War with Iraq: Is It Biblically Justifiable?

12 08 2008

[This essay was written while I served as pastor of the Triangle Reformed Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC. It was originally published in The Confederate Sentry.]

Words of the wise, spoken quietly, should be heard rather than the shout of a ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. (Ecclesiastes 9:17)

Saddam Hussein is a cruel tyrant. He has used chemical and biological weapons upon his own people, and upon his enemies in the middle east. He is in active defiance of the United Nations Security Council. He has not destroyed his weapons of mass destruction, but has instead sought to hide his arsenals from United Nations weapons inspectors. He has preserved his own dictatorship by force and fear. He has many friends in low places, including known terrorists. All of this is true. All of it is disturbing. But does it justify the United States going to war against Iraq?

The Bush administration has answered this question in the affirmative. On the basis of the new doctrine of “preemptive war” we are assured that failure to act militarily against Iraq will inevitably result in Saddam’s amassing of nuclear arms which will be used against the United States and its allies, if not by Saddam himself, then by terrorist groups he will arm with such weapons. It is further argued that Saddam’s connections with terrorists, including Al-Qaida, make Iraq a legitimate target of military action in response to the attacks of September 11, 200 1. We are told that the people of Iraq must be liberated from the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, and that it is our duty to be their saviors. And we are daily stirred up to indignation at Iraq’s brazen defiance of the resolutions of the United Nations which, we are assured, justify the deployment of our sons and daughters by the tens of thousands to teach Saddam to comply with international law.

The question for Christians is not “What does the Bush administration say?” but rather, “What does the Bible say?” Can war with Iraq, under the present circumstances, be justified on the basis of the unchanging principles of the Word of God? In other words, is the war with Iraq a “just war” according to the Scriptures?

We do not side with the pacifists in their denial of all warfare as being inconsistent with the spirit of peace entailed in the Gospel. There is, as Solomon says, “A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). We affirm that a necessary part of the function of civil rulers is to provide for the defense of the people, which includes the use of “the sword” against lawbreakers within as well as aggressors from without. But the use of the sword is an ominous power and it must not be used without the strongest and most compelling of reasons. Nor must it be used without proper authority or upon the basis of questionable motives. The Christian concept of “just war,” which has been generally accepted for the past 1,600 years, began to be developed by Augustine in the fifth century. Chief among the criteria for a war to be considered “just” was that it be waged by proper authority and conducted for just causes. Thomas Aquinas later added that the motivations behind war must be upright, since even if waged by rightful authority and for an ostensibly justifiable purpose, a war fought from impure motives (such as self-aggrandizement or revenge) would still be wicked. Among the reasons that war ought not to be waged, Augustine included, “the desire for harming, the cruelty of revenge, the restless and implacable mind, the savageness of revolting, the lust for dominating, and similar things.”

Augustine’s theory of a just war was soundly based upon Biblical principles. As such, it provides a basis for examining the present war against Iraq from the framework of Scriptural truth. Several key questions, then, beg to be considered with regard to the matter of war with Saddam Hussein.

Is the war against Iraq a necessary act of national defense?

It will surely be granted by every Bible-believing Christian that a nation may justly wage war to protect its citizens from acts of foreign aggression. The contrary implication is that a nation may not justly wage war for the selfish purpose of enlarging its borders by conquest, nor strike out at its neighbors without due provocation. We are told by those who advocate this war that Saddarn Hussein poses a “clear and present danger” to our national security and that we are therefore justified in attacking Iraq as a necessary preemptive defensive measure. But is this argument rooted in the facts of the case?

Does Iraq pose a “clear and present danger” to our national security? If it is argued that their mere possession of weapons of mass destruction, coupled with a sitting regime that despises the United States requires an affirmative answer, then we must also declare war on North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, France and Germany, to name but a few who fit this description. The criteria of a necessary act of national defense” can only be met if the nation in question has either perpetrated or overtly threatened imminent acts of aggression against us. The contention that Saddam Hussein has overtly threatened violence against the United States is based only upon the implication that since he has ties with terrorists, and terrorists are threatening to attack U.S. targets, he is therefore threatening to attack us. But this logic is flawed. It could just as easily be used to justify war with a host of other Middle Eastern countries. Absent a documented overt threat of military action against America by the Iraqi government, or an actual attack directly traceable to Saddam Hussein, there is not sufficient Biblical justification to declare war against Iraq.

