Archives For War

Now that attention has turned from Miley to the civil war in Syria, people everywhere are wondering: Should America intervene?

The cause for intervention, of course, stems from August 21, when Syrian President al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against rebel forces, leading to the death of over 1,400 people including several hundred children. (Evidence that al-Assad is responsible is still inconclusive.) Should the U.S. intervene against Syria? Even though Obama is pushing hard in favor of an attack, the response from the American people has been an overwhelming “no.”

According to one poll, 7 out of 10 Americans are not in support of a military invasion, and Christians of all denominations (Catholics and Protestants) have been united against a military intervention. Even conservative Evangelicals, who in recent years have been the most eager for military intervention in the Middle East, are largely opposed to a U.S. backed invasion of Syria.

But why?

While I too join my Christian brothers and sisters in opposing a military intervention, I’ve been less than enthusiastic over some of the reasons people give for not intervening.

For instance, some say that America shouldn’t intervene because it wouldn’t advance American interests. Maybe it wouldn’t, but we are all made in God’s image and advancing the interests of one particular nation (possibly at the expense of people in other nations) doesn’t seem to vibe with a Christian worldview.

Or, we should not intervene because it would cost too much money. This is true, but I think we need to ask deeper questions. Let’s say that an invasion would cost 10 billion dollars and thousands of lives were spared, then we could morally argue that it was worth every penny. The question isn’t so much is it expensive, but will intervention accomplish peace? More specifically: should Christians support the use of violence to confront evil?

I’ve already argued where I stand on this, so I won’t belabor the point. Another related question is: how will an intervention affect the kingdom of God in Syria? Christians need to think theologically and ecclesiologically—not just politically—about the potential western invasion of Syria.

Syria has a long, rich Christian tradition. Currently, an estimated 10-15% of the population are Christian—many of them are former Iraqis who fled to Syria after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2003) nearly decimated the Christian church. If the U.S. does in Syria what it did in Iraq, it will most probably wreak havoc on our brothers and sisters, who will be killed, maimed, tortured, exiled, and raped. Even worse, if the U.S. helps topple the Syrian government, this will create a power vacuum that will most certainly be filled by Islam extremists, who will further propound the violence towards Christ’s bride in Syria.

Religious historian Philip Jenkins rightly concludes:

If the U.S., France, and some miscellaneous allies strike at the regime, they could conceivably so weaken it that it would collapse. Out of the ruins would emerge a radically anti-Western regime, which would kill or expel several million Christians and Alawites. This would be a political, religious, and humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled since the Armenian genocide almost exactly a century ago.

Even if a Western invasion was inexpensive, even if no Americans would lose their lives, even if it would hugely further American interests, and even if success was guaranteed, I would still oppose a military invasion. How could I support something that will rip apart the body of Christ?

But do we only care about Christians who are, or will, suffer? Shouldn’t we also care for the non-Christian people who are suffering?

Yes, absolutely. The global community should do something. But I don’t think that either a military strike or doing nothing are the only two options. Traditional just war theory teaches that war should be waged as a last resort; that is, after all other nonviolent means have been exhausted. Has America exhausted all those means?

Last year I posted a series of blogs titled “Christians and Violence” that gained a lot of attention. Much has happened since those posts, including a book on violence that I wrote with the help of my good friend and fightformer student, Andrew Rillera. The book is titled Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, which comes out in just a few days—August 1st.

I wanted to run a fresh series of blogs about the topic, since I’ve changed some my views about violence. But first, here’s a brief back-story that led to the book.

One night in the middle of that series, Andrew texted me saying: “You should write a book about this topic.”

“Yeah right,” I said. “There’s already a ton of books written on it.”

“Yes,” Andrew replied, “but there is no book written for the average reader that actually talks about what the whole Bible says about the issue. There are scholarly books on the topic, or popular books written by Mennonites that haven’t gained much traction outside that tradition.”

I wasn’t convinced. So I spent a ½ hour on Amazon looking at all the best selling books in this area. I quickly saw that Andrew was right. There wasn’t any book written by a non-Mennonite Evangelical (let alone a Reformed Evangelical, like myself) that looked at what the whole Bible says about warfare and violence.

Given the interest that the blogs generated, I was quickly convinced, at Andrew’s prodding, that such a book was certainly needed and the rest is history. A couple different publishers were interested and I decided to go with David C. Cook publishers since I had such a good experience with them when Francis and I wrote Erasing Hell.

Fight surveys what the whole Bible says about warfare and violence. I have 4 chapters on the OT, 4 chapters on the NT, 1 chapter on the early church, and 2 chapters on the “What about…” questions that often arise in discussions about violence.

Now, after having researched the topic a bit more thoroughly, I’ve adjusted a few of my views on the topic. The first thing that has changed is my use of “pacifism.”

