Friday, July 11, 2008

Random Smatterings - Nimrod

We have a small group Bible study that meets in our home under the name "Wananada Wednesdays." We have been studying the book of Genesis during this season. Although I think we have generally been focusing on matters of greater import, this week a question about "Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord" in Genesis 10 came up. Why is Nimrod a heroic figure in Genesis, but a term of derision in modern English slang?

Turns out that etymology experts are uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that hunters have sometimes been called nimrods as an allusion to the biblical hunter, and sometimes incompetent hunters have facetiously been called "nimrod," starting with a literary reference in 1933.

It may be Bugs Bunny that popularized this ironic use of "nimrod" (although the OED doesn't mention it). Bugs was known to occasionally call Elmer "poor little nimrod." The biblically illiterate audience was probably unaware of the allusion and picked it up as an insult for an incompetent person.

The pictures: above, Sargon I of Assyria, whom some identify with Nimrod; below, Elmer Fudd of Warner Brothers, whom Bugs Bunny identifies as "nimrod."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

American Revolutionary War - more

Keoki asked a question concerning my earlier post on the American Revolutionary War.

Suppose for a moment that the American Revolution was an unjust war. [Since]... Americans fought it anyway and won it, what does that say about the legitimacy of America’s sovereignty in the eyes of God?
In addition to the stipulations of just war (which are not exclusively Christian), we should also reflect on this question in light of the biblical prohibition against taking up arms against legitimate government.

Almost all nations have skeletons in their closets. If the practice of unjust wars invalidates a nation's sovereignty, then all nations have lost their sovereignty, except maybe Iceland. When Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7, he was referring to the Roman Empire, much of which had been founded on wars of aggression. However, this did not invalidate Rome's authority, according to Paul - he argued that we should submit to existing authorities. And of course, America has had other wars that are of much greater concern. The Indian Wars, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War were far more unjust than the Revolutionary War. If we use the 1-100 "just war scale" I mentioned in the first post, then I give the Revolutionary War about 60 or 70, the Indian Wars about 10, and the Mexican and Spanish Wars about 20 or 30.

If you have the (mistaken, in my mind) belief that America was somehow founded by God as a chosen nation, then analyzing the Revolutionary War by just war or biblical criteria will certainly shake that belief.

We need to avoid what philosophers call the genetic fallacy - the false idea that origins determine everything. If, as some Christians claim, America was properly and justly founded as a Christian nation, that does not say anything - positive or negative - about the country's later actions. If, as I am suggesting, the founding war of America was less than fully just and biblically questionable, then that also says little about the later actions of the country. America has demonstrated that it is capable of both just and unjust wars, regardless of the status of its founding war.

Maybe I am biased as an American, but I think that America has been more just in many of its wars (in both causes and in practices) than many other nations. The Indian Wars seem to be the most notable exception (we haven't talked about Iraq yet - that will be the next and hopefully last just war post).

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Just Actions in War

Just war theory not only stipulates just reasons for going to war, but also just actions within war (jus in bello). The guiding principle is that war is not a good thing, even if the cause is just or the war is necessary. Since war is not a good thing, it is vital to have guidelines to restrain the evil effects of war.

The idea of restraint in war is very ancient. The Old Testament gives guidelines for accepting surrender, for the treatment of captives, and for restraining the destructiveness of war (see Deut 20:1-20, 21:10-14). In times even less civilized than today, many countries had the practice of only allowing a conquering army to loot a city for three days to control the amount of damage done to civilians.

Just war theory has two main guiding principles for just practices in war. The first is obvious: war must be waged against soldiers, not civilians. Civilians must never be targeted. Armies must take great pains to avoid accidentally harming civilians, especially because of the use of explosives. While clear enough, several factors can complicate this criteria. When a country completely mobilizes for war, the civilians end up being a crucial part of the war effort. For example, ordinary factory workers end up being an essential part of producing tanks, airplanes, and supplies. This was the reason why British and American forces intentionally targeted civilian neighborhoods around German factories in WWII. While the Allies had just reasons for going to war, the practice of killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians - men, women and children - to stop the German war effort was certainly not in accordance with just war theory.

The second principle is restraint. During war, armies must use the appropriate amount of force to achieve the desired goals in the war. For example, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, American forces used enough force to cause the Iraqi army to retreat or surrender. It would have been possible to annihilate the entire army, but that would have been more violent than necessary to achieve the goal of the war. In WWII, the Allies decided that they needed to go further than defeating Axis armies - they needed a complete defeat of the government of Germany. This was likely in accordance with just war principles, because the Nazi government had demonstrated that it was completely incapable of keeping a treaty, and was of course guilty of crimes against humanity.

Why do countries otherwise committed to just war principles occasionally violate them? In any war, some soldiers will violate just war principles and attack civilians. In some cases, enemy soldiers use population centers as shields or use civilians as combatants, making soldiers get trigger happy. In the case of WWII, the Allies decided to target German civilian populations partially in retaliation for Germany's bombing of civilians in London. More importantly, the Allies violated just war principles because they saw what happened to the captive countries of Germany (especially Poland) and decided that they must win, no matter what the cost.

This is one of the reminders of the just war principle that war should always be a last resort. Once in war, nations are often faced with horrible moral dilemmas and may have difficulty staying faithful to other just war guidelines.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Just War - the American Revolution

In honor of Independence Day, I want to continue the Just War series, but in a slightly different direction. Based on just war theory, what should we say about the American Revolutionary War? Just war theory suggests that America's revolt against England falls short of a fully just war, but was not totally unjust either.

