Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Christians and the Military

After a lot of consideration of the nature of the military and the Christian's responsibility to the government, I've become convinced that Christians should not serve in the military. This decision, although perhaps influence by, does not necessarily have anything to do with my pacifist sentiments, but rather has more to do with what the military demands of a person.

To serve in the armed forces, you must sign away rights and swear to follow orders. You must agree to do whatever you are told whenever you are told to do it. This seems a direct contradiction to what we as Christians are called to be and do. We are called to be in submission to the will of God, not man, and to sign away conscience and offer blind submission to the will of a man-made authority is utterly opposed to this. What does a Christian do if faced with the very possible scenario of being ordered to do something that would violate conscience, yet if not done, would cost lives of comrades? It's an impossible situation, one which could and probably has been faced before. What would a Christian do at Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo, if asked to torture a detainee? What if they are ordered to target civilians? The list of possible situations in which a Christian would be asked to violate conscience could continue endlessly.

It's true that we live in a country that, by the grace of God, follows military procedures that are far more humane and decent than many of the enemies they face, but that doesn't mean it's perfect, or even close to flawless, as this current war has exemplified. The examples of torture and other human rights violations that have been committed by U.S. troops serve as a warning to any Christian who would consider giving over their lives to this organization.

I don't want to dishonor the very godly men who have in the past served in the military, my grandfather included, and I certainly don't want to imply that they sinned in volunteering their lives in such a way. But part of me wonders why a person would feel more deeply called to serve their country in that way rather than to commit their lives with the same kind of dedication to the furthering of the gospel.

And I don't say that to imply that a person commited to service in the military has no thought to the gospel, and I am sure there are many stories of men and women who have served in the armed forces and gone on to commit their lives to missions. But it seems to me a tragic mistake to feel so called to defend man-made geographical boundaries and laws when one has been called to something far greater, when one is a citizen of a far better, eternal kingdom that we should be devoted to building. Why would you then submit your life and conscience to the violent defense of these borders and laws, when the gospel - of love, of peace, of justice - calls us to defend the poor and the widows among us? If only those Christians who feel so convicted of the need for their service in the military felt the same kind of conviction to devoting their lives to furthering the gospel.

Although I hate to call myself a pacifist, I'd have to say it's true - I think it's wrong to take lives. Any lives. I think it's not our place. And I can't pretend to have the application of that conviction figured out, because I don't know how a government would work out the principle of turning the other cheek, nor am I entirely sure it should. But I do have to wonder what would happen if it did - if a government were to stop trying to repay evil for evil, and instead turn to doing good. What would happen if instead of invading Iraq and Afghanistan, we tried building schools and hospitals and sending missionaries instead? There would have been a very different response to us, I guarantee. The problem would be to get people to see the sense in such a non-violent approach. But have we learned nothing from Gandhi, King, the early church? Non-violence and turning the other cheek works. Peace won't be spread through military might.


