Rumors of War: The Need for a Lutheran Voice

[1] Lutherans will be of various minds regarding an impending war with Iraq. If you are like I am, you are still trying to sort out the “issues.” At this point, I do not know what we should say, but I am convinced that we should be involved in the debate. Specifically, I am convinced that Christians, particularly those of a Lutheran persuasion, have an important role to play, but it will take three things: public listening, public speaking, and public deliberation.

[2] Alas! I did say public listening, public speaking, and public deliberation. You see at the outset why this is such a challenge to Lutherans: we don’t do public anything. Perhaps Garrison Keillor’s portraits of us ring truer than we care to admit. We cherish our reputation as “the quiet Christians.” We prefer to remain out of the public spotlight entirely. We let the American flags that grace our sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms do all the public work for us. When we use our public voice to make official statement, we do it with that wonderful and paradoxical Lutheran combination of boldness and humility. There’s a bumper sticker here somewhere: “Lutherans do it dialectically.” When we err, we always err on the side of humility. I maintain that it is precisely because of our characteristic caution that we have a particular role to play in this debate on war-if, that is, we can be persuaded to listen, speak, and deliberate in public.

Public listening [3] I regard “listening” as a denominational strength. As Lutherans, we are pretty good at it. But the kind of public listening called for will stretch us. We need to listen on a number of levels. We need to listen to all sides of the debate-and understand that there may be more than two. We need to listen to what is being said, what is not being said-and by whom. We need to listen to people we do not agree with; we also need to listen to people who do not agree with us. That listening is harder to do, because sometimes these latter voices are silent-or silenced. I remember the shock waves of September 11th, as Americans grappled with the realization that there were people out there who despised us. They were simply not on our radar screen as “enemies.” In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes that Scripture designates “enemies” with a double edge. The word “enemy” refers both to the people whom we dislike and the people who dislike us.1

[4] If we engage in this public listening, we will find that we hear a lot of language that is eerily familiar to people with a religiously trained ear. Americans may hold to a separation of church and state, but there is no equivalent separation of religious and political language. There is a lot of religious language seeping into the political sphere. Certainly the events of September 11th activate the apocalyptic imagination, but the language of evil permeates our political discourse in ways that make a good Lutheran squirm: “axis of evil,” “evil-doers,” etc.

[5] I want to be clear: I do believe that evil is alive and well in the world. It is our easy ability to label us “good” and them-whoever they are-“evil” that is worrisome. To name something as evil is to arrogate to oneself the side of the good-or at the very least, the side that is beyond critique. In the context of war, assuming the side of “the good” is potentially unfaithful and possibly even unpatriotic. Even the patriot’s allegiance to “my country, right or wrong” admits the possibility that a nation could err in its judgment. A nation could misjudge or misperceive itself or another country.

[6] Listen again to the sobering judgment of H. Richard Niebuhr from the mid-twentieth century. Writing as the nations marched into World War II, Niebuhr understand the how hard it was to claim the moral high ground. The generation before him had experienced what they thought was “The Great War.” These men and women had no way of knowing that “The Great War” was only the first of two world wars that would scar the century. In war Niebuhr found the judgment of God, brought down on just and unjust alike. He wrote: the “structure of the universe, that creative will . . . of God, does bring war and depression upon us when we bring it upon ourselves, for we live in the kind of world which visits our iniquities upon us and our children, no matter how much we pray and desire that it be otherwise.”2

[7] As good Lutherans our secret weapon against arrogance is an anthropology of stark realism. We understand human creatures are both sainted and sinning, simul justus et peccator. Errors in judgment happen all the time. We remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians on false apostles: “Even Satan distinguishes himself as an angel of light.” (2 Cor. 11:14, NRSV) We recall Luther’s declaration: “Sin boldly-but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ” (pecca fortiter-sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo). At times that sentence-especially when shortened to the first part, “Sin boldly!”, defines whatever Lutherans can claim as “attitude.” But in these darker times, after September 11th and before-we know not what is before us-the emphasis falls on the word “sin.” We are reminded that we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12), especially when we are looking at ourselves and our own times. Again, I have stolen from St. Paul, who may well be the apostle for these murky, in-between times.

[8] Finally, we need to listen for the word of God, lest it be drowned out by all the shouting. Prayer, reading of scripture, the liturgies: all of these Christian practices are important especially in these times. I do not want to suggest that God speaks only in these contexts. Rather I want to emphasize that we need to tune our ears to the frequencies of God’s word, so that we can hear it outside these contexts amidst all the other static.