If you look at my last post on this topic, you can see that one of the criteria for just war is that it must be authorized by legitimate government leaders. By definition, a revolt is lacking legitimate government authority. However, the rebels tried to create legitimacy by appointing a continental congress.

The Revolutionary War also fell short of being fully just in that it is difficult to see it as an appropriate and restrained response to aggression. War is most just when it responds to unprovoked aggression. War in response to unjust taxation or in order to institute a type of government you like better is certainly an overreaction (otherwise most Americans should go to war against their government now!). Of course, the Revolutionary War was a bit more complicated than that - Parliament refused to listen to legitimate requests of the colonies, the colonists had some violent protests, British troops were deployed, and Parliament took punitive economic measures against the colonies.

(By the way, it is a common misconception that the Revolution was a response to religious persecution by England. This was not the case - the British colonial governments tolerated all Protestant denominations. Catholics were not tolerated - but the Revolution was not fought to give rights to Catholics!)

With the other just war criteria, one can make a greater case that the colonies had just causes - war was a last resort, and its goals were limited to reversing the wrongs suffered. At the beginning, it was not so clear that they had a reasonable chance of success, but obviously they succeeded.

For Christians, Romans 13:1-7 provides another reason for caution when evaluating the Revolutionary War. Paul wrote that Christians may not rebel against the government. He didn't say that Christians should obey unjust laws, but he did not allow armed revolt.

This is one of the main reason why so many Americans were Tories (British sympathizers). They were not necessarily traitors; they believed that it was morally and biblically wrong to rebel against their rightful government. James Bradley, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, told me that most Anglican (Episcopalian) churches preached regularly from Romans 13 during the Revolutionary War, and most Congregational churches preached from passages like Isaiah 61 that talk about liberty. In this case, I think the Anglican Tories were doing a much better job interpreting the Scriptures than the Congregationalist Rebels.

If we were to use a "just war score" with 0 being unprovoked aggression and 100 being response to unprovoked aggression (following all just war criteria), then I think that the American Revolutionary War should probably have a score of about 60 or 70 at the highest. If we use the criteria of Romans 13, then quite likely Christians should not have joined in the Revolutionary War.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Caleb the Vegetarian

Me: Caleb, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Caleb: a vegetarian.
Me: Oh?
Caleb: Yes, I want to take care of animals. Are there possums?
Me: Yes, possums are real.
Caleb: Are there possums in Hawaii?
Me: No, but they are on the Mainland.
Caleb: How about Africa?
Me: I'm not sure. We can look it up. Do you want to be a zoo veterinarian?
Caleb: No, just a regular animal vegetarian. I will take care of baby animals and then sell them back to their mommies.
Me: Actually, it's called a veterinarian.
Caleb: Oh, a vegetinarian.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Just Reasons for War

I have had a few requests to explain more clearly whether I thought that the American Revolution or the Iraq war were just wars. I'll take a shot at it, although I know some of my readers will sharply disagree no matter what opinion I give.

I'm going to analyze a very narrow question so I can be more clear. I'm going to explain what just war theory says, and then try to place a few wars (including the Iraq War and the American Revolution) on some sort of "justice scale." On one end of the scale would be totally unjust wars of aggression, such as Saddam's invasion of Kuwait or Germany's invasion of Poland. On the other end of the scale would be wars as close to just as possible, such as (perhaps) England's defense of European allies in WWII. Then we can see where other wars might fit it.

Just war has two sets of criteria. The first set describes just causes for going to war (jus ad bellum) and the second set describe conduct in the war (jus in bello). What are just causes for going to war? Just war theorists usually break down jus ad bellum into multiple criteria, but I'll simplify a little.

1) War is justified in response to aggression - to reverse the aggression and to retaliate. While the individual may not be right to retaliate, a government probably has an obligation to retaliate. A government must retaliate against criminals in order to defend the innocent, and thus it must retaliate against aggressive actions from other countries. A government may also be obligated to respond with force when an ally or an innocent people group is targeted by an unjust war. Thus, the US-led defense of Kurds from Iraqi genocide in the 1990s was a just use of force.

2) War for economic gain is not justified - this consitutes a war of aggression. What makes this criteria complicated is that sometimes a nation may be justified in going to war (defense of an innocent nation), but the reality is that some economic benefit may result. Further, some government leaders may be motivated by just causes, while others may be motivated by economic causes.

3) Only legitimate authorities may begin a war. In other words, a group of independent US citizens cannot decide to attack Iran, even if other grounds for a just war have been satisfied.

4) The war's goals must be limited to responding to the wrong suffered. For example, reasonable goals during the first Gulf War were to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait and destroy a significant part of its army so that Iraq could not attack again. Overthrowing the government of Iraq or invading Iraq would have gone beyond reversing the wrong and appropriate retaliation (at least, that was the reason why the elder George Bush chose not to invade Iraq in 1991). This concept is related to criminal justice. We give fines for speeding and increasing amounts of jailtime for more serious offenses. In war, the intended response should also be limited by some concept of justice.

5) Most important criterion: war is just only if it is the last resort. A nation must demonstrate that it has taken every reasonable action short of war. This is based on the idea that war is never good, and always goes worse than intended. War may be necessary and therefore just, but it should be avoided if there is any other reasonable solution.

6) Reasonable chance of success. If a nation has no hope of winning, then by going to war it is wasting lives.

Next post: Jus in bello - just practices in war.

By the way, some Christians are pacifists - they believe that war is never justified or never necessary. I will not cover that approach in these posts, but you can learn more about their approach at the Just Peacemaking website.