Is there such a thing as “a good war”?
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.Why do we call Good Friday good? Its central act was bloody, brutal, horrific, sheer evil. How can this day be good?
– T.S. Eliot, East Coker IV, Four Quartets
(1) Christ’s self-sacrifice reveals the depths of God’s love for us in the midst of horror and brutality...It’s not a “God is love and therefore everyone and everything is just fine as it is” platitude we’re given on Good Friday but the assurance that even a frontal attack on God himself cannot extinguish the love with which he pursues us. Cf. John 15.
(2) Christ’s death has a good outcome, leading to resurrection. Good Friday is good because of what happened as a result – people are reconciled with God and the way to life beyond death is opened for us. This ensures that the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are realistic.
In what ways could we have a “good war”?
(1) There are virtues (as well as vices) on display in war: loyalty, friendship, self-sacrifice, endurance, courage. We do not celebrate WW1 or any other war. But we honour and acknowledge the good that was found in the trenches - on both sides - amidst the horror and evil.
(2) We do not celebrate the war itself but we acknowledge with gratitude the good that was preserved and the good that came in its wake.
Zephaniah was predicting war, a shake up of the socio-economic system. I have preferred previously to Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (2017). He observes that in England the richest 1% owned 70% of all private wealth just before WW1. Mass-mobilization warfare was a catalyst for greater equality and social solidarity, democratisation (extension of franchise to women) and greater power for workers through unions after WW1, the NHS after WW2. There is arguably good for which the wars have been a catalyst.
Zephaniah 3:6-7 offers two daring thoughts:
(1) God himself wages war.Both are poetic pictures that could be misunderstood.
(2) God deliberates and seems disappointed.
(1) God does not literally engage in war as an actor alongside other actors. He neither engages physically in combat, nor gives orders supporting one side of the war.So why speak in these ways? As for (1), there are specific reasons for highlighting divine involvement in sixth century BC events and there is the general observation that if God is Almighty he cannot not be involved. There are other parts of Scripture more useful to explore the nature of God's involvement in war, here it is sufficient to say that God is not uninvolved.
(2) God cannot be taken by surprise and having read the previous two chapters we know that the prophet, too, was under no illusions about the possibility of disaster being averted.
As for (2), this is a a way of highlighting what would be reasonable and logical. If you find yourself on a road that leads to death and disaster and you notice things beginning to disintegrate, you stop, turn around and come back to the source of life and justice. Everything else does not make sense. Alas, God knows, as do modern psychologists (cf. Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind) that we human beings are not nearly as empirical and logical, as we would like to think.
Verse 8 reiterates and sums up the comprehensive and total war the seventh-century BC prophet foresaw for his people and region. But what is the point? If the beginnings of war have not produced a change of mind, what good is "a great war" going to be?
Verses 9-11 offer a glimpse. “Surely then” – the destruction of pride and arrogance, the failure of ideologies, the demolition of objects of trust and dependence which compete with the one who alone should be our sure trust and defence, prepares the ground for a big “change” (v. 9, note that the Hebrew word is elsewhere used for overthrowing soemthing, suggesting that an overturning is needed, not merely a gift of pure speech).
Why the emphasis on the purification of speech (mentioned first and picked up later in "will not tell lies" and "no deceitful tongue will be found in their mouths" said about the remnant)?
One reasons is that truthful speech about God is essential for people to come to know God and so call on his name and seek refuge in the name of the LORD (vv. 9, 12), cf. the false speech in 2:8, 10.
Also, fake news foster enmity and unity is the other emphasis ("so that all of them...with one accord") with even distant nations bringing tribute to God, acknowledging him as sovereign. Only then will swords be turned into ploughshares. This promise has not (yet) been comprehensively fulfilled but in Christ God made himself more fully known and draws people from all nations together.
Experience of war can play a role in this. “For God and country” - the motto of many military regiments and other institutions on different sides of conflict - at its best can be a reminder of our responsibilities beyond the immediate family, but at its worst has been used to co-opt God for our agendas. Maybe one good thing of two world wars is that such partisan claims to divine support have become less credible to us and this can spur us on to a deeper understanding of who God truly is.
We have more recently also experienced renewed prosperity and with it a turning away from God as well as rising inequality...But even long after an armistice, a war can bear good fruit, if our remembrance inspires us to seek God, to seek justice and humility (cf. 2:1-3).
It does not happen automatically. In the first few years after the armistice of 1918 there was pride on the one side and humiliation on the other side. The Great War seemed a “good war” for Britain and others, a bad one for Germany and others. In reality, "the war to end all wars" was nothing of the sort and a bad war on both sides because out of pride and humiliation grew the next war.
God’s purposes are different. “On that day you shall not be disgraced because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me...I will remove from your midst those of you who are exulting with pride.”
In God’s kingdom there is no place for humiliation and disgrace, nor for pride and boasting.
Why this is so we see in the cross of Christ. We come to the cross as those who receive a gift.
Pride is a failure to acknowledge that all good gifts come from above, that we depend on God for absolutely everything. If we are better than others. If we recognise and speak the truth, if we do not commit wrong, if we love our neighbour and seek their best, it is by God’s grace. If we look down on others we thereby prove that we are not in fact better than them.
Humility is the right stance towards God. And it is very different from being humiliated – or even from putting ourselves down. Holding on to our shame is as much a denial of God’s grace as is pride. The gift we receive as we come to the cross is forgiveness – so that our past need not shape our future.
Pride and humiliation drive us away from God and pull us apart from each other. God’s burning anger which is his firm opposition to our pride and humiliation is our salvation. God takes us out of the cycle of recrimination and violence, reconciles us to himself and allows us to see ourselves and the other in a different light.
May we receive the gift of knowing God for who he truly is and to seek him and his kingdom and so come to the peace and security that is ours in Christ.