War Is Never Less Than Evil
The first Biblical war story is recounted in Genesis 14. It tells of when five Canaanite kings, including the king of Sodom, rebelled against Chedorlaomer of Elam. Chedorlaomer defeated the five and took away their goods, together with Abram’s nephew Lot, who was then living in Sodom, and his goods. Abram in turn pursued and defeated Chedorlaomer and his allies, rescued Lot and other captives, and brought back all their goods. In a ritual that elevated Abram to equal status with the Canaanite kings, Melchizedek, Salem’s priestly king, then blessed Abram and made a thank-offering to God, while Abram gave Melchizedek “one-tenth of everything.” The king of Sodom next offered Abram all the spoils of war, but Abram refused, as he had sworn to God that he would take no spoils, lest the king of Sodom say, “I made Abram rich.”
This war story serves as a turning point for Abram, for in the following chapter, God makes a covenant with him, promising him future prosperity and increase of his descendants. The war with Chedorlaomer was, therefore, the seed of the future rise of Israel.
Since the dawn of civilization, many a nation and civilization has likewise risen and been destroyed through war.
As I write this, the conflict in Ukraine has reached five months with no end in sight. The stories of the war’s innocent victims are heartbreaking. Putin’s decision to invade cannot be justified. The Ukrainians are doubtless justified in fighting back as they are defending their homeland and people. But no matter how just a war may be—as in Abram’s and the Ukrainians’ cases—in its essence, war is evil. If its innocent victims are its necessary casualties, then war is the necessary evil outcome of humankind’s sinful nature.
What, then, does it take for us to end war and learn to live in peace with one another?
Two prophets in the eighth century BC had a daring vision of peace. Micah prophesied that “[people] shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Micah 4:3). In the first Isaiah’s vision, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). While these prophesies were directed at the Israelites, the peace that they envisioned has a universal quality. They tried to restore hope in their people by prophesying a warless kingdom. Who today has the courage to proclaim such a daring prophesy?
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes that “at the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves… They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.” The irony is that one god or other is often invoked to justify war; and this, I think, is the biggest theological dilemma of any true religion—one that has prompted many a theologian to labor over “just war” theories, all of which fall short of the measuring standard of the perfect love of Jesus Christ crucified, who has shown us the only way to everlasting peace and harmony.