  1. Well bro, I respect your opinion, and understand your reasoning for arriving there...however i must at least mostly disagree with your conclusion. Mainly: I agree that no Christian should ever "sign away conscience and offer blind submission," but I do not believe that service in the military constitutes this. It obviously does require a higher degree of commitment than most standard civilian jobs, but I don't believe the difference is so vast and contradictory as you suggest. Whether we explicitly express it or not, we all make binding agreements to follow the orders and wishes of our employers and government and others. And as Christians we SHOULD. The Bible makes no bones about telling us to obey earthly authorities, who are placed and orchestrated my God and are not as man-made as one might assume. Jesus told the Jews of his day to submit to one of the most corrupt and brutal governments ever. But there is one VERY important condition - and that is God's laws come first. The Christian Jews paid taxes and obeyed a host of other laws, they did not, however, stop preaching the gospel when they were told to. I believe that as long as you are not contradicting your conscience or God's word, you can feel comfortable agreeing to and following the orders of your military/government/employer. But in the unlikely event of being asked to do something morally wrong (i.e. targeting civilians) a Christian would be both justified and compelled to refuse, whatever the cost. And since this applies to Christians in civilian life as well, I fail to see a broad distinction. The commitment level may be greater, but it still does not have to supersede one's commitment to God. I actually believe the chances of being ordered to do something immoral is greater in the corporate world than the military. There is no shortage of unethical, destructive organizations in the business world as well. The situation may be different, and the consequences too, but the principle is the same. I'm not denying the atrocities committed by a very small minority of military members, but I also believe those atrocities are more likely the result of the depravity of individuals acting on their own accord, rather than soldiers actually following orders. Obviously you do bring up the touchy subject of torturing detainees - though by your own admission the standards are more humane than most. The question being, when does interrogation become torture? I'm not entirely sure - but if you were asked to do so and you felt it were wrong, as I said before, you would be justified in refusing. Additionally, that kind of activity is a very, very small part of what the military does...and one must also keep in mind that they are dealing with the kind of people who strap bombs onto mentally handicapped people and send them into pet markets to kill innocent women and children. Is it right to use force to prevent that? Which brings up the greater question of "is war ever justified?" I'm not going to say the U.S. is great, and every war we've ever fought was right. I don't think war is "good" at all. It's an unfortunate by-product of our fallen nature. But I don't think it's unilaterally wrong either. The defense of the innocent is a basic, Biblical concept. I think it is right for a government to respond by force against evil people committing atrocities against innocent people. What if no-one confronted Hitler and his incomprehensible plan to murder millions of Jews? It is right to defend the innocent. I believe this is different in both application and scale than defending yourself. Nobody should repay evil for evil. But a government cannot and should not function by "turning the other cheek." Our nation DOES get involved in rebuilding schools and hospitals and helping the people in countries like Iraq, but we would not have the opportunity to do so without first standing up to the oppressors. As far as defending our own people and geographical borders, I can understand you questioning the importance of this..I do too sometimes. Why would someone feel so convicted to do this, rather than devoting their life to spreading the gospel? My personal thought is that this country has given more freedom to the gospel than virtually any other country, and in a sense, defending that freedom IS defending the freedom and spread of the gospel. Now before you scoff, I realize that all of this is more of an ideal than a reality, especially with our country in the sad state that it is. I don't think this country is perfect by any means. I can't forget that government is really an unfortunate by-product of our fallen nature as well. I guess I'm just saying that I understand where you're coming from, and I completely respect your view. It really isn't black and white. Bottom line: I just don't believe that serving in the military equates to NOT serving God, or by default means you are committing to to follow orders contradictory to God's will. And I additionally think war is sometimes a necessary, though very ugly evil.

    (I know this is like a post of my own, rather than a comment. But when I feel like writing random thoughts I just do it...or else they're gone faster than my next beer...)

  2. i never post blogs of political nature because i am slightly fearful of my government, since they don't mind admitting to spying on their citizens, among other acts of fascism. however, i believe that no one should join the military. i firmly believe that governments with standing armies are more afraid of their own people than of foreign states.

  3. Well, I would never scoff, Jerry... and I think you said everything that I would say if I were trying to form a counter-argument to myself. In other words, I think I used to be where you are.

    And you have an excellent point about the military paving a way to make it possible to build schools, hospitals, etc. But do you think it would be possible to do so without military action? I, frankly, think it could be done.

    And I would also affirm that the freedoms supported, promoted, and propagated by the United States have done much to make it possible to spread the gospel, but once again, does that mean that a Christian should serve in the US military, simply because it supports some principles that are convenient for Christianity? It could just as easily turn around and stop supporting those principles - it's a secular organization, after all.

    (I feel like I'm working my way backwards through your argument - I hope that's not too confusing.)

    As to the defense of the innocent: this is the point on which I get hung up. Do nations have a responsibility to involve themselves militarily in situations like Rwanda, Darfur, the Holocaust? I'd like to say yes: these things need to be stopped. And I believe they do. But in what way? In a sense, I believe that some of humankind is so hardened in their consciences and evil that they will not respond to anything but threats. But on the other hand, violence does always beget more violence. Hitler would not have rose to power at all had it not been for the way that Germany was treated during World War I, or at least he would not have had the experiences that led him to become the man he was. I think if any violence occurs, it should be defensive. In this way I can understand on some level the Afghanistan war, although it still reeks a bit of revenge rather than defense. And I believe World War II in the same way was a defensive war by the Allies (or at least the US and Britain) to stop the attacks by Japan and Germany.

    But some wars do not make sense to me. Iraq does not make sense to me. It's not, nor was it ever, defensive. I doubt that anyone thought that even if Saddam Hussein had WMDs, that he would have been stupid enough to use them against Israel or anyone else.

    But I digress. My point is this: even if the military involved itself only in defensive wars, it is not the job of a Christian to defend the "innocent" in that way. Our call is to serve all men, both the victims and perpetrators of violence, and how can we do that when we take sides? Every human is equal in God's eyes, and He's commissioned us to spread the gospel to all. Does it not seem like it could be potentially damaging for Christians to take up arms against one group in defense of another?

