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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reviewing John Frame's View Of War

There are certain people I do not mind criticizing. But there are others whom I hate to criticize and that is because of my past experiences with them. John Frame, former Westminster Seminaries and current Reformed Theological Seminary professor falls in this latter group. I have very fond memories of John from my days at Westminster Theological Seminary outside of Philadelphia. There, I was an average student but only on a good day and John not only taught with intelligence and a strong desire to follow the Scriptures, he provided a great Biblical example of graciousness, at least from what I saw. The Biblical example of graciousness exhibited by many of the Westminster faculty back then should never be underestimated because a common trap for seminary students studying in the Westminster tradition is to devour the books of John Calvin and Cornelius Van Til in hopes of becoming the fastest theological and apologetic gunslingers in the U.S., if not in the world. The graciousness that I saw in Frame and others back then showed that there is more to practicing apologetics than using an presuppositional model of thought to confuse another person into submission.

In addition to all of the above, Frame would share with those of us students who were Jazz fans his thoughts on music.

All of these warm memories of Professor John Frame makes the kind of disagreement I have with him on war very painful. The articles I will be referring to are Frame on Just War TheoryFrame on Civilian Soldier, Response To "What It Was Like," and Who Owns Palestine.

In the first article, Frame correctly observes that the Just War Theory consists mostly of questions and he correctly points to the Scriptures as our moral compass. The problem with his pointing, however, is that he refers to the wars in the Old Testament without context. Yes, "war is hell" according to the Scriptures and you put everything into it. In addition, he states that war is the prerogative of the civil magistrates and that pre-emptive war might be necessary. But he leaves out the context of the wars fought in the Old Testament. The wars fought by the nation of Israel had a redemptive historical component that no longer exists today. Israel was ordered to attack and conquer to dwell in the land promised to Abraham's descendants in order to dwell with God as a this side of Heaven restoration of the Garden of Eden (see the last post on Old Testament Wars). Thus, unless a nation is repeating the whole nine yards of responding to direct revelation as Israel did, its wars and tactics cannot be used as a model.

Likewise in his article, Frame On Civilian Soldier, Frame states that there are many times when there is little difference between civilians and soldiers. In a few of the examples he cites to justify this view,  examples such as in Vietnam when children would often greet American soldiers with grenades and in Israel where teenage girls were being used as suicide bombers, Frame forgets to mention the context of the conflict. In Vietnam and as now in Israel, there is a context. The context for the civilian attacks was, and still is, the violence visited on them by the invading soldiers. Couldn't this context lead us to reason that civilian violence was the invading military's fault?

Certainly John can say that war is horrible. But except for reading a soldier's account of the Vietnam war (see Response To "What It Was Like,")  he says it abstractly and dispassionately. When he does speak with feeling about war, it is not for the first victims, it is for the soldiers involved. And thus as bad as war is, he expresses no urgency in preventing it and there are three reasons for this. One reason could be location. WW II veteran, Admiral Gene Laroque, stated that because our wars are always in some other country, we cannot see how horrible they are.1 Perhaps if John lived in Lebanon, Palestine, or Afghanistan where wars can occur more regularly, his theology on war would be different. Or if John had spent time with Chris Hedges as Hedges was a war correspondent, again, John would have a different view (see Hedges speak in War Is A Force).

 Yes, John says that the Christian will only support war when it is necessary for the civil magistrate to wage it; but he also calls it "a time-honored way of establishing sovereignty." This becomes the second reason John can't speak strongly against war for war is a game of those in authority and, for too many Christians, Romans 13 makes our first concern the protection of the prestige of our leaders rather than safekeeping of the least of these. This is also seen when he strongly expresses a desire for a way out for conscientious objectors, there is no such expression for the civilian victims. In fact, it is the duty of the regular citizen and the most vulnerable to "die for the sins of their representatives."

And this leads to the third reason why John can't muster the courage to take a stand against war and he is not alone in this. Despite the track record of the Old Testament prophets, most in the Reformed Church can't find the words to speak against those who are ordained by God to bring justice but do just the opposite. Most reformed ministers tell their congregation to follow the words of Peter and Paul to be submissive. While Paul emphasizes that we should do so in order to avoid punishment, Peter adds to that to submit to the government silences our critics. According to them, all of this brings credit to the Gospel. So most Reformed ministers preach that we should submit and if that brings suffering, then it will glorify God. In addition, many Reformed ministers teach that we should submit to the authorities and share the Gospel by leading peaceful and quiet lives. However, it is odd that those who have such a high esteem for the Gospel would prefer personal peace to working for justice.

In addition, these ministers set up a false dichotomy here between submission and speaking out. For from Moses to John the Baptist, God's prophets have righteously challenged those in authority. And all too often, those challenges have led to unjust suffering. The same applies in this age. Martin Luther King, who cited Augustine on how unjust laws are not really binding, had to balance between breaking such laws and submission to those in authority. He concluded that not obeying unjust laws while willingly and lovingly accepting the consequences shows the highest respect for the law because it can make the community sensitive to injustice (see King's letter from a Birmingham jail). The contrast we see in King's approach to submission to those in authority and that preached by Reformed ministers is that King is submitting to the position, principles and values while many Reformed ministers are submitting to people who, historically speaking, are driven by avarice and ambition.

Perhaps a better way of challenging John Frame's views on war is to ask him a hypothetical question. John, suppose I was a soldier in the Wehrmacht who was part of the invasion of Poland and you were a Polish Jew whom I happened upon. I have been taught by my government that I am fighting in Poland to protect Germany, free Polish Germans, and stop or limit the future Bolshevik invasion and by you via your writings on war that humanitarian concerns play a second fiddle to doing what is necessary to achieve "legitimate military objective". Before I shoot, the question I have for you is not what would stop you from being shot, but what would stop me from committing murder?

John, that is the question that troops of every sovereign nation must ask of all who have your view of war and the civil magistrates. Why? It is because a government does not have to be as bad as the Nazi Germany government for it to command its soldiers to commit murder and other atrocities. To say otherwise is to imply that Nazi Germany set the minimal standard for evil--an implication that is a horrendous outrage. Now that we are living in the age of information and democracies, we all bear a great responsibility for the actions of our governments and are thus more culpable when we cooperate or sit in silence as our governments practice injustice.

John, this last point is contrary to what you and most other Reformed teachers and ministers teach. For you and most Reformed teachers and ministers say that we are to always be held accountable by those in authority but we are never allowed to return the favor. However, if we can know what our governments are really doing because of our modern access to information, following your advice, even if we are allowed a conscientious objectors status makes us complicit in their crimes. Our silence or submission to these authorities can sometimes cause us to have the same blood on our hands that they have on theirs.

Perhaps the last paragraph of Frame's article on Civilian Soldier shows my former teacher's greatest fall, a partial fall from humanity. This fall shows how a Reformed minister of the Word can sometime become a Biblical automaton. For there, while he recognizes some of the true reasons for war, he regards humanitarian concerns as niceties that are to be readily sacrificed for "legitimate military objectives."After all, according to John, "legitimate military objectives" come first. No John! There are two commandments that come first. These two commandments are to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And we can say about these commandments what Chris Hedges says about morals; these commandments may not protect us from harm but they can protect us from doing what is wrong.

A final note, I had to revise this article because I had overlooked the article John Frame wrote called Response To "What It Was Like." I apologize for not including the article in the first version of this post. Though inclusion of the article did not change the main points made, it did moderate some of my comments.

1.    Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove ,pg 374.

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