[9] I found the word of God boldly preached in the PBS documentary: “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” One of the sections of the broadcast was entitled: “Where was God?” The question mark at the end of the subtitle was intended as a judgment against God. But anyone expecting stories of the fatalities of faith in the aftermath of September 11th was sorely disappointed. Those interviewed-children, siblings, husbands, wives, and partners of those who had been killed-testified calmly and with great eloquence to “where God was” and “where God had been” in the midst of their anguishing loss. Even a man who went to the beach to yell at God seemed certain someone was there to listen. He was himself following the great Hebrew tradition of shaking one’s fist at God and demanding an audience. We need in these times to listen for God’s voice, wherever that voice speaks.

Public speaking [10] Having listened, we Lutherans will find that we also need to speak up and speak out. This is tough. As I suggested, we are a shy and largely obedient folk. Yet our characteristic realism carves out a position between the hawks and the doves in this contemporary context. If you could just get us to open our mouths, Lutherans could speak from a helpful middle ground for two reasons.

[11] First, Lutherans are not afraid of suffering. It is indeed that the citizens of a “nation challenged,” as the media constantly intones, have actually been asked to make little sacrifice. Americans can still drive big cars that use lots of gasoline: conservation has not been a part of the nation’s challenge. Further, there is no military draft at this point. Excepting the long lines at airports, there have been no major lifestyle changes for the majority of citizens.

[12] Lutherans could step up to the plate, if more were demanded. This particular tribe of Christians gets anxious with triumphalism; we know that “everyone lived happily ever after” happens only in fairy tales. Discipleship in the shadow of the cross is costly, and following in Jesus’ footsteps is hard.

[13] What we really ought to discern, though, is whose footsteps we would be following in, if the United States moves toward a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. We need to consider whether or not this will produce needless suffering for our own citizens and the citizens of a country we say we want to liberate from the hands of a ruthless dictator. If there is hand-to-hand combat in the streets of Baghdad, enormous loss of life on all sides will be the result. Are we prepared for this? More importantly, is this where God is calling us?

[14] Asking questions such as these is what the freedom of a Christian allows us. Our quiet fearlessness confers a certain freedom: freedom to ask the tough questions, entertain the messy solutions, and embrace compromise without losing face. Lutherans could ask the tough questions about the costs and consequences of war, so long as the toughest question remains ever before us: what is the consonance of our action or inaction with the Gospel? We won’t be able to answer all these questions definitively, but we could preface whatever we say with the kind of statement that the earliest disciples did: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . . .” (Acts 15:28).

[15] Second, Lutherans need to speak up and demand that this conversation on war stay close to the ground. After all, we have been trained in a highly incarnational theology: God became human. God took to the ground literally, and we can demand that everything else be concrete as well. I worry that these “rumors of war” remain unsubstantiated. Facts are unclear; evidence is not forthcoming. Iraq may have weapons of mass destruction; Saddam Hussein may be targeting the United States, if he has the means of delivery at his command. We do not know anything for certain. There is a lot of supposition, but the rhetoric of war is amped up anyway. Contrast this with Adlai Stevenson’s presentation to the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis, complete with satellite pictures and documented evidence.

[16] In the absence of concrete details and on-the-ground evidence, “war” becomes a dangerous metaphor, a fatal abstraction.3 The highly technologized Gulf War reduced war to a video game, and the nightly rehearsal of attacks on television looked very much like a video game. Perhaps the display anesthetized viewers to the horror of war, but Americans do not react to talk of war with appropriate gravity. The term “war” has taken on unreality like a leaky boat takes on water. All sides are guilty of this game. The hawks prescribe war to wage the fight against evil, the doves decry war as the embodiment of evil.

[17] War is no abstract metaphor: it is irrevocably and irreversibly concrete. No who has visited the great killing fields of the last century-Auschwitz, Rwanda, El Mozote in El Salvador, Quiche in Guatemala-can use the word “war” as a metaphor. Recently contractors putting up a building in the Baltic region discovered a mass grave and gradually realized they had stumbled upon bodies from Napoleon’s attempted invasion of Russia. The soldiers’ uniforms had turned to dust centuries ago, but their buttons remained, mute testimony to the thousands who had died of cold and starvation.

[18] The tradition of “just war” in which Lutherans stand refuses to consider war in the abstract.4 War is as concrete and quantifiable as the body bags that have trickled in from another war still in progress in Afghanistan. We need to shift rhetoric from hysterical urgency to careful and calm deliberation of the cost of our action or inaction. Most of all, we need to figure the consonance of our action or inaction with the Gospel. This-and this alone-should be our most urgent task.

Public deliberation [19] A third aspect of our role as Lutherans in the context of war is public deliberation. Many ethicists wonder if “just war” theory still holds in a world of transnational terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.5 Many Lutherans identify themselves as pacifists and reject “just war” theory in principle. Yet, I want to commend “just war” theory to both pacifists and supporters of war. Certainly, “just war” theory offers rules of engagement, traditionally known as what constitutes justice in war (jus in bello). More importantly, though, “just war” theory stipulates rules of deliberation, traditionally known as what constitutes justice approaching war (jus ad bellum). For this reason, “just war” thinking serves all of us well, whatever our position on this or any war.

