Is War Just–or Is It Just War?

This is America: land of the free, home of the brave, the forceful, and the myopic. Where else can we speak our minds without fear of censorship, incarceration, or bodily harm? Where else can we send mixed messages and not be viewed as illogical, confused, or just plain duplicitous?

That’s why I love and appreciate this country. Periodically, I am reminded of how precious our liberties are—like today, when I stumbled upon a fascinating column on one of my favorite websites, Beliefnet, authored by the Reverend Richard Land. It was entitled A Christian Defense of the War in Iraq.”

On the surface, there seems to be something blatantly oxymoronic about Christians defending war. Followers of Jesus’ teachings don’t engage in war, let alone defend it. So I figured there must be something more than the eye could see here. After all, Rev. Land is a highly respected theologian, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. (Southern Baptists are the nation’s largest non-Catholic Christian denomination.) He’s also a magna cum laude grad of Princeton who holds a doctorate from England’s venerable Oxford University. I was open to the possibility that I could learn a few things from him.

Is War Just—or Is It Just War?

Rev. Land’s first lesson was that judging, condemning, attacking, and imposing America’s will, beliefs, and form of government on others is not only right, noble, and just; it’s obligatory for a Christian nation.

“I believe [America’s] Declaration of Independence, which says that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Rev. Land asserted. “The Iraqis have the same right to freedom.” And war apparently was the only way to liberate them.

More than 15-hundred years ago, St. Augustine became the first in a series of religious scholars and teachers who have tried to justify war, and the bloodshed and destruction associated with it. First, they devised rules that would allow a war to be considered “moral”. Those rules have evolved into what’s now known as the “just-war theory”, which weighs factors such as proportionality (the gains outweigh the suffering and loss of life), self-defense, collateral damage, and other moral issues related to combat. It should be noted that the “just-war theory” trumps both God’s “thou shall not kill” commandment and Jesus’ edict to “love your enemies”.

According to Rev. Land, protecting or even introducing others to their unalienable rights is reason enough to invoke the so-called “just-war theory”. In fact, he says, America is obligated to uproot any dictator who is denying his people the rights endowed by their Creator—sometimes, anyway. There are a few exceptions.

“North Korea comes to mind,” he told Beliefnet’s Holly Lebowitz Rossi. “We certainly would like to help the North Koreans obtain their freedom, and there are certainly ways in which we can put pressure on the North Korean regime. But military action is not an option because it would not pass the test of proportionality.”

In other words, we could lose Big Time, because they have verifiable WMDs. Consequently, the North Korean people are not eligible for “just-war” liberation.

Last time I checked, machetes were not considered WMDs. And Rev. Land acknowledged that the gruesome murders of 750,000 Rwandans certainly passed the denial of inalienable rights and proportionality tests. Ditto for the ethnic cleansing rampages in Bosnia, Kosovo, and more recently, Darfur. He supported American intervention in each of those cases. But, he says, America needed the support of the international community. Without that support, our nation couldn’t act alone. Let me play that back for you: Without international support, America couldn’t justify war.

I have to admit, I am quite disturbed by Rev. Land’s rationale for the uneven application of the “just-war theory”. On the other hand, he has the right to defend any war—for any reason. And he can call it anything he likes.

But for Jesus’ sake, let’s not call it Christian, OK?

Peace, be still

Headlines can’t possibly tell a whole story, but the one I spotted in an Associated Press report on this, the third anniversary of the U. S. invasion of Iraq, almost missed the mark completely. It read: Father Loses Taste for Revenge in Iraq.

This intriguing story unfolds in battle torn Iraq, where we meet Joe Johnson, a self-employed home builder who spent six years in the Army and Navy a couple of decades ago. In 2003, when war was declared, Johnson re-upped with the National Guard for the sole and express purpose of serving his country in Iraq. He told the AP reporter that he “was pissed off at the terrorists for 9/11 and other atrocities.”

Johnson hails from Rome, Georgia, a scenic town near Atlanta. But apparently, news that there were no Iraqis involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction apparently did not reach Rome or Johnson. That’s the best explanation I can offer.

In April 2003, a month after his 22-year-old son Justin had left for Iraq, Johnson traveled to Ft. Lewis, Washington on a mission. A guard unit there was slated to be deployed to Iraq; Johnson wanted to go with them. He reasoned that if he and Justin were in Iraq at the same time, his wife would only have to endure one year of anguish, not two.

It all seemed to make sense. But while Johnson was in Fort Lewis, trying to qualify for combat, that all changed. Justin was killed by a roadside bomb in an Iraqi slum. An already outraged Johnson returned to Rome, even more embittered.

A year later, after he and his family had partially healed from Justin’s death, Johnson set out for Iraq with his Georgia National Guard unit. He was on a crusade. Literally. You see, Johnson is a Christian missionary. He has traveled to the Arctic and Peru to spread Christ’s teachings.

As a veteran from the minefields of journalism, I can confidently say that this is breaking news; and the headline on this story should have read: Christian Missionary Loses Taste for Revenge.

