Richard Hess, Elmer Martens Eisenbrauns 2008-04-01

This book is an outgrowth of a conference in 2004, which was a collaborative effort between the Association for Christian Conferences, Teaching, and Service and the Biblical Studies division of Denver Seminary. In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the sponsors solicited papers from advocates of pacifist and just-war positions. This collection of papers is insightful about war in the Old Testament but rather superficial on twenty-first-century terrorism. The book has a preface and indexes, but without an introduction and conclusion, it is a diverse discussion rather than a carefully aimed contribution to a significant subject.

One group of chapters discusses the various kinds of violence in the Old Testament and argues that religion is not inherently violent despite its role in contemporary terrorism. Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale University Divinity School, acknowledges a resurgence of interest in religion after 9/11. He insists that it is not necessarily violent in spite of a rather widespread perception to the contrary. Monotheistic religions, in particular, do not entail violence. Christianity’s doctrines of creation and new creation, properly understood, do not promote it: “The Christian faith is misused when it is employed to underwrite violence” (p. 15, italics his). Elmer Martens’s essay “Toward Shalom: Absorbing the Violence” argues that the Cross exemplifies the principle that “God absorbs violence” (p. 43, italics his). He writes, “God’s project, to restore shalom, involves God’s ultimate offering of himself as the scapegoat, the ultimate absorber of human violence” (ibid.). Martens, president emeritus of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, contends that a regenerated heart will seek to forswear violence and to love neighbors with a divine kind of love. Most problematic is God as the “author” of violence, but His ways must be understood in light of the Cross, a priority on shalom that absorbs violence through a sacrifice of self-interest. Daniel Carroll presents a pacifist view based on widespread brutality in his Guatemalan background. He bases his argument on believers’ identity in Christ and their mission in His kingdom. Carroll, professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, discusses Isaiah, who condemned the self-destructiveness of human strategies and pointed to messianic hope as the guide for peaceful behavior.

A second group of chapters discusses just-war theory as a way of understanding wars in the coming century. Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, distinguishes just wars from “crusades,” which he defines as an ethic for empire. He addresses the question of whether George W. Bush was justified in invading Iraq. Reviewing Bush’s rationale for “preemptive war,” Heimbach also recalls the confusion of religious leaders’ support for “Desert Freedom” from just-war principles. He argues that an “expansion” of the theory beyond defensive responses necessarily changes it into a crusade, which is biblically permissible only with divine sanction. Heimbach defends the American invasion based on Hussein’s violation of the 1991 terms of surrender, but Heimbach condemns Bush’s preemptive reason. That is, it was a proper action for the wrong reason, because it should be seen as a continuation of “Desert Storm” rather than as a new war.

Tony Pfaff deals with the subject of “Noncombatant Immunity and the War on Terrorism.” A former professor of philosophy at West Point and a Middle East Foreign Officer, he compares criminal and war models to analyze the issues of excessive force and noncombatant casualties. “While pursuing terrorists under the criminal model is morally preferable, certain terrorists under certain conditions represent the kind of threat that permits pursuing them under the war model” (p. 94). However, the war model poses the greatest threat to noncombatants, and the traditional prohibition against targeting civilians is “central to Christian thinking on just war” (p. 95). In enforcing laws, police forces seek to apprehend criminals without unnecessary casualties. In establishing peace, soldiers use as much deadly force as necessary to accomplish their mission. The problem is that terrorists can be both criminals and enemies; so they are a new threat that can make them military enemies in an interconnected world. The destruction on 9/11 shows that they could initiate asymmetrical war.

Ian Durie’s chapter “Terrorism: What Is It and How Do We Deal with It?” is about “justified resistance” in the just-war tradition. His “definition” underscores the elusiveness of the term as indicated by the possibility of “state terrorism” and the need to resist international terror. He emphasizes the need for “internationally recognized rules for the use of force and warfare” (p. 118). With Pfaff he cautions that excessive responses can alienate populations at large, and he writes, “In summary, then, terrorism is a potentially legitimate form of warfare, but terrorists never use it legitimately, and this is why it is not a justifiable means of resistance” (p. 122).

Richard Hess, professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, presents an overview of “War in the Hebrew Bible.” His discussion notes that the Bible reflects a variety of reasons for war, but “it does so with a moral tenor that ultimately recognizes battle as a necessary evil in the context of a greater, cosmic struggle between good and evil” (p. 32).

Glen Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues at length for the “Just Peacemaking” alternative. On the basis of the prophets and Christ’s absolute lordship as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, he proposes peacemaking practices that are effective in the “real world” (contra Richard Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas, who isolate the church from the world). To Stassen’s credit, he applies international peace initiatives to specific terrorist situations in Russia, Turkey, and Israel. He connects suicide terrorism and broken agreements as in Israel’s violation of the Oslo Agreement (1993). His claim is that “just peacemaking” promotes “cold peace which is surely better than hot war” (p. 145) and “a more effective way to dry up the sources of terrorism” (p. 148).

The conference endorsed just-war principles and condemned nondefensive attacks. The conference speakers agreed that justifiable war in the Old Testament required divine sanction. The book will encourage readers to think about biblical wars, though terrorism is too complex for the superficial treatment it received in the book.

About the Contributors

J. Lanier Burns

Dr. Burns is actively involved in administration in Christian and secular organizations. He also devotes time to writing, conferences, and pastoral leadership. He has been involved in post-doctoral research at Harvard and Oxford Universities. For over forty years he has served as president of the Asian Christian Academy in Hosur, India. He has participated in numerous neuroscientific activities for about fifteen years. His research interests include Trinitarianism, anthropology, sin, eschatology, the relationship of science and religion, and issues in social justice. He spends his spare time with his family and enjoying sports. He and Kathy have four children and 11 grandchildren.