Obama and War: What Would Jesus Do?

Rev. John Whitehead

By John W. Whitehead

“I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn’t ‘fall out in church’ as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn’t want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”—Barack Obama in a January 23, 2008 interview with Christianity Today

Barack Obama came into the office of the presidency proclaiming hope and change and a personal adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who preached a message of peace, love and nonviolence. Yet any hope that Obama’s professed religious beliefs might lead him to put an end to the endless wars was short-lived. Indeed, rather than dismantling the military empire that became a hallmark of George W. Bush’s presidency, Obama has continued to spread American troops around the globe.


Boasting the biggest war budget since World War II (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have now passed the $1 trillion mark, with Congress recently approving an additional $37 billion in war funding), Obama’s war machine is wreaking havoc far and wide on communities and families devastated by mounting military and civilian casualties, on the already faltering economy, and on America’s once-noble standing in the world. Even the recent disclosure of more than 90,000 secret military files documenting a failing Afghanistan war riddled by undocumented civilian casualties has not managed to slow Obama’s steadfast march to war.

Halfway through his four-year term in office, it is increasingly clear that Obama’s presidential priorities are being dictated by war hawks rather than the principles of Jesus. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh observed in an April 2010 speech, “At this point, [Obama’s] in real trouble. Because the military are dominating him on the important issues of the world: Iraq, Iran, Afghan and Pakistan. And he’s following the policies of Bush and Cheney almost to a fare-thee-well.”

Unfortunately, by adhering to these flawed policies, Obama has chosen to expand America’s military empire rather than investing in the all-too-real needs of the American people—what Martin Luther King Jr. likened to choosing guns over butter. King warned that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself, but Obama has clearly failed to heed that warning, as did his predecessor, who also professed to follow Christ’s teachings. Just imagine how much could have been done to help the homeless and poor in America (which includes women and children)—or in the words of the president, feed the hungry and heal the sick—using only a fraction of the more than $1 trillion spent so far on these futile wars.

For example, according to the National Priorities Project, for the price of America’s two wars, the U.S. could have paid the entire healthcare bill for 294 million people or 440 million children for one year; underwritten the cost of 7,779,092 affordable housing units; provided 1,035,282,468 homes with renewable electricity for a year; or provided the maximum Pell Grant award ($5,500) to all 19 million U.S. college and university students for the next 9 years.

Ultimately, there is no way to square Obama’s role as a war maker with the teachings of Jesus who preached against the use of violence—war, of course, being organized, systematic violence. One can only imagine that Jesus would be horrified. After all, many who strive to follow Jesus’ teachings find it impossible to participate in war. In fact, leaders in the early church adopted Jesus’ attitude of nonviolence. Tertullian (born about AD 160), one of the giants of the early church, stated very clearly that confessing “Jesus as Lord” means taking the teachings of Jesus seriously. Just as Caesar commanded men to kill their enemies, Jesus commanded them to love their enemies. Caesar made use of killing, maiming and torture, in much the same way as modern governments do today. Jesus, on the other hand, taught the need to forgive and to sacrifice power for servanthood.

In fact, Tertullian had pithy advice for soldiers who converted to Christianity: quit the army or be martyred for refusing to fight. Tertullian was not alone in his thinking. “For three centuries,” writes biblical scholar Walter Wink in The Powers That Be, “no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle.” This, of course, changed in the third century when the church was institutionalized and became an integral part of the warring Roman Empire.

Jesus’ apostles never advocated violence. Rather, they urged their followers to suffer, forgive and trust God for the outcome rather than take matters into their own hands. And while they may have talked about warfare and fighting, it was not through the use of conventional weapons. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

Christ’s crucifixion was a radical repudiation of the use of violent force. And the cross, which was the Roman tool of execution, was reserved especially for leaders of rebellions. “Anyone proclaiming a rival kingdom to the kingdom of Caesar would be a prime candidate for crucifixion,” writes Brian McLaren in The Secret Message of Jesus. “This is exactly what Jesus proclaimed, and this is exactly what he offered.” But Jesus’ kingdom was one of peace. Among other things, he proclaimed, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also.” Consequently, Jesus ordered Peter not to use the sword, even to protect him.

The so-called Roman peace (Pax Romana) was made possible by the cross. That is, people so feared crucifixion that many opted not to challenge the emperor rather than face the possibility of death on the cross. Why then would early Christians choose the cross—an instrument of torture, domination, fear, intimidation and death—as their primary symbol? What could this possibly mean?

For early Christians, “it apparently meant that the kingdom of God would triumph not by inflicting violence but by enduring it,” notes McLaren, “not by making others suffer but by willingly enduring suffering for the sake of justice—not by coercing or humiliating others but by enduring their humiliation with gentle dignity.” Jesus, they believed, had taken the empire’s instrument of torture and transformed it into God’s symbol of the repudiation of violence. The message? Love, not violence, is the most powerful force in the universe.

Not surprisingly, the early Christians were not crusaders or warriors but martyrs—men and women with the faith and courage to face the lions. Like Jesus, they chose to suffer rather than inflict violence.

When Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” exhorting his followers to turn the other cheek and give freely, he was telling us that active peacemaking is the way to end war. Can you imagine what the world would be like if every church adopted that attitude and focused its energies on active peacemaking?

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who vocally opposed the Vietnam War, took to heart Jesus’ teachings about peacemaking. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, King proclaimed:

Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say “we must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace.

This is not to say that Jesus was a pacifist. The opposite is true. He spoke truth to power and engaged in active resistance to injustice. In my opinion, Jesus would have intervened to defend someone being violently mistreated, and I believe we must do the same. But he would never have engaged in violence as the means to an end.

One has to wonder what Jesus would say about war being waged in his name today. As Gary Wills writes in What Jesus Meant, “If people want to do battle for God, they cannot claim Jesus has called them to this task, since he told Pilate that his ministers would not do that.” In fact, as Wills notes, Jesus “never accepted violence as justified.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org

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