Is The War On Terrorism A Just War?

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)

The War on Terrorism—it was one of many themes during this week’s Republican Convention in Cleveland. It will be one of the themes at the Democratic Convention, too, and on the campaign trail all the way up to Election Day.

I received this email shortly after the World Trade Center was struck by terrorists in 2001. President Bush had promised the country that the United States would respond. This reader wanted to square his promise up with Scripture. The war we’re fighting today against groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State raise the same questions this reader raised with me.

Dear Mike:
Is there really such a thing as a just war? Frankly, I’ve found the Bible to be a little confusing lately. I want so very much to carry the Christian response in my heart. But one verse tells me, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” when another says, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.” Is it okay to bomb the dickens out of them, or should we wait on the Lord to take care of it?

The answers to the moral questions raised by the war on terrorism can be found in only two ways: Through prayer and a careful study of God’s Word. I’ll leave the prayer part up to you, and try to deal with some of the questions raised by one of my readers.

First of all, one of the most misunderstood principles in the Bible is what theologians refer to as the Law of Retaliation. It is derived from Exodus 21:23-25, which reads, “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

God’s point with these verses is that the laws that govern our society should ensure that the punishment will fit the crime. In other words, the Law of Retaliation is for judges, and should not be used as a moral code for personal revenge.

While it’s pretty easy to dismiss the eye-for-an-eye philosophy as a way to rationalize what our nation is doing in Afghanistan and Syria, we certainly cannot dismiss the notion that God will have the final word on retribution. Indeed, Christians and Muslims agree that final say on retribution will always be a matter for God.

If final payment for these evil deeds is left up to the Lord, then why attack at all, especially when innocent people are likely to die?

Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and recently appointed by President Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, gave the appropriate Christian response when he told USA Today, “I don’t have the right to seek vengeance or hate anyone. My government, however, has a divinely ordained obligation to exact justice for perpetrators of evil.”

The Bible agrees and teaches that one of the reasons we have government is to use lethal force to keep the peace and maintain justice. The New Living Translation of Romans 13:4-5 reads this way: “The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience.”

So while I understand my reader’s confusion, God’s Word clearly supports the action our country is taking. We just need to be careful to remember something else that Richard Land said in USA Today: “Peace, not vengeance, is always the object of war. Only defensive war is defensible. The intent must be to secure justice for all involved”; or as another theologian put it: “The best a nation can achieve is imperfect justice, not divine justice.”

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