Can Christians Learn from the War in Iraq?

A number of commentators have been asking what lessons we might learn from the war in Iraq. With American troops having been so recently withdrawn from that nation, this is certainly an appropriate question. I feel compelled to ask a somewhat more narrowly focused question: “What can Christians learn from the war in Iraq?” I want to offer several thoughts on what I believe are lessons desperately needed.

As I name these lessons, I’ll refer to a “Larry King Live” interview with a number of Christian leaders just prior to the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. What we find here goes a long way toward illustrating why the white evangelical church – and not alone – was so shamefully and persistently supportive of the war in Iraq. The deplorable use of scripture, the great ignorance of the just war tradition and the naive, blind faith in the Bush administration expressed by most of the participants in this program are emblematic of the utter failure of a great majority of evangelical leaders to lead in a genuinely Christian manner. The sorts of things said in this interview were repeated in countless pulpits and religious talk shows.

The lessons I believe can be drawn from the war in Iraq include the following six items:

First, Christians need to be aware of the fact that times of war are prime times for the abuse of the Bible. “How good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy,” Friedrich Nietzche famously said.  Bad biblical reasons are particularly abundant during times of war. Most of them are well worn and have long been discredited and disavowed by respectable scholars. But that doesn’t stop preachers and religious talk show hosts from endlessly regurgitating them.  John Macarthur, minister of Grace Community Church, a mega-church in Sun Valley, California and radio talk show host, appealed to the wars of the Old Testament for support. Never mind that those wars have little resemblance to wars fought by secular states, often don’t meet “just war” standards and that Big Military was condemned in scripture as evidence that the nation didn’t trust God ( Psalms 20:7, Isaiah 31:1). His reasoning went downhill from there.

KING:  “But John MacArthur, what is the Christian position? Is there a Christian position on this war — the pending war.”

MACARTHUR: Yes, Larry. The singular Christian is Jesus. So the question needs to be asked, what was Jesus’ view? And I think explicitly in scripture you have a number of things. In the gospel of Luke, Chapter 14 and Verse 31, he said, When a king goes to war, he is careful to count the cost knowing he has 10,000 soldiers and he’s going to go against 20,000 so that he doesn’t get in a battle he might lose. Jesus uses that illustration to compare a person, counting the cost to become a Christian, therefore elevates war and makes a noble illustration.

Anyone with a basic understanding of principles of interpretation know that a parable has but one point and supporting war has nothing to do with this particular parable. The parable addresses the need to be prepared to be a disciple in the face of inevitable challenges. That Jesus employed a king going to war as a character in a parable no more sanctions war than it sanctions monarchy. Does the fact that Jesus used an unjust judge as a figure in a parable mean that he was putting in a good word for unjust judges?  (Luke 18:1-8). Nonsense! Macarthur also appealed to Luke 22:36 to justify war: “He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” Again, scholars understand this to be a figurative statement about the rigors of discipleship, not a literal call to arms. But in times of war hawkish Christian leaders become desperate for proof texts and readily disregard sensible interpretations. Yet Macarthur spoke for many misguided Christian leaders by saying, “He [Jesus] endorsed the fact of protection and just war.” The truth is that nothing about Jesus endorses war in the least.

Second, Christian leaders need to actually understand something about Christian views on war and peace before they open their mouths in public. Too often Christian preachers and pundits sanction war automatically with a nod toward the “just war” tradition. But it quickly becomes apparent that few of them have even the most basic grasp of the tradition. It is not enough to vaguely reference the concept of “just war” without showing how a specific war stands or falls before it. In the above mentioned interview, Larry King sought to get his guests to talk about their basis for supporting the war, speaking first to well-known author of devotional books, Max Lucado.

KING: So you would see going to war in Iraq as, under your concept, justifiable?

LUCADO: I would see that this is a decision that really can only be made by those in authority and we have to trust their decision and rely on their character and pray earnestly for them that God would lead them in the right direction.

The religious leaders on the show agreed that for a war to be just it must be a last resort. Another guest later added.

MACARTHUR: War is a last resort…My thinking is, who knows when it’s the last resort, better than those in authority. According to Romans 13, the government and those in authority are really ministers appointed by heaven to protect and to punish, and you know, I agree very much with the concept that we have to let it be the last resort, but somebody has to make that call.

