Good, evil and war

David Kettle, from the Gospel and Our Culture network, separates fact from fiction in the pursuit of God's goodness

To wage war is a noble enterprise - sometimes in fiction. In the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers, the second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the good, peaceable folk take on the huge, rising forces of evil. It is a story of hope, bravery and fortitude in the face of daunting odds.

But what of war in the real world? Here, too, war can be a conflict between good and evil. However, in the real world, war is also always an evil, for it inevitably brings death and destruction of what is precious before God and bequeaths a wretched burden of grief, anger and guilt.

Jesus said that God alone is good. If God reveals His goodness in a unique way through Jesus, then it follows that in warfare between good and evil, God's goodness will find expression in ways preferable to violent combat. Four ways come to mind.

Avoiding neglect: There is a moment in The Two Towers when, poised for battle with the massed armies of darkness, a leading figure asks: 'How has it come to this?' Every fearsome conflict raises the question: 'Could this have been avoided?' Appeasement is shortsighted, but vigilance in pursuing what is just, in understanding the other and in patient diplomacy are vital expressions of the goodness of God in human life. Sometimes conflict would be unnecessary but for past negligence. God's goodness calls us to resist the slide towards the tragedy of avoidable suffering. This is part of what it means for Christians to stay awake and not doze, to be conscientious servants of God and not idle.

Scorning the romance of war: It is common for people on both sides of a conflict to believe themselves in the right. The Japanese commander of the fleet of aircraft that bombed Pearl Harbor recalls his great sense of dignity in upholding a just cause as his aircraft flew ahead of him on their mission. Some Muslims today see the United States as 'The Great Satan'. Even in a conflict where the right is evidently on one side, there is, at the personal level, suffering 'for the good' on both sides. This is tragic in a world made by one good God, whose Son died that people of every tribe and nation might be saved. And it is also a tragic matter if the rhetoric of spiritual warfare is used by political leaders to short-circuit rather than stimulate moral reflection, to dumb down rather than enrich moral debate.

We might also ask what feeds the romance of war across the world. Irish journalist Brian Keenan wrote that those who held him hostage in Beirut obsessively watched American films of war and violence. He described the many young men who roamed the streets of Beirut, Kalashnikov on arm, 'as caricatures of Rambo... It is a curious paradox that this all-American hero was the stereotype that these young revolutionaries had adopted. They had taken on the cult figure of the Great Satan they so despised and who they claimed was responsible for all the evil in the world'.

Pursuing honesty: Many of us find it hard to judge the rights and wrongs of an attack on Iraq because we do not know what claims to believe. We don't know when to trust intelligence reports, politicians and press, because we have been tricked repeatedly in the past. The filming of a missile strike shown prominently on TV at the opening of the last Gulf War, for example, has since been revealed as fabricated. The warfare of good against evil involves working patiently for honest, open government and society, so that trust and trustworthiness are in place when they are needed, in order for a society to agree together upon hard decisions. The deep roots of such integrity lie in faith in God from whom no secrets are hidden, who is trustworthy and who calls us to reflect His own trustworthiness.

Adopting means worthy of their ends: In the classic tale of conflict between good and evil, the goodies fight fair, the baddies fight dirty. Those who fight for good allow goodness to influence the weapons they use. Supremely, as His testing in the wilderness reminds us, Jesus fought Satan consistently with the weapon of love. Chilling, therefore, are the words of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: 'We didn't lose (the Second World War), we instilled our ideas into the hearts and minds of our conquerors.' Which weapons, which means, should we allow ourselves to adopt today, and which should we reject, in pursuit of good ends? Our low moral standing in the eyes of Islamic and other cultures who see us as the 'Christian' West already puts us on the back foot. What means are we required to adopt if we would witness to a good end?

One vital issue in this regard is the 'collateral damage' caused by our military action: the deaths, injuries, displacement and hunger caused among civilian men, women and children. We might remind ourselves that we worship One whose death was, for Caiaphas, little more than 'collateral damage' in the maintenance of patronage by Imperial Rome. Are we compromised by any such patronage today? I have no idea how the Western confrontation with Iraq will look as you read this, but can Christians, in this setting, still witness to the authentic goodness of God?

Rev David Kettle is co-ordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture network, which was initiated by the late theologian Lesslie Newbigin during the 1980s, to assist the Church's witness in and to Western culture, with a view to transforming that culture. The British group went on to spawn similar networks in New Zealand and North America, who together share insights, articles and reflections via newsletters, email and a website ( Look for other articles from Gospel and Our Culture contributors in future editions of idea magazine.