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?