Monday, June 02, 2008

Guest Book Review: The War on Terror

My thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy of Megoran's book, and to Phil for another great review.

Nick Solly Megoran, The War on Terror: How Should Christians Respond? (Downders Grove, Ill.: IVP Books), 2007

Conservative Evangelicals have in recent years acquired a reputation for being so individualistic and other-worldly that they have lost sight of Church's obligation to be engaged in the pressing social and moral issues of the present. Whether true or not, Nick Solly Megoran can be seen as an example of a committed Evangelical, rooted in the tradition of Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, for whom this is clearly not the case. His book is a plea to Christians to analyse their gospel and turn to their scriptures in order to face the most important challenge of our age: the War on Terror. His concern is not only to equip Christians to think about war, but also to build them up in their faith in Christ and enable them to witness to the gospel by talking sensibly to non-Christians in the context of discussions about war. This book has therefore a strong devotional and practical dimension. Each chapter opens with a discussion of a particular portion of the Bible and closes with concrete examples of how these biblical principles have been put into practice.

The War on Terror is divided into four sections with a final appendix. In Part one, Megoran gives an account of various responses to the War on Terror, both secular and Christian. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism has been variously defined as either an “irrational evil” by those on the right or as the result of “government oppression” by those on the left. Both of the main protagonists, Bush and bin Laden, describe the war as one between good and evil. There is also diversity amongst Christians, depending in large part on whether they take up a pacifist or a “just war” position on violence in general. Megoran believes the former is the more biblical, which brings us to Part 2.

The chapters in Part 2 deal with the big questions raised by the war on terror. The first concerns the realism of Jesus' command that we should love our enemies (Mt. 5:9, 38-48). While not wanting to undermining the difficulty of this command, Megoran believes it is the only way to demonstrate the true nature of God and bring about genuine transformation. Just as God has reconciled to himself us who were once his enemies, so we are called to demonstrate the same grace to our enemies. We are liberated by the experience and empowered by the Spirit to do so. In other words, the key to the solution of war is the gospel of justification by faith (44). Reconciliation with God is good news for everyone: terrorists, superpowers, ourselves and the world.

The second question raised by the War on Terror is why God allows such violence to occur in the first place. Though the Bible gives us no answers, the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 4.11-27) represented war as the undoing of God's creation and thus contrary to God's will. Jeremiah promised a new age in which the kingdom of God would be established and there would be no war. The reality of this future kingdom was initiated by Christ, who has reunited us with God. This reality is demonstrated today, in anticipation of its final consummation, wherever his kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness is proclaimed and lived out. This is the task of the church in an age of terror, as illustrated by the early church in Carthage.

Part 3 turns to the practical issue of how the church can concretely “proclaim and live out” Christ's rule. A key concept here is that of “citizenship” (Phil 3:12-21; Jer 29:1-23). Christians have to negotiate between two allegiences: to the state and to heaven. We are to seek the peace and prosperity of the state, which has the divinely instituted role of promoting virtue and preventing vice. On the other hand, the fact that God is our true king means that we are ultimately answerable to a different set of rules. It is these kinds of citizens that the world needs for true peace to reign. Examples are given of Christian responses to U.S. support of Nicaraguan terrorists in the 1980's and the French priest André Trocmé.

Indeed, the gospel as the creation of a community of divinely reconciled sinners creates the conditions for overcoming the idolatry of nationalism. This reconciliation between different peoples is the outworking of God's plan for history, as can be seen in Acts 10.1-23, in the work of post-war Polish and German Bishops and in the movement Reconciliation Walk.

Before we can work for unity in the world, however, we need to work for unity within the church. This is our proof to the world that we have been forgiven and have peace with God. Phil 4:2-9 provides us with five principles for conflict management within the church, which can also be applied to the international scene, as demonstrated by the work of MRA and the LWF in Guatemala.

