Sunday, April 24, 2022

Should Christians join the military and go to war? Part 2 of 2

In Part 1, I talked about my personal story surrounding this issue. Today, I want to talk about some of the specific reasons I had for being a conscientious objector and what I think about those reasons today.

Before I ever joined the Navy, I had already read the sermon on the mount where Jesus seemed to teach pacifism. All that stuff about turning the other cheek, doing good to those who harm you, etc., sure made it seem like you shouldn't hurt people no matter what. That, combined with the hippy phase I was going through as a late teen, made me friendly to the idea of pacifism even before I joined the Navy. So when I was exposed to the Watchtower arguments against Christian involvement in the military, I was already primed to agree with them. I was an easy sell.

Taken at face value, the New Testament does seem to teach a radical kind of pacifism. The fact that you may be harmed in the process doesn't seem to be a good excuse for retaliation or self-defense. We are explicitly told to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, not to seek revenge, to turn the other cheek, to forgive people, to seek peace and persue it, etc. Surely this prohibits Christians from taking up arms against anybody, whether in your own back yard or on a battlefield.

Probably the most compelling reason not to take things that far is the fact that sometimes it isn't just you who needs defending. It's your family. It's one thing to allow somebody to harm you without fighting back, but what if they're trying to harm your wife or kids? Surely, we have a responsibility to fight to protect them, don't we? The command to love our enemies surely doesn't nullify the command to love our neighbor. The command to love and care for our families ought to include protecting them when somebody else is trying to harm them. If you'll recall what I wrote in part 1, this reasoning is probably the biggest thing that has caused me to have doubts about my conscientious objector views.

One argument I have not found persuasive, though, is that Jesus was talking about personal conflict, not national conflict. I remember Greg Koukl making this point one time about loving your enemies, but I think he was mistaken. Jesus' command to love your enemies was juxtaposed with the already existing command to love your neighbors. If you look at the command to love our neighbor in its original context, you'll find that "neighbor" refers to fellow Israelites. That is likely how Jesus' audience would've understood the command because they were made up entirely of Jews. If "your neighbor" refers to fellow Israelites, then "your enemies" must refer to non-Israelites. That means the command to also love your enemies isn't talking about personal conflict. Jesus was making a political statement that applied to national conflict.

There seems to be an inconsistency in arguing on the one hand that the command to love our enemies only applies to personal enemies but not national enemies, but then to argue on the other hand that the obligation we have to protect our families with violence if necessary should apply just as much to protecting our country. There's a willingness to extrapolate from protecting our family to protecting our country, but an unwillingness to extrapolate from loving our personal enemies to loving our national enemies. But I digress.

There are a couple of other lesser points worth mentioning regarding Jesus' apparent teaching about pacificism and non-resistance. One is the possibility that Jesus was using hyperbole or he was only talking about insults and inconveniences, not physical harm, and it certainly didn't apply if somebody was trying to kill you. I don't know about that, though. I think we should take it seriously until we have good reason to make an exception. So I suppose we could take Jesus seriously but make room for moral dilemmas in which we have to choose the lesser of two evils. That would allow us to defend ourselves under dire situations like when somebody really wanted to harm us physically, especially if they wanted to kill us.

Another point worth mentioning that I already brought up in my digression is that it may be an unjustified extrapolation to go from defending your immediate family to defending your country. Surely we have obligations to our immediate families that we don't have to strangers who live a thousand miles away. But that does raise a thorny question, which is the question of where your obligation ends. I mean if I saw a stranger being attacked, surely I'd have an obligation to help them if I could. Maybe I don't have the same obligations to strangers that I do to my immediate family, but that doesn't mean I have no obligations. Moreover, tribes are extended families, and nations are extended tribes, so there isn't a clear line to draw between those we have an obligation to protect and those we don't.

That brings me to another argument I used to have against Christians in the military. In the New Testament, we are told that we should think of ourselves as aliens and strangers on earth and that our citizenship is in heaven. That means Christians shouldn't draw their "national" boundaries around certain areas of land the way secular governments do. Instead we should draw our national boundaries around our fellow Christians. There are Christians in almost every nation, and we should not go to war against each other just because of where we live. An American citizen who happens to be living in Canada would be thought a traitor if they joined the Canadians in waging war against America. Well, Jesus said his true followers would be known by the love they have for each other. Wouldn't that love be better displayed if the reason Christians gave for not joining the military is so they would not be forced to fight against Christians living in other countries?

I still think that's a decent argument, but it, too, is weakened by the Koukl Argument. What if the person trying to harm your family is a Christian? Well, if you have an obligation to defend your family with violence if necessary, it shouldn't matter whether the attacker is a Christian or not. So while I agree that in general, Christians shouldn't fight against each other, it does seem like one's fellow Christian can become one's enemy. An ideal solution would be that no Christian anywhere joined the military. Then scenarios like this wouldn't come up because Canada's army would not consist of any Christians trying to harm your neighbors. But the fact of the matter is that Christians do partipate in militaries, so you may be faced with having to defend your neighbors against Christian Canadians.

