Yesterday saw a lot of 9/11 tributes. They were reminders of the attacks on the United States ten years ago. But they were also a reminder of the wars that the U.S. and her soldiers were led to fight (Iraq and Afghanistan). And that leads to an interesting question. Can a Christian legitimately serve as a soldier, and even kill another human being, and have it be considered a God pleasing act?
How do we reconcile the 5th commandment—you shall not kill— with the vocation of a fighting soldier? And since we are on the topic, and since the commands and imperatives of Jesus are often brought up on this blog, how do we reconcile Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount with the vocation of a soldier:
“38You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” Matthew 5:38-41
Though I objected to some of David Platt’s conclusions regarding his notion of “radical obedience” in my last post, I did agree with his indictment against Christians obsessed with the American dream. But a further curious consideration would be if his call for radical obedience to Christ’s commands would also include Jesus’ words of Matthew 5:38-41?
As Platt criticizes those Christians pursuing the American dream, Stanley Hauwerwas in one (among others) who criticizes Christian Americans, and I think rightly so at times, for getting so caught up in their zeal for country, that their patriotism (or nationalism) becomes their idol. (As he poses, which flag will heaven be flying anyway?)
Even so, using Platt’s notion of radical obedience, Christian soldiers, like my youngest brother who fought in Iraq and still bears the scars and shrapnel in his body from his battles, would seem to potentially fall outside of proper obedience to Christ. For, using Platt’s reasoning, how can a soldier proclaim the Gospel and disciple Muslim unbelievers when he is engaged in violent, deadly war against them? Is that evidence of radical obedience?
Stanley Hauwerwas is also quite clear, though thoughtfully so, that Christians ought to be committed to nonviolence if they are serious about what Christ endured for the salvation of the world. He is not bashful about invoking Jesus words to turn the other check and he challenges Christians to reconsider positions regarding the acceptance of using violent force. So what do we do?
Martin Luther in his 1526 work titled, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, provides some insights about this, trying to balance the reality of the God created office of government and soldier and their proper use of force, with when the use of force would be wrong:
“A soldier ought to have the knowledge and confidence that he is doing and must do his duty to be certain that he is serving God and can say, ‘It is not I that smite stab, and slay’ but God and my prince, for my hand and my body are now their servants…
[Yet] ‘Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.’ I reply: If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, Acts 4 [5:29], and you should neither fight nor serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God” (p.130).
Luther was also well aware of concerns regarding Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount and preached openly on them (from his 1530-1532 commentary on the Sermon on the Mount):
“This text has also given rise to many questions and errors among nearly all the theologians who have failed to distinguish properly between the secular and the spiritual, between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world. Once these have been confused instead of being clearly and accurately separated, there can never be any correct understanding in Christendom, as I have often said and shown…” (p.105).
“Thus when a Christian goes to war or when he sits on a judge’s bench, punishing his neighbor, or when he registers an official complaint, he is not doing this as a Christian, but as a soldier or judge or a lawyer. At the same time he keeps a Christian heart. He does not intend anyone any harm, and it grieves him that his neighbor must suffer grief. So he lives simultaneously as Christian toward everyone, personally suffering all sorts of things in the world, and as a secular person, maintaining, using, and performing all the functions required by the law of his territory or city, by civil law, and by domestic law. In other words, a Christian as such does not live for the things that are visible about this outward life. They all belong to the imperial government, which Christ has no intention of overthrowing. Nor does He teach us to escape from it or to desert the world and our office and station, but to make use of this rule and established order. Yet while we keep our obligation to this rule and established order, inwardly we live by another rule, which does not hinder it nor even deal with it, but which is willing to put up with it” (p.113).
This understanding is summarized in the official Lutheran confessions: It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evil doers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc. Augsburg Confession XVI.
My point? In short, Lutherans recognize the significance of all Christ’s words and do not simply aim to ignore, marginalize, or elevate as all supreme, any one phrase or sentence. Rather, we seek to give thoughtful reflection to the entirety of God’s Word (and its context) as well as His mission, acknowledging all the vocations God has established and ordered, while also recognizing that His mission is broader than one isolated command or phrase of Jesus.
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).