Is the war against Iraq a justifiable retaliation against unjust aggression?

The answer to this question is not as simple as “connecting the dots” between the September 11 terrorist attacks and Saddarn Hussein. It is patently clear that Iraq has not attacked America with military force. It may be true, and probably is true, that the Iraqi government applauded and approved of Al-Qaida’s murderous activities on that fateful day. So did many other anti-American regimes around the world. It may also be true that Iraq has been, and still is, a safe-haven for militant Islamic terrorists. But Iraq is not alone in this either. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, and numerous other Muslim nations throughout the middle-east, Africa, and Europe are also known to harbor terrorists. If these facts alone justify the deployment of American troops to Iraq, then they also justify our waging of war against every nation on earth whose governments condone terrorist activity. President Bush has more than hinted that this is the ultimate goal of the “war against terror.” But is this a Biblical view of the nature and purpose of war? Do the Scriptures call nations to determine who their potential enemies are, and to strike them before they have the opportunity to strike first?

The unique feature of the current situation is that those who perpetrated the attacks on American soil on September 11 were not the agents of any particular nation or government. They were international terrorists who acted in the name of their false god, Allah. There are certainly nations who hold the same allegiance to the Islamic religion as Al-Qaida and who, if given the opportunity and a reasonable chance of success, would probably declare war on the United States. But the fact remains that this is not what happened on September 11, 2001. No government dispatched Usama Bin Laden’s zealots against America. Nor has the Bush administration demonstrated any clear connection between the actions of these terrorists and the orders of the Iraqi government or that of any other nation. We are being told that we must attack Saddam, because he sympathizes with Al-Qaida.

If there were hard evidence that Saddam knew of the planned attacks against the United States, or helped to plan and/or fund them, then a case could be made that the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq is a just retaliation against an enemy aggressor. But we have heard only speculation based upon the fact that Iraq is sympathetic with these terrorists. If there were hard evidence tying the September 11 attacks to an overt act of the Iraqi government, we would not have tarried for all of the debate that has preoccupied the world for the past two years. The evidence would have been laid upon the table, the case would have been made, and the Congress would have declared war on Iraq as a justified retaliation for an open act of war against our homeland. Instead, we have only the fact that Usama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaida terrorist network planned and perpetrated these attacks, and we think that Saddarn Hussein must have known about it in advance, and probably helped to put it in motion. This is not a justifiable pretense for a declaration of war against Iraq. There cannot be a righteous act of retaliation against aggression where no certain proof of such aggression can be set forth.

Is the war against Iraq a conquest of good against evil?

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the question of war with Iraq has been couched in terms of the universal struggle of good versus evil. The United States, of course, is wearing the white hat, and the nations who will not support us in our “war against terror” are cast in the role of the villain. We have been introduced to “the axis of evil” and assured that our duty as a “good” and free nation is to liberate the world from the oppressive forces of darkness. Do we find a Biblical justification here for the war against Iraq, not to mention the ubiquitous and ambiguous “war on terror” itself?

The first question that this pretense for war should raise in the minds of Christians is, on what basis do we conclude that the United States, as a nation, is a champion of “good”? Of course, we would all like to think that we are a good nation. But are we “good” in the sight of God? “Saddam Hussein slaughters his own people,” says an advocate of the good old U.S.A. Have we any right to punish him for his wickedness while we continue to slaughter our own pre-born children, the most helpless and defenseless members of our society, at the rate of 3,000 per day? “The Iraqi government is an oppressive dictatorship,” says another. The founding fathers of our own country would consider our present state of affairs despotic, when nearly half of every citizen’s earned income is swept into the coffers of a federal bureaucracy and used to support programs and activities that most Americans do not personally condone. It is not pretended that our nation is as overtly oppressive as many others around the world, nor do we mean to belittle the precious liberties that we enjoy as a people, but when we play the game of “good country vs. bad country” we ought to consider the fact that there is a giant log in our own eye. Neither do we maintain that, in order to declare war for a just cause, a nation must be without sin. There is, however, Biblical reason to think that a nation that is not right with God ought not to expect military success against its enemies.

