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May 2, 2008

Christianity and War


Readings in the Age of Empire

by Doug Bandow

Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State
Laurence M. Vance
Vance Publications (Pensacola, Fl.), 2008
418 pp.

By Doug Bandow

One of the great ironies of modern Christianity is how warlike many Christians are. Not all Christians, certainly. And many believers at many times in history have put state and ruler before church and God. Yet it remains striking how many conservative evangelicals unabashedly acted as shock troops backing the Iraq invasion. Everyone from Jerry Falwell to Pat Robertson to Chuck Colson to D. James Kennedy to James Dobson to a host of lesser Christian leaders propagandized on behalf of President George W. Bush. A few war supporters have been humbled by the resulting catastrophe in Iraq, but most disclaim any responsibility for the debacle. Some, such as John Hagee, who has endorsed Sen. John McCain for president, now bray for war against Iran.

Laurence Vance, a serious Christian writer and teacher, offers a dramatic counterpoint. In his latest book, Christianity and War, Vance collects 79 essays on military and foreign policy. He spares no one, declaring: "Christians who condone the warfare state and its nebulous crusades against ‘evil’ have been duped. There is nothing ‘Christian’ about the state’s aggressive militarism, its senseless wars, its interventions into the affairs of other countries, and its expanding empire."

I’m probably viewed as a bit of a nutty pacifist at my church. I opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, dismissed the argument that Christian theology requires reflexive support for extremist Likud Party rule in secular Israel, and criticized the tendency of believers to conflate Christianity with the Republican Party. But I am a hopeless squish compared to Vance, who lives in the Florida Panhandle, one of the most conservative parts of the country; it is a miracle that land so weighed down with military bases and personnel hasn’t sunk.

Vance ably mixes history and theology to make his points. Although evangelicals, in particular, act as if nothing could be more natural than carrying a Bible in one hand and shooting a gun in the other, many church fathers were strongly antiwar and sought to limit its occurrence. Vance cites as one example Hugo Grotius, the Dutch Christian who helped create the idea of international law.

Many early American Christians also railed against war, which, one wrote, "contradicts the genius and intention of Christianity" and is "contrary to the Gospel." Another Christian leader complained that "the chief wonder is that Christians, followers of the Prince of Peace, should have concurred in this mad idolatry of strife, and thus been inconsistent not only with themselves, but with the very genius of their system."

Grotius detailed conditions to govern just and fair conduct in war but, notes Vance, "The fact that a government claims a war is just is irrelevant, for American history is replete with examples of American presidents who have exaggerated, misinformed, misrepresented, and lied to deceive the American people into supporting wars that they would not have supported if they had known the facts." George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson all make the list. So do Abraham Lincoln and James Polk.

Argue that the wars were justified if you wish. But the deception is unmistakable. And use of deception to win over the American people cannot be justified.

However, deception probably wasn’t necessary to win over many clerics. Vance chastises Christians who fall for the age-old tactic of government using religion to whip up war fever. He writes: "Many supporters of the senseless war in Iraq are high on religion. Add a religious element to a war and the faithful will come out in droves in support of it. In the case of the current war in Iraq this is easy to do. Because the United States is supposedly a ‘Christian nation,’ the war can be turned into a modern-day crusade since Iraq is a ‘Muslim’ nation."

He also argues that "Christian warmongers … would rather be associated with Bush and the war than with people whom they and others have deemed undesirable. In actuality, however, they are choosing to be associated with a war criminal and murder than with the truth just because some people who are usually wrong happen to be right on this particular issue."

Here, as elsewhere, Vance speaks plainly. He compares the manipulation of American Christians today to that of other Christians at other times, noting how German soldiers wore belt buckles with the inscription "Gott Mit Uns" (God With Us). He adds that "The lesson here is clear: The state uses religion for its own sinister purposes, and especially for that most destructive purpose of all – what Jefferson called ‘the greatest scourge of mankind’ and Washington called ‘the plague of mankind’ – war."

Vance refuses to compromise his rhetoric when talking about the United States or the U.S. military. He’s at times painfully provocative but usually correct. His tone is like the proverbial fingernail across a chalkboard: a typical conservative Christian will want to cover his or her ears and run screaming from the room. Yet Vance forces the complacent, including antiwar activists such as myself, who want to think we are taking thoughtful, nuanced positions, to reconsider our most basic beliefs.

America proclaims liberty around the world, Vance writes, "But rather than receiving a proclamation of liberty, what many people in foreign countries receive instead are threats, bombs, and bullets." Ouch! He goes on, "From a Christian perspective there is only one way to describe U.S. foreign policy: it is evil. It was evil before the United States invaded Iraq, and it would still be evil if the United States withdrew all of its forces from Iraq tomorrow. It is because of our foreign policy that the U.S. military has become – through its wars, interventions, and occupations – the greatest force for evil in the world. U.S. foreign policy sows discord among nations, stirs up strife where none existed, intensifies the hatred that many foreigners around the world have for Americans and each other, and creates terrorists faster than we can kill them." Double ouch!

His negative view of military service may cut deepest. As the son and brother-in-law of career military men, I deeply respect the armed services, though it was not a life that appealed to me. As difficult as I imagined it would be to kill another human being, I’ve always believed that a military is necessary to protect America in a dangerous world. Yet Vance is right that most of the U.S. government’s wars, interventions, and threats do not advance American interests and often create enormous hardship for others.

So what of the responsibility of military personnel? Vance complains that "Not only are U.S. soldiers not viewed as responsible for the death and destruction that they bring, we continually see signs and yellow ribbons expressing support for the troops. We also frequently hear from church pulpits that we should pray for the troops." However, in his view "it can’t be said that the actions of U.S. soldiers in this war are so different from the actions of Russians, Germans, and Turks that they should be commended instead of condemned. Labeling the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq a just war does not make it one."

It’s an extraordinary challenge. Certainly the U.S. invasion of Iraq was woefully imprudent and failed to meet just war criteria. It can’t be called humanitarian because it has created more death and destruction than it eliminated. Yet defenestrating Saddam Hussein was a blessing and many of those on the receiving end of U.S. bullets today are evil men who have murdered and brutalized others. My gut says Vance is wrong to blame service personnel but there is power and purity to his argument.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Vance argues against anyone joining the military. He doesn’t even think Christians should become military chaplains. He believes that being answerable to government inevitably compromises one’s convictions. More fundamentally, to become a chaplain requires that one "join the military" and "support the activities of the military." His question to those thinking of serving: "Is asking God to bless and protect the troops as they shoot, bomb, maim, mine, destroy, ‘interrogate,’ and kill for a rogue state with an evil foreign policy consistent with the Christianity you find in the New Testament?"

Wow.

There’s much more in Christianity and War. Vance devotes several essays to the practical case against the Iraq war. He cites then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney’s arguments against invading Iraq. He flays talk show host Rush Limbaugh for contending that today’s troops losses don’t matter since traffic deaths are higher. Vance looks at other wars, and assesses America’s imperial foreign policy. He cheerfully explains "what’s wrong with the U.S. global empire."

Most of his essays are spot on. He’s not always right. But he always makes readers think.

Of course, Vance never changes his tone, bringing to mind abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s promise when he inaugurated The Liberator: "I will not equivocate. … I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard." Laurence Vance does not equivocate. And he will be heard.

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  • Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, just published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted through Josh's blog at www.brickburner.org. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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