To whom do we belong? This is really a question of worship, of baptism,
and of fundamental Christian identity. It’s a critical question, because other identities—competing senses of
belonging—are always tugging at Christians. Are we Christians first, as most believers would in principle agree that
we should be, or are we first American, or middle-class, or white—or any other racial, economic, or national identity
that would compete with our Christian identity?
When it comes to showing the world to whom we really belong, more
and more Christians in America are starting
to get it right. We are asking what God’s priorities are when it comes to the big moral issues of our time, and therefore
what our priorities should be too, if we belong to God. More Christians are asking that question now and are
trying to change their posture in the world. They want to show, in
their own personal and congregational lives, the kind of compassion that God has for people living in extreme poverty, afflicted
with pandemic diseases, suffering the violations of their human rights, or being made victims of genocide. They want to show
that they belong to their Creator by being concerned with God’s creation—our natural environment threatened with
all sorts of dangers, from toxic waste to global warming. The fact that these concerns are growing among Christians around
the world offers the real promise of re-establishing the identity of the Body of Christ as a global community of faith.
Because the Body of Christ is an international community, we are
called to be Christians first and members of our tribes or nations second. Last fall, several World Vision leaders from Africa told me that simple assertion could change their churches and their countries. But then they
noted the “tribal loyalty” that American Christians also seemed to have toward their own nation and its policies
in the world—especially in regard to the war in Iraq, the threatened war with Iran, and the U.S. government’s
behavior in its “war on terrorism.”
The Global Church and the American War
Support for U.S.
wars and foreign policy is still the area where American Christians are most “conformed to the world” (Romans
12:2). This is our Achilles’ heel, our biggest blind spot, our least questioned allegiance, the worst compromise of
our Christian identity, and the greatest failing of our Christian obedience.
We live in an increasingly globalized and interdependent world. Our
prosperity and even our security are more and more tied to the health and economic well-being of the rest of the world. The
Body of Christ is also global—when we think about a Christian in the world today, we should think about a woman living
in a rural village in Nigeria or a child in a favela in Brazil—the majority of our sisters and brothers in Christ are now in the
So what is “true security” in the world today?
My favorite prophet of national security is Micah, who says we will
not “beat our swords into plowshares” (reduce violence and even terrorism) unless “all sit under their own
vines and under their own fig trees,” where “no one shall make them afraid.” Our security therefore depends
on more than military might, but on other people’s security, well-being, and a hope that replaces anger and fear. A
world where half of the people live in extreme poverty is neither just nor secure.
We all lament the suffering and violence in Iraq. We mourn the 3,800 Americans who have lost their lives, the tens of thousands
wounded in body and mind, and the unknown tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died.
Recent U.S. claims of modest security gains in certain sectors of
Iraq do not justify extending the U.S occupation, especially when four years of occupation has not produced the political
reconciliation necessary for real security and stability. The fragile security improvements are not sustainable without a
political solution, which is simply not forthcoming. And without a clear path to political progress, we will simply see more
of the same failed strategy and a scenario of American occupation in the midst of bloody sectarian warfare with absolutely
no end in sight—and with a real prospect of compounding the tragedy by attacking Iran as well. The nation sorely needs
political leadership to find the most responsible way to end the war in Iraq
that protects as many lives as possible.
Both the teachings of Jesus (“blessed are the peacemakers,”
“love your enemies”) and the rigorous criteria of the “just war” tradition clearly leave believers
with at least a presumption against war. The ignominious origins and now-disputed rationales for the Iraq war, along with its enormous human cost, clearly put the burden of proof on
the war’s supporters much more than its critics—that is, if we are to be Christians about all this, and not just
American nationalists or neoconservative apologists for American hegemony in the world.
Since the Bible instructs us to be peacemakers and since Christians
are to have a strong presumption against war, two things must be said: First, Christians should be among the hardest, not
the easiest, to convince, and should require the highest burden of proof, before military force is used. And second, Christians
should not delegate to any president or national government the decision about whether a war is just or not. That decision
must be made by the collective discernment of God’s people, including the international Body of Christ.
Because of my work and transatlantic family ties, I travel extensively
around the world, frequently talk to others who do, regularly read the international press, host international Christian leaders
on a regular basis, and often attend international Christian gatherings. My experience convinces me that a vast majority of
the world’s people—and the Body of Christ in particular—are steadfastly against the American war in Iraq and current U.S.
foreign policy in general.
Even in the subset of born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Christians
around the world, an overwhelming majority are against American policy in Iraq.
