Skip to comments.Onward Christian Soldiers?
Posted on 04/01/2003 8:19:03 AM PST by sheltonmac
Onward Christian Soldiers?
Michael S. Horton
Recent events have once more invited a flurry of apocalyptic scenarios and rekindled the zeal of a distinctly American kind of patriotic piety. Left Behind, the series of runaway bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, has reached its apogee now in a final installment that reportedly centers on Iraq (New Babylon) as the seat of Antichrist. Needless to say, this seat has been considerably mobile over the last several decades, depending on the most current nemesis of the United States.
The Memorial Drive Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, announced a nationwide prayer assault in the following terms:
In the Old Testament, God's armies were always led by the priests. When the waters parted in the Jordan, it was the priests' feet which first hit the turbulent river. In the New Testament, Christians are also referred to as priests... all Christians. We must, therefore, go in first. As the possibility of war approaches with Hussein and Iraq, we are asking the priests to step in first... ahead of our military. Let us be setting up camp for our soldiers' entrance into the conflict. How? By prayer. Let us be sending in 'prayer missiles,' 'cruise and scud prayers' to target enemy plans. 'Patriot prayers' to shoot down incoming threats.
One wonders whether Iraqi Christians (there are a good number, after all) could pray this same prayer. It is fairly obvious, in fact, that they couldn't, since it is not a Christian prayer for the aversion of war or for limited casualties in the event of war, but an American prayer for military victory.
We at Memorial are praying for two things: (1) that the enemy leaders become confused, disoriented, and distrustful of each other; that their entire system of attack fall apart, and (2) that in God's wildest ways, these enemies would become aware of His deep love for them and the war Jesus has already fought for them, personally, on the cross. God had Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to 300 men. He then equipped them with nothing but trumpets, pitchers, and torches. What an odd combination to fight off well-armed soldiers. When Gideon gave the command, the Bible says the enemy fled crying and turned on each other... all because God messed with enemy plans.
Despite the appeal to God to show them how much he loves them, it is clear that they are enemies of God inasmuch as they are America's enemies. One might be forgiven for missing the part about God's forgiving grace at the cross, lost as it is in a cloud of imprecatory appeals ("patriot prayers") for Iraq's military defeat. Our brothers and sisters in Tulsa conclude,
When our men and women of uniform arrive on the scene, may they be surprised at how God had camp set up before they ever got there.
That there is real evil in the world a Christian can hardly doubt and that there are just wars to be reluctantly but valiantly waged is part of the inevitable reality of a fallen world. Yet even American foreign policy is sometimes laden with the rhetorical overtones of a war between Christ (America and its democratic allies) and Anti-Christ (the current enemy). It is not enough that Christian theology allows wars under some carefully defined circumstances (just war); nearly any U. S. military action is practically considered a "holy war" by many evangelical Christians.
We talk a lot about the Muslim concept of Jihad, which (at least for radical Islamists) entails holy war, but ever since the victory of Constantine in 312 at the Milvian Bridge, where the recently converted emperor claimed to have seen a vision of a cross with the emblem, "In this sign conquer," the sad legacy of confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of the world has left untold wreckage in its path. Casting themselves in the role of successors to King David, quite apart from any biblical warrant, medieval princes sent their knights into "holy war" to drive out of the land whatever "Canaanites" happen to oppose the kingdom of God: the holy Roman empire.
The problem with this imaginative narrative that justified atrocities from the crusades to slavery, manifest destiny and apartheid is that it not only finds no support from the Bible but is utterly antithetical to the way Christian scripture treats the relation of the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of this world. In the Old Testament, to be sure, a lot of space is given to telling the stories of holy wars and holy land, but that is because (as believers understand it, anyway) Israel was in fact elected by God out of the nations of the world to belong to the God of the covenant. However, Israel's tenure in the land was conditioned on faithfulness to that covenant and, as the Hebrew prophets recount in tragic terms, the outcome of that probation was their expulsion from the land and exile in Babylon. When will the exile be over? That was the question that everybody was asking in Palestine when Jesus was born and the New Testament answers it by saying that the Messiah himself, as Israel's representative, bore the sins of his people, Jew and gentile, and that now this international community of those who have faith in Christ constitutes the true children of Abraham.
If this is true, no nation can claim God as its political protector--if not the modern nation-state of Israel, then certainly not the United States. God does not covenant with nations, but (according to Revelation 5:9) with believing families "from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people and nation" who together constitute "a kingdom of priests to our God."
