Nonviolence and the Christian: the Military

We’ve been wrestling through a very difficult topic over the past several weeks: one that has forced me to take stock of my own thoughts on the issue of violence and come to different conclusions than what I’ve held in the past and different conclusions than many I respect. To be clear, my conclusions are a matter of personal conscience and do not represent the position of New Life.

It was Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight that provoked this internal battle for me. In his book, Sprinkle argues that most of us have allowed our culture to shape our understanding of the ethics of violence. Sprinkle says that his own perspective on violence was rocked when he approached Scripture and re-considered the ethics of violence. If you haven’t read the first four posts, I would encourage you to read them before reading this post as you will likely dismiss everything from this point forward without considering the biblical record on violence for yourself.

We are certainly about to move into controversial territory. I have no doubt that the vast majority of those who read this blog will disagree with where I land on the issue of violence and the military. I hope you know that I certainly respect your position, and am, if anything, more comfortable with your position than my current position. However, I have felt compelled toward moving toward an ethic of nonviolence over the past months of scriptural study and I would encourage you to consider the matter biblically as well. And if you come to a different conclusion, I invite your dialogue around the issue.

Imagine this: a senior in high school, you stop by a military recruiter’s table at a jobs fair and your interest is piqued: the ability to serve your country, the job stability, and the educational perks are intriguing. Does your conscience allow you to join the military?

I believe this is the most difficult of all of the questions. The reason it is so difficult is threefold. First, as we discussed in our first post, God’s commandments to Israel are unique and certainly inappropriate for any modern country to take as their own. Second, in the New Testament, Christians were in a minority and persecuted position within the Roman Empire. The first and second difficulties, then, are in applying biblical principles written in very different times to a modern-day democratic government). The third difficulty is discerning what, if any, line separates ethical behavior for a citizen and ethical behavior for one serving his or her country. In other words, Jesus’ injunctions to the individual might be clear, but it is more difficult to understand what those injunctions mean for a government.

The Bible clearly speaks of the divinely given authority of governments. In Romans 13:1 it says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” There is no government that has ever ruled without God’s sovereign rule over them. Paul is telling us that as we submit to a government’s authority, we are honoring God who is sovereign over all. Further, one could say that, like individuals, God desires governments to honor him as their finite kingdoms reflect his perfectly good Kingdom. Justice in any government honors God. And yet, what Romans 13 clearly doesn’t do is give governments a blank ethical check. Throughout scripture, from the prophets to the book of Revelation, the corruption and violence of governments are rebuked.

Furthermore, as we have already alluded to, our governments all have an end. As Christians we look to the one true king, Jesus. The rallying cry of Rome was that it would bring Pax Romana –Roman peace—to every nation it conquered. But this was a peace that was purchased through military might and threat, which, of course, is not the true peace of God.

Jesus Christ, the true Lord (Cesar) offers true peace. How does he accomplish that peace? Through his death. In the book of Revelation, where we see the victory of Christ, what we find is that what appears to be defeat from the world’s perspective is actually victory. The most pervasive image in the book (appearing 28 times!) is the slaughtered Lamb. The cross, the torture device by which Rome exerted its humiliating victory is what the Savior hangs on to secure victory. In Sprinkle’s words, “The messianic Lion defeats evil by becoming a slaughtered Lamb.”

Our victory as Christians is cruciform (cross-shaped). We expect that suffering is part of the Christian life and that the Kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom that can never be associated with an earthly kingdom and certainly can never be associated with violence. In fact, perhaps the most significant blight on the Christian witness is when part of the church conflated the two in the Crusades.

Let me reflect on an important piece of the puzzle: Just War. Just War theory has a long history—too long to explain in this post—but at its heart is the belief that war is an appropriate response if seven criteria are filled. The vast majority of Christians who support military intervention, do so by appealing to its use in the confines of a just war. Those seven criteria for a just war are:

1.      Just cause: for instance, self-defense or protecting a people from the wickedness of its government;

2.      Right authority: only a legitimate government;

3.      Right intention: not for the gain of the intervening country;

4.      Reasonable chance of success: the expected good results must outweigh the bad;

5.      Last resort: all nonviolent options have been exhausted;

6.      Proportionate means: the force must be limited to only what is necessary;

7.      Noncombatant immunity: civilians are to be protected.

These are well considered and thoughtful criteria that I fully support. There is a problem, however. Along with most historians and ethicists, Sprinkle argues that “History knows of no just wars.” We don’t have space to do so here, but we can take any US military intervention and find at least one just war criteria it didn’t meet.

One final consideration to make is how successful violent and nonviolent intervention has been. I do not believe that the answer to this question ought to determine our position on the matter, but it is worth weighing.

History is marred by the ethical failures of violent intervention and punctuated by some potential examples of success at the hands of military intervention. World War II by many considerations appears to be a successful moment of violent intervention. There have been several military interventions in response to genocide with varying levels of success: Somalia and Albania are two. The United States mixed aid and counter-insurgency efforts in Columbia, appear to have been successful.

Military intervention that has gone poorly (and most would not defend by Just War theory) for the United States, on the other hand, would include World War I, the Vietnam War, and the US’s intervention in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

Likewise, there have been nonviolent movements that have been failures and nonviolent movements that have been successes. Sprinkle mentions quite a few of these, including the nonviolent resistance the Nazi extermination of Jews. In the town of LaChambon, France, alone, more than 3,500 Jews were saved from the Nazis. Consider Ghandi’s successful nonviolent campaign against injustice in India. Or consider the success of the American Civil Rights movement. Or nonviolent campaigns that toppled dictators in El Salvador, the Philippines, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Lithuania, Liberia, Finland, Estonia, Hungry, and Bulgaria. There are also failures by those who have practiced nonviolence: consider, for instance, the Sharpeville Protest in South Africa or the Tiananmen Square protest in China.

When one asks the question about whether violent intervention or nonviolent intervention is more successful, the answer is muddled. While much debate could be had over what was or wasn’t successful or worth the price that was paid for various military interventions, what one can certainly not say is that military intervention is the only viable option.

My answer, then, to the question of whether my conscience holds that I could serve in an armed capacity in the military is a guarded no. I just don’t see how killing another human being, even in the service of one’s country, is ethical. Please hear the tentative nature of this statement. I think that the question is a blurry one, but I ultimately don't believe that the consistent New Testament call to nonviolence is trumped by us being subject to governing authorities (Romans 13:1).

I understand that many reading this blog have served our country in the military. I recognize that some have had to kill others in the context of that service. I respect both the intent and the sacrifice of your service. I certainly respect that one can walk through these difficult issues and have their conscience land in a difference place. For those who have served, I am especially sensitive to you and understand that this conclusion may well feel like I am spitting in your face. That is not my intent. As I said earlier, this is an uncomfortable conclusion for me and one that I hold tentatively.

Whatever your conclusions are on these difficult matters of conscience, I encourage you to seek out the Bible to shape your convictions on these matters. While we are called to be faithful and godly citizens of our the earthly kingdoms God has blessed us with (and I am incredibly grateful to be born as a citizen of one of the most peaceable kingdoms in this fallen world), we are ultimately citizens of the only true peaceable Kingdom, and it is the ethics of our Lord Jesus’ Kingdom that must shape our consciences.


Photo by Chuanchai Pundej on Unsplash

For more on the Nonviolence and the Christian series, see:

Part 1: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Old Testament

Part 2: Nonviolence and the Christian: Jesus’ Ministry

Part 3: Nonviolence and the Christian: Self-Defense

Part 4: Nonviolence and the Christian: But What About the Swords?

Part 5: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Military