Jesus and the American Sniper

The recent blockbuster movie, American Sniper, has already earned more than $253 million around the world since its release just a few weeks ago. The movie tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper, who is considered to be the most deadly sniper in U.S. history. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is graphic in its depiction of the violence of war, but it also sheds light on the struggles of the man who became known as “Legend” on the battlefield.

Given its massive success at the box office, it comes as no surprise that American Sniper has generated quite a bit of controversy as well. What struck me as interesting (and saddening) was a recent back-and-forth between producer Michael Moore and Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, both of whom invoked the name of Jesus to defend their respective positions.

Michael Moore has openly opposed the film and stated via Twitter:

In these tweets, Moore implies that Chris Kyle participated in sinful, unbiblical, and un-Christian behavior by serving as a sniper in the American military during his four tours in Iraq. For those of you who recognize Moore’s work, such statements are probably expected in light of his political views.

On the other side of the spectrum, Todd Starnes responded to Moore’s tweets by focusing one of his “American Dispatch” commentaries on Moore’s views. In the middle of his commentary (starting at the 48 second mark), Starnes invoked the name of Jesus as well as he stated:

Well, I’m not theologian, but I suspect Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.’ But then again, I’m no theologian.

In stark contrast to the thoughts of Moore, Starnes concludes that Jesus would actually applaud Kyle for his work in the war and welcome him to heaven on the basis that he had personally ensured Islamic jihadists would end up in hell.

From a political perspective, I’d really have to hunt for a while to find much of anything to agree with Moore about. I’m probably going to line up with Starnes about 80–85% politically (although I often have problems with his rhetoric). However, in this case I think they both missed the point about Jesus.

I think Moore is asking the wrong questions for the most part. Would Jesus have participated in a war during his 30+ years on earth? Probably not. We have no record that he did and no reason to even speculate about it. However, Moore should be asking whether or not a legitimate government has the biblical authority to participate in war. On that question, the text of Scripture speaks fairly clearly. In Romans 13:1–4, Paul writes:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

This passage has typically been interpreted to include a government’s right to take up arms and defend its citizens and the innocent. This authority is granted to the government by God. In Chris Kyle’s situation, he was acting as an agent of the government in an official capacity as a soldier. From the best we know, he only engaged enemy combatants in his role as a sniper. Thus, his actions seem to fall within the scope of the authority granted to government in Romans 13.

In his attempt to rush to Kyle’s defense, Starnes crosses the line by declaring that God is pleased with the fact that Kyle ushered unbelievers into a fiery judgment. The problem is that Starnes missed the point of the passage he quoted. Invoking the praise of the master from Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30), Starnes states that Kyle must have received a hero’s welcome in heaven upon his untimely death.

The problem here is that God does not rejoice in the death and judgment of those who do not trust in him. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God does not rejoice in the condemnation of “another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.” Instead, he is grieved that such a one never came to faith in Christ alone for salvation.

The fact of the matter is that war is a tragic consequence of the fall of mankind. War should never be pursued for its own sake. It should always be a last resort and a tragic necessity for the sake of restoring peace. Even though I believe waging just war is within the authority of the government, we should long for the day when there will be no more war. We learn about that day in Micah 4:3 where the prophet describes the last days as a time when “they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war.” This is an eschatological reality, but it will only be realized after Christ returns. Until then, war will continue to be a part of this fallen world.

Finally, I want to address a point that Starnes made twice—he said he is not a theologian. By academic and professional standards, I guess you could say that I am a theologian. But so are you, and so is Mr. Starnes, and so is Mr. Moore. We are all theologians in one sense. When we approach the text of Scripture or declare what we believe (or don’t believe) about God, we are doing theology. Mr. Starnes may not have formally studied theology, and his theology in this particular commentary is weak in my opinion, but it is still theology.

Therefore, I would like to encourage us all to be careful when we apply the thoughts, words, or actions of Jesus to a particular situation. We need to make sure our theology is sound before we proclaim what Jesus would do or say.

