My church, St. Andrew’s, Oxford, is experimenting with a café church format; a couple of worship songs, and then a brief sermon which we we discuss in small groups. Around Remembrance Day, November 11, we discussed war, and Christians in the military.
In the Sermon on the Mount (which the pacifist Anabaptists, precursors of the Amish and Mennonites considered their Bible within the Bible), Jesus makes his thoughts absolutely clear.
Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5)
So the question is “Do these words, these teachings of Jesus have any relevance in the 21st century?”
Was Jesus smart? Was Jesus wise? Did he actually have an inside track on how to live well?
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Now Christ will call some men and women who follow him into the military so that they can be salt and light, sweetness and wisdom, in that environment.
I believe however, that without a specific call, a Christ-follower should not enter the military (except in a non-combatant role, such as a chaplain or medic).
It would be wiser to choose a profession, and to steer one’s children towards professions, which are more of an unequivocal blessing to people, more likely to build up all God’s children, without the risk of having to kill your fellow human beings because your Commander-in-chief decides that this is in your nation’s interests.
A career in the military can be morally and spiritually problematic for a Christian.
- You may be called to attack and bomb another nation in the course of complicated geo-politics. Your nation’s need for oil. An oilman as President. A false suspicion that the enemy nation harbours a famous terrorist or has weapons of mass destruction. The striving of your nation for pre-eminence and power might send you to fight thousands of miles away to contain another superpower. The allies of your nation might demand your nation’s cooperation in a war that’s none of your business. A democratically elected leader might declare war to distract people from the economy, or to strengthen his position for the next election.
Joining the military means you must kill and cause untold devastation to other families at the behest of the elected rulers of your country, who ordered you to for their own purposes, including holding onto power–and, besides, who knows if they are wise men or foolish.
2. Modern warfare is not clean; the use of drones causes distressing collateral damage amongst civilians.
The terrible things soldiers have seen and perhaps done leave them at far greater risk of post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population, besides risking depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
3. The long periods of separation are hard on family life, on spouses and children, and, just as hard on the soldier.
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The US spends a staggering 23.9 % of the Federal Budget on Defense. (The UK, in contrast, spends 6%).
Would diverting some of the spending on the military to health, education, the arts, and scientific research leave a nation defenceless against its enemies? Or would it, oddly, make it stronger?
And on a micro-level, would doing what Jesus tells us to do put us at risk?
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Interestingly, two of the most spectacular military defeats sustained by the strongest armies of their time, were not accomplished by might or power, but by exogenous events, “acts of God,” i.e. the Russian winter.
In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 650,000 soldiers to the 200,000 soldiers of the Russian army. The Russians passively retreated, abandoning Vilna, abandoning and burning Vitebsk and Smolensk, the peasants burning their crops, leaving no food for the men and horses of the Grande Armée. After a one day engagement at Borodino, they withdrew again, leaving the road open to Moscow. Which Napoleon found engulfed in flames, no food but lots of hard liquour, a city populated by the prisoners just released from the jails, while the rest of the city’s inhabitants had fled with the food.
Finally, the Grande Armée straggled back, starving, freezing, losing thousands of men and horses on icy nights, harassed by the Russians, having lost to the Russian winter, to exogenous events, to acts of God.
Ironically, this defeat was repeated by Hitler at Stalingrad in 1942, though he had studied Napoleon’s disastrous defeat. The Germans ultimately lost The Battle of Stalingrad, the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare, largely because of a lack of food and fuel…that, and the Russian winter.
Or to go back 5000 thousand years, the tide of battles in the Old Testament often hinges on exogenous events…a boy handy with a slingshot killing a giant. Marching, shouting and shofars bringing down the city of Jericho. Tidal waves submerging the pursing Egyptian armies in Exodus. Torches and trumpets at night deceiving and routing the Midianite armies in the time of Gideon.
The way of might and power has its limitations. Who would have thought? The way of Spirit, the way of the creator–that works.
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As Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy, Jesus was the most brilliant person who has ever lived. He gives us the most practical, realistic, up-to-date advice on living. His way works, which is why it has remained compelling through the centuries.
If you feel as helpless faced with the giant obstacles in your life as the Russian army faced by the Grande Armée three times its size…if you take your eyes off Jesus, and see people succeed through manipulation, through flattery, through deceit, through what Wordsworth calls greetings where no kindness is–stuff you instinctively feel you cannot engage in as a follower of Jesus–be of good cheer.
Though we cannot see God with our physical eyes, though we cannot see the weapons of the spirit–like prayer and goodness and obedience–they are no less powerful than the natural forces whose presence we cannot see until they strike: the Russian winter, or what insurance companies term “acts of God,” hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
Do the work. Trust in God. Work with integrity and gentleness. Listen to the Spirit for the strategy you need for the next step. Be aware of the way the Spirit is working in your life and in the world. Remember nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.
When you see those around you use the weapons of the world—flattery, manipulation, deceit–and win, do not be dismayed. Continue to rely on weapons of the spirit–prayer, integrity, and the wisdom and strategy that come from above. Wait for the Lord’s time, and for his blessing. The mighty walled city of Jericho brought down by marching seven times around it with trumpets. Who would have guessed?
Let faith rise.