Another argument against Christian involvement in the military still carries a lot of weight with me. Joining a military requires taking an oath in which you voluntarily put yourself under the command of others who have the authority to tell you who to kill and who to protect. Not every war is a just war, and we all know that many unjust things happen in wars, even if we think the war in general is just. The Bible recommends not only avoiding sin but also avoiding situations that might cause you to sin. This should apply just as well to taking oaths. In fact, Jesus and Solomon both discouraged taking oaths, probably for reasons such as these. They force you into moral dilemmas. An oath could put you in a position of being obligated to do what you are obligated to refrain from doing. It would seem unwise, especially, to put yourself completely under the command of those who do not share your Christian values and are uninterested in your sense of right and wrong, which is exactly what a Christian would be doing by joining a secular military commanded by secular politicians.

The arguments I've heard against this are not at all persuasive. I remember when I was in the Navy, going through the conscientious objector process, being told that Jesus said to give to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's, as if to say you could have a divided loyalty. Jesus was talking specifically about paying taxes, though, and I don't see how this passage would allow you to engaged in an unjust war just because you belonged to the government. It is precisely because the government could at any time ask you to engage in an unjust war that you shouldn't have put yourself in that situation in the first place.

One other argument that also still carries a lot of weight with me is that it seems from historical evidence that Christians were nearly unanimous in condemning Christian participation in the military for the first two or three centuries of the church. This is evident both in the New Testament and in the writings of the early Church Fathers. In the New Testament, we have Jesus saying that those who live by the sword die by the sword, and Paul telling us that as Christians we do not wage war as the world does (i.e. by armed conflict). There is evidence in the early Church fathers that there were Christians in the military, but it was universally condemned. You have people like Tertullian explicitly condemning Christian participation in the military, and then you have accounts of people like Maximilian who succumned to martyrdom because he refused military service on the basis that he was a Christian and could not serve. I am sometimes surprised that Catholics became so friendly toward military service when they place so much weight on Tradition. There was a strong Tradition in the early Church about it being wrong for Christians to participate in the military, but that doesn't seem to matter to Catholics today. As a protestant, I'm not bound by Tradition, and I'm free to disagree with the early Chruch fathers. After all, they disagreed with each other on a number of things. But when there seems to be unanimity between them on a subject, that carries a lot of weight with me because it seems unlikely that they would have such a strong concensus on an issue if it were not correct.

One argument that used to be brought up a lot back in the day was that when the Centurion in Acts converted to Christianity, Peter never suggested to him that he should stop being a centurion. Also, John the Baptist told soldiers to be content with their pay, not to get out of the military.

In the case of John the Baptist, that argument didn't carry much weight with me because that happened before the ministry of Jesus in which Jesus introduced a new command--to love your enemies. The argument carries more weight with me now than it did then, though, because even though it's true that John the Baptist came before Jesus, we nevertheless have to consider the question of why the gospel writers decided to include that. The gospel writers weren't simply recording history in a disinterested way; they were teaching principles to a Christian audience. So it would seem that this teaching by John the Baptist was included because it's a principle the author thought still applied to his Christian audience.

In the case of the centurion, that argument didn't carry much weight because it's an argument from silence. We have no idea what advice Peter gave the centurion, because that wasn't the point of the story. The point of the story was about gentiles being able to convert to Christianity without first being Jews, which was a major controversy in the early church. So the argument from the centurion still carries little weight with me.

There's a lot more that could be said on this topic. It was not my intention to give an exhaustive account of all the arguments for and against Christian involvement in warfare and the military. I just wanted to share a bit of my personal reflections on the topic. If you want to read what I wrote back in the mid to late 90's in defense of Christian pacifism, you can check it out on the WayBack Machine: "Principles of a Conscientious Objector." I didn't address every point I made in that article in this post, and I didn't cite as many scriptures, but I hit on what I thought were the most significant points.

The bottom line is that I think there are good arguments for and against Christian involvement in warfare and membership in the military. I am not fully committed to either view. In Romans 14, Paul said that when it came to observing special days or not, or eating certain foods or not, it was a matter of personal conscience. But he also said that if you have doubts about whether it's okay to eat certain foods, then it's better not to do it. I apply Paul's principle to this subject because I am uncertain, so if I had to decide today whether I should join the Navy or not, I probably wouldn't. But at the same time, I wouldn't think any less of somebody who did, and I wouldn't try to discourage it. At most, I would only encourage the person to look into it because I think it's a topic any Christian considering joining the military should give careful study and thought to.

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