I’ve been thinking a lot about God’s role in war. At one church, we are studying Genesis… and of course, the Old Testament is no stranger to intense and sustained bouts of warfare. Although we are focused on the Gospel of John at the other church, nearly every Bible study begins with a discussion about this week’s episode of “The Bible” (The History Channel miniseries) and the sheer amount of violence that is protrayed has been a common theme. Of course, as a nation that has spent more than a decade at war, a conscionable person can’t get by without dwelling on the subject on nearly a daily basis.
When we focus on war as it is manifest in our Bible, the most common response is also the easiest response: “It’s God’s will.”
Of course, taking something as atrocious and anti-life as war and readily dismissing it as “God’s will” is a cop-out answer. It allows us to put the blame and shame and life-killing aspects of war firmly on God’s shoulders and shrug the burden from our own. And if that isn’t bad enough, the “God’s will” response distorts the face of God so that it is ulmost unrecognizable to the people who need God most–those who are being crushed by the bombs and bullets.
God is not a God of war. God is, has always been, and always shall be, a God of life.
So why, then, are we so quick to dismiss war as being God’s will?
Largely it is becuase we tend to read the Old Testament at face-value, not diving deeper into the meaning lurking behind the stories and the prophecies that are being told. As the Old Testament unravels, we, along with the characters of the story, grow to know God more closely. Although God is the same as God has always been, we, in our limited understanding, begin to grow as we journey into unknown places with Abraham, run away from home with Jacob, fall before the burning bush with Moses, and wander in the wilderness with the Israelites. When they are in bondage, we are in bondage with them. When they are lost, we are lost with them. And when they are free and thriving, we are free and thriving with them.
Like the people of the Old Testament, war and the threat of war is a common theme of our lives and our world. It is a cold, hard reality about the society we live in. We are people of war, just as the prophets were 5,000 years ago. And that is where the misunderstanding begins to distort the face of God.
We were created in the divine image, but through sin we have corrupted that divine nature and fallen from grace. Which is why we needed Jesus Christ to take on flesh and blood and pay the price for us. So, when God reveals to us that we are bringing a heap of suffering upon ourselves because of our ways, we take the warning and the corresponding suffering as being the inevitable nature of sin. The prophets often carried messages of impending war to their people and were ignored… but when war came, people too often saw war as God’s will.
This, they said, was how God punished their sin. This was how God wrestled God’s people back into harmony with the Divine will.
Except it’s not.
As a God of life, our God desires the exact opposite of war. War is destruction, hatred, blind killing, tearing down, and spiritual death. Those messages given to the prophets were God’s last ditch attempts to save us before we brought the full force of our sins down upon us. For that matter, the “enemies of God” were often the ones who came in, full-force, destroying Israel and dragging their best and brightest off into exile. God wasn’t using violence to punish the people who were supposed to be walking with God… Instead, the full weight of sinfulness simply came crushing down upon the people who refused to focus their attentions and their efforts into living in the divine will.
War was the people’s sinfulness coming back on them.
It didn’t matter whether the army was the conquerer or the conquered, they suffered. Kings and rulers back home might be getting rich off aquiring new lands and new wealth and new markets… but the bulk of the people were suffering. Soldiers on both side were dying. Men were being drawn far away from their homes to fight a war in distant places, leaving family and loved ones behind. Families were broken. Children were orphaned. Women were widowed.
But what of “righteous war” you ask?
I would argue that there is no such thing as righteous war. The “Just War Theory” was something theologians (Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) developed to allow us to feel good about the cruel, anti-divine nature of war.
Even when we take a war that a near-unanimous majority of America would describe as being “just”, World War II, we can’t deny the terrible pain and burden that our world suffered as a result. Hitler had to be stopped, that much is clear. Six million dead Jews, Europe in tatters, and violence that reached across the oceans and struck us on our own territory told us that something had to be done.
But does that mean that God wanted war? Does it mean that God willed the war to happen?
God’s will can be found in the brave souls who were trying to save others from the threat of violence and death through peaceful means. It was in the voices of the preachers and leaders who were crying to the masses long before the first shots were fired, warning us what was to come… and yet, we ignored them. God’s will was in people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom. It was in groups like The White Rose Society–young people putting their lives on the line to stand against evil not with the same means that evil used, but with the peaceful and life-affirming means God encourages.
War is sinfulness.
The amount of suffering that the world had to deal with in the wake of war and the length of time it takes for a people to recover from the deadly effects of war are proof that everything about it is counter to life. If we were living in harmony with God’s will, there would be no war; which is why in God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be no war.
This is not to say that the soldiers serving in our military are sinners. Not any more than the rest of us, that is. We are all sinners. And the burden of the sin of war rests squarely on all our shoulders. We can’t shrug off the blame and heap it upon God. And we can’t throw up a peace sign and claim that we are not complicit. We can’t seperate the guilty from the not guilty by uniforms and Birkenstocks.
The price of our sin, as individuals and as a society, can’t be fixed by some simple solution like bringing all the troops home today (although I do pray for this). It can’t be fixed by donning the label of pacifist (something I struggle with in my own life). And try as we might to separate ourselves from the industrial war complex, we (as Americans) can’t escape the fact that we live in the nation that spends more on war and has a larger standing army than any other nation on earth. We are, no matter how much we want to deny it, benefitting from this fact.
So, where do we go from here, then?
I wish I knew the answer to world peace. I do. I would share it far and wide and sacrifice everything in my life to see it come to fruition if I thought for a second that I could end earthly wars once and for all.
But I don’t have that answer. What I do have I will share with you… a line that comes from my favorite hymn, “Let There Be Peace On Earth“: Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now.
Peace begins by diving deep into our own souls, cleaning out the destructive and sinful things that clog up our lives, making room for God, and letting God and God alone rule our lives.
Peace begins with us. So let it begin now–not tomorrow, not next week, not when we’ve passed military control back to the Afghans… Let THIS be the moment now!