On the Death of a Terrorist

On the evening of May 1, 2011, the President of the United States announced the death of one of the world’s most infamous terrorists, Osama bin Laden. Almost immediately after President Obama’s official announcement, spontaneous celebrations broke out in front of the White House, at Ground Zero, and around the country. News of such celebrations left me a little hollow. I certainly want to rejoice that the face of terrorism is no longer able to devise wicked schemes for destroying other lives, but I am also saddened by the fact that a soul now has found his eternal destiny separated from God.

On the news this morning, I watched an interview with the mother of one of the victims on United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers rushed the cockpit. She had a balanced view concerning Bin Laden’s death. She said it was a bittersweet moment because justice had been served but it also served as a reminder of the tragedies of that day nearly ten years ago.

Twitter also lit up with news and reaction about Bin Laden’s death. Most of the tweets related joy, happiness, and satisfaction in the terrorist’s death. Some noted congratulatory sentiments to Presidents Obama and Bush. Others cheered the efforts of the Navy SEALS who carried out the plan to attack Bin Laden’s compound.

Finally, the crowd at the nationally-televised baseball game between the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies began chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A” as the news of the announcement spread via social media, text messages, and emails.

So, what is the proper biblical reaction to the death of a terrorist? How should we feel? Should we join the crowds and rejoice in the streets? Should we cry over a soul eternally condemned to hell? Should we feel justified in a country that diligently pursued a perpetrator and administered justice? I want to provide three thoughts for consideration as we reflect upon the death of a terrorist.

First, we can know that justice was administered by a properly established authority. There is no doubt that President George W. Bush struggled with the decision to wage a “War on Terror” after the devastation of September 11, 2001. Just as Presidents before him had carried the burden of placing the lives of their military in harm’s way to enact justice, President Bush had to bear such a burden. No one probably thought that such a war would continue for ten years before the mastermind of the attacks was captured or killed, but that is what happened. In my recent readings on just war theory, I was reminded of one of the first principles of jus ad bellum (just principles for going to war). The principle of legitimate authority requires that war be waged only by those that have the legitimate authority to do so. Historically, this has been interpreted to mean sovereign governments over nation states. Thus, the United States of America in her sovereign authority waged war in order to administer justice for evils perpetrated against her people.

In Romans 13:1-4. Paul describes the role of the government in administering justice. He writes:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

Note the final line of the quotation (v. 4). The governing authority “is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” From a biblical standpoint, we can rest assured that the American government has fulfilled its God-given duty in bringing wrath on one who practices evil.

Second, we can lament that a life has been taken. But you may protest, “Bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of thousands, why should we lament the death of such a wicked man?” We lament because that is what God does. In Ezekiel 33:11, God tells Ezekiel, “‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!’” God does not rejoice when life is taken, especially when those who have no concern for the truth of God are killed. Even when we see God taking the lives of those who have turned from him (e.g., Nadab and Abihu in Lev 10:1-7), we do not see rejoicing from God. It is solemn and terrifying that life is squelched for the sake of justice.

The more disheartening thing about it is the warranted assumption that Bin Laden’s eternal destiny in hell has been sealed. Of course, we do not know his heart nor the possibility of a last minute conversion to faith in Christ; however, it seems safe to assume that Bin Laden never placed his faith in Christ as his personal Savior. His actions did not give evidence of a life that has been surrendered to God. In 1 John, the apostle gives us a few thoughts concerning our actions that give evidence to our spiritual lives. In 1 John 1:6, we see, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” In 1 John 2:11, the apostle tells us, “But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” Finally, in 1 John 5:12, we read, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Based on Bin Laden’s actions and his murderous background, we have warrant to assume that his life was characterized by darkness rather than the light of a relationship with Christ. Thus, his eternal destiny would be separation from God in hell.

Finally, we should use this occasion as an opportunity to remember that sin has a drastic impact on our world. From the days of Genesis 3 onward, we have battled the effects of sin on a personal and global level. It is easy to point a finger at Bin Laden and say, “He was evil!” It is much harder to point a finger at ourselves and say, “I am evil!” However, that is exactly what the Bible tells us about ourselves. In Romans 3:9-12, we read:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’

Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. Christ sacrificed his own life for us and paid the penalty for our sin. As we see later in Romans 10:9-13, Paul states:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;  for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the lord will be saved.’