Essentially, these leaders and many like them across the country, gave lip service to the “just war” tradition. But they didn’t understand enough about it to see that Christian leaders actually have a responsibility to apply the standards of “just war” and decide whether the particular circumstances warrant Christian support. A “just war” is not simply whatever a government says it is.

Third, it is crucial that Christians in America learn to listen to Christians from other lands. Church leaders elsewhere in the world weren’t taken in by Bush’s claims about Iraq being an immediate threat to peace. They had a clearer vision about the injustice of the war and the possible destructive consequences. Many churches outside the U.S. condemned the war both before and after it started. I have not found one that offered support for it. This matter was raised in the interview by a caller to Larry King.

CALLER: Hi, my question is for the entire panel. It seems that most Christians in the United States support the president, support of the war in Iraq. So do Christian leaders in the United States. It also seems that many Christians in Europe, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the pope, don’t really support the United States, don’t really support the war in Iraq. How do we as Christians — what do we do with that? How do we process that? How do we reconcile that chasm?

KING: Fair question, John, and we’ll go around. What do they do? Christian leaders in other parts of the world are opposed.

MACARTHUR: Yes, again, you know, Christian leaders giving their opinion or the official opinion of their institution or their denomination doesn’t carry any real weight when it comes to Christianity.

KING: But he’s asking as a Christian what does he do if two esteemed Christian leaders, Archbishop of Canterbury and you.

MACARTHUR: Yes, very simple go back to the word of God, compare everything with what the Bible says.

And with that he arrogantly disregarded the insights of the Christian leaders outside of America. Turning to Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, King was largely met with the same dismissal of the voices of Christian leadership throughout the world.

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KING: What do you trust, Dr. Jones, if great Christian leaders around the world disagree?

JONES: I do think we have to agree that moral issues must be addressed in this world, and crime and bombing and terrorism are unjust and immoral. And where innocent people are threatened by terrorism, terrorism must be addressed. And our government is trying to do that for the good of the whole world, not just for the good of America, because these terrorists are a threat to everybody on the face of the earth.

The result of ignoring the pleas for restraint by the rest of the Christian community throughout the world has been the devastation of the church in the Middle East. The Christian leaders who supported the war in Iraq share responsibility for that destruction. It is crucial that Christians across national borders be extremely attentive to each other in times of war rather than assuming that political and military leaders know best.

Fourth, Christians need to be slow about taking at face value the reasons a President or political leaders give for going to war. National leaders don’t deserve the blind faith – particularly in times of international conflict – that too many religious leaders have offered them. Conservative Christian leaders displayed a naïve trust in the Bush administration. Many clergy in mainline churches and Roman Catholic parishes did pretty much the same thing, even though most of their denominations opposed the war.  This blind faith in the Bush administration’s rationale for war was well represented by the Christian leaders King interviewed.

MACARTHUR: I don’t think we’re starting a war. I think a war already started.

KING: What war did Iraq start?

MACARTHUR: Well the war on America based upon the terrorist attacks on America…

KING: Oh, 9/11.

MACARTHUR: Sure, 9/11. Which intelligence tells us can be traced in some measure back to Iraq.

The issue of the credibility of the Bush Administration’s reasons for attacking Iraq was raised again when King accepted calls from his audience.

CALLER: My question is with absolutely no proof linking 9/11 with Saddam Hussein and also, we don’t even have proof that they possess any weapons of mass destruction outside of this administration’s word, why would this administration think that God is possibly sanctioning the senseless slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent lives, both American and Iraqi?

KING: Max?

LUCADO: Why would the administration lie to us? I would agree if the administration is misleading us that this would be an inappropriate action. I haven’t seen anything myself. I’m not privy to any inside information but you have to trust somebody.

MACARTHUR: And I think where I come in on that is I’ve got to trust my president and his cabinet and intelligence and military people. George Bush doesn’t want to throw away life.

By the time this interview was conducted many voices had been raised about the quality of the Bush administration’s information and that pointed to the great unlikelihood of Saddam Hussein cooperating with Bin Laden and the terrorists associated with him. United Nations inspectors cast doubt on claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But all evidence that contradicted the President was dismissed by the many Christian leaders who cast their lot with the political advocates of war. It is important that this sort of mistake be avoided in the future.