    And the idea of conscience still remains: I don't think that the oaths you take upon entering the military leave any room for religious dissent, do they? And if that's the case, would you not then be making a vow you couldn't and didn't intend to keep? Why would you put yourself in that situation? And maybe I'm more cynical than you are, but I guess I don't think that it's that unlikely that in the military you'll be asked to do something you're morally uncomfortable with. It seems to me that the nature of what the military does - kill people - would make it an environment where moral ambiguity would abound. Once you've made that decision that you're willing to take another human's life, it seems like a slippery slope down to justifying other acts of violence, like torture for information, or humiliation and degredation as we saw at Abu Ghraib. And I think that when you're killing other humans for a living, you have to in your mind somehow justify it to yourself, make them less than human somehow, or hate them in order to make it okay for you to kill them. It just doesn't seem congruous at all with the life a Christian is call to in any way.

    Tyler: While I wouldn't go so far as to say that a standing army equates to a distrust of citizens in every case, I can that you're probably generally right. I don't that's the case with most Western countries with standing armies; given the world's political environment today, I'd say that most Western countries simply think it necessary in order to defend their borders. But with many totalitarian countries, I'd say yes, the main purpose their armies serve is to intimidate their citizens and keep the leaders in power.

    And while the Patriot Act is crappy, I'm not as scared of it as to stop saying what I think. Let's just hope no closet fascists get elected president before it goes away. :)

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  5. Hi Kristi, thanks for stopping by. I have heard of, but have not read, anything by Rob Bell. Mostly because I've seen pictures of him, and it looks like he's trying to be more hip than he is. :) (Kidding, of course. But that is how he looks to me.)

  6. Jesse...

    Of course I have to respond to this whether I have time to or not.

    Point 1:
    You and I have a totally different view of authority. Authority is both given by God. There is no authority on earth not given by Him. If you believe that the military/government has no morally binding call on us as Christians, then you must be saying that they're authority does not come from God.

    This runs counter to the plain teaching of scripture. Romans says that the government (a pagan one) does not bear the SWORD in vain. If this was just a metaphor for general oversight, I think Paul could have chosen his words better. Clearly the power to take life is given to the state. Just as the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven are given to the elders of the church, frail, fallible men as it consists of, so is the responsibility placed upon the state to seek order out of chaos, administer for the general well fair of those under their authority, and to BEAR THE SWORD against the evil-doer (off with his head).

    Point 2:
    Christians throughout the ages have always had to object to pointed commands given by earthly rulers to break God's law. This is literally the point at which rulers go beyond the authority of God, and set themselves up as God (two different things). Christians have always resisted such actions, from the earliest days of the Roman Empire, to the more recent tragedy of communist regimes. Ironically, we are still the only group of people that have historically, by and large, committed ourselves by written doctrine to respect government authority whenever possible.

    So should the calling of military service be any different? I have already had to protest on religious grounds imperatives to work on Sunday in my college days and beyond (whether you would agree with that or not), but that did not change my career goals. Why would military service be any different. The fact is, many traditions tell of great numbers of the Roman army itself coming to faith in Christ -- by no accounts, either biblical or traditional do we have those serving in those armies or fighting secular wars being asked to stop serving the state in this way. The call to renounce the faith or act contrary to God's laws was a common problem though.

    Bottom line:
    Your argument that Christians should stay clear of military service based on the fact they may be asked to do something contrary to God's law is a bit shallow because that happens in EVERY sphere of life.

    You "wonder why a person would feel more deeply called to serve their country in that way rather than to commit their lives with the same kind of dedication to the furthering of the gospel..."

    This creates a inordinate separation of spheres. There is no sphere of life where a Christians is not called to further the Kingdom of God and the gospel. There are no holiday careers out there. If there were, then I would agree that Christians have no place in them -- however you first have to establish that the military is an immoral institution with absolutely no sanctified calling.

    You say that Christians are "called" to serve all men "both the victims and perpetrators of violence." This is very interesting. On its face I agree. I'm curious though -- are non-Christians not called as well to keep God's law perfectly? Everyone is called to perfection, to love God with a completeness that is beyond our sinful mind's comprehension. By advocating so strongly for non-violence, and prophesying that could convince people of a less-sinful way of running their countries, is to claim that man can be sanctified without being justified. Man is dead in sin. Dead means he is blind, senseless, without any rationality or reason or ability to grasp what is good, or the very thing that could give him life: the saving power of Christ. It is the Church that is called to bring Light to the world. Preach the Word and and by all means, LOVE "both the victims and perpetrators of violence." But take care when you say we are called to "serve" perpetrators of violence, since you almost come full circle and endorse military service by saying this.

    Stated differently, you have an ethical contradiction when you insist on non-violence, but demand inaction on the part of Christians to stop evil.

