Implications of Luther’s Theological Ethic for the U.S. War on Terrorism

The World’s Two Kingdoms (God or Satan; grace or sin)

1. God’s Kingdom. “God created humankind in his image.” (Gen. 1:27)
[1] Insights from Christian Tradition. All persons made in their Creator’s holy and loving image are commanded to live in love as a universal human family in peace, justice and freedom under God. They are blessed with reason, will and conscience to live together in communion with God and their neighbors in worship, family relations, and public life. The reign of God insures the fulfillment of God’s benevolent intention for all human creatures within a beloved community grounded in their dependent interdependence.

[2] Current Implications. Even when unacknowledged, a common humanity unites all persons who bear the image of God in their creation. This remains true, regardless of their many political, ideological, ethnic, cultural, and other differences, whether as Americans, Russians or Afghans. It is not sterile uniformity, but diversified unity, that God wills for human beings. As God is one, so God’s human race is one.

[3] This is the divine basis for Christ’s command that estranged neighbors are still to be loved as persons, and not demonized as enemies, whatever their deplorable and indefensible actions. Whether at home or abroad, we are all co-humans who bear God’s image as our unique and primary identity, whatever our secondary, societal identifications.

2. Satan’s Kingdom. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6)
[4] Insights from Christian Tradition. When our joyful communion with God and our neighbors is not voluntarily forthcoming, God does not compel our compliance. A loving God makes free persons, not wooden puppets, in his image. God loves us enough to empower and allow even our sinful rebellion. However, in the face of our perennial distrust and disobedience, God’s tough love assumes the strange form of remedial wrath. Evil persons succumb to satanic temptation, and abuse their limited freedom and power in societal forms of hatred, oppression and the wanton destruction of other persons and their property.

[5] Current Implications. God’s righteous judgment is universal. God shows no partiality, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. So in view of the explosive exposure of widespread international resentment, fear, despair, and distrust, the United States, as the world’s only remaining superpower, is well advised to reexamine the many charges of its alleged greed, exploitation, and insensitivity to massive poverty and hunger abroad, especially in the underdeveloped parts of the world. Yet in response, God neither practices nor endorses the dehumanizing tactic of global terrorism; only fanatical sinners do. The September 11 murders of hundreds of innocent non-combatants was an especially heinous and horrific form of sinful inhumanity against innocent and helpless victims.

God’s Twofold Rule (Caesar and Christ; law in creation and gospel in redemption)

1. Law’s Judging Function “You shall not kill (Deut. 5:17)
[6] Insights from Christian Tradition. Persons are created to fear, love and trust in God above all things. Yet history witnesses universally to sinful murders and bloody wars in humanity’s vain attempts at violent self-deification. In our lust for power and hatred of others, we want to become omnipotent gods ourselves. Unleashing our corrupted reason and enslaved wills, we fall prey to the unholy alliance of sin, death and the demonic.

[7] Current Implications. Neither holy wars nor military crusades are ever approved in the New Testament as God-pleasing means of advancing God’s loving reign. Rather, “wars and rumors of war” are cited as tragic testimony of our proud unwillingness to resolve our differences by reasonable negotiation and mutual accommodation. Extreme forms of nationalism, sectarianism, racism, and terrorism can easily prompt our thirst for enemy bloodshed in the curse of Cain. These are ultimately human-made idols that are venerated to replace our adoration of the one, true God. They dare never be sanctioned through the satanic seduction of alleged divine permissiveness (“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?'”) No, war is clearly sin against God and neighbor. As the bloodiest in the history of humanity, the 20th century graphically demonstrates this biblical reality.

2. Law’s Preserving Function. “The authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4)
[8] Insights from Christian Tradition. All persons remain capable of coordinating their sin-corrupted gifts of reason and will in the pursuit of societal order and justice in civil righteousness. Responsible men and women can still obey the letter, though not the spirit, of God’s law, even if driven only by the fear of punishment or the hope of reward in enlightened self-interest. Conscience is not destroyed. Responsible citizens can thereby be used by God to help preserve society under the leadership of public officials who are accountable to God’s law for the protection of the weak and the exploited, along with the punishment of criminals and perpetrators of offensive warfare. Official use of duly restrained armed power in the ultimate service of peace is likewise the strange form of tough love employed remedially by God as the lesser of evils in a fallen world threatened by anarchy or dictatorships.

