Last week, I wrote about whether Christians can serve in the military, and why that question is far too removed from reality to be helpful in any actual lived context. This week we will transition from the moral question of “CAN Christians serve in the military” to the historical question or “DID Christians serve in the military?”
Christians derive much of our normative ethic, our idea of what should be, from the stories we inherit, like scripture and tradition. After all, our narrative history allows us to learn from the mistakes of others so that we do not have to make them ourselves. In terms of military service, learning about early Christian soldiers helps us understand how the early Church answered the question of armed service. However, just as the moral question has been obscured by abstractions and is now fundamentally misleading, what most western Christians hear about the historical question of armed service is also somewhat unbalanced.
Too often, there is an unrecognized problem in the early church debate about Christian soldiers, what Robert Daly, editor of Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, calls “a pacifist domination of English-speaking speaking scholarship on the subject.” (1)
Christian soldiers on either side of WWII had their theologies directly affected by their armed service. During the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, seminarians and clergy were exempt from the draft. This created a theological vacuum effect in which the greatest new Christian minds had little to no interaction with the lived experience of martial violence. Draft-exempted seminarians from the 1950’s and 1960’s are now regular rank faculty in Christian colleges and divinity schools, teaching and pastoring student veterans hoping to be leaders in the Church. But soldier-theologians, like Jürgen Moltmann, whose theology was formed as a penitent German prisoner of war after the fall of the Nazis, are few and far between.
In the intervening time since draft exemptions soldier-theologians have become a dying breed; as the gap between pacifism and patriotism continues to grow, Christian soldiers are forced into an ideological no-mans-land, with mentors who share their martial experience being in tragically short supply. Most prominent theologians today have not had their scholarship shaped by personal experience in war, but on abstract principles.
When nonviolence and nonparticipation are made synonymous, Christian scholars equate service with sin.
Daly goes on to claim that ‘pacifist dominated scholarship’ about the historical question of Christian soldiers “has generally resulted in a one-sided presentation of the evidence.” Critical scholarship suffers when idealized principles get painted back onto the Church’s actual embodied history. The popular, but oversimplified, claim that early Christians were uniformly pacifist has created a flawed “assumption that the that the call to nonviolence has the identical meaning and extension as the call to avoid military service.” When nonviolence and nonparticipation are made synonymous, Christian scholars equate service with sin. This flawed equation “tends to create massive anti-military bias in the way scholars interpret the early Christian data,” which in turn bleeds into the minds of Christian soldiers through their congregations and communities.
These questions about Christians and military service are centrally important to the Church in America, where we are fighting no less than five wars. These ongoing conflicts will continue to produce souls touched by military service and combat experience. These Christian soldiers are in a moral no-mans-land between impossible idealized principles and inescapable moral realities. The lack of credible intellectual leadership in the Christian community in America must change. Christian soldiers need more thoughtful discourse about armed service, and it begins with telling our story more reliably.
In my next post, I will show that early Christians served in the military and why getting the historical question of ‘DID they?’ right will influence the moral question ‘CAN we?’