OK, be warned.
This is one long blog post. Feel free to back out now with no questions asked!
My feeling, however, is that the issue at hand is important enough to justify the space.
Months ago, I received this e-mail on the “forum” page of our church’s website:
A question to think about… I was sitting at the lunch table with the guys having our usual discussions of who knows what and an unusual topic came up. While we were talking about our college plans, my decision came up because they know that I’m Christian and that I want to attend the West Point Military Acadamy in New York after highschool. They wanted to know how it is that I can be a Christian and still join the military. They said that if the entire point in joining was to use plain violence to kill your enemies over often mere political issues, how could I get away with breaking one of the most important commandments numerous times and still go to heaven? Are the actions justified if drafted? If so, how can they be justified if you sign up by choice? Or is the term Christian-soldier just an oxymoron? I didn’t really have a response to this and was wondering what all of your views on this subject were, especially Eric’s because I know that he was in the ROTC (right?). Just wondering if this ever crossed your mind and what you thought about it.
How would you respond to such an inquiry? My response was as heartfelt as it was lengthy. In fact, my response to the inquiry was this:
A RESPONSE TO A VERY GOOD QUESTION ABOUT CHRISTIANS AND MILITARY SERVICE:
‘A question to think about’ indeed! In fact, I’m not certain that there is a more difficult issue for Christ-followers to ponder than the issue of violence, especially since we experience its manifestation each and every day.
By the way, thanks for remembering that I was in the ROTC! That was back in the 1980’s, when I had delusions of being a Rambo-like warrior who could “kill a man in a hundred different ways” and who was “taught to eat things that would make a billy goat puke!” (Just a little bit of dialogue from RAMBO there, to entertain the masses!).
Actually, as a freshman in college, I was one hour away from signing my ROTC scholarship contract, which would have paid for my education (including law school, which was my vocational goal at the time). Then, according to my plan, I would have entered the military as a 2nd Lt. and served my country as an attorney for the military (like Tom Cruise in A FEW GOOD MEN—”You can’t handle the truth!!!”)
Anyway, something prevented me from signing the scholarship contract—a gut feeling perhaps. And so, here I sit, a humble preacher with no military experience.
I have had many conversations with Christ-following soldiers (and police officers, for that matter) who find themselves in settings that require the use of violence and, on occasion, the taking of another life. I have also had many conversations with military chaplains who are often called upon to assist Christ-following soldiers who are burdened by enormous guilt over what they have seen and perpetrated. These conversations have led me to the conclusion that there are no easy, tidy, or convenient resolutions to the whole issue of a Christ-follower’s relationship with violence. It is an issue that demands relentless prayer and thought, lest we become comfortable with things that should always unsettle us.
I am greatly appreciative of the information that Becky Summers’ provided for you concerning the JUST WAR THEORY. Part of what I appreciate most about the JUST WAR THEORY (which has been around for a long time) is the way in which the theory makes clear that violence is always the EXCEPTION to normative behavior for the Christ-follower. It is violence that has to be justified, in other words, not peace. Peace is the pre-supposed condition that the Christ-follower is to pursue. Violence and warfare, according to the JUST WAR THEORY, is always to be looked upon as a last resort–and, more specifically, a last resort that must meet some very clearly outlined moral criteria.
So, in my view, any Christ-following soldier MUST familiarize him/herself with the content and the spirit of the JUST WAR THEORY, because it is a theory that will help him/her to contemplate warfare and violence within some type of moral framework. For the Christ-follower, the attitude can never be, “LET’S GO KILL US SOME COMMIES…OR KRAUTS…OR JAPS…OR MUSLIMS!” Such an attitude would bring about a hatred that would leave no room for Christ. Instead, our approach to violence and warfare must always be with a spirit of humility, regret, and even sadness, counterbalanced by the conviction that the violence will lead to a more just condition. Does that make sense?
However, I would encourage you to resist the temptation to put all of your eggs in the JUST WAR THEORY basket. Because, too often, the church jumps so quickly to the JUST WAR vocabulary that we lose sight of the fact that, when we train young people to be killers, something is lost within them. Even if we are training them for a JUST WAR, that doesn’t change the fact that violence is not what God created us to hold in our heart.
I read an article recently, written by a couple of soldiers, who described the way in which they are trained to be soldiers. Part of their training is to practice the “art” of dehumanizing the enemy—seeing the enemy, in other words, not as a human being, but as a target. After all, we might hesitate with our trigger finger if we think about shooting at another human being. But if we think about shooting at a target, we are more likely to abandon any hesitation.
I hope that the sound of that scares you as much as it scares me. Even if you go on to become a soldier, I believe that your Christianity will demand of you that you never lose sight of the sheer humanity of warfare. Ultimately, it is not about political agendas, military strategy, and doing battle with “targets.” It is about human beings killing other human beings in our often broken and sinful pursuit of human justice. Never allow yourself to be hardened to this reality.
I guess what I am saying is this: It is impossible to be a soldier without involving oneself in the sin of human violence and warfare. That said, it might be even more sinful not to do anything when confronted with injustice. Therefore, it may be the case that, in the brokenness of the human condition, that we cannot get out of some situations without choosing a sinful option: either the sin of doing nothing, or the sin of violence. JUST WAR THEORY maintains that the option of violence is the lesser of two evils. Pacifists, on the other hand, maintain that resisting violence at all costs is the more noble pursuit. Both options can be defended, I think, morally and theologically—which is why we have both Christian soldiers and Christian pacifists. I tend to listen to both, because I think that they both have something truthful to say.
Have I clouded the issue sufficiently? Good! That was my goal!
I do not believe that the phrase CHRISTIAN SOLDIER is oxymoronic. I have known many soldiers who were Christ-followers. Had I gone into the military, I would like to believe that I would have been a Christian soldier. Furthermore, it is a misuse of Scripture to use the Ten Commandments as an argument against a just war. The commandment is best translated, “THOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” In the Old Testament, this commandment certainly didn’t prevent people of faith from killing in the context of warfare. Just check out the life of Joshua or King David if you need proof of this! So, it could be argued that there is a moral difference between murdering someone out of hatred, anger, or jealousy and killing someone in a context of military conflict. The motive is different. As a result, the commandment doesn’t apply.
Of course, that doesn’t let us off the hook concerning Jesus’ pesky and troubling teaching to “love our enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.” That, in my interpretation, is the more relevant teaching concerning warfare and violence. I don’t think that Jesus’ teaching can simply be explained away (as has been attempted by many Christians). I think that Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies must remain in our heart, if for no other reason than to remind us that violence is not what God ultimately intends for the human journey.
Here’s the deal: If you do go into the military, do not allow yourself to be desensitized to the issues that we have been discussing in this forum. As a pastor, all too often, I see people rationalizing their behavior. I see rich people, for example, talking themselves out of being generous with their money, even though Scripture demands it. I see people being cavalier with their sexual behavior, even though Scripture calls for something different. And, all too often, I see people rationalizing violence, becoming comfortable with it, turning a blind eye to it, even though Scripture describes Christ as the Prince of Peace.
If you go into the military, never let yourself rationalize the violence of it all. See it for what it is. Understand that you are participating in what might be considered a necessary evil in the pursuit of a redemptive conclusion. Be a soldier who is penitent, humble, prayerful, and relentless in your Christian conviction. And remember this: Even if you become a 4 star General, your foundational allegiance will be, not to a country or its flag, but to the crucified and resurrected Christ.
Thanks for allowing me to weigh in on this important issue. Even as I type these words, I am praying for you as you continue in your contemplation.