In my previous blogs, I called myself a pacifist. However, I don’t like the terms pacifist or pacifism. Here’s why. (The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Fight.)

There are over twenty different types of pacifism, many of which I would not associate with. The term is too broad to be helpful and greatly misunderstood. The very term pacifism is often thought to mean passive-ness. It’s assumed that pacifists just sit around and let guns run overwicked people wreak havoc on the world. But this is a gross misunderstanding of the type of (let’s say) “nonviolence” that I would endorse.

Moreover, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about the term pacifist. There have been plenty of well-known pacifists who weren’t Christian. They believe that it’s wrong to use violence, but Jesus is largely irrelevant in their view other than being a good role model. But I don’t endorse this type of non-Christian pacifism. Were it not for the life, teaching, death, resurrection, and universal Lordship of King Jesus, I would not advocate for nonviolence. Apart from Jesus and the good news of His atoning death and life-giving resurrection, nonviolence seems ridiculous.

Then there’s all the cultural baggage that comes with the word pacifism. For old Vietnam vets, the term conjures up memories of protestors cursing them when they returned home, or hippies smoking pot at Woodstock. For many evangelicals the term is associated with letting your family be killed, being a socially left Democrat, or with effeminate men who couldn’t win a fight anyway and who don’t like to eat red meat or watch football.

None of this describes me at all. I love sports. I love ribs—medium rare! I’ve never voted Democrat. I own several guns, and I love to shoot them, just not at people. I don’t have any natural aversion to violence. I enjoy watching UFC fights and violent movies, even though I probably shouldn’t. The point is: there’s nothing emotional, cultural, or political that’s driving my view. I know I sound like a fundamentalist, but the only reason I endorse Christian nonviolence is because I believe the Bible tells me to.

For these reasons, I do not use the term pacifist/ism in my book to describe what I think the Bible teaches about violence. I stick to the less loaded term nonviolence.

“Okay, whatever. You’re not a pacifist, you just don’t believe in using violence. But what about that guy who’s trying to break into your home and kill your family? What are you going to do?”

Good question!

In the previous blog series, I said that I would “shoot the thug.” However, after simmering in the words of Jesus over the past year, I’ve changed my view. I’m not sure my Lord would want me to blow his head off. My next blog will explain why.

In this sixth and final post on Joshua’s conquest, we will wrestle with God’s command to kill women and children in the conquest (Deut 20:16-18; cf. Josh 6:21; 8:25). It’s one thing to kill soldiers in combat, but to kill non-combatants is morally questionable to say the least. How much more horrific, then, is it to read about Joshua’s slaughter of Canaanite women and children? How do we reconcile Jesus, who had a special heart for children, with the God of the Old Testament who commanded Israel to slaughter Canaanite babies?

Let’s start with what the Bible clearly says. The Bible does give a straightforward reason for “disposing” (or otherwise “killing”) the joshua-conquestCanaanites. Deuteronomy says that if Israel doesn’t get rid of all the Canaanites, then they will end up leading Israel astray (Deut. 20:18). And this is exactly what happens. Israel does not drive out all the Canaanites and Israel ends up getting “Canaanized.” In fact, Israel’s dark history is littered with many Canaanite-like practices, including idolatry, child sacrifice, and male cult prostitution—all of which they learned from the Canaanites left in the land (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2).

Now, the killing of children still doesn’t sit right with me. And yet Israel’s failure to dispose all the Canaanites ends up biting them in the end. Their moral collapse, which elicited God’s judgment, began when they failed to drive out all the Canaanites from the land. So when read from the perspective of the rest of the Old Testament, we can at least see the logic of the command. As morally difficult as it is, God was right. Failure to drive out all the Canaanites would lead to Israel’s ruin.

There’s another option that I will throw out as a suggestion. Perhaps the phrase “women and children” is not to be taken literally. This may sound a bit shady, but hear me out. We have already shown that hyperbolic language is typical in the conquest account. So let’s explore the possibility that no women or children were intended to be killed in the conquest.

The phrase “women and children, old and young” is first mentioned in Joshua 6:21 in the battle of Jericho, and then again in 8:25 in the battle of Ai—both battles are part of the conquest. It appears, then, that Joshua and Israel slaughtered women and children. However, there is a possibility that the mention of “women and children” is a stock phrase that simply means “everyone” without necessarily specifying the age or gender of the people. A number of Evangelical scholars (e.g., Richard Hess, Paul Copan) make a case for this in light of four factors. First, the phrase “women and children” occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament where it could to be taken to mean “everyone” without specifying the age and gender of the victims (1 Sam 15:3; 22:19; 2 Sam 6:19; Neh 8:2; 2 Chron 15:13). Second, both Jericho and Ai were military outposts and probably not vibrant cities filled with citizens of every age. They were therefore most likely stocked with soldiers, not non-combatants. Third, the only woman and child that are mentioned are Rahab and her family (which Joshua_womenprobably included children), and they were rescued, not killed. Furthermore, Rahab was a prostitute and—how do I say it—it would make sense that she would find much business in a city filled with soldiers. Fourth, apart from Joshua 6 and 8, which mentions women and children, all other accounts of Israel killing Canaanites in the conquest include—and only include—combatants, not civilians.

