Facing Iraq With Christian Courage


[1] I had an illuminating conversation the other day about the impending war with Iraq, which ultimately caused me to reflect on the relationship between Christianity and courage. I had written a piece that expresses skepticism about our government's current foreign policy (a link to the article can be found on this page), and a gentleman affiliated with a well-known conservative think tank responded. I will paraphrase:

[2] "Your piece is an exercise in liberal sentimentality," he observed. "Don't you understand that Saddam is evil?" "Of course!" I answered. "I am only objecting to our government's preemptive, go-it-alone attitude. Practically, and as a matter of principle, we should abide by the resolutions of the UN." "The UN is too corrupted and ineffectual to deal with the threat we face," he countered. "Don't you remember September 11th? You are clearly in denial." "I am not denying anything," I suggested. "I am not even closing the door to eventual war with Iraq, if the community of nations wills it, but a policy that isolates us from our friends as well as our enemies is unwise." "But Saddam has used chemical weapons on his own people…"

[3] The repartee continued along these lines for a while, until we finally gave up in a stalemate. Afterward, the palpable sense of fear in my opponent's remarks struck me, and I realized he could only imagine that I have been, at best, whistling in the dark. This may explain the inability of pro and anti-war camps to truly hear each other in the broader debate, but it also exposes the heart of the problem in our war on terror.

[4] Peace activists have developed a number of unflattering explanations for President Bush's all-too-apparent resolve to go to war. The administration is only interested in controlling Iraqi oil, they claim; or it is suggested that the saber rattling was designed to distract a voting public from a sagging economy. Some have even claimed that Bush, Jr. is still working out problems of an Oedipal nature with his father, seeking to "win" where Bush, Sr. "lost".

[5] Others have developed cogent moral arguments against the proposed war, suggesting that few, if any, of the criteria for waging a just war are satisfied in the current situation. Or they argue that from a Christian point of view, war can never be justified. While these arguments surely have merit, particularly those that do not betray a thoroughgoing cynicism, they fall flat in the face of fear.

[6] Of course, this is not to suggest that proponents of war are cowards, or that the President, for instance, is spending an inordinate amount of time hiding under the oval office desk. The vast majority of Americans approve of his handling of the war on terror precisely because this has not been his response. The fear of which I speak, after all, is warranted. It is the fear that we all share after 9/11. It comes from the sobering recognition that there are people in the world who would like to destroy us - literally - and that these people are not entirely without the means to do so.

[7] Proponents of war are right, in other words, when they emphasize the reasons for us to be afraid. We must acknowledge the legitimacy of this fear, and yet, we must also fight against the temptation to let this fear dictate our actions. One who has not mastered his fear talks too loud, is unwilling or unable to reflect on the facts of the matter at hand, turns his enemies into bogeymen, finds enemies where none exist, and often plays the part of the bully - all in an attempt to convince himself and others that he is not weak, that he need not be afraid.

[8] In this light, our government's recent behavior begins to make sense. The threatening rhetoric, the suggestions that opponents of war are unpatriotic, the consistent overstatement - according to our own intelligence -- of the threat that Saddam poses, the refusal to deal seriously with the objections that allies have raised, and the willingness to flout international law and suspend civil rights in the pursuit of our goal; actions that might make proponents of war uncomfortable, all point to one thing.

[9] Between cowardice and courage there is a gray area in which we try to prove that we are not cowards by acting too brave. The coward runs away, but bravery is not marked by the simple willingness to fight. Courage requires a realistic assessment of our fear and its source without allowing these to dominate the horizon of our potential reaction. While we certainly have reason to be afraid of the terrorist threat, we have even greater reason to be clear-headed about our response.

[10] Christians do not appear to have a monopoly on courage or clear-headedness (not even liberal Christians!), but this is not due to any lack of resources within our tradition. At this time of year, we are reminded that God's response to the terrors of this world is a baby in a manger, a baby who would become the man on a cross. However we interpret this Christ-event, it is virtually impossible to suggest that it represents an overreaction to evil.

[11] It also suggests that we will not find our courage by relying on our own strength; for in God's voluntary weakness, we see the inescapable nature of our own. Nor can we find courage in our own goodness or godliness -- by painting the world in black and white; for in the searing light of Christ's perfect obedience, the various shades of our rebellion are revealed.

[12] The Gospel proclaims that the surest ground for courage can be found in God's love. Love does not assure us of victory, or even moral certitude, in the face of the today's terrors. It assures us that, whatever the outcome of our endeavors, they will not be in vain. It promises us that the limitations, and even the sinfulness, of our efforts do not disqualify their purpose and value, because as the expressions of the creatures God loves, they are purposeful and valuable to God.

[13] This assurance, if only we will trust in it, allows us to look without blinking at the evil abroad in the world, but also at the weaknesses and faults in ourselves. We can look, because neither the evil without nor within can paralyze us. And if we are mindful of our limitations and sin, and yet have the promise of God's love, we can see and pursue the relative goods that history has set before us with a curious combination of conviction and humility that - I believe - are the hallmarks of Christian courage.




© November 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 2, Issue 11