The second question that we face when entertaining this pretense for war is whether the Scriptures justify the military conquest of evil by those nations which embrace Biblical truth. Even if the United States could still be considered a Christian nation in anything other than name only, this still would not authorize us to subdue the “evil nations” of the world by military force. The Kingdom of God is not established by the sword of the State. It is established by the sword of the Spirit as the Gospel advances to the ends of the earth. It is not the place of “righteous nations” to conquer the rest of the world by military might, and no amount of “good vs. evil” rhetoric can ever change that fact.

Is the war against Iraq being declared by rightful authority?

This was one of Augustine’s primary prerequisites for a “just war.” A man who gathers a mob, arms them, and leads them out against his own enemies is rightly considered a rebel and a dangerous felon. The right to wage war is not entrusted to any individual. This is why the President of the United States possesses no power to declare war without the consent of the Congress. He does not act as a private agent. He is the servant of the people and he acts in their name. A declaration of war, which commits the people of a nation to hazard their lives and those of their children in a just cause, cannot be made at the whim of an individual, whatever office he may hold in the public sphere. As Dr. Chuck Baldwin recently pointed out, “The one issue that does seem clear is that America has no authority to wage war against any nation without a Declaration of War from Congress. Such a declaration has not been issued. The President has no authority to act unilaterally. We do not have an emperor in the White House! Therefore, from a constitutional perspective, an undeclared war is illegal.”

The founding fathers of our nation instituted a constitutional form of government designed to ensure a proper balance of powers. An essential part of this design was the reserving of the right to declare war to the Congress. While they disagreed about many aspects of government, the men who framed our present system were united in affirming the importance of this principle. George Washington wrote in 1793: “The constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.” The same year, James Madison affirmed: “. . . The power to declare war, including the power of judging the causes of war, is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature . . . the executive has no right, in any case, to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war.” Thomas Jefferson concurred in a message to Congress delivered in 1805: “Considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided.” And Alexander Hamilton defined the limits of presidential authority in The Federalist, 69 when he explained: “The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. . . . [This] would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and Admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and the raising and regulating of fleets and armies, — all of which by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.” It has been argued that the Congress of the United States, in a measure enacted in November of 2002, authorized the President to “use military force against Iraq.” But that resolution was not a formal declaration of war, without which any deployment of American troops for the purpose of military intervention is unconstitutional.

Nor can the people of a sovereign nation be compelled to war by any authority to which they are not legitimately subject. I cannot compel my neighbor’s son to take out my garbage. I have no rightful authority over him. This rule applies to nations as well. It is a Biblical principle of human relationships. Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” The duty of the child is to obey his parents, not his neighbor’s. Likewise, Colossians 3:18 exhorts, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Being subject to a foreign authority in Scripture is a sign of God’s judgment. Thus we read in Jeremiah 5:19 “Just as you have forsaken Me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve aliens in a land that is not yours.” The people of a nation are not legitimately subject to the authority of foreign powers. Nor are they subject to any ruler or body they have not chosen to rule over them, unless they have been subjected by conquest. Samuel Rutherford, in his book Lex Rex, writes: “the lawful title that God’s Word holdeth forth to us, beside the Lord’s choosing and calling a man to the crown, is the people’s election, Deut. 17:15. All that had any lawful calling to the crown in God’s Word, as Saul, David, Solomon, &c., were called by the people; and the first lawful calling is to us a rule and pattern to all lawful callings.”

Yet we are told that war must be waged against Iraq for its defiance of “international law,” specifically, against the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. In his address to the nation on March 17, 2003, President Bush stated that “In the case of Iraq, the Security Council did act, in the early 1990’s. Under Resolutions 678 and 687 — both still in effect.” It is upon this foundation that he concludes, “The United States and our allies are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.” Authorized by whom? Not by Congress, as stipulated by the Constitution, but by the United Nations! President Bush further noted, “On November 8th, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, finding Iraq in material breach of its obligations, and vowing serious consequences if Iraq did not fully and immediately disarm.” He went on to assert, “This is not a question of authority, it is a question of will…Some permanent members of the Security Council… share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it…. The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.” The authority claimed for the military invasion of Iraq is that of the United Nations. We beg to differ with Mr. Bush when he says, “This is not a question of authority.” The United Nations is not a lawful authority. It is an organization founded upon the premise that the world must be saved by law, and peace must be enforced, irrespective of moral or religious convictions, by compulsion and force. Its charter states that “The Organization shall ensure that states which are not Members of the United Nations act in accordance with these Principles so far as may be necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security.” As a result, any act or resolution of the U.N. which that body declares to be consistent with its principles – principles derived not from the unchanging standard of Gods revealed truth, but from the consensus of human opinion – is enforceable by armed force on any member or non-member state! This is not a feature of legitimate government. It is a characteristic of tyranny. To make the resolutions of the United Nations a basis for declaring war against a sovereign nation is to approve of and to participate in tyrannical world government. Only a solemn act of the United States Congress, based upon a demonstrable act of aggression, or a genuine “clear and present danger” to our interests, can be the basis for a just declaration of war against another nation.

