This week, November 11, is Veteran’s Day. Honoring retired members of the military presupposes a belief that, generally speaking, the U.S. military is a good entity serving a good purpose. This is a presupposition that some Christians—pacifists, for example—do not share. Some Christians believe that, despite all of the warfare described in the Old Testament, the New Testament prohibits Christians from all acts of violence. Usually such arguments are based on the words of Jesus himself.
Did Jesus not command in the Sermon on the Mount to “Turn the other cheek”? How is this reconcilable with warfare? Doesn’t a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount render Augustine’s theory of “just war” impossible—isn’t all war by definition unjust? Joy Davidman, wife of C.S. Lewis, in her book, Smoke on the Mountain (Westminster Press, 1953) said this interpretation of Jesus’ sermon is wrong because “Elsewhere he too spoke as if the use of force could be lawful.” Davidman cites numerous examples: Jesus told his disciples he came not to bring peace but a sword, he praised the Roman centurion “whose sword brought order”, and he “scourged the money-changers out of the Temple.”
The story of the Roman solider that Davidman alludes to is in John 4, as well as the Synoptic gospels. When Jesus offered to come heal the soldier’s sick servant, the soldier told Jesus he wasn’t worthy for Jesus to come under his roof; if he would just say the word, that would be enough to heal the servant. Astonished, Jesus replied that he had not found such great faith in all Israel. Davidman isn’t implying that Jesus praised the centurion for his use of the sword per se, but the fact that Jesus could praise him as a faithful man showed that Jesus believed it was possible to be a member of the Roman military, corrupt as it was, and still be a godly individual.
This ought to make us mindful that however opposed we are to wars America wages which we regard as unjust, we should be careful not to paint all members of the military with a broad brush, as if they were all unjust individuals.
My feelings about Veteran’s Day make my mind wander to Rod Serling, the creator and principal writer of The Twilight Zone. Serling himself served in World War II, became a pacifist, and throughout his life paradoxically wrote dramas wherein war is decried as tragic and evil, but also wherein soldiers are portrayed heroically/sympathetically. He wrote compelling teleplays, denouncing bloody dictatorships (“He’s Alive”, “Deaths Head Re-visited”, “The Obsolete Man”), but he also frequently humanized the enemy, showing that they too were people with emotions and needs (“Judgment Night”, “A Quality of Mercy”, “No Time Like the Past”). Film historian Douglas Brode summed up Serling well, saying “Admiring those who make the ultimate sacrifice is not at all the same thing as admiring the conflict itself.” Personally, as much angst as I feel about the craziness the U.S. has been involved in during this “War on Terror”, one of my all time favorite songs is Tim McGraw’s tribute to fallen soldiers, “If You’re Reading This”.
Getting back to the main point, how then are we to understand Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek? Davidman explains: “What he forbade, then, was not violence, but self-seeking violence; not anger, but being angry without a cause. He laid upon us the duty of protecting the weak, and it is obviously impossible to do that without sometimes having to fight the strong.”
John Lennon, in his classic song, “So This is Christmas”, sang, “War is over, if you want it”, implying that ushering in world peace was as simple as people deciding to stop fighting. Such sentimental humanism sounds nice in a Christmas song, but it doesn’t keep safe vulnerable people whose lives are being destroyed by megalomaniac politicians. It naively assumes that bloodthirsty dictators can be “reasoned with”.
When the wicked strong are oppressing the righteous weak, it is the obligation of the righteous strong to fight the wicked strong to the death. It’s important to realize, then, that historic Christianity has affirmed the at least theoretical possibility of “just war”. This doesn’t neatly resolve all confusion, though, about what constitutes “just war”. As Davidman noted, in the mid 20th century European dictators slaughtered entire populations, making it “not surprising if we are confused about where murder stops and legitimate war begins.”
We might like to think of “just war” as being a battle between one purely good power against a purely evil power. This is not often the case in real life. The Nuremberg trials, which were being conducted 70 years ago this month in the aftermath of World War II, have been criticized on the grounds that the Soviet Union who, along with France, Great Britain, and the U.S., sat in judgment over the Nazis was guilty of atrocities no less heinous than those of the Nazis. Certainly the Nazis deserved everything that could be doled out to them, but it is troubling to the conscience to think of how Joseph Stalin’s slaughter of millions and millions of Soviet people went unpunished. In World War II, the Axis powers (Japan, Germany and Italy) were unambiguously evil, but the Allies were not unambiguously righteous.
The Bible commands people to obey lawful authority, but not to defer to them when there is a conflict between obeying God and man. Recent examples of alleged police brutality against black citizens across the country have led to the Black Lives Matter movement, and this has in turn led to the Blue Lives Matter (referring to police officers). In response to reports of police abuse, Franklin Graham controversially suggested that such incidents could be avoided if people would just obey police! The backlash against police has led many to embrace the “We Back the Badge” campaign, pledging loyalty to local law enforcement. However, saying we “support law enforcement”, without qualifying the statement, is tantamount to saying we “support politicians”. It makes sense to support law-abiding politicians who have integrity, but not politicians across the board. Similarly, we can’t just across the board “support law enforcement”, as if there were no such thing as evil and unjust rogue cops in society. Good should be supported, and evil should be renounced. The presence of a police badge doesn’t in itself turn into good that which would otherwise be evil.
Just as we cannot, without qualification, “Back the Badge”, we cannot, without qualification, support the U.S. military. We must use the brains God has given us.