And if no nation can claim God's blessing in general, then it cannot presume on God's blessings with respect to war in particular. Many revolutionary zealots at Jesus' side were expecting the Messiah to overthrow Roman domination and reconstitute Israel as the holy land, cleansing the temple and driving out the godless. When Jesus came "not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance," evidenced by his penchant for hanging out with the wrong crowd, and even chastised his own disciples for wanting to execute the Last Judgment themselves here and now, confusion grew about what Jesus was all about after all. There was a time when God did ride into battle ahead of Israel's armies and maintain his presence in the Temple, but "the time is coming and now is," he said, when God's true worshipers will come to him as the locus of God's earthly presence. He is the Temple, the place where God dwells among his people. When he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, he was hailed as king by the throngs that turned against him, disappointed, when it appeared that his kingdom ended in defeat at the hands of the Romans. They did not recognize the true nature of that kingdom and what its king was up to in the way he established it.
There will be a time of final judgment, when he returns in glory, Jesus insisted. However, that time is not yet. For now, the wheat and weeds grow together. It is the planting and growing season, not the final harvest. It is the time of grace, forgiveness of sins, the announcement of God's "good news" to the ends of the earth. Only on the last day will there be a clear distinction between, much less separation of, the children of light and the rest.
The repeated emphases in the New Testament, then, is not that the Old Testament was wrong, but that it was provisional — a "schoolmaster to lead us to Christ," as Paul said. Through its myriad shadows and anticipatory figures, it pointed to the one greater than Moses, the faithful Seed of Abraham, who would fulfill God's destiny for Israel as the "light to the nations." If we are not to return to the shadows of the Old Testament theocracy, still less are we to invent national covenants that God has not authorized. Jesus Christ is David's greater Son, and to draw a line from David to anyone else or from Israel to any existing nation other than Christ and his international body is to tell a completely different story than the one the Bible tells.
Does that mean that there is no place for a Christian understanding of war? Not at all. Ever since the church father Augustine, who distinguished between the City of God and the City of Man in the ways we've been considering, attempts have been made to wrestle with how it is that people who profess to be Christians can go to war. The so-called just war theory, the premise of most western concepts of the ethics of war, is the product of that reflection. According to this approach, since no wars are divinely authorized in this age, any declaration of war made by a secular state must eschew confusion with any notion of holy war. The Christian's warfare, said St. Paul, involves spiritual rather than physical militancy.
Yet, Christians who serve in government, in the military and as citizens participate in the defense of national interests must engage in one way or another in physical conflict. While Christian convictions have long underwritten humane, principled and restrained just war ethics, the failure of Christians over the centuries to recognize their military engagements as purely secular affairs and their confusion of earthly empires with the kingdom of God have ended up taking with the left hand what was given with the right. No war is more vicious, no atrocities more freely legitimized, nor evil more easily justified, than those that purport to be executing God's redemptive purposes in history.
So between the extremes of pacifism and militarism, Christians ought to embrace a clear distinction between the kingdom of God and earthly conquests while allowing the just war ethic a renewed prominence in our reflection on when -- and when not -- to engage in that terrible action that is all too common and yet still all too necessary in this time that the apostles called "this present evil age."
A Few Guiding Thoughts in the Current Climate
1. Distinguish our heavenly and earthly citizenship without separating them or setting them at odds. This is the most difficult and yet foundational move in this matter. Jesus taught us to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." Even with the diabolical Nero in office, the Apostle Paul recognized the temporal authority, going so far as to call secular rulers "ministers of God" to hold evil and disorder in check. John Calvin's comments are to the point. Remember, he says, that we are "under a two-fold government,... so that we do not (as commonly happens) unwisely mingle these two, which have a completely different nature....Yet this distinction does not lead us to consider the whole nature of government a thing polluted, which has nothing to do with Christian men." Although these two kingdoms are different, "we must know that they are not at variance." Christians can and should be concerned about and involved in civil affairs, including patriotic support for troops, but in no way confusing national interests with those of the kingdom of Christ.
2. Recognize that while all effort should be made to avert any particular war, the fact of war is inevitable in a fallen world, where earthly judgment of evil must necessarily take place. Tyrants must be restrained as much as possible, injustices must be confronted, and borders must be protected. Christians do not simply put their faith in a closet for the time being when such actions are deemed necessary, but affirm the necessity of such defenses in a fallen world. By not confusing the kingdom God with either political and military pacifism or patriotism, they are better able to treat specific military conflicts as purely secular affairs. They neither curse nor bless military operations on any explicitly Christian basis. This does not mean, of course, that Christian convictions do not offer wisdom that leaders should heed when contemplating this ultimate and tragic option. As argued above, centuries of Christian reflection gave rise to the just war ethic that has had enormously positive benefits. Even when western nations, including the United States, have engaged in unjust aggression and committed flagrant atrocities, they have been called to account by fellow powers and their own people precisely on the basis of their supposed commitment to these higher principles. It is perhaps time to re-educate ourselves in just war theory, working our way through Augustine, Luther, Calvin and more recent writers on the subject.