Is the war against Iraq being declared for the proper motives?

Thomas Aquinas, as previously noted, added to Augustine’s just war theory the requirement that war must be waged not only for proper cause and under proper authority, but also from proper motives. Revenge, self-interest, revolt, and expansionist policy are not proper motives. What, then, are the motivating factors behind the present instigation of war against Iraq? We have seen that this war cannot be justified as a necessary act of national defense, a justifiable retaliation against unjust aggression, or a conquest of “good over evil.” What remains but the pursuit of personal self-interest? Some have suggested the possibility of financial interests, the desire to dominate Iraq’s oil fields. Such speculations may or may not have merit. But the possibility of self-interested politics cannot be overlooked. We have seen a marked increase in governmental involvement in the personal affairs of the people since September 11, 2001. The creation of new departments and a new cabinet level post, the implementation of new and invasive forms of “intelligence gathering,” and the proposal of radical legislation to give the federal government unheard of power to monitor the activities of its citizens, make arrests, and conduct trials of those who are deemed to be “foreign combatants” have all risen out of the natural fear and uncertainty that a “state of war” creates among the people. Failing a clear case for a “just war,” we are left only to imagine what deeper motives lay behind the present infatuation with military action against foes seen and unseen. Even if we were to put the best construction upon the motives of the Bush administration in pursuing military action against Iraq – namely, that this action is being taken to liberate the Iraqi people from a cruel regime – the question remains, is it the duty of one sovereign nation to interfere in the affairs of another sovereign nation and to overthrow its government by force? We deny that this alleged duty can be justified by an appeal to God’s Word.

Is the war against Iraq a righteous act of liberation?

We are assured that we have a duty to be the liberators of the people of Iraq from the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein. The war has officially been designated as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” With Messianic flourish, President Bush assured the people of Iraq in his March 17′h speech, saying “Your deliverance draws near!” Yet this role of Liberator has been self-ordained. Samuel Rutherford argues: “A king, as a king, and by virtue of his royal office, is the father of the kingdom, a tutor, a defender, protector, a shield, a leader, a shepherd, a husband, a patron, a watchman, a keeper of the people over which he is king, and so the office essentially includeth acts of fatherly affection, care, love and kindness, to those over whom he is set, so as he who is clothed with all these relations of love to the people, cannot exercise those official acts on a people against their will, and by mere violence. Can he be a father, a guide and a patron to us against our will? A benefit conferred on any against their will is no benefit. Will he by the awesome dominion of the sword be our father, and we unwilling to be his sons — a head over such as will not be members? Will he guide me as a father, a husband, against my will? He cannot come by mere violence to be a patron, a hield, and a defender of me through violence.” What right do we have — what right does any nation have — to interfere by force with the government of another nation in the name of liberating its citizens from a government we find distasteful and oppressive? They have a right to overthrow their own government if they find it intolerable, but we have no right to impose our force upon them for this end. If such a doctrine were valid, then any government on earth would be justified to attack any other nation whose policies they deemed to be not in the best interests of the people.