    This is best exemplified in your statement:

    "Why would you then submit your life and conscience to the violent defense of these borders and laws, when the gospel - of love, of peace, of justice - calls us to defend the poor and the widows among us?"

    Well, obviously we have two very different meanings for the word "defend," since you saw fit to add "violent" to one usage, but in the case of the quote from scripture, you assume that no violence can be involved. It's odd because defend always indicates a contest in which the goal is to violate the intentions of another. Do "the poor and the widows among us" deserve no more defense from Christians than that which can be accomplished by mere words?

    And just for curiosity's sake I've already given the argument that "man-made" borders are set by those charges with the preservation of order and the visiting of justice on the evil-doer. So why should defending them be anything less then protecting the poor and the widows among us?

    I'd better stop now...

  7. So.....I just spent over and HOUR typing a lengthy, well thought response - echoing much of what Mark said. And then I somehow accidentally lost it without posting it. Dammit. Screw this...Give me a call and we'll talk baseball. :)

  8. I'm not too concerned with the religious argument because god knows more people have been killed by the church than for it, and any fundamentalist argument is inherently antithetical when dealing with social issues. Praising democracy while condemning men's minds to evil and darkness, working for progress in light of an eschatology which tells them the world will end in a flaming failure, subverting democracy trying to christianize the world they have surrendered to the devil. Helping the poor? As long as they're not gay.

    One nullifies the life of christ with the empty platitude of obedience to authority, the same authority which killed christ and his friends, ignoring paul's entreaty to repay no one for evil, live peaceably, and give place to wrath, for it is god who avenges. Similarly, it is peter in his second chapter who appeals to submission for god's glory in same manner that christ did.

    It is the sometimes unconscious position of christians to devalue the lives of men not like themselves when characterized as 'dead in sin, blind, senseless, without any rationality or reason or ability to grasp what is good.' This thinking makes the confirmed eighty thousand and estimated and half million civilian deaths in iraq more palatable.

    Tolstoy said about permanent military service that 'it is also the last expression of the inconsistency inherent in the social conception of life, when violence is needed to maintain it.' A democracy which uses a standing military for preventative warfare in the guise of protection does not deserve to be protected. Those who invoke the name of any god for the governance of a people are the descendants of the inquisitors, this seen in some of the colonies early practices of expelling jews and killing atheists.

    Jesse, i can't think of anything more christ like than pacifism. I do, of course, reject the premise that anything the american army has ever done was justified; those that have ever appeared to be just were reacting to circumstances created by our previous policies and/or interferences.

  9. Mark,

    Point 1:
    I think you're correct in in assuming that I have a different point of view on the authority of the military on the Christian. Especially in our society, where the military does not function as a police force on our own soil, it's an entity that the Christian should have nothing to do with.

    I would have no problem with a Christian becoming a police officer, whose job it is to enforce the law: to protect the lawkeepers from the lawbreakers, and deadly force is always, always a last resort. But to join the military, whose function is to attack other nations (no matter how you slice it, this is what they do, even in today's era where they are used as police forces in other nations), goes beyond the call to protect the poor and downtrodden and marches straight on into - I think - murder.

    Point 2:
    As Christians, how committed are we to be in our service to the government we happen to live under? Should we be so committed that we take up arms against other Christians, who happen to live under a different government? That we take up arms against other men in general, simply because of the geographical boundaries they find themselves within? Simply because we're commanded to respect and submit to to our governing authorities does not mean we should go out of our way to pledge and serve them. "Render unto Caesar's what it Caesar's, and unto God what is God's." If Jesus says this about taxes, how much more would he say it about our very lives! Do our bodies - should our bodies - belong to Caesar? May it never be! We may abide by the law of the land, but the only cause for which we should be willing to lay down our life should be that of the gospel, and military service has nothing to do with the gospel.

    Bottom line: I agree that no matter what sphere of life we are in, we'll encounter commands counter to what God commands. But the stakes are far higher in military service, and I believe the very nature of military service demands violation of the commands of God by potentially having to take up arms against other men only because they live under the authority of a different government.

    I don't believe this is an unjustified separation of spheres. Seeing military service as something a Christian should not be involved in because of the nature of what serving in the military entail. Pitting ourselves purposefully towards one nation of people over another, when we are truly citizens of a kingdom which transcends all nations and includes people from all tribes and tongues, seems completely incongruous to me. We should rather be working to break down barriers and find common ground with enemies, reaching out in love to them, not siding against them because our government has taken such a position. Al-Qaida and the Taliban need the gospel as much as anyone else. Is it not our job to see that this is accomplished?