This fourth point is actually the surest of them all. Quite simply, there is no record of Israel actually killing a Canaanite woman or a child during the conquest.

So, even though it appears that women and children were killed, there’s some evidence that may suggest a less barbaric picture. Israel’s clash with the Canaanites resulted in killing other combatants and, perhaps, driving out its civilians who resisted God’s free offer of grace, without necessitating the wholesale slaughter of Canaanite babies.

So, let’s sum up our series on Joshua’s conquest.

The Canaanites were horrifically wicked, and yet God gave them hundreds of years to repent. Some did, while most didn’t. And since God chose Canaan to be his new residence on earth—and as Creator, He has every right to do so—He had to drive out all its wicked inhabitants. The ones that resisted God’s grace and who chose to stay in the land faced the sword of Israel—God’s tool of judgment. Therefore, as Christopher Wright concludes: “[t]he conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment” (The God I Don’t Understand, p. 93). While moral problems remain, such as the possibilities that women and children were actually slaughtered (though I have my doubts), the conquest was not a genocide at the hands of a bloodthirsty God.

But the one thing that must be noted about the conquest—a point that is essential for understanding the church’s non-violent posture—is this: nowhere in Scripture is Joshua’s conquest intended to be a repeated event. There is nothing in the Bible that appeals to the conquest as justification to wage war or execute violence. Nothing. The conquest, like the flood and the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, was a one time non-repeatable event whereby God judged a particularly wicked people. This is why Christians cannot appeal to the conquest to justify using violence today. This would be like burning a city to the ground because God once did it to Sodom and Gomorrah (something James and John tried to do and were rebuked for in Luke 9). Some things happen in the Bible that weren’t meant to be repeated.

In the last post, I started a series on the ethical dilemmas surrounding Joshua’s conquest. In this post, I’d like to set some groundwork by looking at two important facets: the people and the land, or the Canaanites and Canaan.

The Canaanites. Many critics such as Richard Dawkins will describe the conquest with a slanted view of the Canaanites. You would think that they were innocent peasants living peaceable with each other, when all of the sudden, a blood-thirsty Joshua came in and slew all the women and children. But this is not the way the Bible presents the story. The Canaanites on the whole were a wicked group of people—more wicked than others in the ancient world. Incest, bestiality, orgiastic religious prostitution, and child sacrifice were a regular part of daily life. The Canaanite gods themselves engaged in wild sexual acts, in which the Canaanites themselves could participate. Author Paul Copan says that the “sexual acts of the gods and goddesses were imitated by the Canaanites as a kind of magical acts: the more sex on the Canaanite high places, the more this would stimulate the fertility god Baal to have sex with his consort, Anath, which meant more semen (rain) produced to water the earth.” Humans, therefore, were encouraged to participate in the wild orgies of their gods.

And violence on the whole was unchecked and sadistic. For instance, the Canaanite goddess, Anath, who was believed to have slaughtered humans, decorated herself with their skulls, and then waded in their blood and laughed with fiendish joy. Since the ancients often mimicked the behavior of their gods, we can imagine that such arbitrary violence was quite common. Indeed, our archaeological evidence shows that it was.

The Canaanites were not innocent peasants. They match the likes of Jeffery Dahmer, Charles Manson, Pol Pot, and Anders Breivik who massacred 77 innocent civilians in 2011.

This doesn’t mean Israel was much better. The Canaanites were particularly wicked, but this doesn’t mean that Israel was righteous. “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going tin to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out” (Deut. 9:5). God used Israel as an extension of His justice to cleanse the land of its evil. And this geographical point is crucial to understand the conquest. God didn’t just randomly pick on the Canaanites because they were wicked. Rather, He sought to drive them out of the land because the land would become God’s residence on earth. And the Canaanites were having sex with prostitutes and sacrificing babies to foreign gods right there in God’s living room.

Canaan. Understanding the significance of the land is crucial for grasping the conquest. It doesn’t solve all the moral problems, as we will see. But it does give us a clearer theological lens for studying Joshua’s “genocide.” Simply put: God was present with Israel, and the Promised Land would be his new residence. Yes, God dwells in heaven. But biblically speaking, He also resides on earth in a tabernacle (and later in the temple, and then the church). Since God is holy (set apart), his presence needs “sacred space,” and God chose the land of Canaan to be that sacred space—the piece of earth where His holy presence would dwell.

