For the second time in 12 years, our nation is at war with Iraq. The cruise missiles have begun falling on Baghdad.
If we are willing to spend sufficient blood and treasure, we will prevail in destroying Saddam Hussein's regime. The end of his reign of terror will come as a great blessing to the millions who have suffered under his tyranny for so long. Heirs to numerous great civilizations that for 6,000 years have dwelt at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Iraqi people will soon have their first real chance to enter the modern world as a free, self-governing nation. Such an outcome will surely be pleasing to the God of justice, who hears the cries of the oppressed and sets the captives free.
The destruction of Saddam Hussein is most clearly justifiable in such terms. Iraq's ability to threaten our national security is dubious—especially if it had remained penned in by an intrusive inspections program and nearby troops and ships. But here is a morally bankrupt outlaw regime that has proven itself a mortal danger to its neighbors and to its own people. If the international community is going to be about the business of enforcing even minimal standards of behavior on its member states, Hussein's Iraq is a good place to start.
However, it is not the international community that is enforcing regime change this day, but primarily the United States and Great Britain. The collapse of the long and laborious United Nations process means that we are witnessing the preemptive attack of one sovereign state by a few others. This crosses a fundamental threshold in international relations and has evoked bitter opposition here and around the world. It certainly strains the just cause and last resort criteria of the just war theory—at least if these are conservatively applied, as they should be in order to limit the resort to war in international relations.
The just war criterion of proportionality says that the costs of a military action must not exceed its benefits. In strictly military terms we will probably meet this test, though reports of casualties have already begun to come in. But the war's broader costs were already extraordinary before the attack began.
Our moral standing in the community of nations has never been more precarious. Our ties with many historic allies have been badly damaged. Our relationships with significant nations with whom we must deal—like Russia and China—have worsened. International institutions such as NATO and the United Nations have been weakened.
Inevitably, our tendency in the face of international criticism is to blame everyone but ourselves. The French are wimps, the Germans are pacifists, the United Nations a gutless debating society. Only America stands up for what is right, or so we think. Any of us must check ourselves very carefully when we begin thinking this way. A failure to be open to criticism or alternative perspectives makes repentance and self-correction impossible. This is morally dangerous for anyone who is capable of mistakes or sin, which all of us are.
Ours has been the most powerful nation in the world for at least 60 years, arguably 85 years. While there have always been nations that resented our power, and perceived our blind spots much better than we did, throughout these decades we have generated considerable goodwill around the world.
That goodwill, so rapidly dissipating now, resulted from the undeniable appeal of our prosperous, inclusive, and free society. But it also flowed out of our commitment to help create and participate faithfully in international institutions and initiatives that benefited the entire world. We constrained the use of our own power so as not to arouse the fear and opposition of other nations, and we turned some of that power toward the advance of the interests of other countries and the world community. Consider our role at the conclusion of both World War I and World War II. Because we loved our neighbors as ourselves, because we looked not just to our own interests but the interests of others, our great power was more welcomed than feared.
But this is not how we are perceived today in most of the world. We have taken our big gun out of the holster and are waving it around quite freely. Such actions, and our belligerent tone, when combined with our even more extraordinary power, are threatening to make us one of the world's most disliked and disdained nations.
To worry over this is an expression of love for our country, not disloyalty. Surely Christians can acknowledge that no one deserves our unquestioning loyalty other than God himself, and that all other loyalties must be tested by biblical norms such as justice, mercy, and generosity of spirit. For Christians to feel that they must squash honest reflection on such troubling developments in the name of patriotism risks national idolatry and grave disobedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Where do we go from here? Having started this war with Iraq, we need to fight it cleanly. When it is over, we will need to invest billions of dollars along with a sustained and skillful diplomatic effort to help the Iraqi people make the transition to democracy rather than collapse into civil war. Our president needs to tell us regularly that this massive level of investment in another country will require sacrifices in our own land, sacrifices that could cut deeply into our luxurious way of life and even cost us a tax cut or two.
At the same time we need to begin repairing the damage to our relationships with other nations. We need to invest deeply in an even-handed effort to bring a peaceful and just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We need to look for ways to exercise our power, and spend our money, in a manner that clearly demonstrates a humane concern for the world's most powerless and suffering people. The recent promise of $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa is a great example.
Acting in these ways will not only reduce international resentment, but also reflect the moral values for which we are fighting as our bombs fall in Baghdad this day.
David P. Gushee is the Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and the Senior Fellow of the Center for Christian Leadership at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He recently co-authored the book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context.
Opinions expressed in Speaking Out do not necessarily reflect the views of Christianity Today.
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Previous articles and papers on war by David P. Gushee include:
Justice and the Just War—Beliefnet.com
The Christian tradition on war and peace—Union University (Dec. 8, 2001)
On the Brink of War: Finding a Distinctive Christian Voice—Baptist Press (Sept. 26, 2001)
Previous Christianity Today articles and commentary on the current war with Iraq include:
Standing for Peace on the Eve of War | Christian group seeks nonviolent solution in Iraq. (March 12, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
Bully Culprit | Can a pre-emptive strike against the tyrant of Baghdad be justified? (Sept. 30, 2001)
Christian Leaders Respond to Bush's National Security Strategy | The White House outlines foreign policy in a changing world. (September 25, 2002)
Is Attacking Iraq Moral? | Christian leaders disagree, too. (September 4, 2002)
Christianity Today associate news editor Stan Guthrie recently reported on the plight of Iraqi Christians.
A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at CurrentIssuesBibleStudy.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.