Can Christians serve in the military?

Question: Jesus ministered to military people (e.g. a centurion) and didn’t tell them to leave their military post. So do you think Christians can serve in the military? I believe it’s a Christians duty is to serve their country, aid the wounded, defend the oppressed, protect our families, stand for truth and justice, and kill when we have to. Do you agree?

Response: I want to start by saying I respect the fact that Christians have differing convictions about this. I also want to acknowledge that I admire the courage of men and women in the military and I’m aware that I benefit a great deal by the sacrifices people in the military have made, and continue to make, for my country. Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions a person must ask themselves if they’re thinking about entering into the military (or not being a conscientious objector in countries that have a draft).

The fact that Jesus ministered to military personal can’t be cited as evidence supporting Christians enlisting in the military. Jesus ministered to everyone, just as they were. So should we. The fact that he didn’t tell soldiers to get out of the military doesn’t tell us much, for Jesus hardly ever told anyone to get out of the situations they were in – including prostitutes and the Samaritan woman who was living out of wedlock with a man (Jn 4). He just met people’s needs where they were at and didn’t seem to be in a big rush to get them to change. It’s the approach I believe we, his followers, should take.

Now, I think I agree with you when you say we’re to aid the wounded, defend the oppressed, protect our families and stand for truth and justice. The question is, what means do we employ to accomplish these things? And this brings me to the point I am sure I do not agree with you on, for you add, “and kill when we have to.” You apparently believe – as most people do– that killing in order to serve your country, aid the wounded, defend the oppressed, protect our families and stand for truth and justice is justifiable for a Christian.

Where does this idea come from? I know that common sense and normal nationalistic sentiments teach us such things. Universal “common sense” tells us that people ought to kill, if necessary, to protect themselves, their families, and their country (and note, people generally assume this regardless of what country they’re born into). But are followers of Jesus called to be just another version of practical, nationalistically-motivated common sense?

Didn’t Jesus command us to love, bless, pray for and do good to our enemies? Didn’t he command us to turn the other cheek, never “resist” an evildoer (Mt. 5:39), never return evil with evil but rather to always return evil with good? Aren’t we supposed to give water to our enemies when they’re thirsty and feed them when they’re hungry? (e.g. Rom.12:17-21). Didn’t Jesus rebuke Peter for using the sword, even though his self-defense would be considered justifiable by common sense? Aren’t we commanded to follow Jesus’ example of refusing to use the power available to him to defend himself, choosing instead to die at the hands of his enemies and on behalf of his enemies?

In this light, how can we justify killing our enemies “if we have to“?

And notice, there’s no “exception clause” in any of the New Testament’s teaching about loving our enemies.

You might be thinking: “Neither Jesus nor his disciples were thinking of enemies like Al-Qaeda. Surely he didn’t mean we’re supposed to love and do good to these sorts of enemies. ” But, as a matter fact, these were exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples would have had in mind. Jesus was talking to people who were not only threatened by vicious nationalistic enemies; they were already conquered by them. Most first century Jews despised their Roman oppressors at least as much as most Americans despise Al-Qaeda – and they were under their oppressive rule. The Romans would sometimes put dozens – in a few cases we know of, thousands – of Jews to death (usually by crucifixion) just to flex their muscle. If you can imagine living in an America that was conquered and then subsequently ruled by Al-Qaeda, you can get some idea of what Jesus was asking of his disciples when he told them to “love their enemies” and to never retaliate against them.

As it turned out, within a few decades, many of his disciples would have to watch their families be fed to lions or burned alive under Nero. Yet, rather than retaliate or “protect” themselves with violent force, these early Christians considered it an honor to follow Jesus’ example by letting themselves get crucified. In fact, the gracious way they died was one of the main catalysts for the rapid growth of the Church throughout the first three centuries.

Now, I am fully aware that many find this teaching offensive if not insane. Honestly, at times, so do I. At the same time, however, this insanity in an odd way “makes sense” in the context of the revelation of God in Christ. Think about it.

How “sane” was it for the Creator of the universe to become a human, experience the guilt and condemnation of sin, and die a God-forsaken, hellish death on a cross for the very rebels who crucified him (ultimately, all of us)? We are explicitly and repeatedly called to follow this insane example! “Be imitators of God,” Paul says. “Live in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us” (Eph. 5:1-2). In essence, Jesus is saying: “Do unto your enemies what I did unto mine.” At the very least, this has to mean: “Be willing to die for your enemies rather than make them die for you.”

So yes, the New Testament’s teaching on loving one’s enemies is insane. But isn’t that precisely what we should expect, given the kind of wild God we’re following?

And I’ll end by sharing one final piece of insanity. God promises us that, while it may not always look like it, the insane love he showed on Calvary and that he commands Jesus-followers to live out will in the end win. On “Good Friday”dying for one’s enemies looks ludicrous. But Easter morning tells a very different story.

I encourage all people who are considering enlisting in the military or who are now in the military in a capacity where they might have to kill another human to prayerfully reflect on how this fits with their call to imitate Jesus.

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