Pastoral Letter
April 9, 2003

Dear Friends,

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

This is the second pastoral letter addressing the issues related to a Presbyterian understanding of war. Of course these issues are not just Presbyterian, but are shared by all the Christian community. But what has been the position of Presbyterians down through our history? What is our position today? To answer these questions we have to look at several issues.

The first issue has to do with the value of human life. Since the time of John Calvin we have understood that human beings are created in the image of God. And although that image is marred by sin, it remains as a continuing characteristic of human life. Calvin also understood that we are to relate to this image of God in human beings as if we were relating to God. This is to say, we are to treat human life as sacred and with the highest respect. This is the theological basis for our commitment to human rights. All humans carry the image of God and are valued by God. It is for this reason that we are prohibited in the Ten Commandments to take human life. This is also why all humans have a right to justice. In Biblical teaching we see that there is a direct correlation between our relationship with God and our relationship to other human beings. This correlation becomes explicit in the New Testament with the positive command to love God and neighbor. In fact, the New Testament challenges us to love our enemy and to give our lives for others. No where in the New Testament can we find a teaching that would encourage us to take the life of another human being. Rather, we are to embrace the cross of self-sacrifice and be prepared to suffer humiliation, abuse and even death as an expression of our love for others. This is not to say that we are powerless. But we are to understand that the greatest power is spiritual in nature and it is this power that can turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). This is the power of the Holy Spirit expressed in grace and love.

In tension with this understanding of the value of human life is the reality of sin. Presbyterians cannot escape the issue of sin. This is not to say that we are pessimistic, but rather realistic about human nature. While the presence of the Holy Spirit makes justice and peace a possibility, sin makes discipline a necessity. Human beings have a perennial tendency to self-interest, will-to-power and self-deception. We can be abusive, cruel and selfish. As individuals, this tendency is weakened by a moral conscience and the natural empathy we have with those around us. We treat others as we would have them treat us. This is a form of natural justice. Unfortunately, natural justice is not enough to curb sin. Presbyterians have understood that sin also requires institutional forms of justice. One side of this justice is provided by the Church as an institution. The Church has the power of spiritual discipline. This is to say that the Church has the responsibility to present the gospel to the world and to encourage believers in moral and ethical behavior. This is not a coercive power, but rather the power of the Holy Spirit and grace and love that we have already mentioned. In this regard, the Church is to be a prophetic voice in the world proclaiming the justice of God’s Kingdom. A Kingdom of grace and peace.

The other side of this justice is the discipline identified with the State or government. Traditionally, Presbyterians have understood that the State carries the power of the “sword”. That is to say that government is responsible for law and order and uses coercive measures to insure justice and peace. It is the task of the State to limit the destructive possibilities of sin. In the time of the Reformation it was understood that the Church and State were both expressions of God’s providence and subject to God’s sovereign authority. This is to say that the State was not free to pursue it’s own interests, but was to be guided by the moral counsel of the Church. The Church was to function as the conscience for the State so as to limit and guide the use of the “sword”. Of course, in modern pluralistic democracy this model has taken on another form. The relationship is less direct between Church and State. But the moral obligation of the Church to be a voice in society remains. In our context the task becomes one of building a moral consensus and influencing political decisions through the democratic process.

Unfortunately, sin is not just an individual concern. It is also a collective expression of self-interest, will-to-power and self-deception of social groups. It was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his book Moral Man and Immoral Society who brought this observation to our attention in the middle of the last century. Niebuhr made the observation that groups are in practice less moral than individuals. He observed that groups are less subject to reason and to natural justice than individuals. As he observed the conflicts and wars (hot and cold) of the twentieth century he came to the conclusion that groups are guided more by emotion and nationalistic passion than reason. This leads to a greater degree of self-deception and rationalization of war and even of genocide. He saw this unfold with the Fascist and Marxist movements in Europe.

It is this collective understanding of sin that brings us to the issue of war. At what point does the need to limit collective sin lead us to the discipline of war? This will have to be addressed as we look to the issue of Just War Theory. At this point we are left in the tension between our command to love and our responsibility to limit the destructiveness of sin. We are left with the obligation to sacrifice our lives in our love for others and we are also left with the obligation to limit the destructive behavior of others in the name of that same love. Once again, no one said love would be easy.

George M. Wortham