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A President's 'Theology of War' - by Gregory J. Welborn

A President's 'Theology of War'


For some time now, Glen Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. -- the nation's largest -- has been helping to circulate an open letter criticizing President Bush's "theology of war."

Last week the letter went wide, so to speak, when it was announced that it had garnered the signatures of more than 200 theology professors from more than 30 seminaries -- including those at Princeton, Duke, Wheaton, Northpark and Southern Methodist. Titled "Confessing Christ in a World of Violence," the letter has made quite a stir in evangelical circles.

Among its primary criticisms is the claim that Mr. Bush's use of biblical
references has created a grave moral crisis in this country. Especially
discomfiting to these professors is the president's use of the imagery of
light and darkness in describing the U.S. and Iraq, respectively. They
object to his axis-of-evil theme as well as to any talk of an American
mission or divine appointment to rid the world of evil.

Such questions are open to debate, certainly, but it is hard not to see a
partisan bias in the letter. In the opinion of some Christian leaders who
wouldn't sign the letter -- and to whom I spoke over the phone -- it focuses more on bashing Mr. Bush than on discussing the Christian principles of a just war. Dan Palm, who teaches political science at Azusa Pacific University, a respected evangelical Christian college, believes that the letter seems intended primarily to get liberal Christians out of their chairs and into polling stations on Tuesday.

It is hard not to agree. The letter does get some things right, at least as
far as it goes. There are numerous biblical passages calling on believers to love their enemies, as the letter notes. But what it ignores are the
biblical principles that support taking a stand against evil. Keith
Pavlischek, a scholar of religion and society, notes that much of Christ's
three-year ministry was dedicated to calling out evil. Paul's letter to the
Romans tells us to hate evil. And of course there are biblical passages in which believers are called upon to be light in a dark world.

The problem, for the letter-signers, is Mr. Bush's triumphalism, as they see it, or America's. They don't like our seeing ourselves as a "righteous empire." More important, they "reject the false teaching that those who are not for our nation politically are against it or that those who fundamentally question American policies must be with the 'evil-doers.'"

But of course Mr. Bush does not speak of everyone who is "not for our
nation" in theological terms, nor does he believe that those who merely
question his policies are themselves "evil-doers." He is speaking of
terrorists and their sponsors, who have targeted Americans and others in gruesome scenes of violence.

Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops, reminds us that seeing oneself as the agent of God in battling evil is not contrary to biblical teaching so long as the mission's focus is
legitimate. The Nazis' call to rise up against the Jews was clearly evil.
Dietrich Bonhoffer's call on German Christians to rise up against Hitler was clearly good. The focus of the mission is absolutely intrinsic to its
morality. One has to wonder whether the professors would be so exercised if Mr. Bush had used good-and-evil imagery to fight, say, environmental pollution or "social injustice."

The professors go on to complain that Christianity doesn't support rejecting the wisdom of international consultation. But this charge, too, is misleading. William Bjoraker, an Old Testament scholar at the U.S. Center for World Missions, put it best: "The prophets were alone, Christ was alone, and the disciples were often alone in speaking out against popular opinion."

It's fine to seek support, but if Christians still find themselves alone in
championing a just cause, they can be confident that they stand on the
shoulders of spiritual giants.

Prof. Stassen spearheaded the open-letter campaign with the help of four other religious leaders: George Hunsinger of Princeton, Richard B. Hays of Duke, Richard Pierard of Gordon College and Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine. They had all endorsed an earlier national ad campaign proclaiming that "God is not a Republican or a Democrat." No one has ever claimed that he is either.

Mr. Welborn is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.

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