Should Christians Support the Military?
A Sermon by Rev. Rich Tafel
May 29, 2021
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day in the US originally created by Gen. Logan of our nearby Logan Circle following the civil war calling it “Decoration Day.” Today, this holiday exists to commemorate those who served and died in the service of our country.
In America’s civil religion this a high holy day. We remember those who died for the nation and our freedom.
What’s a Christian view on supporting the American military today?
When it comes to whether Christians should support the military, we need to embrace complexity.
For some, even asking this question is sacrilegious. The military for many Christians is the highest form of sacrifice for others pointing to Jesus saying, “greater love hath no man that he gives his life for a friend.”
Soldier in the military is giving their lives for those they love. This would seem to be a clear case that Christian’s should support the military.
But what makes this tricky is Jesus didn’t say, “greater love hath no man that he engages in battle to kill others for a friend.” In fact, when military forces approach Jesus to arrest him, Peter cuts the attacker’s ear off. Jesus heals the slave and tells Peter that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Those who use weapons against others will have weapons used against them.
He also teaches us to turn the other cheek when we are slapped.
Clearly, based on these texts, Jesus would be against use military force in defense, right? End of story?
Well, hold on, I’ve got more Scripture verses.
In preaching to his disciples, Jesus says, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
So, in that verse Jesus sounds like using a sword is okay and fighting battles is something we should support and do.
And yet in other verses Jesus is referred to as the Prince of Peace. Nonviolent activists point to Jesus as their role model in nonviolent resistance.
These verses are confusing because they appear to be at odds with each other.
And just to make this even more complicated, when we look at the Old Testament in a time before Jesus, as in our lesson today, it appears God is the war god who leads Israel into successful battles.
Yet when we look at the disciples after Jesus departure, it appears that almost all of them die as martyrs because they didn’t fight back.
One theory of Judas betrayal is that he originally supports Jesus as a messiah military leader who would kick the Romans out of Israel. When Jesus didn’t do that, some think that soured Judas on Jesus, so he betrayed him to make way for more militant leaders.
The Bible does seem to argue both sides of the case as to whether we should support the military.
The best way to explain these seeming conflicts is to better understand what the Bible is and isn’t. The Bible is not a political or foreign policy handbook. We are not supposed to pull out verses literally and use them to justify our specific national foreign policy.
A good example of how dangerous this is that a many evangelical Christians draw interpretations from scripture about the state of Israel to justify stronger support. They do not support Jewish people who they believe are going to hell, but they do support Israel because of a their interpretation of a passage in scripture.
The Bible is a spiritual book and less as a literal political handbook we can see deeper lessons.
Our tradition teaches an overarching message of the Bible and Jesus ministry is that war is not an abstract thing, but a product of our own inner war. Until we as spiritual beings come to peace within ourselves we will value greed, power and dominion over others as we live in fear. Our inner war leads to outer war.
For there to be peace in the world it has to start within each of us. The real war is within as we choose our path toward good or evil daily.
Okay, but let’s imagine we’re working on our inner life and being good citizens, but others are working toward evil and want to conquer and destroy us?
Our tradition teaches that war is appropriate if it is defense against evil but not when it is to plunder and destroy for the sake of wealth and control over others. It must be in defense.
But it is too easy to try to answer this question in the abstract. Let’s look at actual real world places our military has engaged in and see if it fits the model of protecting against evil.
Taking this view, we would support a military who seeks to protect us against attack. Maybe the most classic case of this was World War II where we were attacked and the forces doing the attacking were evil.
What’s harder to answer in that war is ended by use of an atomic bomb on innocent civilians? Was that defense or offense? Was that necessary to save more lives or immoral use of force?
These are not easy answers.
Where are now pulling out of Afghanistan after two decades of a war to bring to justice those who attacked the US on 911. It is hard to say that level of engagement over that period of time was defending ourselves. I worry about those who worked with us we leave behind.
How about Iraq? Here again we were concerned that they would attack us, but it turned out they never did have nuclear weapons. Hard to say that was defensive.
What about Vietnam and Korea, in both cases we make the case that we were defending thew world against Soviet imperialism. A laudable goal, I think, but hard to know if many of the proxy wars during the Cold War were truly defensive or not.
How about our funding Israel’s military? Is that for our defense?
What’s even more complicated is that those who oppose supporting the military make the case that we have bases all over the world that would appear to be well beyond defending ourselves. In fact, there’s a growing unity among the far left and far right in American politics that America should come home and being the policeman for the world. But what about the women and allies we leave behind in Afghanistan?
More questions than answers.
Yet, by being a policeman using our military we’ve created peace in many regions. As we pull back we will likely see the rise of local war leaders who crush the local people, end democracies and install more authoritian leaders.
Both China and Russia are both afraid of losing the control they now have, and both appear to be interested in growing. I think a strong case can be made that by supporting our military around the world we are decreasing the rise of evil and bloodshed.
There is no question that our military and government have made mistakes in the world. The real answer as to whether we should support our military may boil down to how you see America’s motivation. Do we seek to do good? Evil? Both?
If you see our country as just as evil as Germany during World War II or China today as many younger people do, then we have not more or less right to exist as a country and supporting the military is using force to protect something that has been the oppressor in the world.
I’ll offer my own view which is the best I can do based on what I know. This is just my thoughts you might disagree and that’s fine too.
I do believe our country fundamentally is a force for good in the world. We’ve made and will make mistakes. We are too often too ready to use force and sacrifice lives in the pursuit of mistaken goals. However, I believe overall we don’t seek war, but we seek peace. I believe our strong military around the world actually creates more peace than violence and as we withdraw we will see more unbridled evil rise up.
I would say we as Christians can support our military as better than the alternative. Even then, the question is how much of a military do we need? There spend more than the rest of the world combined at 39% of global spending followed by China. We can support the military and support downsizing it as well.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Can you guess who said that? That’s Dwight Eisenhower who knew more than all of us.
Should Christians support the military is a complicated question. Those who oppose or support the military can each find Bible verses to back up their side.
In the end, the responsibility moves from having abstract opinions to change in our own life. It starts with each of us to become peacemakers within our own hearts, then we need to be peacemakers in our families, then we need to be peacemakers in our community, church, state, and nation. Only then will we see peace in the world.
As Christians and citizens we need to think about and vote for how we feel our military should operate, but the ultimate answer is transforming people from the war within.
Until a revolution of the heart takes place within each of us we will have war within and war without.
Each of us as Christians have a responsibility to be peacemakers. We must use our faith, Scripture and revelation to make sense of the world we live in. When our military is truly defensive and a bulwark against evil we should support it. When it seek domination and greed we should oppose those policies.
We owe a debt to those who sacrificed so I can even share these opinions with you today.
It all does come back to that folksong phrase, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
Let peace begin with each of us.