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Our Teachable Moment: Learning (the right) Lessons from the War

September 26th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

David Gushee has written a piece in Christianity Today lamenting the fact that Christians supported the decision to invade Iraq. In it, he contends that now that public opinion has turned against the war, we should embrace our "teachable moment." He writes:

Until now, [the President] has resisted calls to reconsider his strategy or to begin a withdrawal, despite eroding public support for the war.

Such deep public distress about the war makes this a teachable moment for all of us, as Christians and as Americans.

I'm all for teachable moments, and I think Gushee is right. We're at one. Of course, the question is whether we will learn the proper lessons. Here are Gushee's proposals:

An appropriately pessimistic understanding of human nature ("there is none righteous, no, not one") can remind us that government leaders are not infallible in their reading of data, not necessarily beyond reproach in their motivations, and not always fully truthful in their public statements. So we must evaluate the claims of any government (in any nation, led by any person, of any party or political ideology) with a critical eye.

Indeed. I entirely agree. At the same time, we cannot let such a "critical eye" stop us from acting to protect our own interests and to prevent evil as best as we can tell at any given moment. The perspective we have in retrospect is not the perspective we have in deliberation, and to view our government from a standpoint of skepticism can lead to an unhealthy paranoia. We must be pessimists, yes, but optimists too. The government that has struggled in Iraq is the same government that eliminated a dictator. That must not be forgotten.

What's more, the same "pessimistic understanding of human nature" should compel us to acknowledge the lack of resolve, the inconstancy, and the shortsightedness of a fickle electorate.

Scripture repeatedly condemns governments and government leaders for unjust or unwise actions, especially in resorting to violence. Pharaoh, Ahab, and Herod come to mind. If it could happen in biblical times, it can happen now.

Once again, indeed. And the Lord also uses wicked nations to enact judgment on nations who act wickedly (see Bablyon and Israel). The war may be Biblical after all.

The life and teachings of Jesus establish nonviolent resolution of conflicts as the norm—with war as the exception. We can all agree that Jesus taught peace, blessed peacemakers, and was a man of peace himself. Certainly, the early church abhorred violence, and its members believed they were being faithful to their Lord in doing so.

The life and teachings of Jesus establish nonviolent resolution of conflicts between individuals as the norm. While war is always undesirable, it is sometimes necessary. Anyone who doesn't think so need only consider the horrors of the Holocaust. The argument for strict pacificism (which Gushee is not making) is more forceful today only because the horrors of that war have so quickly been forgotten.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that Rushdee's appeal to "the early church" is, well, fairly selective. How early? And which church? Two paragraphs later, he points out that we "need to carefully rethink just-war theory." While he doesn't reject it, he does question how it is used, casually reminding us along the way that it is "post-biblical." Never mind that "the early church"--especially if you include Augustine!--articulated it.

For an alternative set of lessons from this war, try Joe's list. I don't agree with every point on it--I am still undecided about neo-con foreign policy, for instance. It serves, however, as an effective foil to Rushdee's column.

I, like most people, am disappointed about the course the war in Iraq has taken. But it will do no good in our corporate reflection on the events the last six years--the full meaning of which, it's worth pointing out, won't be clear for a long, long time--if we learn the wrong lessons.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.