In 2006 I was discharged from U.S. Army after more than six years on active duty. My time included a 14-month deployment to Iraq, an experience simultaneously encouraging and sickening, and one which would irrevocably shape my identity as a Christian. In war, one can find the entire spectrum of human capacity for good and evil, and my time overseas was no exception. I suspect my fellow combat veterans of faith feel similarly, still trying to sort out the baby of faithful service from the bath water of organized violence.
What does it mean to be a Christian during a time of war? Depending on where you turn for your source of news, Christianity might be either a religion of the state or an ideology of withdrawal; we are told we should either take up arms like Peter or wash our hands like Pilate. To whom do we render our service, to God or country? A while after my service contract expired, I co-founded Centurion’s Guild with a few other Christian service members who were asking that same proverbial question: For God or country (or both)? We hope to continue to be a community in which our fellow warriors can engage in honest conversations about faith and service. The conversation, however, began long before we got together.
Theologians through the ages have tried to honor their country while bearing true faith and allegiance to Jesus. Usually, what they have advocated for is a tradition we now refer to as “just war.” St. Augustine was the first to suggest there are certain conditions under which an individual could participate in martial conduct that for more than three centuries was explicitly condemned in the Church. Borrowing from a Roman jurist named Cicero, the bishop of Hippo laid the foundation for others—like Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius and Reinhold Niebuhr—to consolidate the tradition into a morally coherent structure.
The system that has been chiseled out after these many centuries of theological discernment has organized just war into two major distinctions: justice before war (called jus ad bellum) and justice in war (jus in bello). Jus ad bellum informs leaders on what criteria must be met in order to declare war, while jus in bello reminds individuals how they must act in accordance with basic moral virtues. Many of the tenets of just war tradition might be familiar to us already, like the imperative of just cause, proportionality, protection of the innocent, etc. (we can thank Grotius for codifying these criteria into international law, by the way).
Pacifism, on the other hand, does not ascribe moral legitimacy to open warfare. Formative principles for this tradition can be found throughout the Hebrew and Greek writings of the Christian cannon. Its hallmarks are probably equally familiar to us; “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile” and “love your enemy.” Where just war finds its roots in moral philosophy, pacifism is more directly biblical, though this should not discredit the importance of taking just war principles very seriously.
We’re used to thinking just war stands against pacifism in moral frameworks dealing with war, but this is a false dichotomy. Both traditions have a rich history in the Church as well as the moral frameworks of other faith communities. At the foundation of the just war tradition is a nonviolent presumption. Each set of principles, of just war and pacifism, share a common assumption that violence should never be engaged unquestioningly or discerned uncritically. This is how, as the late John Howard Yoder said, just war and pacifism “coinhere”—basically, they are kissing cousins in moral genealogy.
What Yoder means is that just war, after even cursory consideration, is ultimately pacific in nature. Think about it—the purpose of just war is to restrain violence, to make it something that might be just. Rather predictably in our fallen world, it has more frequently been used to justify wars of convenience than to limit wars of necessity. Instead of chomping at the bit to discredit one another, just warriors and pacifists should be working together for their common interest in stemming the tides of war.
Or, to take it one step further, can it also be said that, by and large, most reasonable adults are similarly pacific at their core? After all, what would it look like to not inherently assume that war should be avoided? Retired Army Ranger, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, in his groundbreaking study On Killing, has said this is true of less than 2 percent of all men. In fact, that 2 percent would more than likely be labeled as sociopathic by their peers in the field of psychology. Grossman makes a compelling case that killing others, at the core of warfighting, is a violation of human nature, that boot camp is the process of dissolving that natural reluctance in order to persuade a person to inflict harm on another.
Or what about those who subscribe to a radical form of pacifism who claim they would not use force, even in their own defense? Again, such people fall into a small minority and are similarly judged harshly by society’s psychiatric experts. I know from personal experience, in fact; as a noncommissioned officer in 2006, I was morally convicted by Jesus’ command of enemy love to lay down my weapons as a forward observer of the artillery. My mental health evaluation (required as part of the process for applying for status as a noncombatant conscientious objector) indirectly kept me from deploying to Iraq a second time, since the psychologist felt that my request to deploy without a weapon constituted a threat to my physical safety that he felt obligated to report.
So there you have it, I’m a pacifist. But I know my cousins across the ideological divide still deserve my respect and attention in moral matters. In fact, we share a common goal of limiting the lack of restraint so characteristic of modern warfare. Between the two extremes (one of which I find myself identifying with at times), should never drown out the conversation that must occur in the middle. That middle is made up of people of all stripes and colors, folk who have valuable and meaningful contributions to the moral discourse around war and peace. Nobody should hold a monopoly on morality, and nobody should allow them to. Speak up about war and peace, let your (reasonable, constructive) voice be heard.
As a combat veteran myself, and as a co-founder of Centurion’s Guild (where service members can engage in honest, nondirective conversations about faith and service), I am convinced that much more attention must be paid to what it means to be a Christian in a time of war. More importantly, careful attention must be paid to what it means to be an American Christian in a time of war that we are engaged in ourselves. The worst thing we can do to our friends and family returning from war, besides forfeiting the moral majority to extremities, is to be silent. Silence conveys indifference, which has killed more people than raw hatred. Don’t be afraid to talk about what is important. One of our main tasks as disciples of Jesus is to question violence, to doubt the power of the sword in light of our faith in the cross.