Ok, we’ve been talking a lot about war and “violence”, whether in relation to Prince Caspian or to Islamic Jihad and Christian nation-building. And now it’s Memorial Day, so thoughts about what that might mean for a Christian in America are clearly out in the air. So I was thinking and considering, and determined I’d write a little about what I believe about violence, murder, justice and war.
I know of no direct command that “sin-izes” 1 being in the military. I know of no command that would make warfare “immoral”; Quite to the contrary, the Old Testament makes clear that there is a time and place where warfare is appropriate. I do not mean to say it gives us clear rules for this, but rather it establishes by direct command that warfare was appropriate at that time and place from God’s standpoint. God being just, we must read that he was just in commanding it.
1. Not a real word, of course, but think the idea “criminalize” but with a moral rather than purely legal force.
Now, to be sure, there are Christians who have various ways of understanding this (war, justice, etc.). And I don’t mean to criticize the varying ways, seeing I am open to re-understanding based on better exegesis or Spirit-leading (not cultural change, BTW). So what I share is the best I can read and reason as I seek to understand the many statements in Scripture.
A number of other factors must be brought to bear:
- Being involved in another’s death is itself not a sin. Accidental death is recognized as a possibility in the OT Law, and specific legislation was written by God to protect those who had committed such an act.
- Murder is declared a sin in OT law, but killing is not. Stoning, for example, is declared as an appropriate punishment for a number of infractions. Stoning is intended to result in death. Cultural viability (ours would not consider stoning appropriate) does not define what is objectively moral and just. God does (my own opinion, disagree as you wish). Human government (and the right to punish wrong-doers) is derived from God’s own authority:
Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well. The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience.
Romans 13:1-4 (NLT)
That passage speaks in the Greek of the authorities “not wearing the sword in vain”. These authorities have the power over life and death in legal matters. And we find Paul here with no qualms in this. In fact, this should be an encouragement to Christians. If they live in love, they should have no fear of this sword. Of course, since many others are not driven by love, justice can get perverted, but that is quite another blog post…
- Christians are commanded in Matthew 5 to not resist evil. To be clear, these statements are to a people under subjugation. A Christ-follower being personally persecuted and bullied has a clear command to submit, and even do more than the requirement of the injustice. Jesus goes so far as to say that even personal injury and humiliation are not to be met with hostility.
- And hate is absolutely not justified. Personal enemies should be given love and concern. And if we offer that to those we know personally, what right have we to show hate to someone we do not even know? What have they done to deserve such hate? Imagine how battle would be different if we cared as much for our enemies as we did for ourselves? Can we even imagine warfare in this context? (I believe we can, but it’s certainly not the war we usually experience)
- We have a heavenly citizenship. I am not intending to be unpatriotic, but we have a citizenship that supercedes any temporary national pride or loyalty. To propose war or punishment based on where one was born or within what cultural background one was raised is vile to me. And if we really considered our true home, maybe Christians would not be so quick to tolerate war, even in self-defense! For I can follow Christ whether free in America or secretly in China. I prefer freedom, but that freedom (of worship, speech, etc.) does not define me. Freedom in Christ does. I can be a Christian even if America is overrun by some foreign power. And if I die in the mess of it all, then I remain confident in the knowledge that I have lived my life under the control and leading of His Spirit within me. Enough said (about that).
- Paul commands the Corinthians to “continue on as you were”:
You must accept whatever situation the Lord has put you in, and continue on as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches. For instance, a man who was circumcised before he became a believer should not try to reverse it. And the man who was uncircumcised when he became a believer should not be circumcised now. For it makes no difference whether or not a man has been circumcised. The important thing is to keep God’s commandments.
You should continue on as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you-but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, the Lord has now set you free from the awful power of sin. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God purchased you at a high price. Don’t be enslaved by the world. So, dear brothers and sisters, whatever situation you were in when you became a believer, stay there in your new relationship with God.
