Peacemaking when “just war” is no more

The time has come for us, as children of God, to confess our sin of idolatry of “Just War” and “National Security.” Idolatry arises when we confuse our loyalties, when we give into our hearts’ pursuit of some center of life and source of security other than the God of Jesus Christ. While “Just War” and “National Security” may not seem like the “graven images” of Moses and Aaron, they are in fact contemporary idols. Followers of the Prince of Peace should be able to speak truthfully about idolatry in our culture. Instead, we have given our hearts and loyalty over to “Just War” and “National Security.” Followers of the one who said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” should be clear as to whose we are and who we are. Instead, we have given away in the name of “National Security” our privacy and personal relationships to agencies that may listen in on all our communications.  Followers of the one who wept over the City of Peace for its people knew not “the things that make for peace,” should be able to lead public weeping and repentance from our reliance upon weapons of violence in a “Just War” for “National Security.” Instead, we welcome laws that put guns into the hands of any who might fear someone who looks different.

In the days since September 11, 2001, followers of the Prince of Peace have been ducking and covering with references to “Just War” and “National Security.” In the midst of the fear and grief, few children of God have been heard from. Weeping and crying have been heard, but not over the City of Peace, because it knows not the things that make for peace. We have covered ourselves with the belief that we are justly defending our country from “Islamic terrorists.” We justify the use of weapons that are “unmanned” because they are “surgical” in their precision and reduce casualties of “noncombatants.”

When we return to the study of Scripture and the “just war” tradition in Christian thought, I believe we will be led to confess our idolatry of “Just War” and “National Security.” We should confess our sin of trusting our justification for acts of violence against others, which fails the test of a “just war.” As Daniel Bell points out in “Just War as Christian Discipleship: Reclaiming the Tradition in the Church rather than the State,” failure to meet any one of the criteria for a just war results in an unjust war. Yet, we ignore our failure to meet the traditional criteria, and idolatry is unchecked.

Where shall we begin to confess our idolatry? We have been battling for our security against no nation-state. Whom did we declare war against? Iraq? Their threat turned to be an illusion. Afghanistan? We are allies, supposedly. Islamic terrorists? We have defined them as enemy, but that is no identity for a legitimate opponent. We have been proud of declaring that we are protecting “noncombatants” as best as we can. In a war whose enemy is defined as terrorists, how do we define the noncombatants? We cannot define the enemy so we cannot define who is not. A few months ago, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) had the country’s attention demanding an answer to the question: does the president have the authority to use a drone against an American on U.S. soil who is not engaged in hostile activities? The simple answer, of course, is no. But, who is a noncombatant? What constitutes engaging in hostile activities?

What might have been appropriate action if the Boston Marathon bombers had been identified as such before the bombs exploded? How would we have reacted to their deaths by a drone attack?  And then there are the “suicide bombers.” We fail the “just war” test, for we can no longer protect noncombatants whom we cannot even identify. A “just war” demands that the battlefield and participants are clearly identified and recognizable. Given the realities we face today, just war is no more. We have the idol of “National Security” sucking the life out of a melting-pot nation, turning fellow immigrants into enemies.

Secondly, the security idol clouds our thinking about basic military effectiveness. A friend of mine, a retired Army colonel, told me years ago that military leaders want to know what the mission is, how we get in and how we get out. The reality of our idolatry is revealed again when we ask about the “reasonable chance of success” required by just war criteria. How do we define success in a war whose goal is “security” and whose enemy is defined as “terrorist” or “extremist”? What would success look like? President Obama recognized this dilemma when he gave a speech in May 2013 against the idea of “perpetual war,” arguing that even the war against terrorism must end. Yet, we have made “National Security” our idol and have not defined how it is achieved by any definition of “Just War.” The idol of “Security” demands constant attention as it is fed by fear, especially fear of the “other” whom we identify culturally and religiously. A just war knows when it is to end. Our idolatry keeps going and going and going.

Given the realities we face now, just war is no more. As followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to confess our idolatry of “National Security” and to reject the tyranny of those who oppress us with unfaithful expectations of security, which resides not in our Lord. The issue for the PC(USA) is to discern how we follow Jesus Christ today as we confront our sin, our idolatry of sources of security from the principalities and powers the apostle Paul knew so well.

For these and many other reasons, I pray for and work to support the peacemaking discernment process that the PC(USA) has been called into. I am a co-conspirator because the random selection of committee members used by our General Assembly placed me on the Peacemaking and International Affairs Committee at the 219th GA in Minneapolis in 2010. I gave thanks to God that the 30th anniversary of “Peacemaking: The Believer’s Calling” was being recognized by a call for renewing our commitment to peacemaking for today and not simply reprinting the dated study. I am a co-conspirator as I worked with the Mission Support Team of the Presbytery of Sacramento to participate in the denomination’s discernment process in March of 2013. And, I pray the planning group listens to the feed-back it is receiving.

The PC(USA) is not likely to decide we are a “peace church” since that description fits followers of Jesus Christ who have worked for generations to define whose they are and who they are in ways that our part of Christ’s body has not found comfortable. Nevertheless, we can rededicate ourselves to study our biblical and confessional roots, and relearn whose we are and who we are today.  We can do so by beginning with learning who Jesus Christ is, and what God is doing today. We can relearn the distinctive theological commitments of Reformed theology, such as the sovereignty of God, the election of the God’s people for service as well as for salvation, and our understanding of sin as the tendency to idolatry and tyranny. We can join together in prayer, confessing our idolatry and seeking God’s grace and forgiveness and new life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jay Wilkins is a teaching elder and transitional presbyter of Sacramento Presbytery.

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