n324366294921_5771 The history of Christian response to war and service in military combat is one filled with twists and turns. Every person must realize, if they exercise a modicum of thought, that this issue is deeply painful and troubling. Early Christians did not always serve in the military, though Roman soldiers were numbered among converts to the faith. Most of what we know about the early church suggests that, at least generally, Christians did not serve in the military. Over time the church developed what is called a “Just War Doctrine.” This doctrine is rather complex and has been carefully thought out over the course of centuries. But this doctrine is not of one type or expression. There are variations within it and every single Christian should think carefully about what they believe and why.

Modern complexities often create new challenges to traditional just war thinking. I have retained a modified just war position but I admit it is sometimes hard to retain. I have admitted, in public and private, that I have a great deal of respect for those who wrestle with this issue and embrace a different viewpoint than my own. The stance of Christian conscientious objection is not the way of cowards or of anti-Americans. Whole traditions of Christians respect and hold this point of view. Other churches have adopted modern positions that do not reject all combat but challenge the development of a  “war mentality” that predominates so much of the world we live in today.

A fatal mistake, often made by many evangelicals, is to assume that only liberal, or politically left leaning, Christians embrace these positions about war. This is a gross over-simplification. When I was at Wheaton College in the late 1960s pacifism was embraced by more than a few students and some on the faculty. At first I found this shocking but I began to read the literature and ask some hard questions. As I say, I am still not a complete convert to pacifism and doubt that I ever will be. But I am persuaded that the current U.S. position on conscientious objection is not right. Our government allows for conscientious objection to all war but not to particular wars. I discovered this in 1968 when I began to question the moral rightness of the Vietnam War. I soon realized that I had to oppose involvement in all war or I could not take a position against this one war. I still feel that stance of our government on this matter is morally wrong. I understand “why” it has been taken, and how it evolved, but I simply do not think that it is right.

What if you hold to just war thinking, and you enter the military, and then conclude that the war in Iraq (assuming you were in the military before it began) was against your conscience and, for sake of argument, you felt the war in Afghanistan was not. This is not a trap question. There are Christian soldiers who have come to this precise conclusion. But it is illegal to refuse deployment to any war zone if you are in the U.S. military. Refusing deployment, because of conscience, leads to sanctions, possible court martial and even imprisonment. What happens to a soldier who enters the military, comes to know Christ or renews his or her commitment to Christ, and then comes under conviction that they cannot kill in this particular context?

Selective objection to some wars, even if you agree with just war theory, should be an open question. We need to have this kind of conversation in the church. Sadly, few or no conservative churches will ever have it. For starters, multitudes would leave in protest if they heard such a discussion. In fact, I have been in many mainline churches over the past ten years or so and the dominant position there seems to be “Lord bless our troops and the USA.” We just do not think about this issue until we are forced to do so or if it is our son or daughter who is the person in the context of such objection of conscience.

On Sunday, March 21, a Truth Commission on Conscience in War will be convened at the famous Riverside Church in New York City. The hope of those who have planned this event is to generate a national conversation on current CO regulations in the military. Is this such a hot-button that we who are more conservative theologically than those who lead historic Riverside Church cannot at least enter into this important discussion and listen? Watch the video on this event and decide for yourself. The least you can do is encourage a deeply Christian conversation that does not degenerate into who is anti- or pro-American. Sadly enough, even this blog will likely cause some friends to wonder what happened to my convictions as a Christian. This is the very response that I hope I have challenged, generously and carefully in the spirit of Christ.

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  1. Chris Criminger March 14, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Hi John,
    Thanks again for a timely and very important issue. A close minister friend of mine just last week said he could not see how anybody could oppose the war in Iraq because of 911. I told him I neither supported the war in Iraq nor did I see a direct connection to 911. He then went into a kind of offense and taking offense since his daughter had been in Iraq and therefore I somehow by not supporting the war in Iraq did not support his daughter. All I can say is there has to be a lot more discussion and dialogue on this issue that is filled with so much emotion and often faulty conclusions about other people’s views who see things differently.

