The Ethics of War: Christian Involvement in the Military
By Matthew Godwin
“So I am rather puzzled in this situation, and perhaps even more because I feel it is really on Christian grounds that I find it difficult to do military service under the present conditions, and yet there are only very few friends who would approve of my attitude.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The question of whether Christians should participate in military service has divided many in the Church and caused a re-evaluation of what it means to be a follower of Christ. At the heart of the debate is the proper understanding and interpretation of the Christian narrative. Many state that to live up to Jesus' ideal is unrealistic and that it is sometimes incumbent upon Christians to enter into the arena of war to prevent a greater evil from transpiring. Arguments typically focus on “just war” principles that illustrate the atrocities of World War II and the concentration camps created by the Nazis. This prevalent way of rationalizing military intervention on behalf of such things as “humanitarianism” or the “greater peace” can be observed in the United State's involvement in Afghanistan and Libya. Are not Christians responsible for doing everything they can to defend innocent life and promote freedom? Should Christians be willing to use military means to achieve social justice and human dignity? For the past 1,500 years, Christianity has adhered to the Augustinian approach to war. However, such an understanding of war is inconsistent with the proleptic in-breaking of God's Kingdom through Christ and the mission of the Church. To appreciate the magnitude of the Church's dilemma requires an evaluation of the culture in which it finds itself. The United States was founded upon the blood of Native Americans and enslavement of blacks. The history of this country is imbued with wars and military conquests. The United States is a country that sacrifices the lives of others upon the altar of American ideology. Within an environment in which the history of war forges the national identity of the country, it is possible to see the extent that Christians find it difficult to properly adhere to the Gospel's teachings of non-violence. There is an intersection within the Christian's heart between their citizenship in God's Kingdom and the world's. It must be remembered that for the first three centuries, the Church practiced non-violence; only after Rome lured the Church to its bosom and cloaked it in purple did “just war” theories emerge.
Proponents of a “just war” approach to combat frequently reference many passages in the Old Testament where Yahweh is depicted as a warrior deity leading Israel into battles where ethnic cleansing and infanticide are practiced to support their premise for engaging in war. The assumption behind these stories is that even God condones some wars. Likewise, if Christians have the right motives and reasons for war, than it is permissible. However, this hermeneutic is only valid if one postulates that the criterion for truth is the Bible and if the belief in a progressive divine revelation and human understanding of God is neglected. Again, this position is unsustainable for the Christian who believes that Jesus is the full revelation of God and that a correct religious and theological framework must be evaluated in light of the person of Jesus. Everything is subject to Christ, even Scripture. That is not to say that what was taught about God before Jesus is necessarily incorrect; such beliefs, however, must be viewed and corrected in light of the person of Jesus. It is in and through Christ that the Church receives and understands its mission. Therefore, recourse to the Old Testament to buttress arguments must be abandoned in light of the Christ narrative. The life of Jesus was the
embodiment of non-violence. He implored his fellow Jews to “repent” from their understanding of what it meant to be Israel-- the overthrow of Rome through armed rebellion. Jesus forbade Peter to kill on his behalf and ultimately surrendered to torture and death.
Nowhere in the life and ministry of Jesus did he try to oppress or use force to accomplish his goals. The Temptation Story illustrates that the ministry of Jesus was not going to be defined through conventional definitions of what was expected in a messiah. Instead, Jesus sought to enact a paradigm shift by constituting the new Israel around himself. In this new community, violence was strictly forbidden. So often the events that transpired between Abraham and God go unnoticed when considering war. For it is within this event that we learn that Yahweh does not require or condone human sacrifice. Yet, in war, the sacrifice of human life and of the faculties that comprise the essence of humanity is what a response to patriotism requires. Additionally, the criteria of what constitutes a “just war” is nowhere to be found in the New Testament (Hauerwas, Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War, 2007). Christian advocates of the “just war” have no foundational mandate neither in the life of Jesus nor the writings of the New Testament. If Christ is used as the template for Christian morals and ethics, the possibility of war must be rejected (Yoder, 1972).
Another position employed in the defense of Christian involvement in war is the position that the ethics of Jesus is simply impossible to abide by in a fallen world (Carter, 2003). Such an ideal has to await the Parousia and the full inauguration of God's Kingdom on earth. The Pauline eschatological reality emphasizes the “already/not yet” character of the present age, and it is within this tension that many Christians stress the need to participate in war at times. If the example of Christ's suffering and non-violence are not viewed as a viable possibility in the present life of the Church, the very humanity of Christ is jeopardized and diminished and the power of the Holy Spirit is restricted. Such a view relegates Christ's example and character to an ethereal plain of irrelevancy. Therefore, the life and ministry of Jesus is something that can be overlooked and subjectivity assessed in favor of world status and gain. As such, the soteriological dimension and missiological function of the Church remain inconclusive and speculative. If the ethics Jesus embodied cannot be emulated by His Church, then it is uncertain whether the Church can present a counter-cultural alternative to the evils of this present age.
