Yesterday I was asked if I believe serving in the U.S. military is “sinful.” There is no absolute answer to this, since I fully believe that under certain conditions, war is justified. In such situations, military service is not only not sinful, it is generally expected of most able-bodied males ages 20 and up. This is simple biblical law, which I have explained at greater length in The Bible & War in America.
But that belief obviously leaves several issues to be discussed: standing armies versus militias, military drafts, just war, the military industrial complex, nationalism and idolatry, and much more. Biblical law addresses all of these issues directly, and the result is a sound indictment of our current military system.
In fact, it is a sound indictment of much of the history of war in this nation. This must be taken seriously. As we encounter Memorial Day, it is certainly appropriate to remember those who fought and died protecting our land, people, and liberty. Their sacrifice is genuine and never to be forgotten any more than that of any genuine hero. But what too often happens among conservative Christians is a blanket endorsement of all things military wrapped in the flag. Without necessary distinctions, this can become idolatry as easily as it can be a genuine memorial of the righteous. It can become flag worship, nation worship, power worship, hatred and pride. Without the distinctions provided in biblical law, it is always a short step from patriotism to nationalism.
We are called to be ardent patriots, but not uncritical nationalists. We are called to apply biblical law to every area of life. We can easily fail to do this if we are enraptured by power and “winning.” Worse yet, when we are so enraptured, we make ourselves easy prey for voracious politicians and powerful men who leverage the power of such emotions to herd people into their agendas. And what is so sad about this is that 1) such people would otherwise pride themselves in their tradition of strong, American individualism, and 2) such people think they are being good conservative Christians in their adamant stand. The truth is that too often they have been herded into collectivism by emotions and have departed from the Bible in the process.
A few years ago, an audience of mainly conservatives, including certainly many Christians, openly “booed” a candidate on the GOP primary debate stage for daring to suggest we follow a foreign policy based on the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The suggestion of applying the Bible outside of their private prayer closet apparently struck them with utter horror. (It’s no wonder their liberal opponents have had such an easy time taking it out of all the other areas of the public square.)
But this attitude is itself an indicator of how far we have regressed. The truth is, it was not too long ago that one of the greatest of conservative Baptist preachers argued the same from the pulpit. Most of you are familiar with a quotation from Charles Spurgeon that circulated in memes recently: “I long for the day when the precepts of the Christian religion shall be the rule among all classes of men, in all transactions. I often hear it said ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought. . . .” What most people don’t know is the extended context of that quotation: it was exactly the same as that GOP candidate’s foreign policy of peace. Spurgeon continued on what “religion into politics” would mean:
I would have the Cabinet and the Members of Parliament do the work of the nation as before the Lord, and I would have the nation, either in making war or peace, consider the matter by the light of righteousness. We are to deal with other nations about this or that upon the principles of the New Testament. I thank God that I have lived to see the attempt made in one or two instances, and I pray that the principle may become dominant and permanent. We have had enough of clever men without conscience, let us now see what honest, God-fearing men will do. But we are told that we must study “British interests,” as if it were not always to a nation’s truest interest to do righteousness. “But we must follow out our policy.” I say, No! Let the policies which are founded on wrong be cast like idols to the moles and to the bats. Stand to that most admirable of policies, — “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Whether we are kings, or queens, or prime ministers, or members of parliament, or crossing sweepers, this is our rule if we are Christians.1
Simply replace “British interests” with “American interests,” and we have a ball game. Except, at our ball game, military jets will fly over the climax of the national anthem—to inspire national pride at taxpayer expense. Would that prayers were said instead, and people inspired to follow that Golden Rule in all things foreign and domestic.
A general once noted that the army is not an insurance policy: it is the job of the army to kill people and blow up stuff. That is true, and fearful. For once the pride of nationalism moves otherwise moral and individual thinkers into a mode of thinking uncritical of their government, killing people and blowing up stuff will supplant the national pastime.
Consider these warnings and basic principles at the least before you leap into any uncritical celebration of military service and power. There is, of course, much more to consider, but I hope you’ll at least start here.
If you would like to see my views outlined at greater length, including several pages of Scriptural exegesis, please read The Bible & War in America, which is an expansion of Chapter 9, “Defense,” in Restoring America One County at Time. You can read both for free here, and you can buy print and eBook versions as well. They both just happen to be on sale until the end of this month.
- “The Candle,” Sermon No. 1594, April 24, 1881; emphasis added. [↩]