The Question of Killing(?)

Although I have two masters degrees in theology, I did not initially encounter the Question of Killing in the abstractions which are typical of formal theological education. After a 2004 deployment to Iraq, I began reading my bible in earnest and was quickly confronted by a two thousand year old question which Christian theology has attempted to answer, sometimes quite poorly. But the question I was asking was rarely the question Christian theology was answering…

Early on, I learned that the debate about whether Christians can kill is too often actually a debate about whether Christians can be soldiers. In fact, I wrote my MLitt dissertation on the impasse between Richard Hays, a pacifist Bible scholar and Methodist minister at Duke, and Nigel Biggar, a professor of moral theology and Anglican priest at Oxford. Despite their irresolvable differences, they did share one thing in common; the flawed assumption that every soldier is essentially a “sword wielder.” I’ll get to the theological argument in a moment, because theologians are not the only folks getting it wrong.

During field exercises as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, I was often reminded that “every man is an infantryman first.” In other words, every soldier is a trigger puller. At least one problem with that idea is that, as an artilleryman, it was a waste of my time and resources to pull the trigger of my M-4 carbine. If I did, I’d release a 5.56 millimeter round downrange, ideally center mass of my chosen target. But if, instead, I were to get on my radio and do my job as a forward observer, I’d send a high explosive projectile downrange 11 times larger than the grunts in my platoon were with their peashooters. So no, thank you very much, I was not a mere a trigger puller. 

Rather than delving into the Question of Killing, which is specific, most Christian soldiers only get debates about the Question of Military Service, which is generic.

This conflation doesn’t only fail for artillerymen like me; two of my active duty roommates when I was stationed at Schofield Barracks told me that they hadn’t touched a firearm since boot camp. This would be the case for many Military Occupational Specialties, or MOSs, which weren’t “combat arms” specialties, such as cooks, supply chiefs, accountants, lawyers, and innumerable medical specialties. In fact, these jobs, and many other non-trigger-pulling MOSs differ from their civilian counterparts only in their workplace attire. 

Although the debate between Hays and Biggar was, on the surface, about soldiers in the New Testament, the historical precedent of Christian soldiers was being debated because of the normative value they felt it implied. In other words, they each believed that all Roman soldiers killed, as “sword wielders,” and that all modern soldiers kill as well. The only thing they disagreed upon was how or if it was (and is) justified. The “it” they thought they were talking about was “killing,” but if soldier=killer, then the only morally relevant distinction this argument allows for is between any and every soldier and any and every civilian. Rather than delving into the Question of Killing, which is specific to combat arms MOSs, most Christian soldiers only get debates about the Question of Military Service, which is generic and uncritical.

Through similar intellectual laziness, historical theologians paint this conflation onto the past. These disciplines require some familiarity with languages, and one reason modern theologians fail to distinguish between the Question of Killing and the Question of Military Service is that many they fail to distinguish between the Latin words militia and pugnare or bellugare. The first even suggests militancy, armed force, etc. But it is the second which actually refers directly to war. Only the most doped up, greased down, musclebound soldier of fortune in history would declare belligerō ‎(“I wage war”). Rome was as known for living into caricatures as the modern military sometimes is, and it would be, then and now, a machismo caricature of the vocation of soldiering to refer to oneself as a pugna, or “fighter” (from pugnus, which meant “fist”). Rather, what soldiers usually said, and this was as true of the Christian military martyrs of the first three centuries in Rome as it was for dutiful pagan soldiers, ego miles sum – “I am a soldier.”

The typical way to refer to a soldier, miles, has more to do with orderly service than belligeri, Latin for “men who wage war.” If you’re familiar with the metric system, you might notice the subtle reference to thousands, milia. We see this in the organization of ancient Israelites as well, to which we often refer in English bibles as “hosts,” or “companies.” But this indicated numerical significance, not just war-fighting power, as Patricia McDonald displays in the sixth chapter of her book God and Violence. These words are used when the Israelites prepare for battle as well as when they are determining how to fairly distribute the promised land. The emphasis is on order and quantity, not so much on their numerical strength. In fact, God often reduces their ranks before battle if they outnumber their enemies. (see Deuteronomy 20, the example of Gideon, etc.)

One Christian soldier highlights this distinction between serving and fighting, between miles and pugnare more clearly than any other, and we will get to him next time.

Have I shown that the Question of Killing is being confused with the Question of Service? Do you think a combat medic or supply clerk has the same exact moral substance as a sniper? Sound off in the comments below, let me know! 




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