Christians, war and neighbor love

Genocidal sectarian violence may be happening in Iraq. What does love of neighbor require of us?

By David Gushee

Follow David on Twitter: @dpgushee

As I write, this is the lede on the main New York Times Iraq story:

“Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants claimed on Sunday that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killings to come.”

The Sunni militants indeed posted pictures which appear to depict mass killings of mainly young Shiite men being shot to death at seven mass graves. If these pictures are legitimate, the new violence in Iraq has already turned in a genocidal direction. Mass shootings into graves, echoing the worst instances of violence in modern history — aberrational here, or the first of more to come?

Inevitably, but tragically, in response to the Sunni militant taunting about these apparent mass killings, one leader of an Iraqi Shiite militia was quoted as saying: “Our response to [this] is that there will not be any living prisoner” when they encounter the Sunnis. The cycle of violence will become exterminationist if this is the attitude that prevails. And who could possibly expect that it will be confined to “soldiers”? I predict that if this continues we will soon be seeing pictures of mass graves with women and children as well. Oh, God, may it not be so.

But such prayers, though important, are not enough.

The violence in Iraq, Syria and so many other parts of the world requires that Christians, including those of us safely pursuing our baseball and hot dogs here in America, think again about what a community committed to Jesus Christ ought to think and do about war.

Concreteness helps more than abstractness. Consider the families whose lives are at risk simply for being the “wrong” sectarian group in this or that part of Iraq today. Place yourself in the position of that father or mother trying to figure out which direction to flee, right now, in the hope that you and your loved ones might survive. Imagine your own 23-year-old son, as I am right now, who if in Iraq today would probably now feel forced to join one or another militia in the hope of surviving in a kill-or-be-killed environment.

Many readers will know the major tendencies of historic Christian response to war: pacifism and just war theory. Perhaps you might have encountered also my late friend Glen Stassen’s just peacemaking approach. Just maybe you may have been blessed with Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder’s shrewd insight that most wars are actually justified based on national interests rather than any broader moral grounds. And maybe you will have learned that crusade, or holy war — killing in the name of a God who delights in the blood of the religious enemy — is an enduring but disastrous approach to war in many traditions; indeed, we are seeing it once again in Iraq.

Pacifists say that followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, can never support or participate in war. Christians can die for others but not kill for them. Just war theorists, following Augustine and others in the Christian tradition, attempt to run all situations of violence through a series of logical criteria to ask whether war might be morally necessary or justified in any particular situation. Just peacemakers emphasize practical steps that defuse conflict situations and help make peace. Crusaders ask which side God is on and try to join. National interest people ask what course of action is in the best interests of our nation.

Just peacemakers would support President Obama’s call on Sunday, June 14, for the president of Iraq, a Shiite, to reconfigure his government in a more inclusive way so that Sunni Muslims are included and treated with rights and respect. President Maliki absolutely should do this, and should have done this all along, but in part because he has not done so the Sunni ISIS forces have become a rampaging army on their way to Baghdad. With all due respect, this is a weakness of just peacemaking alone as an approach — its prescriptions are all correct in long-term perspective, but sometimes the killing fields are filling up right now.

Pacifists want to follow Jesus and respect the sacredness of life by never supporting killing, but when some group of our global neighbors is getting slaughtered — or two groups are slaughtering each other — it is at least a fair question to ask whether love always requires nonintervention. Just because our hands are clean doesn’t mean blood isn’t being spilled.

Just warriors, perhaps more realistic that in a fallen world sometimes human beings fall on each other in mass violence, will ask not just whether some kind of intervention is required in a given situation, but what power on earth is best placed to offer that intervention.

Today might be a good day to read the security provisions of the United Nations charter. Drafted amidst a ruined world after 1945, the nations promised to use collective security measures to prevent war, including by rallying collective military force when necessary. But the nearly 70-year history of the UN demonstrates far more failures than successes in rallying collective force in a timely manner.

That is one reason why the United States, and sometimes NATO, and sometimes ad hoc coalitions, are so often faced with the question of interposing force to stop tribes or sects or militias or armies from killing each other. But President Obama, here representing a great number of Americans, seems utterly weary of the use of our military to solve everyone else’s security problems.

We all understand that, and Christians with objections to war especially do. But as we stay out, if we stay out, sometime we should all give a thought to the bodies piling up in Iraq, as in Syria. Look at the photos from these lands and ask, once again, what does neighbor love really require?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.