taking the words of Jesus seriously

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 With American troops having been so recently withdrawn from that nation, this is certainly an appropriate question.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.

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 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 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, 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 (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.”

About The Author


Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist. He is lives with his wife Cindi in Oaxaca De Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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