One of the major tragedies in Christian history occurred when Constantine wedded the Church to the state. It can be argued that this event serves as the seminal moment in the Church understanding itself as compatible with the political apparatus of the state. After many centuries of persecution, the Church now becomes the persecutor. Nowhere is this reality more pronounced that in the United States. One would be hard- pressed to find a Church sanctuary that did not include the American flag or a service that did not exhort its parishioners to lift up the “troops” before God to the exclusion of the people that are killed as a result of their service. Many cling to the myth that there can exist a Christian nation and that their service to the state is analogous to that of the
Kingdom. Even Christians who recognize the dichotomy may find it permissible to compartmentalize their statuses as citizens of both the United States and the Kingdom of God that allows potentially conflicting allegiances to coexist. However, despite the motives used to justify this accommodation, one is still guilty of idolatry. It is the ancient equivalent of burning incense on the altar to the emperor to indicate your loyalty. I am not proposing that Christians should not render unto Caesar what is due him; however, I am saying that when a conflict arises, a Christians' first duty is to the Church in the service of God. For a Christian to live his/her life at the expense of their eschatological hope and reality is to betray their Christian identity and engage in idolatry. The Church is to represent the Kingdom of God and His reign on earth. If Christians compromise the integrity of their vocation as the people of God, then the Church is prevented from serving as any meaningful alternative to the world and its fallenness- especially war. There are two opposing narratives vying for the influence to construct the Christian's worldview-- Christ and the nation state. It is very easy and convenient for many Christians to lapse into a syncretistic adaptation in order to make allowances for both of the forces competing for supremacy. A good illustration of such a coalescing of influences can be found in the campaign speech of John F. Kennedy. In order to assuage the concerns of many about his Catholicism, he stated to a group of Houston pastors in 1960 that, “What kind of church I believe in should only be important to me.” He would later go on to say in that speech that the one thing that mattered was “what kind of America I believe in” (qtd. in Wood, 2003). Why would a son of the Church be so willing to silence the culture of Christianity that he was meant to represent? These situations arise from a myopic view of the Kingdom of God; the immediate implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are sterilized of much of their transformative efficacy.
The life of the Church is diametrically opposed to societal norms that reserve the option for war. Hauerwas was correct when he argued that war is both beautiful and tragic at the same time (Hauerwas, Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism, 2008). War gives meaning to people's lives and simplifies the complexity of human existence into well-defined categories of black and white. War is waged in the name of such things as freedom, democracy, peace, justice, and humanitarian relief. What is oftentimes omitted in popular culture is that war undermines the very reasons it is fought. Irregardless, the bonds formed in war are among the most intimate that many experience in their lifetimes. War provides many benefits that many would not otherwise experience on their own. It should come as no surprise that many veterans regularly stay in touch with their old units and military comrades several decades after their service has ended. However, these bonds are formed in the midst of a great abyss-- death. Some find war fascinating and exhilarating because of the moratorium placed upon moral restraints; however, the ability to kill with impunity is perhaps the darkest and most reprehensible part of war. War strips people of their humanity and leaves many fundamentally unable to function in society because of the moral turpitude required of them in war. Such a Faustian exchange is simply not an option for the followers of Jesus.
The Church not only needs to offer an alternative to war, but it is also to be the alternative. In his work, The Moral Equivalent of War, William James argues that war is religious and promotes desirable virtues such as loyalty, moral discipline, and fidelity. What the Church must do is to come up with a moral equivalent that entails “effort, discipline, and sacrifice.” James thought that war could not be eliminated unless some alternative were found to preserve the virtues war requires. Like war, the Church gives meaning and purpose to people's lives, but it does so through the narrative of Christ (Hauerwas, Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism, 2008). How can the Church embody the alternative to war if Christians are persuaded to engage the world on its own terms? The Church is to be the lens in which the Christian sees the world and a conduit through which he/she responds to it. The unfortunate reality of the state of the Church is that it has been derelict in its duties and responsibilities to educate Christians and provide a proper sacramental approach to its witness to the world. Christians serving in the military should not be held in contempt for their affiliation with the armed forces because it is the Church that has failed to accurately stipulate what it entails to be a follower of Christ. Often times, the Church fails to provide the support and structure needed to create viable and meaningful forms of non-violence. A tragic testimony to the Church's failure is highlighted in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the absence of a community of believers to join together and support each other in non-violence resistance, Bonhoeffer and his family entered into a plot to kill Hitler. James McClendon argues that the “only functional community of which he could still feel a part” was his family and network of allies and friends. The suggestion has been made by Bonhoeffer's friend George Bell that “no significant community existed that would have supported his open refusal of the draft call” (McClendon, 2002). What happened in the time of Bonhoeffer continues unabated to this day. The Church has aligned itself with the interests of the nation state and by either its silence or active participation of war sanctions its destructive force. How many like Dietrich Bonhoeffer has the Church abandoned and deprived of succor? The contributions that Bonhoeffer and others like him could have given the Church and world will have to remain a speculative endeavor.
