On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, in 1940, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution expressing its “utter abhorrence of war as an instrument of International policy.” The nine-point statement concluded, “Because war is contrary to the mind and spirit of Christ, we believe that no war should be identified with the will of Christ. Our churches should not be made agents of war propaganda or recruiting stations. War thrives on and is perpetuated by hysteria, falsehood, and hate and the church has a solemn responsibility to make sure there is no black out of love in time of war.” There was not a single resolution issued by the Southern Baptists during World War II or Vietnam expressing support for the president or the troops, but there were resolutions in support of conscientious objectors. The bold 1940 resolution can be found even today on the SBC website but the Southern Baptists have changed their tune . . . and their lyrics . . . perhaps even their hymnal.I only became a Christian relatively recently (1983, which is recent on my old-guy time scale). So, I'll have to admit that the part about the Southern Baptists surprises me quite a lot. I've always thought of the SBC as a collection of flag-waving, America-worshipping idolaters justly represented by Mr. Land. In the historical sense, at least, I believe I owe them an apology, which I'm happy to render here.
As late as 1970, Francis Schaeffer, an orthodox Presbyterian, was warning, “In the United States many churches display the American flag. The Christian flag is usually put on one side and the American flag on the other. Does having two flags in your church mean that Christianity and the American Establishment are equal? If it does, you are really in trouble. . . . Equating of any other loyalty with our loyalty to God is sin.” Ironically, Schaeffer’s later writings helped give rise to the Moral Majority, with its endorsement of Constantinianism and the Mush God of American civil religion.
To their credit, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) condemned the Iraq War as unjust in 2002-03. Unfortunately, there was no teeth to their pronouncements. I am not a Roman Catholic, but if I were, I would want my pope armed with anathemas and bulls of excommunication. What is the point of having an episcopal form of government headed by the vicar of Christ if he does not wield at least one of the two swords of Gelasius?
The supreme pontiff ought to have disciplined disobedient children like Senators Tom Daschle, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Pete Dominici, Susan Collins, and Sam Brownback. When it comes to peace, the Catholic hierarchy is often politely correct, but it is no Erasmus of Rotterdam, Dorothy Day, or Thomas Merton in denouncing militarism and the perfidy of its practitioners. Too much diffidence and compromise. That’s one of the fruit of the spirit of Constantine and a corollary of cultural synthesis. A huge bureaucracy enmeshed with worldly wealth and power is not in a position to be too radical in its opposition to the world, even when the opposition is sincere.
Without jargon or hedging, the French Catholic mathematician-scientist-philosopher-mystic Blaise Pascal put it simply centuries ago: “[Q:] Why do you kill me? [A:] What! Do you not live on the other side of the water? If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner. But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just. . . . Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?” (Pensées, V: 293-94)
Still, the peace rhetoric of the papacy is much to be preferred to the refined war mongering of Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. As Congress was preparing to give President Bush a blank check to wage war against Iraq, in October 2002, Land organized an open letter to Bush, signed by prominent evangelical Protestants, that began, “In this decisive hour of our nation’s history we are writing to express our deep appreciation for your bold, courageous, and visionary leadership. Americans everywhere have been inspired by your eloquent and clear articulation of our nation’s highest ideals of freedom and of our resolve to defend that freedom both here and across the globe. We believe that your policies concerning the ongoing international terrorist campaign against America are both right and just.” Specifically, the planned attack on Iraq was sanctified as a just war. After the bombing and invasion, Land remained confident of God’s blessing on the undertaking, writing, “I believe we are seeing in Iraq an illustration of waging a war of defense and liberation according to the criteria of just war.”
But the situation is now as we see it: the nominal church, at least in America, is complicit -- either actively or by omission -- in the many slaughters perpetrated by our supervisors. C.S. Lewis was correct, I think, in comparing the church to Noah's ark: if it weren't for the storm outside, no one could tolerate the stench inside. Even so, Lord Jesus, come.