Everyone, it seems, wants Jesus on his side. Nutritionists publish books with titles like "What Would Jesus Eat?" Environmentalists issue policy statements asking "What Would Jesus Drive?" With talk of war, we're now hearing "How Would Jesus Vote on Iraq?" - assuming that he were a member of the United Nations Security Council.
A growing number of religious leaders have decided that Jesus would veto a war against Saddam Hussein. Back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq earlier this month, a delegation from the National Council of Churches said it harbored no doubts: "As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, we know this war is completely antithetical to his teachings." The Christian Century magazine, quoting from the Sermon on the Mount, has criticized military action by warning that "he who hates his neighbor is in danger of hellfire."
Religious liberals are making the same mistake that often bedevils religious conservatives: They're grossly oversimplifying the Bible. It's true that Jesus put the love of neighbor at the center of Christian ethics. Forgiveness, not vengeance, animates the heart of God, offered freely to any person willing to renounce sin. But the Christian Gospel is not only about "the law of love," as war opponents like to put it. It's also about the fact that people violate that law.
That's why Jesus talked a great deal about punishment, and the moral obligation to oppose evil with a strong and swift hand. Human evil must be confronted, he said, not merely contained. Depending on the threat, a kind of "pre-emptive strike" or judgment against evil might even be required: "Be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). Allow the darkness to roam unchecked, Jesus said, and it will devour individuals and entire regimes. That helps explain why in the New Testament we see the Son of God rebuking hateful mobs, casting demons into the abyss, chasing religious charlatans out of a temple with a whip. "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth," he said. "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).
Ministers have always invoked the example of Jesus to judge the morality of United States military action, but not always with their eyes open. The Rev. Ernest Fremont Tittle, a Methodist leader during World War II, insisted on American isolation even after Hitler's war machine had ravaged most of Europe and threatened Britain. Jesus "does not try to overcome evil with more evil," Mr. Tittle argued. "I can see only ruin ahead if the United States becomes a belligerent in Europe or in Asia - ruin for us and for all mankind."
Like Mr. Tittle, many of today's war critics hail Jesus as "the Prince of Peace," while forgetting that the Bible also calls him "the Lion of the tribe of Judah," the one "who judges and wages war." In itself, that's not an argument for a pre-emptive strike on Baghdad. But it's a good reason for a little more humility among the apostles of diplomacy.
Joseph Loconte, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.
Originally appeared in the New Yorks Times