[20] Personally, I am shocked that there has been so little public debate on a possible war in Iraq. The United States seems to be careening in that direction blindly, and with great urgency. A case with solid, documented evidence has not been made-at least not to this quiet, cautious Lutheran. To the extent that there has been public debate in regard to a war on Iraq, the debate thus far has been fixed on only a part of “just war” theory: rules of engagement. Here Americans have been adept at applying the rules of engagement to our presumptive enemies. We have cited the injustice of using weapons of mass destruction in a pre-emptive strike against us and our allies. We have appealed to the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Towers. Ironically, these attacks deployed, not weapons of mass destruction, but airplanes loaded with fuel and hijackers who had a clear exit strategy.6 The debate on war has started here-it is a pretty riveting scenario.

[21] But we need to step back for a moment and ask about just deliberation as we consider war. “Just war” theory demands some hard thinking about just cause, proper authorization, motivation, proportionality, acting defensively not offensively, using war as a last resort, and reasonable hope of success.7 Two criteria of “just war” theory are particularly germane: Is there just cause? Who properly authorizes war?

[22] Let me pose some questions for public deliberation. Having suffered a pre-emptive attack a year ago on September 11, 2001, the United States is prepared to defend itself in kind. Yet, unless our administrators can establish links between the World Trade Center attacks and the Iraqi regime, the United States would act offensively against Iraq, a move disallowed by “just war” theory. Have the connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq been established? How do we assess the fact that none of the hijackers came from Iraq? Most were from Saudi Arabia, arguably a highly repressive regime, but one the United States does not want to change at present, because it favors us. Until some connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq has been established, the United States as a nation does not have just cause for a pre-emptive and unilateral attack.

[23] Moreover, have we calculated the consequences of our action? Several nations are poised to follow our example, on the basis of equally flimsy evidence against groups or nations they consider a threat: Spain and the Basque insurgents, India and Pakistan, Russian and the region of Chechnya. Will an American pre-emptive strike against Iraq set off a chain of copy-cat actions that could destabilize what little global peace we currently enjoy?

[24] In regard to weapons of mass destruction, John Langan points in the latest issue of America that lots of countries have weapons of mass destruction, some of whom we trust, like Israel, and some of whom we need, like Pakistan. But by what criteria do we allow some nations do have such weaponry and others not?8 Who are we to say?

[25] These questions lead to a final concern: who should properly authorize this war? There is a internal debate on this question. Was the President, also Commander-in-Chief, was granted power to engage Iraq by decade-old legislation passed during the Gulf War? or does Congress alone retain constitutional power to declare war? Is this internal debate moot, because proper authorization of this war lies outside its borders entirely? Unless the United States sets troubling precedent of one nation judging the legitimacy of the regime of another, the United Nations is the appropriate body to adjudicate the situation in Iraq.

[26] Frustration with the United Nations is real, and President Bush’s powerful speech of September 12, 2002 galvanized the U.N. to act. As of this writing, the Iraqi government has conceded to unconditional inspections. People with far more expertise than I find this instant Iraqi compliance specious. But “just war” criteria demand that we scrutinize our motivations, not the motivations of our enemies. That is a helpful-if unwelcome-caution.

[27] These are some of the tough questions that ought to be up for public deliberation. I risk raising controversy in naming some of them here, but if politeness wins out over hard thinking in this context, the results could be disastrous. It seems to me part of the ministry of a seminary is to pose the tough questions in the only context Lutherans really care about: the context of table and font which orient our worship of the one God.

End Notes

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1959), pp. 146-154.

2 “A Communication: The Only Way into the Kingdom of God,” The Christian Century 29 (April 6, 1932), 447. H. Richard Niebuhr&=javascript:goNote(39s wrote a series of articles in The Christian Century. Along with other Christian responses to the Manchurian Crisis, World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Gulf War, they are reprinted in Richard B. Miller (ed.), War in the Twentieth Century: Sources in Theological Ethics (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

3 Susan Sontag, “War? Real Battles and Empty Metaphors,” The New York Times: Op-Ed (Tuesday, September 10, 2002), A31.

4 Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994). Cahill treats Luther in a section on Reformation perspectives on war and peace.

5 See the section in Richard Miller’s book on “The Limits of Just-War Criteria,” ibid., pp. 347-438.

6 I allude here to Secretary of State Colin Powell&=javascript:goNote(39s three-fold rules of engagement: exhaust all other means first, have a clear exit strategy, and use overwhelming force.

7 See Richard Miller’s elaboration of these criteria in his “introduction,” ibid., pp. xiii-xviii.

8 John Langan, “Should We Attack Iraq?” America, Vol. 187: 6 (September 9, 2002), 10.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).