Monday, April 30, 2007

What About the Military? 4-9-07

I recently received an email from a person serving in the military that included this statement:

“I read your book The Myth of a Christian Nation. You should not have published this. Jesus works with military people. Our mission as followers of Jesus is to give aid to the wounded, protect the oppressed, protect our families, and kill when we have to.”

Here’s my response:

I want you to know that I sincerely respect your convictions and that I admire the courage of the men and women in our military. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to your statement frankly if I may.

Of course Jesus works with military people. He loves and works with everyone – just as they are. So should we. The fact that he didn’t tell soldiers to get out of the military doesn’t tell us much, for Jesus hardly ever did this with anyone – including prostitutes and the Samaritan woman who was living out of wedlock with a man (Jn 4). Jesus loved and worked with people wherever they were when he happened to come upon them.

I completely agree with you when you say we’re to aid the wounded and protect the oppressed. But when you claim "our mission" also includes "protecting our families" and even killing “when we have to,” I’m honestly wondering where you’re getting your ideas. Where in the New Testament does one find anything resembling such ideas?

I know common sense and normal nationalistic sentiments teach us such things. Universal “common sense” tells us that people ought to kill, if necessary, to protect themselves, their families, and their country (and note, people generally assume this regardless of what country they’re born into). But are followers of Jesus called to be just another version of practical, nationalistically motivated, common sense? Didn’t Jesus command us to love, bless, and do good to our enemies? Didn’t he command us to turn the other cheek and never return evil with evil but rather to always return evil with good? Aren’t we supposed to give water to our enemies when they’re thirsty and feed them when they’re hungry? (cf. Rom.12:17-21). In this light, how can we justifying killing our enemies “if we have to“? We never find this “exception clause” hinted at in the New Testament.

Now, you might be thinking: “Neither Jesus nor his disciples were thinking of enemies like Al-Qaeda.” Surely he didn’t mean we’re supposed to love and do good to these sorts of enemies. As a matter fact, these were exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples would have had in mind. Jesus was talking to people who were not only threatened by vicious nationalistic enemies; they were already conquered by them. Most first century Jews despised their Roman oppressors at least as much as most Americans despise Al-Qaeda – and they were under their oppressive rule. The Romans would sometimes put dozens – in a few cases we know of, thousands – of Jews to death (usually by crucifixion) just to flex their muscle. Imagine America being conquered and ruled by Al-Qaeda, and you get some idea of what Jesus was asking of his disciples when he told them to love “their enemies” and never retaliate against them.

As it turned out, within a few decades, many of his disciples would have to watch their families be fed to lions or burned alive under Nero. Yet, rather than retaliate or "protect" themselves with violent force, these early Christians considered it an honor to follow Jesus’ example by letting themselves get crucified. In fact, the gracious way they died was one of the main catalysts for the rapid growth of the Church throughout the first three centuries. How far have we come if we think that, in the name of this savior, we could ever be justified in killing another human being?

Now, I am fully aware that many find this teaching offensive if not insane. Honestly, at times, so do I. At the same time, this insanity in an odd way “makes sense.” Think about it. How “sane” was it for the Creator of the universe to become a human, experience the guilt and condemnation of sin, and die a God-forsaken, hellish death on a cross for the very rebels who crucified him (ultimately, all of us)? We are explicitly and repeatedly called to follow this insane example! “Be imitators of God,” Paul says. “Live in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us” (Eph. 5:1-2). In essence, Jesus is saying: “Do unto your enemies what I did unto mine.” At the very least, this has to mean: “Be willing to die for your enemies rather than make them die for you.”

So yes, the New Testament’s teaching on loving one’s enemies is insane. But isn’t that precisely what we should expect, given the kind of wild God we’re following?

Obviously, this radical teaching raises many questions. For example, if no one used violence against Hitler, wouldn’t the world be Nazi by now? Does this mean that Christians should never serve in the military? And am I actually claiming that I wouldn’t use violence if necessary to protect my family and myself? Unfortunately, I can’t answer these questions right now. I’ll put them up on a separate blog sometimes in the near future. In the mean time, if you’re interested, you can find out my perspective on these and other questions in Chapter 9 of The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Till next time,

Be a peacemaker.