Not long ago, I was interviewing a friend of mine who is also a pacifist for a podcast. The subject of our conversation was rather provocative; we were talking about Christian soldiers. The term itself can be polarizing; to conservatives it might seem redundant, as though to say one you are also implying the other, but to progressives it might appear mutually exclusive, for by being the one you are prohibited from being the other.
As pacifists, we are both committed to nonviolence as a central tenet of our faith, but we were both gravely concerned about the current epidemic of suicide among soldiers and veterans. Reliable VA data suggests that approximately 20 veterans end their own life every day, that’s one life forever extinguished every 72 minutes. If we apply the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, which suggests 70% of Americans self-identify as Christian, then 14 of those suicides are by former Christian soldiers. So the Church has a stake in thinking more deeply about what we are doing wrong when it comes to our military personnel.
During this interview, our conversation turned to the early Church and the perspective of Origen and Tertullian, also pacifists. In their regions and time period, the story goes, they would refuse military candidates for baptism if they failed to recant their oaths and leave the military. To make a comparison, my friend suggested that the soldiers were seen in the same light we today might see pornographers – when asked to repent, it is a whole lifestyle repentance, they cannot go on being pornographers.
I pointed out that this was not an absolute rule, as Tertullian, for example, bases his main text about military service on a disciple of his who did not ask to leave the service. This disciple of his made a clear and open statement about his loyalty by refusing to wear a part of his uniform, but Tertullian does not describe him having any problem with other functions of his job. In fact, it is his own student, so Tertullian must have only applied a strict no-military standard selectively. I propose the same must be done in our own day to Christian soldiers.
When pornographers repent, they still have value to the Church which they acquired in the exercise of an otherwise problematic profession. When a preacher wants to record sermons, or a Christian author like myself needs a book trailer, they can still employ skills ill-gained by means we otherwise might object to. We can and should be more careful in how we parse out practices and skills and experiences from the execution of or proximity to sin. Another way to put this is that the idea that the words “pornographer” or “soldier” is a monolithic, easily reducible moral term is misleading and dangerous. It is misleading because it is generic and far too broad to make any real moral sense in embodied reality. It is dangerous because the stigma we attach to these words they can impart shame to videographers who maybe cannot find a fair wage in Hollywood or marksmen who cannot afford higher education (which is increasingly becoming required even for entry level positions).
Christian soldiers are, after all, not an abstract concept belonging exclusively to the world of forms and ideas. Christian soldiers have names, lives, communities which care for them. Christian soldiers are integral to the story of salvation history, like Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Joan of Arc, and Martin of Tours, whose feast day has been celebrated on November 11th for nearly 1700 years. Even before Martin, who lived in the immediate aftermath of Constantine’s conversion, soldiers have been full members of the body of Christ. The first gentile baptized into the Church was Cornelius the centurion of Acts 10, for whom we have no reliable record of having left the Roman military. After him were others who did refuse to serve, like Maximillian or Marcellus, and some who did not, like Julius the Veteran and the unnamed soldier Tertullian describes. The history of Christian soldiers is mixed, not monolithic.
Christian soldiers are integral to the life of the church and the story of salvation history. We owe it to them, but more importantly to ourselves, to think more deeply about where these distinctions break down and how we’ve sometimes overlooked people in pain in order to make a theological point. We need more finely tuned arguments in order to understand the question of killing and the moral compromises involved in military service. This will help keep Christian soldiers from internalizing shame for not being pure of sin, as though my hands are any cleaner as a pacifist.