Friday, November 5, 2010

"Christian" Military Service: A Possibility?

A friend posted a link to this article by Greg Boyd, "Does Following Jesus Rule Out Serving in the Military if a War is Just?" and I happened to have a sleepless night.

I recommend reading the article, but for those with no time to spare, but enough time to spare to read my journal, here is a quick synopsis (with apologies to Dr. Boyd). Two opposing sentiments in the New Testament: teaching regarding non-violence, presence of military personnel but no clear denunciation of their career. After reviewing the pertinent texts, he writes "The above cited texts show that the Gospel can reach people who serve in the military. They also reveal that John the Baptist, Jesus and the earliest Christians gave military personal “space,” as it were, to work out the implications of their faith vis-à-vis their military service." This ambiguity should be respected by those who are prone to make declarative statements regarding Christian ethics.

Boyd continues to ask "what about just wars?", which is an issue which I will not take up at this time, but deserves the attention of any thoughtful Christian.

The section entitled "How do we know when a war is 'just'?" is the most revealing to me. After describing the complexities involved in determining whether a war and its component parts are justified, he posits that due to the unknowable nature of motivations, tactics, and outcomes, it is better to abstain.

Forgive the block quote, but he writes better than me:

"Do you know – can you know – the myriad of personal, social, political and historical factors that have led to any particular conflict and that bear upon whether or not it is “justified?” For example, do you truly understand all the reasons your enemy gives for going to war against your nation, and are you certain they are altogether illegitimate? Are you certain your government has sought out all possible non-violent means of resolving the conflict before deciding to take up arms? Are you certain the information you’ve been given about a war is complete, accurate and objective? Do you know the real motivation of the leaders who will be commanding you to kill or be killed for “the cause” (as opposed to what the national propaganda may have communicated)? Are you certain that the ultimate motivation isn’t financial or political gain for certain people in high places? Are you certain that the war isn’t in part motivated by personal grievances and/or isn’t being done simply to support or advance the already extravagant lifestyle of most Americans? Given what we know about the corrupting influence of demonic powers in all nations, and given what we know about how the American government (like all other governments) has at times mislead the public about what was “really” going on in the past (e.g. the Vietnam war), these questions must be wrestled with seriously."

The assumption throughout this article is that participation in the military is an individual decision made by a potential enlistee. Although the nuance of "not resisting being drafted into war" attempts to widen the scope of inclusion, our modern military is a form of incentivized volunteerism that can serve to preclude the ethical dilemma from those who choose not to participate. The military-industrial complex, however, touches almost all aspect of our culture. To engage in any commerce involves interacting with companies that supply, market, employ, or benefit from military action overseas and domestically. By participating within our American culture, each person tacitly supports the acts of military aggression funded by our governmental representatives. As participants within our culture, we all share responsibility for the actions of our enlisted forces overseas. Our culture has decided the criteria for which wars are justified, and the cultures criteria most certainly would not coincide with what is taught by Christ. The question, then, is how to live an ethical life in imitation of Jesus our teacher within a culture that does not honor his teaching.

For many, including most professional ethicists and myself (an armchair ethicist), military engagement is a hypothetical situation. As followers of Christ, we are called to be faithful to God within our lived reality, not a hypothetical situation. (A different note for a different day may discuss what non-violence means in my context.) This is where the culture of the Kingdom subverts the kingdoms of this world. If we exist within a cultural framework that persists in military force, is there any way to remain innocent? I do not think that there is. As such, we need to acknowledge our complicity and ask God and our neighbors for forgiveness. It would also serve propriety to discontinue the "Christian" modifier to this or any country. This is not to suggest a nihilistic fatalism in regard to military force, but to own our role as participants in and shapers of our culture and respond faithfully and appropriately within our immediate context. This may mean voting, demonstrating, abstaining, or acting.

Lastly, I do not think that "bearing the sword" is an adequate descriptor of violent force. The standard issue rifle for the American military is the M4, a "gas-operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, selective fire firearms with a multi-position telescoping stock" . In contrast, "A sword is a long, edged piece of forged metal, used in many civilizations throughout the world, primarily as a cutting or thrusting weapon and occasionally for clubbing". Both are designed to efficiently minimize an opponents muscle use while causing the interior blood level to decrease beyond a lethal limit. The difference between these two forces are the effective range. Modern warfare has depersonalized the use of violent force and turned people (with the shared, full range of life experience) into targets, enemy combatants, terrorists, and other ambiguous, unidimensional terms. "Us" vs. "Them", for control of the world. (A particularly insightful read on the subject is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society". As a West Point psychologist, he researches the interior mechanics that exist when one person ends the life of another and how these mechanics have changed throughout modern military history and influenced society. If you’re interested, it's on our bookshelf.)

To quote Boyd's article again, the alternative to this reality of life is to subvert our predominant culture for the Kingdom of God. "To belong to this kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence." (I am in the process of writing a sermon that looks at the term "flesh" in Galatians as the neutral, human element of culture, rather than a sinful nature and draws conclusions for how the church should respond.) To rephrase, as followers of Christ, we look to execute our cultural desire to live out of self-interest and tribal/national interests…and their protection through the use of violence. For every person involved, whether in fatigues in Afghanistan or in Fullerton, introspection is necessary to determine how we will live faithfully in the manner we were taught by Christ.

Grace is also ever necessary.

(I am seeing my brother Kyle this week, who served with the United States Marine Corps. I am looking forward to his take on the subject. I am also concerned for the safety of my brother's brother, MJ, currently beginning a deployment in Iraq.)

Cross-posted at


  1. boyd wrote a book called "myth of a christian nation" and paints a powerful picture contrasting "power of the sword" with "power of the cross." a person might not agree with everything he says (especially the last chapter on self-defense and violence and war), but i guarantee it will make you re-evaluate a whole list of things. i was thinking about the implications for weeks and still haven't settle on what i thought was an air-tight understanding, unquestioned because it didn't need to be.

  2. I love the way that you take the pressure off of figuring out some abstract possibility and bring it to the concrete reality of our lives. Things like eating fast food, or using a computer to comment on a blog post are not disconnected from u.s.american military superiority.

    There's a great prayer of confession that we use sometimes at St. Alban's that asks God to forgive "the wrongs we have done, and the wrongs done on our behalf." I am the beneficiary of wrongs done on my behalf (past and present). Taking responsibility for these things, even with the simple act of a public confession, can lead to repentance. In other words, we can begin to reorient our lives around the alternative kingdom of God even within a kingdom of global capitalism and american hegemony. And we can look/pray for the inbreaking Spirit in the way we live right now instead of scapegoating.