I had no idea that revenge and violence were principles taught by the Jew that we Christians know and revere as Jesus of Nazareth. But, hey, I could be wrong. So, like any good journalist, I decided to do some fact checking.

I’ve discovered that the most efficient way to find the location of any word in the Bible is to search The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance, which claims to be “the most complete, accurate, and up-to-date” resource of its kind. The cover of this edition notes that the words of Christ are in red. That’s precisely what I’m looking for: bold evidence that Jesus instructed us to be vengeful and violent.

According to Strong’s, there are 18 scriptures that include the word revenge or any derivative. Sixteen were from the Old Testament; half of those scriptures included the word blood.

The two citations from the New Testament were found in Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (7:11 and 10:6). In that same letter, he noted: “For though we live an earthly life, yet we do not serve worldly things. For the weapons which we use are not earthly weapons but of the might of God by which we conquer rebellious strongholds.” (2Corinthians 10:3, 4) In other words, “No swords and guns, guys. Fight with spiritual power, not earthly force.”

There was not one red-letter scripture listed in Strong’s in which Jesus of Nazareth was quoted directly or indirectly as promoting, teaching, or even mentioning the word revenge.

Since the word blood was most often used in connection with revenge, I also searched the number of times it was cited in the Bible. According to Strong’s, blood appears 447 times. Toss in the words bloodguiltiness (1), bloodthirsty (1), and bloody (16) for good measure.

There were 15 blood citations in red, which directly linked them to the world’s most famous Jew. None of these scriptures was within the context of violence, revenge, or any of their malevolent kin.

So how did a devout Christian—especially one who was spreading the teachings of the Prince of Peace to other parts of the world—conclude that revenge, bloody violence or pre-emptive attack were part of his worldly mission? I wouldn’t have been as stunned if he had asserted himself as a conscientious objector, citing chapter and verse proving that the Lord of his heart taught and practiced non-violence.

Jesus of Nazareth is widely known to have had some serious issues with many of the Hebrew Scriptures that modern Christians embrace, including those that endorse and encourage violence to resolve disputes. For example:

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it is said, ‘Be kind to your friend, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless anyone who curses you, do good to anyone who hates you, and pray for those who carry you away by force and persecute you…”

Jesus went on to say that God causes the sun to shine upon the good and the bad, and pours down rain upon the just and the unjust. In other words, God does not discriminate or judge; we’re all treated the same way. And Jesus told us to “judge not”, unless we wanted to be judged.

It’s fascinating that those who claim to be followers of Jesus have veered onto another path. In this case, we have a missionary who probably would be at a loss to explain, in purely Christian terms, how he could tell a reporter, “I don’t really have love for Muslim people…. It’s hard to love people who hate you.”

Here’s some breaking news, Missionary Johnson: That’s precisely what followers of Jesus do.

To his credit, according to the report, Johnson has had enough of war after six months. He says that he shouldn’t have even gone to Iraq, and he hopes to leave without any blood on his hands.

“I really don’t want to kill innocent people,” he reportedly said. “I don’t want to live with that the rest of my life.”

Now that sounds more like a Christian missionary. Peace, be still.

When Did You Stop Caring?

Here’s some news you can use: Former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, labeled the “butcher of the Balkans”, has finally left the stage. His body was found Saturday in his prison cell.

Milosevic is allegedly responsible for the deaths of at least 250,000 people—almost twice as many civilians as America’s political leaders killed in Hiroshima and more than six times as many as they’ve killed in Iraq (estimated between 33,489 and 37,589, according to a website that tracks these vital statistics).

Why should you care? Why shouldn’t you? Each of these humans had loved ones. They were mothers and fathers and children. Some were elderly. Many were babies. They baked the bread and repaired the cars, and washed the clothes. They mattered.

When did we stop caring?

I saw a powerful play last week: “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda”. It was another personal story of triumph over the breathtakingly brutal genocide there, and another dramatic reminder that the rest of the world simply didn’t care.

Earlier today, about 100 citizens gathered in a university classroom to share their concern about the Americans and Iraqis who have died and many more who must try to survive in what’s left of the unstable country we’ve bombed and invaded for reasons that remain an elusive target. On the way to that meeting, I passed thousands of shamrock and green top hat-wearing folks packing the downtown Chicago sidewalks after the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Who would dare to parade through the streets of Baghdad these days?

When did we stop caring?

I’m sure that the answer is different for each of us, but according to a study in the March 9, 2006 issue of the journal Science, we might have begun caring for others long before we realized it. In a world where we’ve been told that we were born as sinners because two newborn creatures in adult bodies made a poor choice thousands of years ago, this was news I really could use.

The journal report documents a dramatic experiment at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The cast of characters included 24 toddlers and one Felix Warneken, a psychology researcher. Reportedly, Warneken performed a series of mundane tasks as the toddlers watched: hanging towels with clothespins and stacking books.

As his drooling, diapered audience watched, Warneken pretended to be challenged by these tasks. And this is where it got interesting: Almost every time Warneken dropped clothespins or knocked over the books, the 18-month old baby with whom he was experimenting quickly scrambled to help him. If the baby didn’t help, it was because Warneken didn’t appear to need it. This happened 100% of the time.