3. Bear in mind that God's providence is mysterious and secret. Based on Deuteronomy 29:29, we are to carefully distinguish God's secret predestination from his revealed will and plans. We know, for instance, that God hates injustice; we do not know that he wants Saddam Hussein to be evicted from Iraq. The former is revealed in scripture, while the latter is not. Apart from scripture, we do not know what God has planned for Iraq, America or any other nation. This is true in our own guidance as individuals. Scripture gives us tremendous wisdom for our decision-making, but it does not give us access to God's predetermined plans.
4. Don't read the Bible as though it were "tea leaves." The Bible is about God and his plan of redemption for the world in Jesus Christ; it is not about America or the headlines on CNN. Nostradamus is not a part of the biblical canon. Illustrated in the examples above (end-times scenarios like Left Behind and patriotic prayer movements), scripture is often misused by means of allegorizing. Allegorizing is a common fallacy in the history of biblical interpretation. For example, we are all familiar with the ways in which Old Testament Bible stories become moral lessons: "Dare to Be a Daniel"; "Five Smooth Stones for the Goliaths in Your Life," etc. Often, these stories are taken out of their context. We forget what God is doing then and there at a certain point in redemptive history and instead we simply use these stories for our own purposes. This happens also when we allegorize the history of Israel as our own individual story or as the story of our nation, our particular congregation, etc. "Christendom" is the history of one long allegory. It is the tale of a secular empire re-telling the story of Israel around itself instead of, as the New Testament does, around the person and work of Christ. This fallacy is alive and well in our day, as the examples I've cited illustrate.
5. Think critically and pray diligently. Since there are no easy answers, we have to analyze news reports, official statements and the arguments of experts drawing largely on common sense. But common sense does not equal common conclusions. We must give each other latitude in coming to different conclusions. In hindsight, it is easy even for those who supported the Vietnam conflict to now be more critical of entering and sustaining the war. Similarly, committed Christians will have honest disagreements about whether war with Iraq is justified under the present circumstances. Even those who agree in principle (viz., just war theory) will find disagreements in practice (strategy, execution, policy, etc.). There just is no "Christian" position on the latter, including whether to go to war in any specific instance. Christian leaders and citizens must therefore turn to God for wisdom, through prayer and meditation on scripture. Although this will not give them any justification for claiming to know God's will beyond what is revealed in scripture, God has promised to give wisdom to those who seek it from him.
6. Remember that all civil actions taken in this age, whether by Christian or non-Christian rulers, serve the same purpose: to restrain evil, not to eliminate it; to hinder injustice, not to banish it; to execute temporal and provisional judgments not eternal and final ones. An earlier strike on Iraq was given the code name "Operation Ultimate Justice," but this is in effect to claim to be God ourselves. Our hope is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth and who became flesh in order to save not only souls but people and not only people but "the whole creation," as Romans 8 so marvelously explains. This gives us an "already" / "not yet" eschatology. In other words, "the age to come" is breaking in on us through the preaching of the Gospel in word and sacrament, but only on the last day will the announcement be heard, "Now have the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ and he shall reign forever." For now, the kingdom of Christ lies hidden, like Christ in his earthly ministry, under the form of suffering and the cross. Only when Christ returns will his body be transformed into his glorious likeness. And only then will Christ's kingdom be victorious in power, driving evil from the earth and executing a final judgment of the world. Until then, we need the secular sword to restrain evil, but we also must not mistake that secular power for the eschatological judgment that awaits the world on the Day of the Lord.
7. Finally, we need to constantly recall that the church of Christ (though not America!) is in a missionary situation during this age between Christ's two advents. While there will be wars and rumors of wars until the end, some of which will involve Christians (sometimes on both sides of the battlefield), the church as the church does not take sides. When it does (as the examples above again illustrate), our witness in the world is considerably weakened. At his holy table, Christ does not ask whether a communicant is Iraqi (even an Iraqi soldier) or American, but whether he or she comes to him in repentance and faith. Are public prayers for American soldiers offered in such a way as to give the impression that God is our national mascot? One thinks of war memorials and regimental flags hanging in English churches or American flags in the front of our own sanctuaries and wonders whether there is still some confusion in our understanding of the great commission and the spiritual and international character of Christ's kingdom. There is nothing wrong with attaching "Old Glory" to our car antennas, but let us leave them in the parking lot on the Lord's Day. May we do our duty to both our heavenly and national citizenship without giving to either a cause for reproach.
Michael S. Horton, Ph.D., is president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and associate professor of apologetics and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California (Escondido, California).
I think this needs to be emphasised. I think we are on opposite sides on the necessity of this war but I doubt we are on opposite sides in regards to how the Kingdom of God is seperate from secular govermments.
