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On Faith: How does God view war?

In the last two weeks, something may have slipped by you. We passed the 100-year mark since the end of World War I — The Great War, The War to End All Wars, The Seminal Tragedy of the 20th Century.

We do worship a God who is present in all places and a God who is unconditionally for all people. Yet God’s omnipresence and universal love does not make it somehow possible for God to approve of both sides of a war, and I believe that God frequently looks at human violence with dismay at all sides.

That was the case for World War I. It was an unnecessary war caused by a failure of the European leaders of their day, and it set the stage for fascism in the 1930s, the Holocaust and World War II.  

I encourage you to take a look at the drone footage of aging trenches, fox holes covered in grass and flowers and trees — healing comes to no-man’s-land at last — but choices and borders drawn up by the Allies when peace finally came to Europe set the stage for the unrest in the Middle East to this day and set the stage for 9/11 itself. The land is healed, but the legacy of that time has not yet ended.

War is hell. War also happens. So Christians have, over time, created lists of lessons learned that, when taken seriously, minimize the damage of violence.

Violence may happen, but it is our Christian responsibility to consider the lasting legacies of all forms of violence in the name of a Lord who came as a healer.

Here are four of those lessons:

  • Lesson 1: Warfare is only justifiable if it comes after everything else has been tried to keep the peace. After all, war is hell. No shortcuts. No excuses. Everything has to be tried first.
  • Lesson 2: Warfare is only just if it is in response to a real injury of significance — never over words, never over small things — better to be wronged a little than to unleash the hounds of war and destroy the world of millions.
  • Lesson 3: Warfare is reckless and unnecessary if the goal pursued is anything other than peace. Payback is fun, but it’s always evil. We have to choose peace over it.
  • Lesson 4: Warfare is pointlessly destructive unless it is consciously proportional — and this one is the hardest, but critical. Because when everyone punches back harder than they were hurt, that’s how an impulsive murder in Serbia ended up dragging millions of Americans to rot into French trenches. So how to respond to violence without being a doormat? Measure the violence we visit on another so that we only do as much damage to them as they did to us.

How to show love to your enemy even in war? Maintain peace while it’s here. Break peace only if truly harmed. Seek peace even in war. And exercise self restraint.

Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

That’s not a suggestion. It’s a command for all time. And it’s one crazy high bar. But considering the cost of the mistakes of last century, it’s a bar we owe it to try for again and again. Because when people don’t, our God and our world weep.

Brendan Johnston is pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Two Harbors.