Christians, Pacifists and Soldiers

(I am contributing to the Xanga Council of Christian Pacifists, which features answers to questions about pacifism, and then further questions of those answers. Come by and start asking questions! Here is my response to the most recent question.)

I don’t recall ever meeting a Christian pacifist who held a visible disrespect for soldiers or police.  I have certainly met plenty of non-Christians who describe themselves as pacifists who hold them in contempt.  Perhaps from their perspective that is reasonable, but I can’t imagine why a Christian would ever reject the validity of the soldiering vocation.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that in a bourgeois culture like ours, a soldier who is a non-believer probably has a more intuitive grasp on what the gospel means than the average American churchgoer.  This is because, as Stanley Hauerwas observes, the military is just about the only culture in America where concepts of honor, allegiance and the cultivation of virtue have any meaning.

Both my father and grandfather were soldiers, and one of my earliest memories is my father taking me to the Wichita public library to show me my grandfather’s name in a particular history textbook, listed as a war hero.  I have tremendous respect for the heroism, self-sacrifice and love of other that the soldiering vocation exemplifies.  But for all that, I am convinced that the way of discipleship laid out in the New Testament does not leave military service as an option for the disciple.  So how do Christians so convinced approach Christians who don’t read the New Testament in the same way?

At the risk of sounding like I’ve got this really hammered out (I definitely don’t), here is a very authoritative looking list of opening suggestions.

  • Give your life.  All of the Christian pacifists I know have given their lives away and seen it poured out in much the same way as those in the military have signed their lives over.  Whether it’s entering into poverty to minister to the homeless, serving in the peace corps, living as a long-term missionary in nations where the gospel is a capital offense or simply living lives of radical hospitality where their lives are not their own, those I have known have been willing to lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters.  Without this kind of visible sacrifice, the pacifist has no capacity to discuss sacrifice or honor with someone who truly understands it.
  • Don’t equivocate.  It’s tempting when disagreeing with someone you respect to scale down your views, so that, for instance, a belief that military service is incompatible with Christian discipleship suddenly morphs into, “Well, I feel called not to…”  But this is unfair to yourself and to the person you’re communicating with.
  • Communicate respect.  In my experience, Christian pacifists tend to be pretty good about this (as opposed to secular anti-war activists, for instance), and both my church and university have been comprised of active and reserve military as well as outspoken pacifists, and everyone has felt respected, despite very clearly spoken and strong disagreement.
  • Examine New Testament imagery.  The New Testament never calls Christians to serve in national militaries, but it often likens the church to the military.  We are to act on duty at all times, and not get caught up in civilian affairs (2 Tim 2:3-4).  We are to regard prayer and faith as our weapons (Eph 5).   As Richard Hays observes, the New Testament is full of military imagery, but it is always “co-opted into the service of the gospel.”  But it is the military and not the church where high-school graduates turn for structure and moral formation.  The church is as shallow and consumerist as the culture.  In my experience, members of the military can see this lack much more clearly than civilians, and this gives a lot of common ground for conversation.
  • Address the full issue.  Though the use of violence and the possibility of killing is an issue, problem of Christian military service isn’t primarily one of pacifism.  That is only an aspect of the discussion.  Also at stake are the capacity to concretely love your enemies and do good to them that harm you, remaining free to obey the Holy Spirit, the shape of personal formation, the primacy of church over state and the repeated call for Christians to live as foreigners, sojourners, exiles and ambassadors from a foreign land.
  • Ask questions.  And not just leading Socratic questions.  Ask questions in order to learn.  As a soldier, how do you love not only your neighbor but your enemy?  What role does faith play in your military career and action?  How does being a Christian make you different from a non-believing soldier?  How could you respond to an unjust command given?

Ultimately, I don’t believe our direct goal is to convert Christians to a pacifist position.  Our only goal should be to witness to the lordship of Christ over both pacifist and non-pacifist, over both church and state.  The only way I know to manifest that lordship involves a radical repudiation of our faith in violence, which includes military service, and I believe the New Testament lays this out very clearly.  As with many issues, well-meaning interpreters will disagree.  We cannot judge those who disagree, for it is not to us that they answer (Rom 14:4).

We will continue to wrestle with the truth.  To the degree that we wrestle with the truth in love, we will be witnesses to the world.  To the degree that we turn from wrestling with the truth to attacking each other, we deny that Christ is lord.

What do you think?  Do pacifists and soldiers have more in common than either has with the average American church-goer?  Is there a difference between trying to convert someone to your view and witnessing to the truth as you see it?  Can Christians in the military and pacifist Christians wrestle publicly with their disagreements in such a way as to witness to the lordship of Christ?


One response to “Christians, Pacifists and Soldiers

  1. Another opinion

    You raise many interesting points in your posting. You are absolutely correct “that the way of discipleship laid out in the New Testament does not leave military service as an option for the disciple.” Christian discipleship and military service are indeed incompatible with each other. As to how should you “approach Christians who don’t read the New Testament in the same way?” One way might be to shame them by having them read books like “Blood Guilt” (, which expose how pro-war Christians bring shame and disgrace upon the cause of Christ. One recent example of how pro-war Christians can cause unbelievers to treat Christianity with contempt comes from HBO’s Bill Maher:

    “New rule: If you’re a Christian who supports killing your enemies, and torture,…you have to come up with a new name for yourself… For almost 2000 years, Christians have been lawyering the Bible to try and figure out how ‘love thy neighbor’ can mean ‘hate thy neighbor,’ and how ‘turn the other cheek’ can mean, ‘Screw you, I’m buying space lasers.’ Martin Luther King gets to call himself a Christian, because he actually practiced loving his enemies. And Gandhi was so f—ckin’ Christian he was Hindu.”

    Today, Christians take up arms and kill others for the supposed common good without much of a second thought. Is it any surprise then that the unbeliever looks at the Lord’s pasture, sees so many wolves in sheep’s clothing, and walks away mocking the Great Shepherd?

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