Stop It

Earlier this month President George W. Bush addressed the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. His speech offered a troubling, though familiar, defense of the “war on terror,” and a particularly striking description of the ruthless “nature” of the enemy we are fighting, “people who know no bounds of humanity.”

Among the many dubious aspects of the speech was its frank theological premise. We are compelled to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush said, in order to “offer freedom to others who have never known it.” Freedom, the president told his largely Evangelical audience, is not America’s gift to others but a gift from the Almighty. Still, the clear implication was that the United States is the instrument of the Almighty. “The effects of a free Iraq and a free Afghanistan will reach beyond the borders of those countries,” he said. “It will show others what’s possible. And we undertake this work because we believe that every human being bears the image of our maker. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Many bad arguments have been advanced for the war in Iraq, and the president has used almost all of them over the past five years. He has variously claimed that Iraq posed an imminent military threat, was involved in 9/11, demanded humanitarian intervention, or that it offered a rare opportunity to establish democracy in the Middle East. Yet surely the worst, and perhaps the most offensive, argument for launching such a preventive war is the claim that every human being bears the image of our maker. Christians and non-Christians alike should tell President Bush to stop it—to stop using Christian language to justify his decision to go to war. The last people to applaud such sentiments ought to be religious broadcasters.

Christians, or so the best of the tradition has taught for fifteen hundred years, do not go to war to spread democracy or freedom. War, we are taught, should be a last resort, undertaken only to protect the innocent and to reestablish the conditions for peace. Contrary to President Bush’s claims that this war is a positive sign of the nation’s resolve and righteousness, Christianity teaches that war, even a just war, is evidence of humanity’s sinfulness. If George W. Bush doesn’t understand this, the unchurched Abraham Lincoln certainly did (see his Second Inaugural Address). The Christian community has long taught that all who kill, even those who fight in a just cause, are implicated in that sinfulness. As Peter Dula reminds us (“Easter in Baghdad,” page 17), it was not uncommon for bishops in the early church to deny Communion to soldiers for a year after they returned from war.

If President Bush is going to claim a theological warrant for war, then he should be held to a Christian understanding of war. As Andrew Bacevich rightly notes (“The Great Divide,” page 10), there is little Christian precedent for thinking that war is “an instrument for fixing things.” Nor should a Christian imagine that there is something “romantic” about war, as Bush recently told U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, or that it is “a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.” At best, what our soldiers are being asked to do in Afghanistan and Iraq is a grim necessity—there is nothing romantic about the business of killing and being killed, even in defense of democracy.

The president has never hesitated to demonize “the enemy.” No one doubts that Islamist militants, whether they belong to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or various Sunni and Shiite militias, are murderous criminals and worse. Yet, as the president said, we believe that all human beings are made in the image of God. How are we to reconcile these two facts? And what are we to make of the Christian commandment to love our enemies? That counterintuitive and most difficult of Christian teachings is conspicuously absent from Bush’s speeches.

Loving our enemies does not mean we should not resist them, although Jesus confronted his precisely by not resisting. Nor does loving our enemies mean that we refrain from naming evil when we see it. Perhaps one way to understand what it means to love one’s enemies is to recognize the ambiguity of our own motives and the fallibility and limitations of our actions, especially in war. As Bacevich writes, “The next president should give up any fantasies about ending tyranny or expunging evil. Those tasks fall within God’s purview.”

It would be refreshing if President Bush, as a Christian, would recognize God’s purview instead of justifying his own flawed decisions in God’s name.

Published in the 2008-03-28 issue: 
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