Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Godly War Cry

Kathy Kelly argues that there is “no such thing as a just war”. Jim Foxvog argues that trust in God demands national pacifism. One comes at it from a secular perspective, the other from a Christian perspective, and both wind up in the same place: War is wrong, period.

You know, it seems to me that the writers of the Psalms might just disagree.

Psalm 83 is a godly war cry.

Disclaimer Time

Now, you will understand that I am not making a case for the military industrial complex, neocon jingoism or the U.S. foreign policy decisions of the last fifty-plus years. There have been numerous unnecessary, unjust, pointless, mercenary, money-grubbing, counterproductive, futile and actively wicked wars waged in my lifetime. And wars give rise to more wars: the choices made in and after WWI made WWII virtually inevitable, as military historian Martin van Creveld argues in Hitler in Hell. If Kathy Kelly wants to claim that many (or even most) wars cause God to shake his head in disgust, I’d be disinclined to dispute it. And if President Trump can manage to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East and keep them out of North Korea, Americans will in all probability be better off for it.

All that acknowledged, there IS such a thing as a just war, and even a godly war. There have been just wars in the past and, if you believe Bible prophecy, there will be at least two just wars in earth’s future.

The More Things Change ...

The war described in Psalm 83 is not only just, it’s absolutely unavoidable. It starts with a group of nations plotting against the people of God:
“They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.
They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;
let the name of Israel be remembered no more!”
If that line sounds more than a little familiar, you were probably reading The Guardian back in 2005 when it reported that Iran’s new president had described Israel as a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the face of the earth”. Hey, Mr. Ahmadinejad, if you want to quote scripture, at least bother to get it right.

Apparently there really IS nothing new under the sun.

Limited Options

When people are determined to kill you just for being you, there are only really two options: fight back, or lie down and die. And while Jim Foxvog would argue the right thing to do is “trust in God” rather than defend yourself, the Psalmist prefers to leave his options open: he cries out to God (“do not hold your peace or be still, O God!”) while preparing to fight back:
“Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon, who were destroyed at En-dor, who became dung for the ground. Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, ‘Let us take possession for ourselves of the pastures of God.’ ”
Now, there were times in Israel’s history when God won battles without anyone even lifting a finger. The Red Sea crossing comes to mind. Or the Syrian army besieging Samaria. Or Jehoshaphat vs. the Ammonites and Moabites.

But this is not that. Sometimes in war God’s people have to get their hands dirty.

Not So Squeaky Clean

The Psalmist makes reference to Jabin and Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army. You may recall that God gave Israel deliverance through 10,000 men of Israel under the command of Barak and the prophetess Deborah. These men picked up swords and fought for their country in a just war against an oppressive power that had treated them cruelly for 20 years. Sisera met an untimely end asleep in the tent of Heber the Kenite, whose wife Jael drove a tent peg through his skull with a hammer. Jabin, king of Canaan, was later “destroyed” by the people of Israel.

He also mentions Oreb and Zeeb, from Judges 7, and Zebah and Zalmunna, whose story is found in Judges 8. The men of Ephraim brought Gideon the severed heads of Oreb and Zeeb, while Zebah and Zalmunna were killed by Gideon personally.

When you make yourself an enemy of God, it doesn’t usually end prettily.

The Psalmist, then, is not appealing to God for the sort of miraculous, squeaky-clean victory in which no Israelite would be expected to take his sword out of its sheath, but rather for one of those bloody, messy battles in which God’s people themselves become the instrument of his wrath against unjust and oppressive nations.

Which, if we’re honest, is most of them.

Pacifism and Category Errors

Now, I have a lot of sympathy for Jim Foxvog’s point of view. At the individual level and up to a certain point, pacifism is a reasonable response to normal Christian beliefs. If you want to stand still and take a schoolyard beating as a testimony to your faith in Christ, by all means carry on. You’re not hurting anyone, and at least you’re acting out of conviction. I don’t personally believe that the Lord Jesus requires his followers to refuse to defend themselves when in danger of genuine physical harm from people with wicked intentions, but I recognize that each of us stands or falls to his own Master, and I respect the consciences of those who disagree on the issue.

But I do not believe the scriptures anywhere address how a non-theocratic nation should respond to a direct attack on its people dwelling peacefully at home. You will search in vain for the parts of the Bible that give us instruction on that. And in the absence of commands or even examples to follow, attempting to get foreign policy direction from verses intended for the consciences of individual believers is simply a category error.

Loving Enemies

And truly, I don’t believe the writer of Psalm 83 has lost sight of God’s mercy, or that he has failed to grasp that, as Peter would later put it, “God is patient on your account, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” As much as possible, given that they are determined to end his life and destroy his nation, the Psalmist is engaged in loving his enemies.

As he puts it:
“Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O Lord.”
“Let them perish in disgrace that they may know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.”
That’s actually pretty generous, considering.

I guess sometimes love carries a big stick.

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