Uncle Sam wants your kids. How are you going to respond?
The U.S. military is advertising. To parents. The message? “Give us your listless, immature, directionless children. We’ll put them in smart uniforms, give them a haircut, make them run around, give them discipline.” We see grateful parents of children brought to adulthood by joining the military. It’s a crafty campaign; parents are best able to judge the costs, risks and ethics of military service, so successfully subverting their protection makes it easier for the military to succeed with other advertising only the children will see.
How is a Christian parent to judge? Christian judgment must first be based on Christian merit rather political or patriotic concerns. Though you might be able to guess my thinking on the issues listed below, still they are legitimate and must be addressed if a Christian is to face the issue of Christians in the military in good conscience.
- There is no Biblical objection to the career of soldier. The soldiers of Luke 3:14 went to ask Jesus what must be done to be saved; he just told them (loosely) not to abuse their power. [Is that really all there is?] In Acts 10, Cornelius is the first of the gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit; he was a centurion, a Roman soldier. So it is possible to be Christian and soldier concurrently.
- If military service were involuntary, Christians would need to consider that obedience to the government is required of them except as it leads to sin. Military service in the US is voluntary, so this consideration need not weigh into a Christian’s thinking.
- Paul writes in 1 Cor 7:21 that it’s better not to be a slave than to be a slave. The US military is certainly the closest thing to slavery that we have; it is not employment at will, and even afer leaving it’s easy enough to be recalled. Your footloose adolescent may well end up being recalled to serve in war when she is a civilian, deep into her 20s, married and raising children.
One fundamental consideration is what it means to be a soldier. To the mind of the military, the primary purpose of a soldier is to be able to kill, on demand, effectively, and without consideration. All else that the military offers – skills training, humanitarian assistance, consistent grooming – exist only to further this goal, either by making the soldier more competent or as a means to acquire and retain effective soldiers. And so a Christian must reconcile what it means to live for Christ with what it means to be an efficient killing machine.
Luther was a big supporter of Christians who could kill. He had the idea of “an office” of the state which was allowed to do things Christians are not permitted, and his example was the hangman. To me, this has always seemed sophistry for several reasons; first, because Christian offices never permit any activity that is in conflict with the clear requirements of Christian living, therefore there is no reason to suppose that any other office would allow contradicting behavior; second because there seems to be no more Biblical support for this than the papal indulgences that so fired Luther; and finally because when carried to its logical conclusion this would permit a remarkable range of behaviors for a Christian in the office of the state. For this last, consider the spy who must lie, commit adultery, or disparage the name of Christ as part of his office, or consider the assassin who must kill in the name of the state. Consider Joab, who acted in the best interest of the state in killing Absalom when David was too weak to do what was necessary. Consider the executioner of John the Baptist.
I would add that Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Kim Jong-il would all undoubtedly say that their actions were performed in the best interest of and in service to the state.
The concept of “just war” comes in. This is not strictly Biblical, though the concept has been taken up by Christian thinkers. It seems possible for a war to be unjust – an extreme example being a genocidal war against peaceful and defenseless neighbors. It is possible that a war may be just, an example being a defensive war such as the Allies fought in World War II. One might believe that it is wrong for a Christian to participate in a genocidal war but not in a defensive war.
A difficulty is that at the beginning of an eight-year military career it is impossible to see what kind of war one would be asked to fight; certainly the current Iraq war was not envisioned eight years ago. Moreover, even if one could pick one’s wars, one would have incomplete information; going into the Iraq war many people were convinced that Iraq was dealing with world terrorists and was pursuing nuclear and biological weapons systems, both of which turned out to be false. With incorrect data, how were Christians to determine if the war was just?
There is another difficulty. Avoiding acting in an unjust war is much easier when one is not in the military; by the time you’re in, you’re expected to follow orders, and to refuse participation is to disobey. Or say one went to war and then determined it was unjust? Would one stop fighting in the middle of the battlefield? “Sorry, Cap’n, can’t fight, I just realized this war is unjust!” Consequences and pressure would both be significant.
The concept of the Just War seems most suited to godly rulers with complete information. For those serving under ungodly rulers and where information is incomplete or false, the Just War concept is not helpful.
Christians are to love their enemies (Luke 6:27-31). Not just love them, but to do good to them, bless them, pray for them, offer them the other cheek, to give generously to them, and not to demand back that which is taken. These words of Luke come from the mouth of Christ. A Christian soldier must reconcile the killing of an enemy with doing good to him, the killing of an enemy with the turning of the other cheek. It strains credibility to say “I love this person, I will do her good” and then to kill her. We have to deal with one who judges in truth, do we risk telling ourselves stories that he will see through? And the killings in war are often impersonal, via a high explosive bomb, or white phosphorus, or a booby-trap. You don’t see the one you claim to love and are killing. You don’t know when she’s just a child lost among the land mines you laid.
I don’t mean to inflame. It’s the way that war works. You need to reconcile your Christianity to your actions.
- What if your enemy is unsaved? By killing him, you are preventing him from being evangelized. To prevent somebody from being evangelized is antithetical to loving that person. It would be nice to fall back on the doctrine of election, and after all God’s will cannot be thwarted. However, the doctrine of election is mystery to us; though God’s will is not frustrated, we are required to evangelize as part of God’s will. And if the positive action of evangelism is required of us, it is difficult to say that the negative action of thwarting evangelism is permitted.
- And heaven forbid if your enemy is saved! Love of the brethren is to be the hallmark of Christian living – “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV). Can you just go kill one of the brethren with a bomb you dropped from a plane going 600 miles per hour? Can you aim your sniper scope and casually kill one of the brethren from a mile away as he stand chatting? Will all people know you are Christ’s disciple when you can do that to your brother?
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