The church has done a lot of thinking about Christians going to war. Although some Christians are pacifists, saying “no” to all violence or the bearing of arms, the United Methodist Church has not completely embraced pacifism. The EUB Confession of Faith, accepted into the Book of Discipline with the merger of 1968, states: “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ” (Article XVI). However, the United Methodist Church has never sanctioned a church member for joining the military. In fact, the UMC actively endorses military chaplains. This highlights the reality that the Christian tradition has long been divided on this issue.
Committed pacifists maintain that, in light of Jesus’s command to love our enemies, Christianity is not compatible with killing. Christian thinkers in the Just War tradition, however, avow that sometimes in our broken and sinful world, we are forced to choose whom we are to love. Sometimes, we cannot love all at the same time. To understand the Just War tradition, consider a thought experiment.
Pretend that you are an American soldier who is approaching the gates of one of Nazi Germany's many concentration camps. As you approach the camp, you simultaneously see two scenes. One scene shows inmates being killed and thrown into the furnaces. The other scene is what you see through the sites of your rifle. There is the Nazi guard, making sure that no inmate escapes the camp. At this point, you have a choice: you can say to yourself “As a Christian, I am called to love even my enemy (Matt 5:44), so therefore, I will not pull the trigger on that Nazi guard.” Alternatively, you can focus on the potential victims who are being led to their slaughter, and see them as your neighbor whom you are also called to love (Matt 22:39).
Just War theorists say that if we do not love those neighbors by shielding them from slaughter, then we are not even coming up to the standards of the “tax collectors” and the “Gentiles” (Matt 5:46-47). Here, we are not even loving our brothers and sisters who love us. Indeed, Jesus equates what it means to love one’s enemies with what it means to be “perfect” (Matt 5:48). But it is a pretty twisted biblical interpretation to think that we should take more care for the enemy—for the perpetrators of evil—than for our brothers and sisters who are being victimized.
Let me be clear. I am not talking about “fighting for the faith”; that is, fighting to spread Christianity. Christian faith can never be compelled, so it makes no sense to try to “convert” people at the point of a sword or a gun. Yet Christians can—and should—fight for certain causes that flow from our commitment to love, such as to defend the weak from slaughter or to fend off an imminent attack.
The presumption for Christians should always be toward peace. Our hearts should always lean this way. We should always try to be the peacemakers celebrated in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:9). As Christians, we must also fight our common cultural tendency to identify the “real man” (or woman) as one who has served in the military, for Jesus defines maturity in the Sermon on the Mount with such phrases as “turning the other cheek” (Matt 5:39), and “forgiving as we have been forgiven” (Matt 6:12). The Apostle Paul said that having the Holy Spirit in you is seen by the “fruit” that the spirit grows, that is “love, joy, peace,” etc (Gal 5:22-24).
But heart-breaking choices come all too often in this life, and in our broken and sinful world, sometimes Christians are called to choose whom they will love and how. This is a tragic view of what it means to be a believer in our broken world, but many Christians think that closing our eyes to the evil done to our neighbors would be even more tragic.
Since I do believe that sometimes to resort to violence is the lesser of two evils, I felt I needed to put my life behind what I believe. In addition to my full-time academic career, I spent 24 years as a United Methodist Chaplain serving in the National Guard. I served the men and women of our armed forces by preaching, delivering the sacraments, and counseling in many challenging contexts around the world. I believe I have faithfully served my God and my church in both the academic gown as well as in my country’s uniform.