PARIS, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- There are times when excellent books appear just a trifle too early.
Would it that William H. Lazareth's wonderful volume, Christians in Society (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001; 274 pp., $22), had been written with Sept. 11 in mind!
It is about Luther, the Bible and societal ethics, making the clean moral distinctions that are the trademark of the 16th-century reformer's theology -- a trademark urgently needed in this postmodern era of mushy argumentation.
The world thirsts for theological and ethical clarity, especially after hijacked airplanes had crashed into skyscrapers, killing thousands and prompting the United States and Britain to fight terrorism in faraway Afghanistan.
The dearth of precise theological thinking, especially among some contemporary followers of Luther and Calvin, has made Syrian-German political science professor Bassam Tibi rail in exasperation, "There is nothing worse than self-loathing Protestants!"
Tibi's beef is with mainline clerics who reject their own tradition, which has always upheld "just war" doctrines and opposed pacifism, the property of the peace churches such as the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Brethren.
But is "just war" a correct term? Not quite, Lazareth says on the eve of this coming Reformation Sunday. Since he could not make the proper distinctions on this particular topic in his pre-Sept. 11 book, he did so now in a correspondence with United Press International.
"Warfare can never be 'just' in the strict sense of being righteous before God," he wrote, but then qualified this by saying, "It can nevertheless be 'justifiable' when employed by armed public officials in the sanctioned defense of citizens and their constitutional rights in a democratic and pluralistic society."
Here, Lazareth elaborates one of his book's compelling themes -- the "preserving function" of God's law as it was made clear by the apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans: "The authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4).
To be sure, the doctrine of original sin holds that man's gifts of reason and will are corrupted. Nevertheless, argues Lazareth, "All persons remain capable of coordinating these gifts in the pursuit of societal order and justice in civil righteousness."
He adds, "Responsible men and women can still obey the letter, though not the spirit, of God's law, even if driven only by fear of punishment or in the hope of enlightened self-interest."
The point is that original sin did not manage to destroy one of humanity's assets -- conscience. This asset enables God to use responsible citizens to help preserve society under the leadership of public officials.
They are accountable to God's law for the protection of the weak and the exploited =- and for the punishment of criminals and aggressive warmongers, Lazareth points out.
A systematic theologian of world renown and former Lutheran bishop of Metropolitan New York, Lazareth, 74, introduces the arresting concept of tough love.
God employs a strange form of tough love remedially as the lesser of evils in a fallen world threatened by anarchy or dictatorships, he suggests. This occurs when officials use duly restrained power in the ultimate service of peace.
"To achieve the common good, civilly authorized killing is not tantamount to murder committed privately," the Princeton-based theologian continues and reminds us that Deuteronomy 5:17 is habitually mistranslated into, "You shall not kill."
"In truth, it is murder that is absolutely forbidden in the Ten Commandments," Lazareth says.
Of course Lazareth argues along the lines of Luther, whose history-changing deed Protestants traditionally commemorate on the Sunday closest to its anniversary:
On Oct. 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany. In so doing he resurfaced the biblical truth that man cannot buy eternal bliss, not even with indulgences sold to finance the construction of the then new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Instead, as Lazareth put it, "Faithful Christians are reckoned as righteous before God ... in God's gracious exchange whereby Christ takes on our sinfulness and we take on Christ's righteousness."
Three years ago in Augsburg, Germany, the Roman Catholic Church signed an agreement with the Lutheran World Federation affirming this key theological statement of the Reformation, called the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.
Since the 16th century, many a wayward Protestant kidded himself that since he was already justified by Christ's sacrifice, God's law no longer applied.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian martyred by the Nazis, labeled this fallacy "cheap grace."
In truth, though, the very elegance of Lutheran theology lies in maintaining the fine balance between law and Gospel. This is precisely what Lazareth is attempting to do as he extends his book's line of moral argument to the current war.
Musing about "justifiable war," he stresses the law side of his argument. But then he quickly points out that a Christian must also consider the Gospel's implications.
The Gospel message is, "In Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). This calls for an obedient gratitude for God's unconditional forgiveness.
Therefore, Lazareth insists, "Christians are called to put their faith to work in love and justice in their daily vocations and public involvements.
"The moral responsibility of every Christian is to act as a kind of 'little Christ' to one's neighbors."
Thus, the Lutheran law-and-Gospel dialectic has vital connotations for the current conflict, according to Lazareth:
"In the wake of Sept. 11, American Christians will respond actively both to Caesar and to God, in obedience of Jesus Christ (Luke 20:25).
"As citizens, they will first 'render to Caesar' their civil and military service through defensive warfare against terrorists in the present. They will seek justice, not vengeance, as a vital part of their Christian social responsibility."
But as they are also disciples, they must heed Christ's word, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).
As disciples, then, they render service to God by fighting the war intentionally as an initial contribution to future peace, Lazareth insists.
"Assisting a postwar Afghanistan even to begin to enjoy a higher standard of living in a more open and tolerant society will pose almost impossible challenges," he allows.
"Nevertheless, in anticipation, American Christians will already now vigilantly oppose (1) all forms of enemy hatred, (2) jingoistic nationalism, and (3) any future unlimited escalation or indiscriminate military responses that deliberately and randomly kill innocent civilians."
According to Lazareth and Luther, Scripture makes it a Christian's duty to fight the operation called Enduring Freedom. But in the final analysis, they are called to love their God-given neighbors -- in the present case, the people of Afghanistan.