Not once did Warneken ask for help, but a video of his experiment revealed how the toddlers discerned that their help was warranted. But before making a move, the baby glanced at Warneken’s face, then at the dropped clothespin. Not once did a toddler bother to help when Warneken deliberately pulled a book off the stack or threw a pin to the floor. But if his facial expression broadcast that he was helpless, the baby immediately crawled to the pin, pushed himself onto his feet and eagerly returned the object to Warneken.

What was the payoff for the baby: A toy? A Zwieback teething biscuit? A piece of fruit? Nada. Zip. Zilch. These kids didn’t even get a thank you. Warneken didn’t want to manipulate the outcome or taint his research by training the babies to expect praise whenever they helped. Remember, this was a test of altruism. True altruism, true caring gives without expecting personal reward.

This was a small sample, only two dozen babies. But the fact that each of them behaved the same way, 100% of the time, is very significant. Whenever I encounter a new personal development or New Age technique for manifesting a “better life”, I look at it through this lens: “If it doesn’t happen 100% of the time for 100% of the people, it’s not a law. It’s a possibility, a potentiality, not a law.”

I’m impressed that Warneken got the same results 100% of the time. It leads me to believe that at a very early point in our lives, we cared. We not only cared, but we cared enough to extend ourselves to help others—even strangers. We saw someone in distress and we were motivated to bring them some relief. What does that say for the theory that we are inherently bad, natural born sinners.

According to this study, it is quite the contrary. We are inherently good, caring, and helpful. We naturally extend ourselves, even when there’s no personal reward; that’s who we really are. At some point, we made a conscious decision to be less than that.

When did we stop caring?

Every decision we make has a natural outcome. But every day offers new opportunities to make different choices and create different outcomes. We can choose to destroy others’ lives and others’ homelands or we can choose to care. We can choose to huddle in small groups to heal ourselves, our personal relationships and our own communities, or we can let them die.

But if we are naturally altruistic from the time we are 18-months old, it appears to me that the path of least resistance is to care for ourselves, care for others, and help those in need, without expecting reward or recognition.

I wonder what a difference that would make in our world–starting with that rising body count.

Is Your Kid’s Meal Safe?

Sometimes we pay attention; sometimes we don’t. Apparently, even the most attentive parents are oblivious to what their kids are ingesting. According to a study released this week, we’re feeding our kids some pretty deadly stuff. Who knew?

Imagine being a kid, chillin’ in your bedroom, snacking on high sodium chips and a beverage laced with high fructose corn syrup, totally engrossed in your favorite cartoon show, Shaman King, when “Wham!” One of the characters stabs the other with a sword; then he reaches into his mortally wounded victim’s chest and scoops out his soul.

Would you flinch? Would you cover your eyes? Would you run screaming, “Mom, this is gross!” Probably not.

Why? Because you’ve seen thousands of folks beheaded, gutted, stomped, shot or stabbed during your young lifetime. This is normal.

According to the Parents Television Council, our kids are devouring a steady diet of violence on a daily basis. Last summer, the council analyzed 444 hours of children’s television. I’m sure it felt more like 666 because when they turned off the set, they’d seen nearly 2,800 acts of violence. That’s an average of more than six violent acts per hour.

Think about it: If throughout your childhood, you saw your heroes solving their problems by whacking people, what’s going to be your knee-jerk reaction when someone gets on your nerves or is wearing a jacket or gym shoes that you’d like to have? What’s the “normal” response for any kid who witnesses gratuituous and inhumane violence six times an hour?

A former colleague’s son answered that question for me, not too long ago. I met this kid when he was about five years old. His father occasionally brought him to the newsroom. He was an absolutely adorable kid; and my colleague’s world revolved around this child, who matured into a bright, charming young man.

During his first year in college, my colleague’s son had an altercation with a classmate that turned into a long-running feud. One day, the young man had had enough. When he spotted his enemy walking down the street, he used his car as a battering ram and plowed the other boy into a tree.

In an instant, two promising young men were lost. Two families were devastated. Neither will be able to hold their son in their arms again. One is buried. The other is incarcerated for life. Both are from a generation of kids who repeatedly saw violent problem solving on television, where the line blurs between reality and fantasy.

My daughter was a toddler the first time she saw me on TV. She went running to the set, squealing, “Mommy!” She couldn’t yet distinguish the Mom reporting the news from the one who made her breakfast. All she knew was that this one wasn’t acknowledging her. And she didn’t like that one bit.

One evening, I was home by the time my story hit the air, so you can imagine her confusion when suddenly there were two of us in the room wearing the same clothes. Her reaction was not surprising.

According to Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center of Media and Children’s Health at Harvard University’s medical school, children under age eight are cognitively unable to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not; and that includes TV violence. In fact, after studying reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Rich discovered that kids were much less upset than their parents. One conclusion: the children couldn’t distinguish it from what they regularly see on TV.

Fascinating, isn’t it: We were traumatized, but our kids were desensitized. If that doesn’t remind us, I don’t know what will: we are what we eat.