The relationship between Christianity and the military has, from the beginning, been theologically, practically, and emotionally challenging.
My own faith tradition has, at various times, moved from no involvement in secular government at all (including not voting), to pacifism, to full support of the military. There are representatives of each of these positions today.
One of the challenges that Christians and Jews have in discussing the Bible is the violence that is recorded in the Old Testament. There is plenty in the New Testament as well, but it is problematic in a different way. Whether one is the perpetrator of military violence or the recipient, our responses — and those in Scripture — are all over the map.
For believers, there will always be tension between “Rome” and “Jerusalem.” It is a historical fact that the faith was spread by the military. More recently, after World War II there was a wave of protestant mission activity in Europe for two decades as those who fought there returned with material assistance and a Bible.
I suspect that for as long as the world continues to spin, we will continue to be involved in some conflicts that most can justify and others that are mistakes from the first day. And we will never fully agree on which is which. Such is the burden that those who put on uniforms to defend our constitution and lives will continue to bear.
For some, the burden is light and has little effect. For others, it is life-changing and horrifically tragic. For yet others we are left to honor them next to a marker in the ground. And for a few, there is no closure at all. To all of them we owe thanks — whether we agree with their orders or not.
I believe that it is preferable that one called to the military have faith in God. I also know that there will be many who do not agree with me. In about 372 A.D., St. Basil of Caesarea wrote a short letter to a soldier.
In it he said, “I have learnt to know one who proves that even in a soldier’s life it is possible to preserve the perfection of love to God, and that we must mark a Christian not by the style of his dress, but by the disposition of his soul. . . Play the man; be strong; strive to nourish and multiply love to God.”
During World War II, chaplains of Catholic and Mainline churches were struggling with keeping traditional ceremonies. Below is a excerpt from a journal for Catholic priests as they navigated the changes required of them as they conducted mass. There were some traditionalists who were critical. The title of the article is “The Soldiers Are Ahead of Us.”
We can tell them to go back to the ordinary routine and not to start any commotion, because we like an un-commotioned kind of religion, well-oiled and organized, in clean grooves, running along smoothly.
Then all those disturbances like war, famine, poverty, criminality, ignorance, sin, disease, social injustice, Jim-Crowism, bigotry, all these abnormal conditions so normal in other times, will not bother us. Nobody thinks that poverty for poverty’s sake is good.
It is perverse to prefer sickness to health, as it is abnormal to desire injustice over justice. The beatitudes praise those who bear these adversities, not the adversities as such. It would be morbid if, tired by comfort and ease, we longed for bloodbaths and a good world-shaking disaster in our “peaceful” country. But for all that, it is still true that one by-product of disaster is that it shakes the rotten apples out of a tree and that only the real, live things survive.
Thus, the present emergency may be the agent through which a real appreciation of many things may come back to a smug world. The question is, will we be humble enough to listen.” (From Orate Fratres, H.A. Reinhold, Feb 25, 1945).
I am grateful for those who choose, even for a short time, to serve in our nation’s military. In a world of conflict that forgets God provides enough, we are certain to get it wrong sometimes.
Hence, grace and love and forgiveness. A simple ‘thank you’ without judgment is valuable. Empathy for those who have been irrevocably harmed.
And a prayer that I believe would help all our soldiers from Psalm 46.
Be Still! — Stop Fighting!
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the LORD,
how he has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
he burns the chariots with fire!
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth!”