Fifth, especially in times of war Christians must refuse to make excuses for the inexcusable. Some military leaders have shown much more wisdom about this than some religious leaders. As Gen. David Petraeus said, “Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradable. They don’t go away.” Official use of torture and turning a blind-eye to abuses of detainees has put a stain on America’s national reputation. Likewise, the broad evangelical support of torture revealed in the 2009 Pew Research survey is a shameful and ugly mark on the reputation of the church in America. The rank and file didn’t come to this morally repugnant position without any leadership. Prominent public figures of the caliber of Charles Colson set the tone by asserting that torture is permissible “in some circumstances.” This position flies in the face of what the church has traditionally taught, to say nothing of Jesus, who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) and “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). The ends do not justify the means, even if the stakes are high. To believe otherwise displays a failure of faith.

Sixth, if the experience of the Iraq war is any guide, it suggests that Christian leaders who support war are even more untrustworthy and prone to cling to mistaken views than are hawkish politicians. Their credibility needs to be questioned. It should be no wonder that active church members continued to support the war in Iraq even after most of the country was souring on the war. So many of the leaders of their churches were tenacious war supporters. Well after President Bush had shifted ground, conceding that Saddam Hussein neither had weapons of mass destruction nor had any role in the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Hal Lindsay of The Late Great Planet Earth fame declared that “it is now evident to all but the blindest partisans that the intelligence was correct and that Saddam not only had weapons of mass destruction, but that he worked directly with al-Qaida.” Clearly, he – and others of his ilk – didn’t get the memo that those he called “blind partisans” were actually the ones who had the clearest vision from the beginning.

No doubt there are other lessons from the war in Iraq that can and should be learned by Christians. But whether any of them will be absorbed by those who need the lessons the most is another matter. We can only hope and pray that something will be learned before the next war occurs.

Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs , Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

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  • Envoy4him

    The Bush war against Iraq is a taint that will be carried by America for the rest of its history. What confounds it all is the blind support given by church leaders, like  MaCarthur, et al, for a war the the Neo-Conservatives needed to have as a practical experiment on proving and preserving America’s power. Ironically, the war that was supposed to bolster American power became the start of its downfall.

  • Matt

    The Iraq War devastated the Church in the Middle East? Please explain that one. That’s maybe a more bold statement than saying Iraq had WMDs.

    Also, to generalize an entire segment of the American church based on an hour long Larry King show and the selected comments of two individuals makes this blog post kind of a stretch from the start. This isn’t the most academic attempt at understanding the American Church’s response to the Iraq War. It just reads as a liberal attempting to slam Bush and conservatives. Typical Red Letter Christian stuff.

    • So you did speak out against the war, Matt? I think he was simply generalizing that Christians who supported the war…well, supported the war. I imagine Craig knows that there were some outspoken opponents like you, him, and myself. But I think he was saying that it came off to so many that all Christians were supportive of this terrible injustice, due to the words of Christian leaders in the public eye. But it should be noted that polls found that 70% of evangelicals supported the war, so I don’t think that assumption is misguided. 

      • Matt

        Oh no, please don’t misunderstand me. I am big time supporter of the Iraq War. I’m a Christian and a neo-con but I don’t think either of the guys mentioned in this post are “my leaders.” Frankly, I think their defense of the Iraq War was pretty weak based on the comments shown here. They could have done much better.

        My comment was more of an academic nature though. To cite a Larry King Live episode as support for a theory is not a good way to win an argument. But frankly, who am I to judge the quality of this post considering that I’m also assuming this post was more about Bush-bashing than anything else. Based on the vast majority of other posts on this site, I’m probably right. 

      • Matt

        Oh no, please don’t misunderstand me. I am big time supporter of the Iraq War. I’m a Christian and a neo-con but I don’t think either of the guys mentioned in this post are “my leaders.” Frankly, I think their defense of the Iraq War was pretty weak based on the comments shown here. They could have done much better.

        My comment was more of an academic nature though. To cite a Larry King Live episode as support for a theory is not a good way to win an argument. But frankly, who am I to judge the quality of this post considering that I’m also assuming this post was more about Bush-bashing than anything else. Based on the vast majority of other posts on this site, I’m probably right. 

        • Help me understand your reasoning, as a follower of Jesus Christ, in supporting the slaughter of somewhere between 200,000 – 1,200,000 Iraqi men, women, and children in the name of abstract nouns like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty.’ I’m curious where your inspiration comes from in Scripture. What you logic is; though I’m looking for Kingdom logic, not worldly logic. Because as you know, God reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” And as Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” I’d like to understand where you are coming from, if you could help me. 

