The topic of military service and self-defense is a touchy one among Christians in America. It is deeply ingrained in our culture that if someone threatens you, you have the right and in fact the obligation to defend yourself by any and all means necessary. I always think of Sean Connery and his horrible accent in The Untouchables….
As Christians living under Christ’a Archy, I don’t think we can afford to simply go along with the culture on this one. Is it right for a Christian to use violence, whether in defense of self or property or at the behest of the nation he lives in? I wrote a four part series on this topic last year and I have copied over the intro post. If you are interested in reading the rest, you can read the other three posts here:
What follows is my first post, Can Christians Take Up the Sword? – Intro
This is one that makes me cringe a bit. I am a big military supporter. I recognize the heroism of our men and women in uniform. I still remember Pearl Harbor. On several occasions I got deep into the process of going to officer candidate school in the Armed Forces. I like military history. I love guns. My all time favorite movie is Patton with George C. Scott. Like most Americans of my era, growing up in the aftermath of Vietnam and in the midst of the Cold War, I was inculcated with the understanding that I should be prepared to defend my country and our way of life, by dying for my country or better yet (in the immortal words of George C. Scott) by making some other guy die for hiscountry. “God, guns and guts made America great” was the slogan and we have no qualms about using all three to defend the American way of life.I am disquieted by this stance.
I am not asking if the state can use the sword. Clearly it can and just as clearly the state is distinct and different from the church, so it will naturally act in its own perceived self-interest. The state rarely wages war where the self-interest of the state is not at least perceived to be served. I can make a rock solid argument in favor of the United States having a powerful standing military, including a modern and credible nuclear deterrent. None of that has anything to do with the question at hand: can a Christian take up the sword?
Let me take a stab at defining that a bit, since most of us don’t own actual swords. When I ask this question, I am asking if Christians can serve in a capacity where either directly or indirectly they are engaged in actions or have the potential to be engaged in actions that will lead to the intentional death of one human at the hands of another.
This has broad implications. It would apply to Christians serving in the military and to Christians defending themselves or their property or another person by force. I don’t think it has direct application to capital punishment (see Romans 13) or to paying taxes that are legally required even if they support the military (this would be a render unto Caesar question). This is a serious question and one that get short shrift among the body of Christ. Plenty of people have no problem defending Christians wielding the sword but I am not at all certain that most Christians (including myself) have thought this question through. It is a question that has been hijacked on one side by the “Religious Right” that not only has no qualms about the sword but in many ways is awfully enthusiastic about wielding it. On the other side is the broader secular peace movement which leads to all forms of pacifism being lumped under the same big tent.
The idea of pacifism or non-resistance (not necessarily the same thing. I think based on the definitions, non-resistance is a more Biblical term.) is not an invention of the 1960’s peace movement. It runs through streams of Christian movements and sects from present day groups like the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites through the radical Reformation all the way to the earliest days of the church and the New Testament itself.
In fact, I would argue that outside of the pacifistic aspect, Christian non-resistance and the farcical “peace movement” of the Vietnam era are philosophically and foundationally worlds apart. As the Global Menonnite Encylcopedia states in its article on non-resistance: Certain forms of pacifism or nonviolence, however, being based more upon humanitarian, philosophical, or political considerations than upon New Testament ethics, are not to be confused with nonresistance as here defined. It is my belief that the Vietnam era peace movement (and the resulting modern spawn of that same political movement) was a combination of a narcissistic cult of self gratification and the frightened reaction of a pampered and overindulged generation being faced with the notion of real sacrifice. It is the greatest of ironies that the Vietnam era peace movement has degenerated into an angry political movement that most often manifests itself in violent anarchist protests. At its root, and where it makes it gravest error, it assumes that people are basically good and rational and that they will react to peaceful overtures with peace. If we just give love a chance, bad people will become good people and everyone will live happily ever after.
Biblical non-resistance makes no such claim, not viewing humanity through rose colored glasses but the stark reality of man’s sinful state. Christians ought not make the error of assuming that reacting to violence with peace will lead to peace. In fact, just the opposite is true. Reacting to violence with peace may encourage the problem but in spite of that non-resistance is foundational to the Christian life. When we refuse to resist evil people, we don’t do so in the expectation that they will leave us alone. When the Apostles were brought before the council, falsely accused and even beaten, they did not plot their revenge. Instead…
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5: 41)
We are not called to not resist evil in the hope that this will lead to world peace. We are called to not resist evil and indeed to return evil with good with no expectation of receiving good in return.
There is a real danger here when so-called “peace churches” lose focus on the meek, non-resistant nature of Christian life and start to focus instead on political activism. Many of the liberal “mainstream” churches have lumped concern for the poor and non-resistance in with a laundry list of liberal “social justice” causes like “climate change”, normalization of immorality within the church, anti-capitalist/globalization stances, various and sundry environmental and animal rights movements and eventually an abandonment of the Biblical Gospel to be replaced with a “social gospel” that preaches politics instead of repentance. In other words focusing on the here and now instead of the hereafter, making the world a better place to go to hell from. In this liberal “social gospel” Christians are every bit as in error as the flag waving, red, white and blue cross bearing religious Right that seeks to legislate conservative social agenda items under the guise of “making America a Christian nation again”.
Christian non-resistance is not based on advancing the workers revolution or fighting economic globalization. It is based on the Biblical teaching of not resisting the evil doer, of returning good in the face of evil. In the next two posts on this topic, I want to look at Scriptural evidence to support a, um, non-non-resistance stance and then look at some evidence in favor of non-resistance. In both cases I am talking about non-resistance in practice, not just in theory. It is easy to talk about community, fellowship, peacemaking, loving your brothers, etc. as a theological position but it is far more difficult to deal with it as a practical matter. So I will try to confine myself to what Scripture says and what it doesn’t say.