Again, many reference situations where innocent lives are jeopardized and military intervention is there only hope. Should we as Christians be guilty of failing to act? Richard Hayes makes the following observation when asked about the Christian's duty to fight against Hitler. His response was, “What if Christians refused to fight for Hitler?” How many wars would have been impossible to wage without Christian support (Hayes, 1996)? In a society where the Church wraps itself in the flag and closely identifies with the cause it represents, the creativity that is needed for peace is neglected. Peace is oftentimes very difficult and is, in many ways, more difficult than waging war. I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a Benedictine monk some years ago. I asked him why he chose to lead a secluded life instead of using his talents and gifts for societal betterment. After a moment he responded that he was primarily concerned with praying for the sins of the world. At the heart of this answer was a deeply Christian understanding of the role of the Church in providing a counter-cultural alternative to the world. The Church should look to itself as being responsible for the sins of the world because all Christians have failed in their duty as representatives of God's Kingdom on earth. Christians should place themselves within the proper boundary of the new eschatological reality and their responsibility to enact it, for the life of the Christian is to be sacramental and is conducted for the benefit of the world.
To lead a sacramental life means to live and conduct life that is in communion with both God and humanity. War precludes fellowship with God because it is the antithesis of love and solidarity with our neighbors. By participating in and condoning war, the Christian has removed himself/herself from their baptismal font and replaced it with a grain offering to Caesar. The Christian has no option of surrendering his/her convictions in order to placate what is deemed to be the “morally responsible” action. Our society's focus on individualism prevents many followers of Jesus from fully comprehending the reality that their lives are no longer their own. The Spirit of Christ grants the person freedom to submit their lives before others and before God. Defined this way, freedom is the ability to follow God by serving others because it is through service and community that one can truly display the Imago Dei.
There is a stark contrast to how the Christian views freedom and what the world defines it as. Likewise, the Christian's view of peace is going to be demarcated by far different criteria and conditions. War is oftentimes conducted in the name of peace. The mantra of World War I was “the war to end all wars.” Other wars were waged to “make the world safe for democracy.” Every war either implicitly or explicitly carries the undertones of peace as being both the justification and terminus of its efforts. In secular terms, peace is oftentimes referred to as the absence or cessation of war. For the Christian, peace is a much more all-encompassing concept that goes much deeper and has far wider implications. Peace may never be divorced from the eschatological narrative that constitutes the life and hope of the Christian (Hayes, 1996).
In closing, the question of a theology of peace must be discussed. What is obvious throughout history is that wars create the pretexts for more wars. Violence is evoked and used in order to provide salvation from the very entity itself. The world calls out to Death saying, “Grant us thy peace.” Tertullian once remarked that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This quote aptly illustrates the sufferings Christians are called to endure. Central to the Church's identity and vocation is the cross and sacrifice of Christ. It underlies the point that we no longer live for ourselves, but for the sake of others in order that Christ may be revealed in and through us. Such a belief forbids the sacrifice the world demands so that its idea of peace and freedom may be christened with the blood of humanity (Hauerwas, Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War, 2007). The Resurrection provides the answer to the Church's hope. It means that the powers and political forces of this world will not ultimately prevail and that Christians can find solace and encouragement in their desire to follow the example of Christ. The Resurrection showed us that despite the evil of which the world is capable, the power of God is far more powerful (McClendon, 2002). Therein is the hope and teaching of Christianity.
Carter, C. (2003). The Legacy of an Inadequate Christology: Yoder's Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. Mennonite Quarterly Review , 77 (3), 387-401.
Hauerwas, S. (2007). Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War. Criswell Theological Review , 4 (2), 77-95.
Hauerwas, S. (2008). Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism. Criswell Theological Review , 6 (1), 57-70.
Hayes, R. (1996). The Moral Vision of the New Testament. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
James, W. (n.d.). The Moral Eqivalent of War. Retrieved from Emory University: http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/moral.html
McClendon, J. J. (2002). Ethics: Systematic Theology (Vol. 1). Nashville: Abingdon.
Wood, R. (2003). Contending for the Faith: The Church's Engagemtn with Culture. Waco: Baylor University Press.
Yoder, J. (1972). The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.