[9] Current Implications. Warfare can never be “just” in the strict sense of being righteous before God. It can nevertheless be “justifiable” when employed by armed public officials in the sanctioned defense of citizens and their constitutional rights in a democratic and pluralistic society. To achieve the common good, civilly authorized killing is not tantamount to privately committed murdering. That is why it is “murder” that is absolutely forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Consequently, in the classical Christian tradition, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, there are principled and enforceable standards for such justifiable warfare: 1) right authority, 2) just cause, 3) right intention, and then employed only as a) a last resort, and b) with the use of arms that are both proportionate to the evil to be remedied, and respectful of noncombatant immunity. Far from providing any military “blank check,” justifiable defensive warfare is far more difficult to conduct than random terrorism. As a carefully calculated response to the September 11 massacre, the international community, led by the United States, does seem justified in carrying out at least the initial phase of its strictly limited and narrowly targeted military operations against the terrorist Al Qaeda network and its mutually complicitous supporters within the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

3. Gospel’s Salvific Function. “In Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)
[10] Insights from Christian Tradition. The unique message of the church’s gospel is the revelation of God’s gracious and forgiving love for us despite our sinful infidelity. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the gospel promises both 1) the reconciliation of God and humanity through the atoning sacrifice of Christ’s crucifixion, and 2) the redemption of sinners in bondage to evil forces through the vindicating resurrection of Christ on Easter. Faithful Christians are reckoned as righteous before God, for Christ’s sake, in God’s gracious exchange whereby Christ takes on our sinfulness and we take on Christ’s righteousness.

[11] Current Implications. Despite vast differences in core convictions, Jews, Christians and Muslims are all members of monotheistic religions in venerable traditions of humanity. The importance of the American government’s repeatedly enunciated distinctions among Islam, Arabs, and terrorists cannot be over-estimated. They dare never be polemically identified. Authentic monotheistic Islam, whether of the Shiite or Sunni mainstream version, is worthy of respectful interfaith dialogue with worldwide Christianity. However, religiously-based hate crimes are the legitimate concern of government, whether they are committed by a small number of American fanatical bigots, or by some self-styled “jihad martyrs” in the marginal Wahhabi sect of Sunni Muslims. America’s “Enduring Freedom” operation is neither a religious war nor a war of civilizations. It is rather part of a U.N.-endorsed international coalition of military, economic and intelligence forces that are strategically united against those who have conducted repeated extremist attacks against innocent “infidels” in many different parts of the world, most recently in New York City and Washington, D.C.

4. Gospel’s Sanctifying Function. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)
[12] Insights from Christian Tradition. As God works through Christ to effect our righteous justification in heaven, so the Lord also works through the Holy Spirit to nurture our ethical sanctification here on earth. God’s pardon is thereby complemented by power, as the gifts of the Spirit produce the ever-needed renewal of regenerated Christians. In obedient gratitude for God’s unconditional forgiveness, Christians are called to put their faith to work in love and justice in their daily vocations and public involvements. The moral responsibility of every Christian is to act as a kind of “little Christ” to one’s neighbors.

[13] Current Implications. In the wake of September 11, American Christians will respond actively both to Caesar and to God, in obedience to the command of Jesus Christ (Luke 20:25). As citizens, they will first “render to Caesar” their civil and military service through defensive warfare against terrorists in the present. They will seek justice, not vengeance, as a vital part of their Christian social responsibility.

[14] Additionally, they will respond as disciples and “render to God” their vocational service by fighting the present war intentionally as an initial contribution to future peace. Assisting a post-war Afghanistan even to begin to enjoy a higher standard of living in a more open and tolerant society will pose almost impossible challenges. Nevertheless, in anticipation, American Christians will already now vigilantly try to oppose 1) all forms of enemy hatred, 2) jingoistic nationalism, and especially 3) any future unlimited escalation of disproportionate or indiscriminate military responses in the deliberate and random killing of innocent civilians in order to terrorize the opponent’s general public. In short, Christians are finally called to love God-given neighbors, who are not “collateral damage.” They may therefore support operation “Enduring Freedom” as a justifiable war only so long as it truly remains one, in a lengthy, unprecedented, and globally dangerous future.

[15] These are some of the chief biblical foundations and current political and military implications of Luther’s theological ethics.