"Matters of Opinion" is an occasional department that allows discussion of perspectives not necessarily shared by Christianity Today or the evangelical community as a whole. It is intended to encourage dialogue, and we welcome readers' responses. Is it time for the American church to "divorce" the military? Let us know what you think. The EditorsDuring the Kosovo bombing campaign a year ago, a reporter asked a middle-aged man whose reserve unit was preparing to be shipped to the Balkans: "Are you afraid?" "No, I'm not afraid," the reservist replied, "because the Lord is on my side." A young, sincerely religious pilot fondly told another reporter about prayer meetings in the chaplain's office before bombing raids, where a small group petitioned God for safety and success.These perspectives make sense for Christians only if the God known in Jesus takes sides in war. But can a Christian really claim that "The Lord is on my side" in war, or pray for the success of missiles?One of the most important—and controversial—aspects of being the church in the twenty-first century is the relationship between the church and the military. I want to suggest that the time has come for the centuries-old marriage between the church and the military to end in divorce.I confess some degree of anxiety in making this suggestion. I do not want it to be taken as a personal attack on any individual Christians, including some of my own family members and friends who have served in the military. Many of these people have felt a sense of vocation—in the most profoundly spiritual sense of the word—in such work. My concern is not with them personally, but with the vocation of the church, from which all other appropriate vocations for Christians should be derived.
The Church Then and Now
One of the most important discoveries about the New Testament church made by biblical scholars during the last third of the twentieth century was the thoroughly political character of the language used to describe it. From the Gospels, to the Epistles, to Revelation, the new community inaugurated by God in Christ through the Spirit is depicted in the language of kingdom and reign, lordship and empire, body and people, heavenly colony and resident aliens. This political language, we discovered, can no longer be spiritualized into some otherworldly or inner experience. Rather, the church portrayed in the New Testament is designed to be an alternative empire or "contrast society." The church in the New Testament is a concrete, this-worldly community with its own emperor or lord—the true Sovereign of the universe—shaped by this Lord's counter cultural values and lifestyle.Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon captured the relevance of these images most clearly in their 1989 book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (CT, March 5, 1990, p. 16). Former CT associate editor Rodney Clapp's A Peculiar People (1996) is similar in spirit. These authors drew on the work of many other theologians and biblical scholars, showing clearly that any church faithful to the New Testament will challenge the social, economic, and political status quo of its day simply by being itself.The church, then, is a culture within a culture, embracing the good things in the host culture but living in stark contrast to the values that oppose God's design for human life. The church's authentic mission is not to offer a few tidbits of moral advice on how a culture should synthesize its values with those of the Christian faith. In that synthesis, culture wins and the church loses. Rather, the church offers an alternative vision of human life, bearing witness against the world, for the world—beneficent sabotage, to borrow an image from C. S. Lewis. Evangelicals have a history of emphasizing the distinction between the church and "the world." But this emphasis has too often been selective and individualistic, frequently focusing on sexual matters and seldom challenging the social and political status quo. One of the fundamental points of contrast ought to be, indeed must be, rejecting the host culture's violence. The church is called to be a church of the cross that endures and opposes violence, not a church of glory and power that makes use of it. Unfortunately, evangelicals have been especially quick to defend state-sanctioned violence like warfare and capital punishment even while rightly condemning the violence of abortion. This opposition to violence, as I suggested nearly two decades ago in Abortion and the Early Church, can no longer be a matter of individual conscience or selective renunciation, for that is to privatize and fracture what is an essential, comprehensive, and consistent statement of who we are and what we are about as Christ's church.It is time, I suggest, for us to enlarge our understanding of "the world" to include the military, and of "the church" to exclude it.
The New American Context
The United States, according to all accounts, is now the world's sole superpower. It does not take a cynical critic from a Third World country to read this global situation in imperial terms. Political scientist Ronald Dworkin has said:
America is Rome, now and for the foreseeable future. It is the unwobbling pivot around which other nations move, the country that brings order to the world through a system that spans the globe. … In military terms, America's empire is far greater than any empire preceding it. … No country can attack the United States without risking complete annihilation.
