War may be necessary, but it is never good
Swearengin is an author, emotional and spiritual well-being coach, podcaster and content creator known as Pastor Paul.
It seems quite a disconcerting time in the world. If only people wore white hats and black hats, like the old Westerns, so we could easily identify "good guys" and the “bad” ones. We find ourselves in such a tumultuous moment as horrifying pictures of violence come out of Israel and Gaza, causing a "who's right?” dividing line to form in America. For some, however, the question of right and wrong, good and evil, can become as simplistic as those old movies.
For example, many Christians believe it is their religious requirement to support anything Israel does as holy and heaven-endorsed. For others, the decades-long tragedy of Gaza may not justify the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, but certainly might be the cause for many to want Israel to silence weaponry and search for a lasting solution. Perhaps our attention needs to be drawn to the Hebrew story of Jonah for wisdom in these times.
Many know the story of Jonah’s "big fish" (Hebrew scripture does not call it a whale, by the way, in which his retreat from his commanded purpose is stopped when he is swallowed by a large ocean animal and returned to his God-commanded destination. What we might miss, though, is the necessity of the fish in compelling Jonah to consider his view of the people in Nineveh.
Jonah believed the Ninevites an enemy worthy to be wiped from the face of the earth and it’s easy to see why Jonah could have a right to believe so. The Ninevites had long been in conflict with Jonah's community and Jonah likely had witnessed the atrocities brought by war between factions. Jonah believed these people of a different culture, race and religion were terrorists and savages, more worthy of divine wrath than transcendent graciousness.
"I'd rather be dead than live in a world where my enemies receive mercy,” Jonah says in the story. The response from heaven was jarring.
"Do you do well to feel this way?” responded the divine voice. In modern parlance this is: "How's that mindset working out for you?”
Now, Jonah's desire for retribution can be justified by biblical texts. A fair argument can be made that the Hebrew and Christian Bibles seem to make allowances for governmental retribution against wrongdoers. That doing so might even be endorsed by these ancient texts. Without doubt, one can point to numerous times when the God of Israel ordered the military to wipe out peoples. Romans 13 of the Christian Bible can be interpreted to say government authority to create defensive militaries is ordained and endorsed by the Christian God.
No one is evil who thinks Pearl Harbor demanded an American response or that it was necessary to fight aggression in Europe. Those are respectable opinions. Can we, however, face more nuanced questions as to how hundreds of years of Western colonialism played into the actions of World War II’s “bad actors”? Or can we be honest as to how unfair Allied treatment of post-World War I Germany fed into the actions that led to World War II? Can we honestly consider how Western European racism and colonial goals prevented us from intervening for Ethiopia against its Italian invaders? That failure to live up to the promises of the League of Nations encouraged Mussolini to continue militarization of his country and partnership with Hitler.
Far too often, we, like the writers of ancient Hebrew texts, claim godly permission for violent acts. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted that both the North and South invoked God’s name for their military cause. Could it be our belief in God’s value for our military might provide cover from considering if we, like Jonah, prefer personal justice over the saving of lives of those we consider “others”?
Perhaps we consider our wealth and sizable military to be a sign of a divine preference for us over other nations and peoples. Jonah believed the shade from a miraculous plant endorsed his feelings of moral superiority. Yet, when the plant dies, just as miraculously as it came to be, Jonah cries out with a sense of injustice. Again, the divine interaction in the story challenges Jonah’s perception of his enemies.
"You think it unfair that the plant died," the voice from Heaven scolds, "a plant you had nothing to do with creating. Yet you root for the destruction of 120,000 human beings and their livelihoods." Does our mindset towards our military and financial advantages give us permission to fight for our self-interests at the cost of others?
Jesus was surrounded by people calling for resistance and revolt against a tyrannical Roman government, yet he refused to engage this cause. Instead, he challenged his own people’s sense of injustice while treating Samaritans, women, lepers and tax collectors unjustly. He made the outrageous statement that a true display of resistance against the establishment was, when commanded by a Roman soldier to “go a mile” in carrying their war implements, to “go two.” Jesus proclaimed loving and serving our enemies is the solution to the world's issues and said those who love only people like themselves aren't doing anything better than those they perceive to be the worst of a society. True connection to heavenly truth, according to Jesus, was an ability to “love our enemies.”
"Do you do well to feel this way?” Heaven asked Jonah. How about us? Should we be challenged with the same question as we settle in perceptions of people as enemies, terrorists or thugs; unworthy of basic human treatment?
In a recent presidential primary debate, the candidates uniformly called for cruel and violent vengeance in the Middle East, using language like “finish the job” and "wipe them out," sentiments that can be understood in the context of the horror seen on Oct. 7. But can we seek justice without losing our ability to consider if we’re missing a heavenly “do you do well?” opportunity for introspection and thoughtfulness that can help facilitate solutions?
I don't want Israel or the Palestinians to be wiped out. I want generational violence to cease and the human beings in the area to all be able to enjoy life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
I recognize the complexities of the situation are many. Former President Jimmy Carter, who worked his entire life for peace said this:
“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children. To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others.”
Perhaps more of us could realize that war is never good and hear the challenge posed to Jonah: "Do you do well?" Then maybe hearts will change and solutions will follow.
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