Monday, June 1, 2020

The Church and the Armed Services

Today, we're looking at a question that often gets asked around Memorial Day:

Why should/would the church honor military service when Jesus was committed to non-violence?

I love these types of questions because they are so multifaceted and give me the opportunity to take a deep dive. First, let’s take a look at the underlying assumption. The person who asked this takes it for granted that Jesus was committed to non-violence. So, was He?

Jesus on Violence

There are certainly some passages that point us in that direction. The most often quoted is from the Sermon on the Mount, in which the Lord said, “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39). Along with that, you have the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter attacked one of the high priest’s servants to defend Jesus from arrest. The Lord chastised him for it, saying, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52; cf. Luke 22:47–51; John 18:1–11).

Clearly, Jesus did not have a martial personality. However, it is not a cut and dried case to say that He condemned all violence. He interacted favorably with a centurion, remarking on the soldier’s great faith and granting the miracle he requested (Matt. 8:5–13). There is no note of condescension or any instruction to the man that he needed to give up his profession.

Similarly, Jesus’ precursor, John the Baptist, was approached by soldiers as he preached the message of repentance. When they asked him what they should do, he did not tell them to leave the army. Instead, he instructed them to “not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).

Along with those two examples of the gospels not passing judgment on the military, there are a few other difficult sayings of Jesus that tie into the discussion. In Matt. 10:34 He says, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” Then, in Luke 22:36, He tells His disciples, “He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” These comments both have to be taken in their proper context, and they are not meant to be understood literalistically. However, they make the point that Jesus expected His followers to have to fight on occasion.

This, we must also point out, is just from the gospels. The entire New Testament needs to be brought into our understanding of this issue. Romans 13:4 says that governments have been instituted by God and that their power to punish and wage war is a righteous one. At the end of the Scriptures, Rev. 19:11–21 tells us that Christ will return to wage war Himself. And this is to say nothing of all the battles in the Old Testament. Speaking biblically, if there is a case for pacifism, it is not a strong one.

Force and Persuasion

This raises another question. If we cannot be quite so certain that Jesus was committed to non-violence, then why did He say the things that suggest it? Here, we come upon the real mistake. Modern people have a tendency to conflate Jesus’ statements about the persecution of Christians with the policies of nations. But that is to compare apples to oranges.

The Lord had nothing to say directly about the practice of politics. We can apply many of His principles to them, but they were not His focus. They are ultimately too petty and particular to have deserved it. Instead, He remained dedicated to the salvation of souls and to preparing His followers to face a world that would be hostile to them. In response, He wanted them to show love such as they had been shown by God. Rather than becoming an insurrectionist movement that sought to overthrow governments, Christianity was designed to overwhelm opposition through a consistent willingness to suffer and sacrifice for others. Our witness is to be marked by perseverance, not violence.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. If Christianity were meant to be violent, then conversions would be made by force. Force does not permit voluntary action. However, love requires voluntary action since it begins as an assent of will. God desires for us to love Him as He loves us. Therefore, God does not desire conversions by force.

Just War Theory

That concept is what underlies the teaching of Jesus. War is something else. Obviously, war is not a good thing. It leads to suffering and death on a dreadful scale. But for all that, war is not the most evil thing. Very often, it is necessary. For this reason, philosophers and theologians have developed what is known as “Just War Theory.” At its most basic, it instructs us to determine whether a war ought to be fought in order to avoid a greater evil, and whether we can fight in a way that avoids excesses.

The United States has a military history replete with examples of the efficacy of Just War Theory. From the Revolutionary War fought to free us from tyranny, to the Civil War fought to free the slaves, to the Second World War fought to free Europe from Fascism, we have engaged in war for the sake of liberty. That has made a positive difference in the world and is something worth celebrating.

I would not be so foolhardy as to suggest we have always done so perfectly. Crimes have been committed in some of the wars we had good reason to fight, and we have had some wars that were arguably not worth fighting in the first place. That is part of the reason why Just War Theory is important. We cannot be blindly devoted to our military. We have to be able to recognize and condemn immoral behavior. Everyone knows that our history has not been perfectly good. Fewer people today seem to understand that it has not been utterly bad.

So I say again, our military is worth celebrating. Christians do have good reason to honor American soldiers. These men and women have bled and died to defend us and to advance the cause of freedom that is at the heart of the American experiment. And that devotion to freedom finds its root in Christianity. The United States seeks to stand against the tyranny of nations because Christ stood against the tyranny of sin and death. We do all the good that can be done in this world, inspired by the promises God has made for the next. And every soldier who has died for his nation has followed the example of the Lord by laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13). On days like Memorial Day, that is what we commemorate. It is right to honor our military for the best of what it represents. We bring no dishonor on our Savior by doing so.

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