A role model for being a “citizen of heaven” is ironically provided by Jos 5:13-6.27: the battle of Jericho. This violent story, however, has to be interpreted within the framework of God's big plan. The invasion of Canaan was the task of Israel under the old covenant, where citizenship was understood in earthly terms and so violence was necessary. When it is understood that we are now under a covenant of grace rather law, we are free to spiritualize the story and draw the correct principles. The goal of invasion was to create holiness, a land devoid of whatever is contrary to God. The means for doing so was faith. Examples of these principles in practice are provided by John Paton and Tom Skinner.

The final question concerns hope in the face of the threat of death. On the one hand, Ps 116 assures us that God actually works to save us from literal death in concrete situations, with the result that the church in general is strengthened. Megoran gives examples of deliverance from terrorists, brutal regimes and weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, often the saints do die (see v 15). Even then, their knowledge that death has lost its sting enables them to be witnesses to Christian hope, as the Evangelical church in Beslan has been able to do.

Part 4 brings the baisc theme together. Like Jeremiah, who bought a field despite immanent exile (Jer 32-33), we need to engage in prophetic acts, pointing people to a reality that transcends what is visible now. The work of FFRME and CPT are held up as varied examples. We need to follow Paul's example (Acts 27:17-31), who despite his hopeless situation in prison preached the kingdom and taught Jesus, held as he was by his vision of God's great plan (as Horatio Spafford and Rev. Mehdi Dibaj did). Ultimately, war is nothing new. It is the manifestation of sin, and so the only solution is the gospel, which justifies us and thus brings peace with God and with neighbour. As we wait for the consummation of Christ's kingdom, our task is to prayerfully read our scriptures, think about the issues raised by war and sin, praise God for what he has done and proclaim it to the world.

Megoran has not written an academic treatise. Though one may question at times his theological argument, that is hardly the point of the book. It is an introduction to the key issues that are a matter of life and death, and as such provides an invaluable reference point in a complex area. Most significantly, it is a call for action, and to that end I found the abundant examples of concrete Christian witness in action helpful, inspiring and at the same time shaming for my own inactivity.

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At 6/03/2008 1:38 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

If you can "spiritualize" the genocide at Jericho story then I guess you can "spiritualize" anything. By the way, Calvin's last book that he finished on his death bed was his commentary on the book of Joshua.


Joshua, Calvin, and Genocide By Ronald Goetz

I honestly am not sure what the point of the author was in writing his book, especially the parts of it in which he mentions times when Christians were saved from being killed by terrorists, but adds that Christians have also been killed by terrorists, and how both cases support his thesis.

Oh, and on Jericho, it wasn't even inhabited at the time the Bible says its inhabitants were killed.

At 6/03/2008 10:28 PM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Edward,

I agree that we shouldn't spiritualize the conquest in order to take away its harshness. Even if it is a literary construct (as you imply), it is still presents the situation realistically enough and claims that this is willed by God.

However, in traditional Christian interpretation there has been the recognition that there are different levels of meaning, according to different contexts and different functions. Though Megoran does go into detail, I agree that as far as Christian exegesis is concerned the Joshua narrative needs to be read as part of the broader plan of God. Such a conquest is never again order, it has a once and for all quality. Later Israel is subjected to the same punishment that they inflicted on the Canaanites, as they commited the same sins. With Jesus, Christians see the original function of the conquest - i.e. the establishment of a holy nation - as being fulfilled in him. A new stage in the "economy of salvation" has opened up and so the old rules no longer apply. Still, the paradox of the situation is that it is in terms of the Old Testament that the New is revealed, so we are still tied to the Old to make sense of our very new situation. This is where a more figurative interpretation takes place, one that sees the new in terms of the old but also the old in terms of the new. I don't have any concrete answers on how to appropriate Joshua for today, but I think Megoran's is a fair attempt.

Thanks for the link to the article.

At 6/03/2008 10:29 PM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

I meant "though Megoran does NOT go into detail"


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