  2. Tim Balow March 15, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Interesting thoughts about ‘objecting to war’. A few for you…
    1. I wonder if the language of the just war TRADITION might be more helpful than just war DOCTRINE. I think where just war loses it’s accessibility to the layperson is when it is seen as doctrine, or merely a public policy checklist. What might be changed for us to see ourselves as a ‘just war people’ that imagines and embodies the different criteria as practices in our faith communities? Or more forcefully, what kind of people would we have to be in order for just war to be taken seriously?
    2. It might be interesting to engage in Hauerwas’ and McDonagh’s appeal for the abolishment of war insofar as being morally unjustifiable. This could potentially follow a similar journey that slavery followed, where slavery was once considered a moral act for the good of society, the William Wilberforces of the world worked to abolish it, making it unjustifiable from a moral viewpoint. This certainly does not rid the world of war, as the abolishment of slavery did not rid the world of slavery, but it would be a compelling starting point. You can read that document here: http://www.rc.vt.edu/religious/pdfs/AbolitionofWar.pdf
    3. Most Christian pacifists would not affirm that their position creates a viable foreign policy that is practical and visionary for the 21st century. In fact, many have gone so far as to say that pacifism CAN and DOES make the world more dangerous. Rather, most Christian pacifists behave as such not out of the pursuit of a just society, but rather out of faithfulness to Christ. If Christ has indeed taken away the sword, as he did in the garden with Peter, then what does that mean for how we are to be faithful in our pursuit of being a non-violent people. I think the appreciation and dialogue with pacifists is important, because as McIntyre would continually affirm, if nothing else they provide us with a moral alternative that otherwise would have been unthinkable when we become so isolated in our mainstream convictions.
    4. It’s interesting to read the above quote (from Chris C.) because I think that is a tension we can all appreciate. These people are not distant soldiers to many people; they are brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. What should be required of us as Christians is to seek to peaceable engage the politics of war in such a way that does not dishonor the dead, veterans, or current soldiers of whichever war is being discussed. Rather than seek to merely talk ABOUT them and what has been done, we should as Hauerwas has claimed, to engage them as conscious participators in what has happened and what is being done in war. This brings soldiers to the table as moral agents capable of more than just doing their “duty”.
    Just some thoughts.

  3. George C March 15, 2010 at 12:55 am

    Totally agree, John.
    I would have gladly joined the National Guard if I knew that it meant that I would only have to fight a genuinely defensive war, but that is not an option anymore.
    I would even support a law that required everyone to do a years service in the military under the same circumstances, but I am not interested in nation building, imperialist policeman of the world efforts.

  4. Steve Scott March 15, 2010 at 1:33 am

    It’s good to hear this discussion. I too believe the government’s stance is morally wrong. One thing that is clear to me is that the military leaves little room for freedom of conscience. I’m quite certain that I personally could never serve in the military, and this is one of the reasons, my freedom of conscience. I also know that quitting my job would be considered a crime. I wish more people understood the potential problems with conscience before entering the military. Of course, the government is the last one who would explain such things.
    I’m all for reforming the government’s position on all of this. I hope this discussion leads to some real progress.
    “A fatal mistake, often made by many evangelicals, is to assume that only liberal, or politically left leaning, Christians embrace these positions about war.” This goes to show the link between conservative evangelical thinking and war mentality, a stereotype with some truth to it. It’s too bad that conservative theology is assumed to result in conservative politics. It’s one reason I like living in the San Francisco Bay Area, because this link isn’t always assumed.

  5. John Paul Todd March 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

    I appreciate your honesty John, as well as your emphasis upon the conscience of individuals. I hope my son the chaplain will read this. He has just arrived at his new assignment as division chaplain among the Marines at Camp LeJeune.
    I love the contribution of John Howard Yoder in this debate and posted on a tribute to him in First Things last year.

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