But the land became defiled and therefore had to be cleansed, as God says: “the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:25). The logic, again, is that the Promised Land is God’s residence. “[T]he land is Mine,” God says, “you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). And if Israel lives a holy life, not defiling God’s residence as the Canaanites did, then God says “I will make my dwelling among you” and “walk among you” (Lev. 26:11-12). But if the Israelites live like the Canaanites did, then the land too will “vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Lev 18:28).

So God didn’t bully the Canaanites because of their ethnicity. Rather, God’s holiness demands sacred space for Him to dwell with mankind. This is why the Canaanites had to be eliminated.

The term “genocide,” therefore, is not an accurate description of the conquest. While it is true that a genocide involves the attempted killing of an entire people group, it’s always fueled by a feeling of racial superiority which leads to an ethnic cleansing. In this sense, Joshua’s conquest cannot be called a genocide. It was God’s judgment on persistent evil (Copan, Moral Monster, Kindle loc. 3374).

A judgment that was prefaced by hundreds of years of grace, as we’ll see in the next post.

Kill Them All

Preston Sprinkle —  September 13, 2012 — 4 Comments

The Old Testament is filled with various ethical dilemmas, but perhaps the most complex one is Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. God’s command to kill all the Canaanites—men, women, and children—has led Richard Dawkins, an atheistic philosopher, to state

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, p. 31)

You may not know what half of those words mean. But trust me, they’re bad. If Dawkins’s view of our Old Testament God contains even an ounce of truth, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Is the God of the Old Testament really a bloodthirsty, vindictive bully?

On the flipside, the conquest has given others biblical precedent to wage modern war. Two weeks into the Iraq war (2003), former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld encouraged president Bush with these words:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

Rumsfeld’s words are a quotation from Joshua 1:9, which God spoke to Joshua on the eve of the conquest of Canaan. They are a divine command to wage a “holy war” on the pagan Canaanites. And Rumsfeld saw fit to appropriate the same logic for America’s own (holy?) war against Iraq. The implications are clear: America is a holy nation and the terrorists in Iraq, like the Canaanites, need to be annihilated.

Rumsfeld wasn’t the only national leader to use Joshua’s conquest to give religious backing to war. Christian history is filled with examples of nations fighting other nations, or people seeking to annihilate other people, all under the banner of holy war. (The Crusades of the Middle Ages are one horrific example.) I’m not sure it could be done, but it would be interesting to see how many people have been killed, tortured, and in some cases cannibalized, all because certain Christians sought to apply the book of Joshua to their lives.

Needless to say, there still exists an ethical urgency to understand Joshua’s conquest and how—if at all—it applies to us today. Does God’s command to kill the Canaanites justify a Christian’s use of violence?

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look into the ethical issues surrounding the conquest, including the slaughter of women and children, and whether or not the conquest can be used by Christians to justify violence (or war). For the rest of this post, I’ll lay out a few ways Christians have understood the conquest.

Some think that Joshua (and Moses before him) misunderstood God’s command to kill all the Canaanites. God actually didn’t really mean that they should kill the Canaanites. The Israelites simply acted “in good faith acted on what they believed to be God’s will” (Cowles, “Radical Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy, Kindle loc 620). While this approach distances God from the apparent evil action (commanding the genocide), nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Israelites misunderstood God. In fact, the Israelites are rebuked for not driving out all the Canaanites from the land (Judges 2). If God never actually commanded Israel to get rid of all the Canaanites, then such a rebuke would be nonsensical. There’s got to be a better solution for Joshua’s conquest.

Other Christians say that the Bible grossly distorts what actually happened. Even though Deuteronomy and Joshua speak of entering and conquering the land, this isn’t what took place at all. What really happened—despite the biblical picture—is that the Israelites were already living among the Canaanites and yet there was a “peasant revolt” within the land. The oppressed Israelites rose up and overthrew their oppressors—the Canaanites—and then described their uprising as a “conquest” in their sacred Scriptures (the book of Joshua). This view not only dismisses the Bible’s own presentation of what happened, but relies on rather scanty historical evidence for support.

Still others—yes, even Christians—will assume that the God of the Old Testament is quite different than the God of the New. The God of the Old is filled with wrath, judgment, and violence, and it fits right in with His character to command an indiscriminate slaughter of all the Canaanites. But the God of the New, revealed in Jesus Christ, shows us how to love, forgive, and live peaceably with all mankind. So when it comes to the Canaanite genocide, there’s no problem. The God of the Old is a God of genocide. Let’s just be thankful that we serve the God of the New.

I don’t think any of these views does justice to what the Bible actually says. Regardless of the apparent moral dilemma, it seems best to deal with the text head on and then figure out how God could command such things. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for Him. So let’s approach the problem with a plain reading of Scripture and then move towards a solution of the ethical problems therein.

Stay tuned!