          • Doug

            Well as they say truth is the first casualty of war ..


            the casualty figures tend to be around 100,000 – 200,000. So whatever you think of the legitimacy of the war most figures do not support the million plus figure. Sure even hundreds of thousands are not ‘good’ but lets at least be objective here.

          • Wait a minute. I took the most conservative and most liberal estimates because I wanted to be fair. The link that YOU just posted has estimates between 100,000 and 1,033,000 (and that one was only between 2003 and 2007). I guess I should have said 100,000 – 1,200,000. I apologize, but I think to accuse me of distorting the truth is incredibly unfair. How was listing the wide range of estimates not objective?

          • Doug

            HI Schuyler,
            I see where you’re coming from and I think we can both see one another’s positions. If I came across as inferring you as personallly unobjective then I apologise my critique was of the figures not you personally. My take,without overly focussing on the arithmetic methods of mean, median and average, was that most figures dont give anywhere near 1 million+. Best wishes , Doug

          • I understand that many estimates have it around 200,000 thousand, but I’m sure that if I hadn’t given the larger estimates someone would have accused me of not recognizing those statistics, many of which are credible. So I thought I’d list the wide range. I know you weren’t taking a personal shot, but I can’t stand when people skew the facts to favor the opinion, so to be accused of that gets at me. But no worries. 

        • Eric

          Matt, clearly the purpose of the article was not “academic” at all but a discussion of popular Christianity. After all this is a blog, not an scholarly journal. If it were academic, the author would have quoted figures like Jean Bethke Elshtain, Richard John Neuhaus or George Weigel instead of 
          John Macarthur, Max Lacado and Bob Jones. Watts is talking about American church life and the kinds of things that were said by the well known evangelical figures on the Larry King Live show were very much like the most frequently repeated comments in sermons and religious conservative articles found online. You claim about the piece, “It just reads as a liberal attempting to slam Bush and conservatives.” But it really is about the failure of much of evangelical church leadership to be more Christian than American. It is revealing that conservative Christian leaders and ethicists outside the U.S. found the war to be unjust, Oliver O’Donovan being just one example. The U.S. Christian leaders were largely isolated in their support for the war. Seems you are excessively defensive.

    • Eric

      Matt, seriously, you question the devastation of the church in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East since the start of the war in Iraq?! It is not a “bold statement,” as you claim but a simple and well known statement of fact. It has been well documented in articles such as this one:  Those who supported the war and have claimed the U.S. is a “Christian country” caused a backlash against Christians in the Middle East. The Christian population in Iraq has been cut in half and greatly damaged elsewhere. Before the war there was relative freedom of religion for Christians in Iraq. Now they live in fear.

      • Doug

        No not quite Eric.
        Iraq was a secular state because of terror, they terrorised any religious group that opposed Saddam.
        Secondly the persecution of the Church is as part of the Islamic imperialism, most of the Middle East was Christian prior to the Islamic conquests that initiated the Crusades. Islam has mainly been spread by force. Seen historically the Iraqi church persecution is par for the course in the Middle East. Christian churches in the West Bank have and are coming under increasing persecution as have churches in Pakistan. How is the Church doing in Saudi Arabia if you dont believe me ?

        • Eric

          No one is claiming the relationship between Muslims and Christians has always been harmonious or that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a threat to his opponents. But it is an indisputable fact that Christians had more security and experienced more freedom under him than they do now and that the church was not over twice as large then than now. Persecution of Christians has greatly increased in the Middle East over what it had been in recent history since the American aggression on Iraq.American Christians who supported the war share some blame for the current plight of Christians. They spoke out against the war and many American Christians ignored them.

          • Doug

            I accept that it has Eric, I differ as to the cause. I believe the church in the Middle East would have come under greater persecution anyway due to the rise in Islamic fundamentalism no matter what happened. Further an unchallenged Bin Laden or Saddam would only have encouraged that trend. Surely though if the West becomes more timid and afraid of persecution of M.E. churches it will only encourage the Islamic fanatic to persecute more. Im pessimistic about these people. To me it’s like saying in the 30s that the Church speaking out against the Nazis will increase persecution when persecution was on cards anyway.