Summary and Conclusion

The government of the United States has the right to declare war, through the Congress, upon a nation who attacks us or who poses a clear and present danger to ourselves or our allies. But such a declaration of war must be founded upon justifiable causes, issued by proper authority, and conducted out of righteous motives. R. J. Rushdoony notes in The Institutes of Biblical Law that “the normal purpose of warfare is defensive; hence, Israel was forbidden the use of more than a limited number of horses (Deut. 17:16), since horses were the offensive weapon of ancient warfare. Thus, still another general principle appears: since war is to be waged in a just cause only, and, normally, in defense of the homeland and of justice, the right of conscientious objection means that one has a moral right to refuse support to an ungodly war.” We do not believe that the current war with Iraq can be validated upon the principles of a “just war.” Nor do we believe that this engagement can be justified as a defensive act in protection of our homeland. The doctrine of preventative warfare is not Biblical and cannot be used to justify our involvement in an armed conflict with a nation which we presume will become an active enemy if given the chance. Terrorism is criminal and those who engage in true acts of terrorism should be pursued, apprehended, and brought to justice. But acts of terrorism perpetrated by those who have no official connection with a sovereign nation cannot be used to justify declaring war upon a particular nation, unless that nation can be shown to be an active participant in the terrorist act itself, or to be harboring those terrorists and refusing to turn them over to rightful authority. No incontrovertible evidence has been produced to show that Saddam Hussein or he government of Iraq participated in, planned, financed, or ordered the terrorist attacks upon the United States. No case has been made to the Congress, and no constitutional declaration of war has been issued. The primary reason advanced by the Bush administration for waging war against Iraq is that nation’s defiance of a United Nations resolution, which is not a legitimate authority. The only other pretense for war is the fear that Iraq’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a future threat to the United States. This fear does not justify a preemptive strike against Iraq, any more than it does a preemptive strike against a whole host of other unfriendly nations who possess the means to do us potential harm. War with Iraq cannot be justified on the basis of “good versus evil.” As long as we remain a nation in rebellion against the Lord and His Christ, we cannot expect the Lord to bless us in battle with our enemies. Nor are we called to suppress evil in the world by the use of military force. Neither the United States, nor the United Nations, have a right to impose their view of just government upon another sovereign nation. For these reasons, we oppose the current military operation in Iraq, and call upon the Commander in Chief to recall the armed forces of the United States. If the Bush administration is convinced that war with Iraq is justified and necessary, let the case be made to the Congress in lawful assembly, and let them vote, in accordance with the Constitution of the United States, to issue a declaration of war against Iraq.

What Should Be Done?

It is easy to feel righteous indignation against Saddam Hussein and his cruel regime. But righteous indignation is not sufficient grounds for a military invasion. War is an ominous enterprise which must never be waged without just cause and due deliberation. Individual justice forbids us to risk the lives of our sons and daughters on the basis of authority to which they are not rightfully subject. International justice requires us to refrain from imposing our will upon other sovereign nations when no cause can be shown that they pose an imminent threat to our own security. We are convinced that the current war with Iraq is an unjust and illegal war. What, then, should we do? Even now, bombs and missiles are raining down upon Baghdad and U.S. and allied forces are carrying out a vigorous campaign of “Shock and Awe” to coerce Saddam Hussein to surrender, and to enforce a regime change in Iraq. We suggest the following as appropriate responses from the people of God:

I. Pray for the mercy and grace of our Sovereign Lord. Intercede on behalf of those whose lives are at stake in this conflict, trusting in the providence of God who overrules in all of the affairs of men and nations for His own glory. Pray for the Lord to protect those who are His in the midst of this conflict, and to demonstrate His glory in the outcome. Man may act unrighteously, but God turns even the sinful acts of men to His own glory.

2. Repent of your own complacency in allowing the moral and spiritual decline which has led our nation to its present state of ungodliness and boastful pride. Purpose before God to humble yourself and confess your sins, seeking His forgiveness through the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. God says, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land’ (2 Chronicles 7:14).

3. Lift up your voice and speak the truth. Call upon the President, the United States Congress, and the United States Supreme Court to stop this unconstitutional, and therefore unlawful abuse of our members of the United States Armed Forces.

4. Write to your representatives, pointing out to them the plain requirements of the Constitution which they have sworn to uphold, and urging them to call upon the President to disengage from this illegal conflict until and unless a proper declaration of war, based upon just causes, is issued by the Congress.

5. Contact your representatives and urge them to advocate the immediate withdrawal of the United States from the U.N., a self-appointed body which has no rightful authority to compel the people of America, or any other sovereign nation, to conform to its subjective and humanistic policies.

We believe with all of our hearts that God is sovereign over the affairs of men and nations. His purposes will be accomplished, regardless of human intentions. But we also believe that our Sovereign God holds men and nations accountable for their actions and rewards them according to their deeds. May God have mercy upon our land, and turn our hearts once again to the only King of men and nations, the Lord Jesus Christ.