Talk show host Larry King raised a key question to five Christian leaders debating the impending war with Iraq this week on CNN: "What would Jesus say?"
The varied responses heard on Tuesday night's "Larry King Live" help explain the radically different points of view among U.S. Christians about an invasion of Iraq. Although the guests claimed to speak for no one but themselves, their positions reflect the general tendency for mainline Protestants and Catholics to oppose the war and evangelicals to support it.
Most remarkable about the discussion was the ease with which each side supported its position with different aspects of Jesus's Gospel teachings, the core of Christian faith.
Opponents of the war quoted the Sermon on the Mount -- "blessed are the peacemakers" -- to argue for continued diplomatic efforts. Supporters discounted such explicit messages of peace and stressed more-obscure Gospel references to swords and battle as justifications for going to war.
Because the question of religion hangs over the conflict -- a predominantly Christian country attacking a mostly Muslim one -- the issue of salvation entered the discussion in a way that it never does on such divisive topics as abortion and assisted suicide. Here the tables turned, with the evangelical panelists quoting an explicit Gospel assertion -- that salvation comes only through Jesus -- while their liberal colleagues took the more interpretive stance that "God is large enough to be inclusive of all human beings."
But on the central question of what Jesus would say about an invasion of Iraq, it was the Catholic and Protestant panelists who answered most directly and scored the most points in the debate. "He would be very much" against the war, said the Rev. Michael Manning, a California-based priest who is host of an international television program, "The Word in the World." He said Jesus would say, "Peace. Let's move with peace. Let's talk and move with strong force to a peaceful resolution."
Bishop Melvin Talbert, ecumenical officer of the United Methodist Church, the denomination to which President Bush belongs, quoted the Sermon on the Mount and said: "Jesus followed in the footsteps of . . . prophets of God in the Old Testament [who] challenged nations to beat their swords and spears into pruning hooks and plowshares. And that meant using investments for war for feeding children."
The three other guests, all evangelical Christians, said Jesus did not condone war but did not oppose it either. Their oblique responses relied on what they said Jesus surely meant in certain parables and speeches rather than on his frequent statements about nonviolence.
"Well, the Lord met a Roman centurion once, a Roman centurion in his earthly ministry, and he never rebuked the centurion at all for being a warrior," said Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. "The Lord said that the world will always know wars and the rumors of wars right up until the end times."
Best-selling author Max Lucado, pastor of Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, said he goes to the Apostle Paul for guidance on the issue of war.
"According to Romans 13, the government and those in authority are really ministers appointed by heaven to protect and to punish," Lucado said. "I agree very much with the concept that we have to let [war] be the last resort. But somebody has to make that call."
John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., and a syndicated radio host, agreed: "I can't say whether this war is right or wrong nationally or whatever. All I can say is, God instituted government to carry a sword to protect innocent people and to punish the evildoers."
He bolstered his argument by alluding to a passage in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus warns of the dangers of being a Christian and tells his disciples to protect themselves by carrying a sword. (Christian opponents of gun control quote this passage, read metaphorically by some scholars, to justify their owning of handguns.)
MacArthur also cited 1 Samuel, an Old Testament work written 900 years before Jesus, as one of the passages Christians should consult to "see what the Bible actually says" about God's call for war: "God tells Israel to go to war against Amalek [a city whose occupants frequently attacked the Israelites] . . . and destroy the Amalekites because they were a blight on humanity."
King asked MacArthur whether people can find verses of Scripture "to back up anything," and the evangelist responded: "That's a very typical way that people view the Bible because there are people who use the Bible to try to prove everything."
"Right," King said. MacArthur, missing the ironic retort, went on to interpret another passage of Scripture.
Talbert interjected that rather than attack Iraq on its own, the United States should rely on the United Nations, at least as the "first option," as a "vehicle for solving conflict."
Jones, alluding to a common fundamentalist belief that the United Nations represents an evil one-world government prophesied in the Book of Revelation, retaliated: "The United Nations is a threat to our national sovereignty. It always has been. It always will be."
The most animated exchange during the hour-long program occurred when a caller raised the issue of salvation by asking the guests' views on Islam. The evangelicals pulled out their Jesus quotes, and the Catholic and Protestant guests put theirs away.
"John MacArthur, you believe the Muslim people, the Islamic people, are wrong," King said to the evangelist sitting with him and Manning in the studio (Lucado, Jones and Talbert participated by satellite transmission).
"That's right. And this is not some personal belief of mine," said MacArthur, who called Islam a "false" religion. "Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' "
"You must believe that, too, Father," King said to Manning.
"I believe very much that the love of God is strong," the priest said. "Jesus -- Jesus loves all people. Jesus died for all people, and I can't imagine . . . "
"He died for the Islamic, too?" King interrupted.
"Of course he did," Manning said. "And he loves them with a passion."
"You believe that, too?" King said to MacArthur.
"Well, I believe God loves his creatures, his creations," MacArthur said. "But in the end he's going to condemn to an eternal hell all those who reject his son Jesus Christ."
Talbert and Manning said they are open to the possibility that Muslims and people of other non-Christian faiths can be saved -- a growing sentiment among many Catholics and mainline Protestants (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, United Church of Christ).
"I have talked with Muslim leaders," Talbert said. "They are -- the ones I've met -- very fine people. They are on their way [to salvation] just as certain as I'm on my way."
Given such differences of opinion on the war, King asked Jones whose guidance lay Christians should follow. "The issue we can't disagree on is the authority of the Bible, the exclusivity of the Savior, Jesus Christ," Jones said.
King asked Talbert how the Muslim world might view the conflict, given that Bush is a born-again Christian (by definition a person who believes salvation comes only through Jesus).
"Unfortunately, I believe that the people in the Muslim world will see a war led by the [Christian] person from America as a Christian crusade," Talbert said. " . . . And it's going to push the feeling of the people from the moderate to the more radical leaders in the Muslim world."
MacArthur said the war is about "international issues," not about religion, the Bible or repentance. "It just happens that George Bush is a Christian," he said.
How confused Jesus himself must be.