Though sin has brought evil and death to us and our world, Christ has overcome evil through his death, burial, and resurrection. May the people of the world see the death of a terrorist and be reminded of their own impending deaths. As a result, I pray that they would turn to Christ with childlike faith and trust in him for their eternal destiny.

War, Peace, and Christianity Book Review

War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective. By J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010. 413 pages. Softcover, $25.99.

With the United States involved in two declared wars against other nations and participating in armed “peacekeeping” missions around the Middle East, the question of the ethics of war and peace is a major discussion point in the American public. The interesting thing about war is that it often brings back into the public conversation topics that have been discussed for millennia. This is true of the ethics of war and peace, and specifically the just-war theory. At each major crossroads, the discussion is renewed, and people often approach it as a new doctrine when it has actually been around for more than two thousand years. J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy take advantage of this renewed interest in just-war theory in their book, War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective. Both authors are steeped in the just-war tradition, but they come from different backgrounds. Charles, who serves as director and senior fellow of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice, comes from a criminal-justice background and has written several works on this subject. Demy is a retired United States Navy commander and currently serves as associate professor of military ethics at the U.S. Naval War College.

This book follows a traditional question and answer format with over 100 questions addressed in its pages. Those questions are divided into six categories to provide structure for the book: Just-War Tradition and the Philosopher, Just-War Tradition and the Historian, Just-War Tradition and the Statesman, Just-War Tradition and the Theologian, Just-War Tradition and the Combatant, and Just-War Tradition and the Individual. For the most part, the book addresses the classical development of just-war theory through the obvious historical sources of Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas as well as the more recent influential work of Paul Ramsey and James Turner Johnson. For the just-war theorist already well-versed in the tradition, this volume does not add anything significant to the conversation. However, if one is new to the just-war discussion, this book provides a very approachable and thorough discussion of the topic.

Surveying the traditional principles of just-war theory, Charles and Demy provide useful descriptions of the principles of just war in the classic categories of jus ad bellum (literally, justice to war) and jus in bello (literally, justice in war). The jus ad bellum principles include just cause, right intention, proper authority, proportionality, last resort, reasonable chance of success, peace as the ultimate aim, and formal declaration of war. The jus in bello principles include discrimination (or noncombatant immunity) and proportionate means (159–73). The interesting addition that Charles and Demy make to this traditional development is the addition of a third category: jus post bellum (literally, justice after war). While the development of this category does not produce the sophistication of the previous two, it certainly is a noble consideration in the just-war discussion. The authors note, “Scant attention is generally paid to yet a third—and critically important—dimension of justice, namely, justice after war—jus post bellum. If, in fact, part of the moral efficacy of just-war thinking is right intention and a concern for the proper ends, then just post bellum considerations are requisite” (206).

The other unique contribution of this book comes in the final section—Just-War Tradition and the Individual. In this section, Charles and Demy bring personal application questions into the discussion. They ask questions about whether Christian love and charity prevent a believer from serving in war. They discuss the role of an individual accepting the government’s decision to go to war. They also consider the positions on war and peace taken by prominent twentieth-century theologians C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The final questions address common misunderstandings of the just-war tradition and deserve a brief overview. The most common misunderstanding that has been propagated recently is the idea that just-war theory works from a “baseline presumption against war or coercive force rather than against evil or injustice” (389). The authors argue that such a misunderstanding—the presumption against war—leads to a completely pacifist position. Instead, they argue that the presumption is against injustice which then requires the use of force on occasion in order to prevent injustice.

As noted above, this book does not bring much new material to the discussion of just-war theory, but it certainly provides an accessible approach to centuries of debate on the topic. For someone new to this conversation, it is a worthwhile read. Even for the student of just-war theory who has read the primary source material, this volume can serve as a valuable resource to refresh one’s mind on the issues without having to wade through pages of ancient literature. Overall, this is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in the topic.