In his New Year's Day 2000 address, President Clinton combined religious and political language to articulate America's international messianic vocation. Prefer ring terms like "global village" instead of "empire," the president claimed that the United States is "well poised" to function as the world's "guiding light" in the new millennium. In more explicitly missionary language, he said that in order to "advance our interests and protect our values in this newly interconnected world, America clearly must remain engaged. We must help to shape events, and not be shaped by them."At one level the president's statement sounds like an anti-isolationist international political agenda. But we must ask: Has this vision of America not usurped the role of Jesus Christ and the Christian church? As Christians we confess Some one else as the light of the world and another set of values as the gospel that needs to advance throughout the world.The military exists to protect, defend, and extend a state's national interests, both at home and, for an international power, abroad. In the context of an American empire, the U.S. military functions as one of the principal champions of the American "gospel" and America's "missionary endeavors."Here is where the essential question of vocation becomes so important. The vocation of the church is to extend the gospel and "empire" of Jesus as the world's true light and Lord, while the vocation of any international power and its military is to extend its own gospel—with violence when necessary. Are these two vocations compatible?Christianity without the Military?
Since the earliest days of the church, theologians have wondered whether certain vocations, including that of soldier, are compatible with being a Christian. However, since Emperor Constantine of the fourth century, the compatibility of Christianity and the military has been assumed nearly universally. My own United Methodist denomination, for example, produced a video that matter-of-factly asks potential confirmands to consider the future direction of their Christian journeys.
"What might your life hold after high school? Will it include college? military service? a family?"
During the 79 days of bombing in Yugoslavia in 1999, one major figure in another denomination asserted without argument: "Sometimes we just have to go in and use force." Not only in this country, but in many others, powers great and small have subtly seduced the church into marriage with the military.As Christians we are called to bring up our children in the ways of the Lord. The purpose of military service includes not only a willingness to kill, but also preparing for it. I heard a report on National Public Radio about young Marines at boot camp chanting "We can kill" as they marched. At the time I knew a teenager, active in his church youth group, who had just joined the Marines. One week he was singing "He is Lord," the next chanting "We can kill."
Is there not something wrong with this scenario?
As we enter the twenty-first century, we are at a crossroads on the issue of military service and Christian service. Can a church that sees itself as a "contrast society" accept the values and activities of the political status quo and its military machinery? Can a church that acknowledges the centrality of nonviolence in the New Testament accept the use of violence to defend or extend an empire that it exists to replace as the world's guiding light?If we accept this new understanding of the church's vocation—which is not new at all—then we must be courageous enough to accept the theological and practical consequences of it—divorcing Christian faith and military service. Carrying out this divorce will take creativity and energy, so much so that some will claim that the divorce is impossible even if it is right. After a century of horrific violence and bloodshed, and careful consideration of the New Testament texts, we need finally as a church to recognize that those who seek justification in the New Testament for Christian participation in violence of any kind, including military action, will always seek in vain. Why? Because violence is part of the false gospel of the world's counterfeit lords and empires—Herod, Pilate, Nero, Domitian, and the like.It is not the way of the true Lord, whose gospel and empire give to us—and demand from us—an alternative allegiance and vocation.Michael J. Gorman is dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology and professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He is the author of Abortion and the Early Church (reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 1998) and The Elements of Exegesis (Hendrickson, forthcoming) and is completing a study of Paul's spirituality.
For a recent history of tensions and embracing between the church and the military, see "For God and Country, Ambivalently | American Christians and the military." The article, by Indiana State University history professor Richard V. Pierard, appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of our sister magazine Books & Culture. The article also generated several interesting letters.See also Ajith Fernando's dispatch from Sri Lanka, "Bombs Away | How Western military actions affect the work of the church." The article appeared in the June 14, 1999 issue of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more