Many Christians I’ve spoken to go further and say that America’s
aggressive role in the world today has hurt the cause of Christ globally, especially when an American president dangerously
conflates America’s role with God’s
So given the fact that the global Body of Christ disagrees with much
of the American church on these issues, what can we conclude? Is the rest of the church just wrong? Do we have access to information
that they don’t have? (Actually, they have much more access to information and different perspectives than most Americans
have, which is a big part of the problem.)
Some on the American Christian Right are now calling for all-out
war against “Islamofacism,” and recent presidential endorsements from the Religious Right even suggest that winning
the “clash of civilizations” with Islamic fundamentalism is really another “life” issue, perhaps even
a higher priority than their traditional concerns such as abortion. Shouldn’t it give us pause that virtually no other
Christians or churches around the world take this position, finding it utterly appalling and contrary to the gospel of Christ?
Do these militant Christian nationalists, who would again call us to war, know something that the rest of world Christianity
does not? Even many Christians who live in or near Muslim countries, and sometimes suffer for their Christian identity, find
the warlike theology of their aggressive American brothers and sisters very frightening.
Could it be that far too many American Christians are simply Americans
first and Christians second? To say, “We are to be Christians first and members of a particular nation second”
is more about our understanding of church than it is about our politics. That simple affirmation, if ever applied, would utterly
transform the relationship of American Christians to the policies of their own government.
For all the vitriolic debate about politics in relationship to the
war in Iraq, I think the real issue is
our theology and ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature of church. Many U.S. Christians listened more to a version
of American nationalism than they did to the Body of Christ. The two are now in conflict, and we must decide to whom we ultimately
belong. That’s the real issue.
With the international Body of Christ, I believe that the pre-emptive
and unilateral war in Iraq was not a war
of last resort. In my most prayerful and prudential judgment, the war was one of choice and not of necessity. Before the invasion
of Iraq, some people sincerely believed
it could be a just war. But after five years of conflict, continuing war in Iraq
cannot be reconciled with the standards of a just war—nor could the threatened U.S.
military attack on Iran. Ending unjust
wars, as well as preventing future wars, is an obligation of faith.
Sadly, I believe this war has undermined our best religious and national
values and severely damaged America’s
moral standing in the world. Even worse, international perceptions of American church support for the war have hurt the cause
of Christ around the world.
I believe the world is still looking for American moral leadership,
but not American domination. When I debated Richard Land at the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit last fall,
I told him that I appreciated his caution to Christians that our patriotism and country must not become an idol. Land, a leader
of the Southern Baptist Convention, has said we “must resist the temptation to perceive Americans as God’s chosen
people and America as God’s chosen
nation. … The argument that God has a special role for America
to play in the world is a doctrine of obligation, responsibility, sacrifice, and service—not pride, privilege, and arrogance.”
A Time for Repentance
I’ve had several visits and phone calls lately from evangelical
Christian leaders. In the privacy of personal conversations, they’ve told me they now believe they were wrong about
the war in Iraq, and that the disastrous
war policy of their nation and the president they supported have provoked a profound soul-searching in them. Many have specifically
told me they feel a need to “repent” of their support for the war. They say that they believed their government
too quickly and too easily, and in the future they vow to be much harder to convince to go to war.
The failure of the war policy to either bring democracy or to make
us safer has prompted these Christian leaders to ask if war-making is the best way to achieve either security or stability.
They are much more interested in how generous leadership to combat poverty and disease, for example, might be a more effective
way to make friends in the world. Many of them are also more engaged now in talking to other church leaders from around the
world and are more open to listening to the perspectives of others than they were before. They still take the reality of evil
seriously, but they wonder if a primarily military response to evil is either the most effective or the most Christian approach.
Repentance means more than just being sorry. It means both admitting
that the course you have been on is wrong and committing to begin walking in a new direction. That is the biblical meaning
of “metanoia,” the New Testament word used for “repentance,” which comes from the root for the word
“metamorphosis.” Repentance has to do with transformation, and that’s exactly what the American church needs
to break out of its conformity to the American government’s foreign policy of fear and war. There is a better way. The
global church feels it, and the world is hungry for it.
Given how important the issues of Iraq,
Iran, and U.S. foreign
policy will be in the 2008 elections, there is no better time than now for the American churches to offer words and acts of
repentance for their misguided and misleading support for America’s
mistakes. It’s finally time for the American churches to find their voice for Jesus’ way of peacemaking and to
demonstrate—in matters of war, peace, and the critical area of conflict resolution—just who we belong to.
Nationalism doesn’t go well with
the kingdom of God.
The church is the international Body of Christ, and “God Bless America”
is not found in the Bible. To take a global perspective on politics, to value other countries’ interests as much as
our own, and, perhaps most critically, to count all the world’s children as important as our own—all will significantly
alter our political views.