1 Corinthians 7:17-24
So if it does not violate God’s commands, we are to stay in our previous state when we become a Christian. Paul is speaking about marriage in context, but since he felt justified in speaking on other pre-conditions, I feel it appropriate. Soldiers who become believers have a fairly clear command to stay in their present situation unless it clearly causes them to violate God’s law. There is no Christian call to desertion.
However, as with Paul’s comment on slavery – if they have an opportunity to be made free, they might consider taking it. From experience, the military is service – one might even hazard the word slavery. It is more like slavery than any other occupation our country is familiar with. You are under command at all times. Not that I mean that in a derogatory fashion. More Christians should know what it means to give their life as a service; to give up what they consider their freedom of movement, speech; to relinquish voluntarily their “rights” and personal priorities.
So I come to the conclusion that war is not in and of itself sin. By the same token, capital punishment (resulting in death) is not in and of itself sin. Both are the ramifications of a fallen world, and not God’s intended pattern. I do not consider it impossible for a Christian to be a soldier, even if it means they are involved in the death of enemies. However, I give no allowance for hatred of enemies. There is no excuse for governments or generals “bad-mouthing” the enemy. Propaganda is no more tolerable for the soldier than the civilian. If a soldier kills his enemy, it should be done without hate or some false notion about the “righteousness” of his cause. If the people call for war, it should not be based on emotional reaction to a pamphlet. Death may not be sin, but it is not the way God intends us to operate.
That being said, I would find it quite hard to be a Christian infantryman, myself. Christians in this line of work might seriously consider re-assignment into a field such as medicine, chaplaincy, etc. (I realize this is not as simple as it sounds) They might find their skills and gifts of more use there! But, having a few good Christians on the front line would be quite an encouragement when all seems desperate. And I do wish to add that I do not say this flippantly. I went to college on a military scholarship and, had I not been medically disqualified, would have served my time in the Air Force. I seriously considered the ramifications. I have considered even more since then. God had different plans for me, which I praise him for!
I feel that Jesus does intend us to be peace-makers. War is certainly not the most useful tool for making peace. Rather, it usually provides only temporary respite. God offers peace that is permanent, and calls us to share that peace with others. If we devoted our time to this, I wonder how much time we would have to devote to the military or committing acts of war? If we really put God’s priorities first, then we would not be so attached to our homes and comfortable lives.
So I thank the service-men of America. I have no argument with them. But I also do not outright condone the practice of war as a normative for Christians. We have other business. War is a distraction from that business.
As for death as a valid form of criminal punishment? I do not believe Jesus condemned the practice. I believe God has given men the right and ability to judge that they might enact just societies. I believe our culture today presents many things as barbaric without providing alternatives today. Murder is reasonably met with a death sentence. Prostitution and witch-craft are punishable by death in OT law, and I think rightly so in the context of a nation that is uniquely God’s. In a pluralistic America I find it reasonable that people desire to limit these penalties. That does not imply that I consider the death penalty unjust in any way.
Usually the argument today is that innocent people might receive this penalty. I suppose that is possible. But fear of making a mistake is not what I would consider the most honorable criteria for making a decision. Nor does it have any bearing on whether capital punishment is just. America has a system that provides many opportunities for review of these kinds of decision, and that provides some comfort. And once again, I am more interested in what it means for Christians: once again it is a question of citizenship. I am more concerned to interact with those on death-row or in prison than I am to wade into legal debate. There are certainly Christians whom God has empowered to speak out for just treatment of prisoners, and maybe even leniency in sentencing. I have a calling to speak the gospel, whether the hearer is an innocent child, a thief in jail, or the rapist on death row.
I think a lot of Christians have that calling :), and wish more would run after it, rather than run after the norm of the “American Christian” life.
Wow, that was a lot. I’m sure there are errors of judgment on my part. God will, I’m sure, identify them to me as I continue to follow him. Be kind in your critique of me, dear readers! I will return the favor.