The Curious Logic of +Will Willimon and Ben Witherington

From here:

You see the whole point of terrorism is not to wage open war with a larger and more well equipped foe.  The point is to strike fear into the heart of one’s enemy hoping they will colossally over react, and waste their precious blood, money and time chasing ghosts, at home and abroad.  We are still busily doing that in various ways.  On that showing, 9/11 was an enormous success for the terrorists.  We ended up striking an enemy in Iraq that had nothing to do with Al Quaeda or Osama bin Laden, was nowhere near his lair, and had no weapons of mass destruction, as it turns out.

And here is the problem with fear based decision making and enormous reprisals—- you become what you despise.  Your behavior is little better than those who attacked you.   And such behavior is in no way Christian, frankly.   The right response to 9/11 was indeed to repent of our own sins, get our house in order, and be better than our enemies.  Indeed, the Bible says we should overcome evil with good, and even love our enemies.  I like the bumper sticker that says—- ‘Love your enemies—- it will confuse them’.   The difference between Christians and followers of some other religions should be that we leave vengeance in the hands of the Lord— indeed the Bible is emphatic about this—- ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,  I will repay’.

–Dr. Ben Witherington, Asbury Theological Seminary

And from here:

As a Christian, I’m forced to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that all presumptive lordlets are not. So when our President declares that we have a responsibility to fight, to destroy, to force democracy and our brand of freedom anywhere, I wish I had the guts to ask, “Who is this ‘we’ of whom you speak? We are Christians; Jesus gives us some odd definitions of ‘we.'”

I’m not sure that Christians in America could do much to stop these Bush-Obama Near Eastern wars without end. But could we have at least contributed to the national debate by offering an occasional, “But Jesus says that …”?

In our attempts to be good, responsible members of a democracy, we have given away the store. While we say Jesus Christ is Lord, we let Caesar call the shots.

–Bishop Will Willimon, United Methodist Church

I have great respect for Ben Witherington and Will Willimon. Several of their books grace my bookshelves and they have helped me grow as a theologian and Christian. I consider their theology to be rock solid. I am also delighted to see them lending their formidable pens in the ongoing discussion about radical Islam and our nation’s response to it. We need to pay attention to what they say, even when we disagree with their points of view as I do here, because voices like theirs tend to have a leavening effect on how we see and wage war.

But I find their arguments to be curious in this instance. It appears that they both make the category mistake of treating government as Christian individuals, of arguing that the same rules of engagement apply to governments as they do to individual Christians. In doing so, I think they overstep their bounds and ignore key biblical texts in the process.

True, the NT writers insist that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not (and so do I), and with this I have no argument with Willimon and Witherington. But saying and believing that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not does not change the fact that nowhere in the NT do we find anything close to a mandate saying that governments must follow the same rules of engagement as individual Christians. We can find instances in the NT that acknowledge that governments exist under God’s authority, e.g., John 19:11, Romans 13:1-7, but this is not the same as arguing that government is enjoined to behave as an individual Christian.

Moreover, both ignore Paul’s writings in Romans 13:4, in which he states that government is, “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer” (Gr. kakos, pertaining to being socially or morally reprehensible, bad, evil; pertaining to being harmful or injurious, evil, injurious, dangerous, pernicious, of things or conditions, BDAG). No one who has a modicum of objectivity or morality can deny that bin Laden and his ilk fit this description of wrongdoer, especially after witnessing the horrific events of 9/11.

Last, in attempting to impose the rules of engagement for individual Christians on governments, Willimon’s and Witherington’s arguments perforce put our government in a very awkward situation because the United States government has distinctly different duties than individuals. Their arguments tend to ignore the constitutional mandate found in the Preamble for our government, “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” If our government does not have the God-given authority to serve as an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer, if it must always turn the other cheek as Christians must do when we are violated or injured, it makes it nearly impossible for our government to fulfill one of its constitutional duties, namely to provide for the common defense (and in doing so, to promote the general welfare).

Witherington is correct that the terrorists want to inflict fear on their enemies. After all, if they didn’t, we would not call them terrorists. But I fear he is terribly mistaken if he believes that the terrorists do not intend to wage war on us. Perhaps not open war, but does it really make any difference what the method of war-making is? If anything, terrorist warfare is far more evil and cruel than conventional, open warfare. At least in the latter, combatants are expected to abide by a nominal set of rules; whereas terrorists have no rules. That is what makes them terrorists and that is why we fear them so much. Radical Islam is hellbent on destroying us and while as individual Christians we dare not take revenge on them, we have every right to expect our government to see that justice is pursued. I do not see this as being unfaithful to Scripture if we hold such a view.

War is a grievous thing and no Christian should support it enthusiastically or unquestioningly. But neither should Christians engage in selective proof-texting of Scripture to help them argue for or against a particular war. I happen to support our government’s efforts to wage war on the terrorists and those governments and individuals who sponsor them. At the same time I pray every day for these terrorists and their sponsors. I pray that God will send his Spirit on them, that he will change their hearts and minds so that they may see Jesus as Lord and abandon their evil and wicked ways so that they too might be saved (and it will take an act of God to accomplish this). I want everyone to be saved, even the most vile of terrorists. I pray this way and desire their conversion, not out of some smug sense of moral self-righteousness, but because I realize that I too am hopelessly lost without the saving grace of Jesus Christ. In doing so, I trust I am being faithful to the Lord as a Christian and also that I am holding a biblical view of government as it executes its God-given authority in this particular instance. That does not mean I support all wars or give carte blanche approval to our government and its policies.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, I respect Willimon’s and Witherington’s voices and their positions in this debate. I can certainly see how and why they would hold their respective views. They are guilty, however, of making a category mistake in their arguments and have ignored critical texts in the NT. What do you think?

1 thought on “The Curious Logic of +Will Willimon and Ben Witherington

  1. A very clear argument and explanation of your position. It helps me understand much better this position, since I am not particularly versed in government and exactly what the various documents which define our government say. It shows me just what you are pointing out–the difference between being an individual Christian, and the government’s role in carrying out God’s will between groups/nations. Caleb Evans also has helped me understand the need for a military, and that it can act peacably, but also may need to use force at times because of the existence of evil.

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