Someone asked me recently what I thought about a Christian joining the armed forces. With Remembrance Sunday just behind us, it is especially pertinent. As I thought about my answer, I realised how varied Christian’s responses to that have been down the centuries, and how complex an issue it is.
Now, cards on the table. My father was called up to join the army at the beginning of 1945 and stepped forward as a Concientious Objector, he refused to bear arms having signed the Peace Pledge during the 1930s. He did join the army, but as a clerk, and never had weapons training. His motivation was not Christianity (he was an atheist), but left-wing political views. Interestingly enough, when he left the army in 1947, his closest friends were 2 German officers imprisoned in the POW camp in Sussex where he worked. Their families became life long friends with my family. Inevitably, this background has had some influence on me.
So, it’s a big subject – Christians and the military. And a whole variety of views on it. From outright pacifism, to a belief that force should be used to advance the aims of God.
For example, the most recent Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt is a Christian; and at the same time Martin Luther King was a pacifist and a Baptist Pastor. St Augustine in the 4th century advocated the use of force to deal with those Christians he considered heretics (Donatists), wheras the Anabaptist Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries would not consider becoming soldiers or magistrates.
What about Jesus? He doesn’t mention the subject specifically. Although he does deal with a number of soldiers – most notably the centurion who he commends for his faith (Matthew 8). John the Baptist responds to some soldiers who ask him what they should do by telling them not to extort money (but by implication, to remain as soldiers) – Luke 3:14.
So, perhaps being a soldier and a follower of Jesus is a possibility.
In the early church it quickly became impossible for most Christians to be soldiers, as they were the primary instruments of persecution of the church – and to be a Roman soldier required the acknowledgement of the Emperor as a god – which Christians were unprepared to do.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leader of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. The Confessing Church resisted the Nazi Regime and was persecuted by the state. Bohoffer was a pacifist, but as the was progressed he became linked to plots to assasinate Hitler, including the failed Stauffenberg Plot in 1944 where the Fuhrer was almost killed by a bomb. He was arrested and hanged on 9th april 1945. He had decided that despite his pacifism, killing Hitler was the lesser of 2 evils. It was evil, but better than the alternative – prolonging the war and the Holocaust. Sometimes do we feel that warfare is justified, or a necessary evil? Thomas Aquinas introduced the idea of a “Just War” – a war that could also be seen as justifiable in God’s sight (however, Aquinas also taught that heretics should be executed!).
So, what should we think? Maybe a good place to start it to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” (as the wrist bands say) – or perhaps “What Would Jesus Have Me Do?”. It would be something to take specifically to God in prayer if we are considering it.
Some things to consider:
1. Jesus says we should love our enemies. Can we square this with being in the forces?
2. States need to have recourse to force to defend themselves. Is it OK for me to just leave that to other people, whilst claiming pacifism for myself?
3. How would I feel if ordered to fight in a conflict that I believed was unjustified?
No answers, just lots of questions.