foreign dead. Not a single one of these overseas adventures was authorized by the Congressional declaration of war required by the Constitution. Each and every one of them was therefore illegal under the supreme law of the land, and the deaths inflicted on friend and foe and innocents alike amounted to mass murder.

Advocates of American global hegemony might assert that the practice of the past sixty years has established a legitimizing precedent, and that a formal declaration of war is no longer practical or even necessary when the Commander-in-Chief decides that the nation's security is at risk. Nothing can be farther from the truth. If two wrongs do not make a right, neither do two hundred. Unless the Constitution is amended to shift the war-making power from Congress to the Executive branch, every armed foreign intervention simply underscores the essentially lawless nature of the American State, and of presidents like George W. Bush who consider themselves above legal and moral restraint.

Remember that when President Bush was inaugurated he publicly swore a solemn Oath of Office in which he invoked the name of God to help him preserve and protect that same Constitution. It is now obvious that he swore that oath with his fingers figuratively crossed behind his back, reserving to himself the right to ignore the oath of office, the Constitution, and even the Third Commandment when it suited him.

President Bush is fluent in the rhetoric of born-again Christianity which appeals to Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants such as Jerry Falwell. So were his predecessors in the White House who used left-wing, progressive rhetoric to rally the support of liberal mainliners. But rhetoric is one thing and actual behavior is another.

Jesus Christ told us that a tree can be judged by the fruit that it bears. By this standard, George W. Bush's actual conduct in his role as president makes it crystal clear that he acknowledges no higher sovereignty than his own imperial will and no higher power than the power of the State. Once he determined upon a "worthy pursuit" such as a war of aggression against a nation which had not attacked America and posed no threat to our country, then all considerations of truth, Constitutional limitations on State power, international law, domestic and foreign public opinion, even the Law of God itself, became as nothing.

Jerry Falwell on the "religious right," and the "progressives" on the "religious left," may be far apart theologically and ideologically, but they are united when they accept the State's assertion of absolute sovereignty and eagerly produce the religious rationalizations which support that claim.

This is a more dangerous state of affairs than it may first appear.

The last book of the Bible, variously called the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse of John, provides a horrific warning of what happens when the state divinizes itself and is supported in that claim by a religious establishment.

In the highly-charged apocalyptic imagery of Revelation 13, a hideous beast emerges from the sea, conjured up by the dragon (Satan). According to the Reformed Bible scholar William Hendricksen, the beast from the sea:

"is Satan's hand [which] represents the persecuting power of Satan operating in and through the nations of the world and their governments. [. . .] To this monster the dragon gives his power and authority. [. . .] In worshiping the beast, men are also rendering homage to the dragon who gave his authority to it. [. . .] We interpret the picture as follows. The sea represents nations and their governments.[. . .] The sea-born beast symbolizes the persecuting power of Satan embodied in all the nations and governments of the world throughout all history. World-dominion directed against God's people wherever and whenever it appears in history, that is the beast. [. . .] In this beast the persecuting power of Satan becomes visible. [. . .] Throughout this entire gospel age . . . the governments of this world place themselves on the throne; arrogate to themselves the authority that belongs to God (think of the totalitarian governments of the present day) and blaspheme God and heaven."

The beast from the sea symbolizes every emperor, every king, every president, every authority which claims for itself absolute sovereignty, and which acknowledges no limitations except those which grow out of its own imperial will. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

A second beast then appears, this one "coming up out of the earth." Hendricksen comments:

"[This beast] represents the devil's mind. [. . .] the false religions and philosophies of this world. [. . .] This second beast is the servant of the first. [. . .] The second beast is the false prophet. It symbolizes false religion and false philosophy in whichever form these take throughout the entire dispensation. Although this beast outwardly resembles the Lamb [i.e. Christ] it inwardly conceals the dragon. In other words, whatever strikes the eye is very appealing and attractive. The beast looks very innocent: a nice little lamb, a pet for the children. And this lamb speaks like the devil himself! This second beast, accordingly, is the lie of Satan dressed up like the truth. It is Satan masquerading as a shining angel. It symbolizes all false prophets in every era of this dispensation. They come disguised as sheep, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. [. . .] The two beasts — antichristian government and antichristian religion — work in perfect co-operation. That is invariably the case."

The beast from the land, or false prophet, symbolizes every religion and philosophy which accept the State's claim of absolute sovereignty, and which support the State by providing the biblical or theological or philosophical rationalizations for that claim.

In the first century when the Book of Revelation was written, the beast and false prophet represented the Roman Empire supported by the priests of the emperor cult, but that was only the beginning. In the nineteenth century the beast and false prophet were discernable in the Lincoln administration's antinomian war against the South as cheered on by post-millennial Unitarian abolitionists. In the twentieth century the beast and false prophet emerged once again in the Third Reich buttressed by the ideology of Nazism and the loyalty of the "German Christians," and in the Soviet communist regime with its philosophical Marxism and tame Russian Orthodox bishops.

Now that we have entered the twenty-first century, who would have thought that the most recent historical manifestation of the beast emerging from the sea of nations would be the government of the good old U S of A? Or that the false prophet which gives it religious and theological legitimacy would come from the ranks of self-proclaimed Christian believers who have replaced their faith in the God who reigns over the nations with nationalism or ideological and political commitments which prevent them from recognizing that they are in the service of the dragon?

God is not mocked. Unless American Christians of all stripes wake up and recognize the implications of their uncritical support for a State and a president which acknowledge no sovereignty higher than the will to power of those who possess a monopoly on force, they will share in the fate of every beast and false prophet which has appeared in history:

"Then the beast was captured and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who received his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. [. . .] The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever" (Revelation 19:20, 21; 20:10).

Christians in America have for far too long equated faith with uncritical loyalty to the State. The time has come for the people who call themselves by Christ's name to remember that when it comes to the messianic pretensions of politicians: "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision" (Psalm 2:4, 5).

February 9, 2004