          • Aaaaaaaaaargh

            Doug, that analogy isn’t quite equivalent to what happened here.  Imagine instead that the diasporic Jewish community had declared war on Nazi Germany and proclaimed that it was the duty of all Jews, including those within Germany, to violently oppose the Nazis.  Imagine how this would have played into the purposes of the Nazi propaganda machine.

          • Doug

            Lets say for discussion your point is valid. How does that help us. Are Christians in the ME just to lie, keep their heads down and say ‘we oppose intervention in Iraq’ because some locals won’t like it ? That tells you more about what we are dealing with , ingrained ME attitudes. The local Islamic mindset is that the removal of a tyrant and supporter of terrorism ( possibly possessing WMD) by the US is a bad thing. Well we have our answer about the ME mindset then. Can you imagine if Saddam had used WMD against Israel directly or via proxy – care to speculate about the deathtoll then? Bush liberated 25 million Iraqis from a tryant and gave them the vote. The Iraqi army now cannot march on Israel nor potentially posses WMD. I’d say he defused a timebomb not lit one.

  • Sean Peek

    It is interesting how everyone looks for easy answers or disputes.  Saddam was bad.  Evidenced by the murder and torture of many of his own people.  If you think more towards an end game, the Iraq war was started because the whole region needed to be stabilized.  It’s not just about oil, although that is a large part and the WHOLE world runs off of oil.  Saddam was a target by many world leaders.  The US just stopped pussy-footing around and took action.
    As for the Christian response, the author is correct in that many (I won’t say most) Christians supported the war.  Saddam was bad and he need to be taken out (actually should have been done in Iraq1).  A question to ask is would the same Christian personalities have supported the war if Obama was in office.  I doubt it.
    As for the “taint on American history” comment…I think that is short sighted.  Now that American soldiers are leaving, Iraq will make decisions best for Iraq. 
    Lastly, the “just war” theory is hard to apply many times.  Just like most parts of life, war is a shade of grey.  There will not be a 100% perfect solution. 
    I said “lastly”, but one more thing.  The most vocal or highest profile of a group do not speak for the entire group, sometimes not even for a majority.  Macarthur is not Christianity’s spokesman.  Jesse Jackson is not African American’s spokesman. Obama is not the liberal’s spokesman.  However, they are vocal.   

  • It would also be good if American Christian leaders not only understood ‘just war’ but also the Christian tradition that preceeded that .
    Anyone interested can find the classic by C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, free online. Also, alnost free,

    • Doug

      It wasn’t the pacifists who liberated Auschwitz, they just sat at home fingerwagging those who did.

      • Doug, I have a reading suggestion. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink. It explains how Jesus abhorred both violent response and pacifism, and instead created a new, third way for resolving conflict. Be warned, that book will change you. But be courageous. Short, but brilliant. 

      • ‘fingerwagging’ ? How does a pacifist win the Medal of Honor by ‘fingerwagging’???

        • Doug

          Good on the guy but if the entire army / navy  and marines had been pacifists the Nazis would still be in power now. I didnt say pacifists couldnt be brave I said they didnt liberate Auschwitz and many ( not all ) were safe at home fingerwagging.

          What are you saying Michael – the pacifists liberated Auschwitz?

          • Aaaaaaaaaargh

            Doug, you’ve given a common (and to some ears, tedious) rebuttal of pacifism.  Of course, the response is that Auschwitz wouldn’t have happened if more pacifists and true Jesus-followers within and surrounding Germany had spoken the truth in love in the decades leading up to Hitler’s rise.

          • Doug

            If the reply is tedious then it must echo the tedium of the original pacifist claim and further it is an apt reminder to pacifists of the real world and too tak eoff their rose tinted glasses.

            And thank you for reminding us of the innefffectiveness of pacifism in the face of facist ideology, exactly , the pacifists were inneffective. Well intentioned but inneffective.

  • Seebert42

    Seventh, Sola Scriptura and private revelations to politicians are less reliable than Catholic Tradition. Blessed Pope John Paul II warned against this war; Bush said “God talks to me, I am the Decider.

    • Eric

      Seventh? Where is one through six?

  • Xyz123abc

    Schuyler recommended Walter Wink’s book on non-violence. I’d like to recommend “Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on Terror.” It is a ten year retrospective on how Christians responded to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — their complicity, their protest, and their ambivalence. Some of the questions/issues that Craig raised in his blog post are found in the book. The basic premise of the book is that Christian discipleship is incompatible with military service. One can find more details at New Covenant Press (

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