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Who Makes Our Rules of War?
Let’s not dare to take the man-made, lowest-possible-bar rules of war as our way of dealing with conflict among us.
War, with its inherent dehumanization, seems unavoidable these days—followed by the inevitable humanitarian crisis. The promise of precision tactics in warfare is wishful thinking, meant to misleadingly assure and numb a nervous public. Even if only the intended target is obliterated, there is always unseen collateral damage: social, familial, economic. Human beings can never be reduced to civilian casualties; they are the imago Dei. They are not collateral damage—they are the pinnacle of God’s creation.
Yet, the headlines declare: It’s the right of an attacked party to defend itself. War should be conducted within International Rules. Legitimate defense must respect the parameters of proportionality. De-escalate violence.
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Are we to be placated by evenhandedness, by equal numbers of killings? Can being dispassionate about atrocities match up to the will of God in Christ Jesus? I have a really hard time imagining Jesus saying to Peter, “Make sure you only cut off a proportionate part of the soldier’s ear.” Or to James and John, “OK, you can call down fire from heaven on these Samaritan cities, but be careful, make sure the fire does not scorch schools, hospitals or churches.”
The headlines from the past couple weeks make me wonder: Is that as far as our moral imagination can go? I get it—Jesus, the Prince of Peace, did not address modern nation states. What, then, are we to do with his kingdom ethics: turn the other cheek, love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, and the truth that those who live by the sword will die by the sword?
I don’t expect Jesus’ teaching to affect public policy or to even find its way into conversations among the politically and militarily powerful. But pastor/prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. heard Jesus loud and clear. He responded to the violent bombing of his home with compassion. Using the example of Jesus, he argued that it is possible to resist evil without resorting to violence. He had the unique vision that nonviolence seeks to win the friendship and understanding of an opponent, not to humiliate him. These principles empowered perhaps the most meaningful and effective leader of the 20th century—and some of the greatest social change in American history.
Two thousand years ago, during the Triumphal Entry, Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying:
How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes.
Jesus was not weeping over a piece of land surrounded by a wall that designated a city or a government. Jerusalem, in this sense, is a symbol for the residence of God, a place of worship that was meant to lead to obedience to God’s will for his people. Jesus wept over the failure of God’s chosen people to accept the Messiah—which is at the heart of God’s justice-seeking and peacemaking. Jesus knew that their present agendas were about to cause great bloodshed.
Empires, nation states and cities have agendas that silence the ethics of Jesus. That grieves me deeply, but I accept the reality of it. However, I think it is perfectly right to hope that Jesus’ moral imagination would guide us as Christ followers, inform the Church, and be determinative in families and friendships. Surely such an imagination goes beyond accepting war with each other within the context of a few rules.
A Moral Imagination for Peace
What moral imagination could lift our vision and inspire new ways of being in conflict? First, it is to take Jesus seriously about various ways to translate Luke 19:42 above: “the way to peace…the things that make for peace…the things that tend toward peace…the conditions for peace.”
Here are a few other principles for peace-making.
Peace begins with welcoming Jesus and his ethical worldview. Historically, the people of Jerusalem, with few exceptions, rejected Jesus and his teaching. We must come to desire, seek, and practice the ways of Jesus, for they make for peace.
We must see in each other the Imago Dei. In thusly valuing others, we cannot kill or even harm them. Rather, following the way of Jesus, we will not seek to be served—to be given what we want—but will rather seek to serve others, their legitimate needs.
Treasuring and cherishing each other automatically rules out harm. When Paul sought to sum up the relational ethics of Jesus, he said:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves (Phil. 2:3).
Destruction never enters the mind of those who esteem and value another.
This is the big idea: Let’s not dare to take the man-made, lowest-possible-bar rules of war as our way of dealing with conflict among us. We can’t control the actions of governmental agencies, but, based on the person and teachings of Jesus, we can control how we treat both our neighbor and our enemy.