To Be or not to Be – A Theological Discussion On War, Peace and Moral

To be or not to be …

[Bible] There is a time in our lives when we all conceptualize the world childishly in political terms that we have privately defined. I was no different. I was a feminist because I wanted to improve the lot of women in an unequal world – until the pussy marches. I was a liberal because I value freedom over everything – until the war on free speech. And I was a pacifist for my love of peace.

The latter one got a dent when I realized the dishonesty of those who claim to be pacifists. It starts with them only taking note of a war when Western troops are involved, goes on with unsubstantiated claims about the causes of war, and gets treasonous when they remember peace only, and really only, in moments when it could help socialist or Islamist opponents. We didn’t see pacifist rallies against the genocide in Rwanda. There were no marches against the Serbian war crimes on the Balkans. We wait in vain for sizable candle vigils against Islamic terror of which only a tiny friction makes it into Western news to begin with.

I got increasingly alienated from the hypocrites who say ‘peace’ and mean advancement of their own group. And I turned to the bible.

My entire life I was told how immoral it is. No public figure that I can think of ever says something positive about the Jewish bible. We hear the same phrases again and again about ‘respect’ and ‘tradition’ and that Jews belong to the Western World, the ‘Judeo-Christian’ West. Yet the same people see the Jewish bible as trash and they leave little qualms about their disgust over what they unilaterally declare as a violent, primitive text in need of abolition. If you are lucky you are told how it is only in need of correction  – through Jesus.

What are the morals of war? When do we fight it? This question is so important that arguably the better half of the bible deals with it in one way or another. There is the war in the name of the Lord – which must be harnessed by the important commandments never to use his name in vain and never to bear false witness against thy neighbour. There is the war in direct defence or in defence of a just ally. There is also the war against a deeply sinful, rotten people (e.g. Book of Judges 1920). A sensible moral code would parlay this notion to humanitarian strikes.

However, very often the bible is simplified, if not misquoted, to speak against war. The trick is that sentences that do not actually speak about war are misused. The German peace movement during the Cold War often cited ‘turn swords to ploughs’ (Mi 1,1-4). This is part of the prophecy of Micah and did not mean to resist from war. It is the enemies of Israel who will be disarmed and their weapons will be destroyed in the final days – according to his prophecy. The identical prophecy with the same context was made by Isaiah (Is 2, 3).

Rather to the contrary the bible denounces pacifism. The Song of Deborah scolds the city of Meroz (Judges 5: 23) because it did not help defeat the enemy. In the prophecy of Jeremiah, amidst the account of the last days, the descriptive text is interrupted with the line (Jer 48) Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully, and cursed be he that keepeth back his cherev (sword) from bloodshed”. The scribe wrote this line into the text without context, to preserve a message that was more important than the flow of the biblical story.

This puts the believer between a rock and a hard place. You can no longer just abstain from war, yet killing for the wrong reason is the worst sin possible. The way out is buried in a curse that King David spelt against his army leader Joab:

May Joab’s family never be without someone who has a running sore or leprosy or who leans on a crutch or who falls by the sword or who lacks food. Joab and his brother Abishai murdered Abner because he had killed their brother Asahel in the battle at Gibeon.

King David curses his top man and his family because Joab had revenged a legitimate killing, which happened in the context of a battle. Joab killed Abner after the war in the context of civilian life. This is paramount: Had Joab killed Abner in battle, he wouldn’t have been cursed. He would have been praised. The bible does therefore draw the line that pacifists try to erase: There is a time for war and a time for peace, and you better don’t mess up.

Another biblical misquote that does just that is the Jesus words “Turn the other cheek”. The context is that Jesus, contrary to today’s Christians, confirmed that he did not change one letter of the Halakha, the Jewish law. Following that statement he gives a number of examples on how he would rather over-fulfill the law. They don’t make necessarily sense in themselves apart from underlining that Jesus really, really wanted to keep the old laws. Example: If a man asks you to walk with him a mile, walk with him two. In itself it has no point. If somebody hits you, the law demands to restrain yourself to an equal blow. Like with the walk, Jesus suggests now to over-fulfill the demand of the law and restrain yourself by turning the other cheek. It bears no meaning for the battle ground. “Love your enemy” is also an item on the list of examples for over-fulfillment, as it extends “love your neighbour”.

But, in fact, the bible does very little to enforce the moral duty to draw the line clearly between war and peace. It fails to say that we are expected to act in very different moral codices when we are at peace and when we are at war. In war we kill and deceive. In peace we fight peacefully for truth to avoid war (and “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully”, Jer 48). This is probably a common knowledge gap. There was never an iota of doubt that killing and deceit was righteous in war. The Ten Commandments forbid murder. Period. Just Murder.

Another problem that is hardly addressed by the bible is the definition of war. This again is a common knowledge gap for the times that are covered in the bible. In today’s world most wars are not properly declared, are rarely fought between nations (directly), are asymmetric, and find no ends. The lines between combatants and civilians, state actors and militias, war and peace become ever more blurred and with them our moral system itself.

But of course the problem that is now central was to a much lesser degree present at all times. The Song of Deborah tells us about a violent uprising against an oppressive occupation. The Lord himself commanded Barak to fight King Jabin’s troops led by army officer Sisera. Because of Barak’s reluctance Deborah summoned him and offered him help. He still refused to take the onus of the battle strategy and rather wanted to follow Deborah. She prophecied that his path would cost him the honour and he would be shamed by seeing a woman killing Sisera. Not only is an uprising commanded by the Lord, reluctance against it is shamed. The story was probably later expanded. Sisera loses all his soldiers in the battle and somehow the role of Barak is suddenly emphasized, raising doubts whether Deborah played a military role at all. Sisera flees to a befriended Jewish household, the House of Haber the Kenite. Jael the wife of Haber assassinates Sisera while he is asleep depriving King Jabin off his capabilities to use his top man again to come back and suppress Israel.

Is a strategic, extra-judicial killing of an exiled man who may pose a future threat moral? My personal red line is the distinction between peace and war. In times when we see ever more states (Russia, Iran, Israel, America,…) commit these killings, my personal gut feelings speak against it. I fear the blurring of the lines. In the same light, I abhor economic sanctions. I think that they are a necessity and often a better alternative to sending troops. But sanctions should be wielded with care. Today they are handed out like candies.

Things become different again when the powers are too unequal. A state can do better than to blur the lines. But how do we judge assassinations by powerless citizens against their tyrants? Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, for example, is widely honoured for his unsuccessful attempt to kill Adolf Hitler. And is a tyranny peace? Mao and Stalin killed more innocent civilians in supposedly peaceful times than most wars. Maggie Thatcher judged that this is not peace and I agree with her.

So we must take care in identifying a tyrant. For if we call out a tyranny we mean war. We must identify the roads to tyranny and fight bad developments peacefully. We can explain why we don’t see our countries as democracies, but we must acknowledge the spectrum between freedom and tyranny. The tyrant is a tyrant. Unless you are prepared to kill somebody, you should do all in your power to prevent others from upheaval.

Whatever your core beliefs are, my conviction is that you should identify this red line for yourself. If you wait too long, propaganda will have taken the hearts and minds of your people in favor of a strongman (male/female). If you are too quick you may end as a murderer, damned to hell.

For me it is about the last road blocked, the last road blocked to you converting people to Islam, to Marxism, to justice, to freedom, or whatever you want to see others make a reality. If all roads are blocked, you know the tyrant. As long as people with your goals are allowed a public forum, fair and big enough to have the chance of convincing people peacefully, you have no right to start a fight.


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