The Magazine

AWOL Christian Soldiers?

These days, America's religious leaders are far from bellicose.

Oct 1, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 03 • By J. BOTTUM
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TWO DAYS AFTER the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson opened themselves to national condemnation by declaring that the terrorists’ success was a direct judgment of God, visited upon the United States for the sins of abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, pagans, and the ACLU.

Meanwhile, World magazine, the evangelical weekly, fell over the edge in an editorial by Joel Belz that quoted, approvingly, the words of an Egyptian chauffeur as he praised the terrorists: "The Americans have forgotten that God exists." "High on our own Western shelf of false deities have been the gods of nominalism, materialism, secularism, and pluralism," Belz explained. "And it’s hard to think of more apt symbols of all those ‘isms’ than the twin towers of the World Trade Center....Babel needed just one such tower; New York built two."

Such views are contemptible, but they raise a significant issue. With George W. Bush, we have a seriously evangelical president in the White House for the first time since Jimmy Carter. We have an attorney general of more muscular Christianity than any since the nineteenth century. We have, as the last election showed on both sides, an astonishingly open return to the public square of religious rhetoric and concerns. All of which makes the question of the proper Christian understanding of the attack—and what we should do about it—of profound importance.

News reports claimed that more Americans were in church on the Sunday after the attacks than on any ordinary Sunday in recent memory. But if the reports are accurate, they didn’t hear many sermons that echoed Falwell, Robertson, and Belz. What they heard, interspersed with prayers for the victims and rescuers, were instead admonitions not to indulge racist feelings against Arabs or give in to the angry lust for revenge—neither of which the churchgoing portion of the American public seemed to feel much temptation to do.

In fact, American Christians are far more likely to feel the opposite temptation these days. There were very few churches in which "Onward, Christian Soldiers" got sung last week—much less "The Son of Man Goes Forth to War." Among Protestants, the entire theological tradition of using martial metaphors to describe God’s glory has fallen into massive disrepute. Among Catholics, concerns about the injustices that must necessarily happen during war (the concerns scholastics called jus in bello) have damaged the ability to hold almost any good reason for going to war (what the scholastics called jus ad bellum). Righteousness has come to seem the equivalent of self-righteousness, and hardly anyone believes in genuinely righteous anger any more. If the United States goes wobbly in its war on terrorism—if the campaign peters out in self-doubt and confusion after a few months of bombings—Christian feeling in America will have had something to do with it.

There exists, of course, a morally serious and intellectually rigorous tradition of Christian pacifism. Its threads run through every Christian community, from the Quakers in the radical reformation to the founders of Catholic monasticism. That pacifism is always stern and hard edged. It declares that Christian life in the world is defined by the perpetual possibility of martyrdom, and that to be a Christian is to stand as a sheep among the wolves.

The Christian believer who does not feel the tug of this pacifism has missed a constant theme of the gospels. But there are other themes as well, beginning with the righteous anger with which Christ drove the money-changers out of the Temple. In a famous passage in Romans 13—one of the central passages from which theologians as diverse as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther built their theories of government—St. Paul declares that the proper ruler of the state "beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."

In a fascinating 1932 exchange in Christian Century, prompted by the question of whether the United States should intervene against the Japanese in Manchuria, the well-known Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of what he called "the grace of doing nothing"—to which his brother, the even better-known Reinhold Niebuhr, replied in the next issue of the magazine, "I realize quite well that my brother’s position both in its ethical perfectionism and its apocalyptic note is closer to the gospel than my own. In confessing that, I am forced to admit that I am unable to construct an adequate social ethic out of a pure-love ethic." But, he added, "I find it impossible to envisage a society of pure love as long as man remains man....The hope of attaining an ethical goal...without coercion...is an illusion which was spread chiefly among the comfortable classes of the past century."