If any nation claims that they are "God's chosen", or have a leader that is "God's mouthpiece", than every sort of behavior by that people can be rationalised away as "God's Will". Witness Mullah Ohmar in Afghanistan in our day.
Our Founders realised this when they created our Constitution.
BTW, i don't argue for this being a just war, my last comment to OrthodoxPresbyterian on another thread makes it clear that i see plenty of justification for the war... i simply question the relative importance of Iraq in light of our other enemies who pose a more serious threat. Yes this war had to happen, but not until we got some other "bad guys" out of the way.
The eastern block fell without a shot being fired.Spreading the gospel is not the intent of this war.
While we need to be careful interpreting scripture from the perspective of our patriotism, I believe that the scriptures are dynamic, and while David, for instance, may have written down a psalm from his experience living in a cave escaping his opposition, the sentiment of that psalm and what it reveals about the nature of evil, or the nature and character of God, can be applied to situations we find ourselves in in our day and age.
Consequently, its hard not to see the contemporary relevance to such passages as
A mandate to pray for the nations, and against those nations which follow evil policies:
Let the godly ones exult in glory; Let them sing for joy on their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand, To execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, To bind their kings with chains And their nobles with fetters of iron, To execute on them the judgment written; This is an honor for all His godly ones. -- Ps. 149:5-9
To pray for the supremacy of God over rogue nations:
O clap your hands all peoples; Shout to God with the voice of joy. For the Lord Most High is to be feared, a great King over all the earth. He subdues peoples under us, and nations under our feet God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne Ps. 47:1-3, 7-9
To pray that God will bring down wicked regimes:
The Lord judges the peoples Oh let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous; for the righteous, God tries the hearts and minds. My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart. Ps. 7:8-10
To pray that God would bring judgment on the "evildoers":
The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. Ps. 34:15-16
To pray for righteous, humble, servant leadership, and against narcissistic or self-serving leadership:
When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when a wicked man rules, people groan . The king gives stability to the land by justice, but a man who takes bribes overthrows it .If a ruler pays attention to falsehood, all his ministers become wicked. Prov. 29:2, 4, 12
To pray against partisan spin-meisters:
Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man? The lovingkindness of God endures all day long. Your tongue devises destruction, Like a sharp razor, O worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, Falsehood more than speaking what is right. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. But God will break you down forever; He will snatch you up and tear you away from your tent, And uproot you from the land of the living. Ps. 52:1-5
To pray for an impartial judiciary:
A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight. Prov. 11:1
To pray Gods protection against our adversaries:
Through Thee we will push back our adversaries; through Thy name we will trample down those who rise up against us. For I will not trust in my bow, nor will my sword save me, but Thou hast saved us from our adversaries, and Thou hast put to shame those who hate us. -- Ps. 44:5-7
To pray for the destruction of those who claim to speak for God, but who worship a false god, and who do evil in that gods name:
When the wicked sprouted up like grass and all who did iniquity flourished, it was only that they might be destroyed forevermore. But You, O LORD, are on high forever. For, behold, Your enemies, O LORD, for, behold, Your enemies will perish; All who do iniquity will be scattered. -- Ps. 92:7-9
To pray for destruction of evildoers and evil regimes:
The wicked plots against the righteous, and gnashes at him with his teeth. The Lord laughs at him; for He sees his day is coming. The wicked have drawn the sword and bent their bow, to cast down the afflicted and the needy, to slay those who are upright in conduct. Their sword will enter their own heart, and their bows will be broken. -- Ps. 37:12-15
To pray on behalf of our troops:
Blessed be the Lord, my rock, Who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle [God] my lovingkindness and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer; my shield and He in whom I take refuge. -- Ps. 144:1-2
To pray in this manner for bin Laden and Saddam:
Appoint a wicked man over him, and let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is judged, let him come forth guilty, and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. Let his children wander about and beg; and let them seek sustenance far from their ruined homes. Let the creditor seize all that he has, and let strangers plunder the product of his labor. Let there be none to extend lovingkindness to him, nor any to be gracious to his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off; in a following generation let their name be blotted out. -- Ps. 109:6-13
Iraq is not Babylon, nor has Babylon ever been Iraq.
Babylon is not a place; it's a thing, a government, Satan's earthly government to be specific. . It has been located at various geographic locations in times past, such as on the plain of Shinnar, Tyre, and Rome, but those places were not Babylon.
Does anyone here really believe that we are attacking Babylon by fighting this war? I hope not. IMO this is a just war, but how can people get so confused as to think that Iraq is Babylon?
Where is the political power of this world? Do you know? Wherever it is, that is where Babylon is. It's surely not Iraq.
Nor should it be. Evangelism at the point of the gun is NOT supported by scripture. Besides, history has shown that the church tends to flourish under persecution. China is a good example of that.