Next Monday is Memorial Day, and I must admit that I feel torn every time one of these patriotic, military-based holidays comes along. As a pastor, I have a responsibility to provide pastoral care to every member of the community, and to offer unconditional love and acceptance to every person. And I realize that not everyone shares my views on the whether it is permissible for Christians to use violence or participate in warfare.
I also know that many honorable people have, for reasons they find perfectly valid, chosen to enter military service and have fought in our nation’s wars. I know that many have died in those wars, leaving a gaping hole in their families and communities, and that even more have returned maimed in body, mind, or both. I feel deeply for these men and women and their families, and I think it’s scandalous that our government is willing and eager to send them into harm’s way but cannot seem to care for them after they are harmed. I also find it troubling that so many members of our “volunteer” military come from low-income backgrounds, and that recruiters use promises of steady pay and a college education to lure them into signing up. Many of them do so because they see few other real options for their future.
Perhaps worst of all is the way not only the military but also politicians, media personalities, celebrities, and even religious leaders pound an incessant drumbeat of propaganda designed to glorify warfare and those who wage it, and to paint anyone who dares question their narrative as traitors or worse. After the senseless slaughter of World War I, the 50 million dead in World War II, the quagmire of Vietnam, and all our military misadventures since, with their untold numbers of victims, it is irresponsible at best to use religious or quasi-religious language and imagery to promote new wars. When Christians do it, I would call it more than irresponsible. I would call it evil.
So when holidays such as Memorial Day roll around, I feel torn between, on one hand, my feelings of compassion for the victims of war and my respect for the honorable convictions of those who have chosen to serve in the military and, on the other hand, the clear teachings of Jesus on the subject of violence. He went further than simply declaring the futility of violent resistance; he declared it to be positively counterproductive. He didn’t say, “It’s useless to take the sword”; he said, “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” More than that, he says that succumbing to the temptation to use violence puts one at the mercy, or even in the camp, of evil. As I argue in my book, “Once one chooses violence, even for supposedly noble purposes, one sets in motion an ever-escalating cycle of violence in which there can be no winners except the forces of evil themselves” (p. 128), and, “When you play by the devil’s rules, using the devil’s tools, it doesn’t matter which side you think you are on. The devil always wins” (p. 132).
In the first four centuries of church history, back when the church still understood itself to be a countercultural community, before it became part of the imperial Establishment, Christians took Jesus’s words about putting away the sword quite literally. Listen to the testimony of some Christian leaders from that period:
“Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” — Tertullian (160–220 CE)
“The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron.” — Clement of Alexandria (150–214 CE)
“Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not how to fight.” — Irenaeus (130–202 CE)
“Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.” — Tertullian
“A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.” — Hippolytus (170–236 CE)
“You cannot demand military service of Christians. . . . We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.” — Origen (185–254 CE)
“It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.” — Marcellus the Centurion, upon leaving the army of Emperor Diocletian (298 CE)
“I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.” — John Chrysostom (347–407 CE)
We’ve come a long way from then to now, haven’t we? No longer do we demand that soldiers renounce their arms before joining the church; in fact, in some quarters, the “warrior” is held up as the paradigmatic Christian. No longer do we refuse to obey the emperor because of our allegiance to Christ; in fact, in some quarters, no daylight appears between allegiance to Christ and allegiance to the American Empire. No longer do we assert that Jesus has abolished the sword; in fact, in some quarters, the loudest voices advocating for war and violent retribution on our enemies belong to Christians.
As we approach this Memorial Day weekend, I want to be respectful to those who have chosen to take up the sword and to the families and friends of those who have died by the sword as a result. But more than that, I want to be faithful to the one who forswore violence even in his defense, who faced death with courage but without weapons, and whose death (and life) offered a clear repudiation of the forces of domination and violence. I want to be faithful to the nonviolent way of the reign of God. I do not want to compromise with evil. I do not want to use the devil’s tools or play by the devil’s rules.
I do not want the devil to win.