About 1,600 years ago, a French priest was declared Bishop of Tours by public acclamation. The priest’s name was Martin, after Mars, the Roman god of war. His father managed to get him into an elite military unit, the one that protected Caesar himself, but Martin had wanted to be baptized into the newly legalized Christian religion, which had for centuries forbade the use of the sword. Young Martin was a reluctant recruit, not too unlike the soldiers who are drawn into the U.S. military for economic reasons.
In my six years on active duty in the U.S. Army, I never met anyone who joined for the passionate and patriotic reasons you would expect. Most saw the military as a means of escape; from the pressures of gang initiation, social distress, abject poverty or situations of violence. Their choice was often compromised by difficult circumstances.
I can hear the objections already: “Those recruits didn’t have to sign the contract, right? Martin could have gone AWOL if he really wanted to—right?”
There is a deep crisis of conversation with how the Church has been wrestling with dueling identities these days. The American Church seems divided between patriots and pacifists. In one corner, we have isolationist arguments that insist the world of statecraft is outside the realm of faith, that the military in particular is too compromised, too "this-worldly." In another corner, nationalist rhetoric venerates service and subordinates radical Kingdom living as too idealistic. In the ring wearing the gloves are those reluctant recruits, trying to do good within an incomprehensibly complex and unjust world of war and conflict.
Having just celebrated July 4th, we know this is one of those days when our bickering and disunity can come out most strikingly—are we for God, or country? Martin, though conscripted against his will into the Roman army, would serve honorably, as many of our nation’s service members do today, regardless of how zealous or reluctant they might be in serving the country. He saw the thin red line between Church and state and refused to cross from a measured patriotism into a blind obedience.
Protecting the life of Caesar was not what we would call a "combat assignment." But that changed in 336 CE, when Julian, Martin’s commander in chief, found himself in the midst of battle, his guards by his side. Roman custom insisted the superior offer money to his troops to secure their loyalty before battle. Martin had become a Christian, and knew well that he could not, as a Christian, wield the sword against an enemy he was commanded to love.
With the most powerful man in the world standing before him, he declared loudly: “I have served you long enough, let me know serve God. I am a soldier of Christ, it is impermissible for me to fight.” Julian was thrown into a rage, accusing Martin of cowardice and locking him behind bars. Martin knew his real Commander would protect him, and offered to be sent to the front lines unarmed. Preparations were made, but by dawn, the Gauls had negotiated a peace treaty. Despite the opportunity, Martin went on to serve his entire 25-year military service obligation.
Martin was consecrated Bishop of Tours on July 4th, 370 CE and would serve as until his death in 396 CE. The day he was buried would become his feast day in the ancient church, and to this day he remains the patron saint of soldiers and chaplains. In fact, the day we celebrate the memory of our veterans in America, Nov. 11, is the same day the Church has celebrated, for 1,600 years, the memory of a conscientious objector.
Martin forces us to question our own easy assumptions about war and peace, about limited mutuality of faith and service. He made clear to those around him that his service to country was finite, not absolute or automatic. Ultimately, he would obey God rather than people, like presidents and prime ministers.
Today, we hear from every corner how complicated it is to be genuine to our pacifist roots as Christians, but the early Church lived in a different social situation. Namely, one in which agents of the state had explicit orders to kill us. In our day, the theological landscape has evolved; we cannot withdraw from a system as easily when our lives are not constantly at stake. We can try to wash our hands like Pilate did, as though a little hand-wringing will solve our identity crisis, as though we can somehow escape our own culpability for things our nation does with our money and in our name, but it won’t do anyone any good.
On the other hand, we also need to be on guard to keep the Liberty Bell from becoming a golden calf. Christ brings our freedom, and He demands a very different kind of death for us to attain it than our country does. We do not need to physically shed our blood to gain His freedom, but our sin, our ego, our self-centricity. This should bring us pause when we hear things like “freedom is not free,” because it can cheapen the grace God offers us by assuming the temporal freedom of life on earth is equivalent to the true and free grace that cost only one Man the ultimate price.
It is a challenge to live an authentically Christian witness as an American citizen, but the two do not always have to be mutually exclusive. If we recognize the importance of mediating our other identities (student, male, sibling, parent, etc.) through our identity as Christians, if we can articulate, even just for ourselves, where the threshold is between the sacred and the secular, then I think we are on the right path. After all, God is greater than all of those things that make us who we are, even our citizenship.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Iraq veteran, a pacifist and a student (in that order). As an MTS student at Duke Divinity School and co-founder of Centurion’s Guild, he assists fellow students and service members discern between faith and service.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Army veteran. He served in the Iraq War as a forward observer/fire support specialist before applying to change his status to conscientious objector. After his discharge he went to Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and later returned to Iraq with Shane Claiborne for the documentary film The Gospel of Rutba. He speaks and writes broadly about veterans issues and Christian perspectives on militarism and nationalism. He is the author of Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism & Conscience