Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
After many years of personally wrestling with questions swirling around violence, war and faith, I have come to believe that following Jesus Christ and serving in the military in any capacity represent categorically incompatible endeavors. All who follow Jesus should leave the military or refuse to enlist, they should cease espousing war as a noble and honorable venture, and they should actively work towards peace and justice by practicing the ways of non-violent active resistance.
Normally I would avoid such black and white statements for a variety of reasons but I have become thoroughly convinced of these beliefs for two main reasons. First, deeply considering the tensions between serving in the military and serving Jesus have been part of my personal journey of faith. Second, I hold to an understanding of the Gospel that sees non-violence as deeply intertwined with Jesus’ role as the Messiah and therefore deeply intertwined with following that Messiah. I would like to share both.
As for my own journey…
Growing up I had always thought about joining the military and after the summer of my freshman year in high school my goal in life was set: I wanted to become a Navy S.E.A.L. sniper. This became an all-consuming goal that I dedicated myself to completely. I joined a Jr. Navy Program and spent a number of weeks each summer training at military bases. (One of these is where the picture attached to this post comes from.) My academics, extra-curricular activities and sports all became directed at attaining this vision for my life.
I was also a Christian. I failed to see any incompatibility between my goals and my faith. I believed there was a God, that God created humanity in His image, that humanity fell into sin, that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who died for our sins, and that we are saved from Hell and destined for Heaven if we accept Jesus Christ as our savior. I saw no disconnect between this faith and my desire to turn the heads of people created in the image of that God into pink mist at long ranges with a Barrett M82A1 .50 caliber anti-material rifle. I actually thought it would be cool.
In many ways I was a product of my environment. My family, my faith community and the surrounding cultured, all shared narratives and stories that depicted war and military service as honorable, noble and courageous pursuits that did not conflict with the Christian faith. It is no surprise that my views began to change when my environment did.
While I smirk at the thought of encouraging stereotypes, this journey towards peace started in Canada. While 9/11 happened my senior year of high school and I was sorely tempted to enlist, I felt God calling me to something else and instead went to a private Christian school in British Columbia. While I was in Canada, the U.S. invaded Iraq, a decision which was criticized by many Canadians as was my belief that Christians could and should serve in the military. My knee-jerk reaction was to defend my beliefs against these “liberal” Christians. I used Old Testament passages that celebrated killing and violence, clearly showed that God commanded wars and the passage in Ecclesiastes that stated, “there is a time for war.”
However, the problem was that I was really reading my Bible for the first time, and not just listening to and using little verse-bites and proof texts that had saturated the Christian culture around me. Because of this I became increasingly aware that much of what I thought was supported in the Bible actually was not. In fact, many of the practices I had been defending were actually antithetical to what the Bible actually taught. I was also becoming increasingly aware of the messy history of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. government has a habit of destroying the enemies of today in ways that very predictably and understandably create the enemies of tomorrow.
My journey continued when I returned home after college and watched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on. Because of my time in the Jr. Navy program I have many friends who entered the military. Thankfully none of them have been killed but a number have returned with severe problems. Anyone who has had a family member or friend who struggles with PTSD, TBI or addiction knows what I am talking about. I saw suicide rates for those in the military, even those who have not been deployed, steadily increase. Due to advent of the internet and social media, I saw humanity’s inhumanity and the horrors of war become increasingly, and at times instantaneously, available for all to see.
During this time I was working with higher-risk youth from poor neighborhoods with a Christian organization. Encouraging our youth to join the military was seen as a practical, if not ideal, solution to many of their problems. It provided a job, a sense of purpose, it got them out of their home and neighborhood environments, and it promised future education. However, I began to question if it was really worth it. Sending our most vulnerable youth to be further traumatized in war, only to return (if at all) to those same environments, continued to make less sense to me.
Around this time I watched the documentary The Fog of War, and Robert McNamara’s words, “We need to think a lot more about killing,” really struck me. The more I thought about killing, violence and war the more war looked less like an appealing video-game, or a way out of poverty, or a noble venture and much more like an incredibly brutal and dehumanizing endeavor that appears to do basic violence to those who participate in it or even prepare for it. While war and violence might appear to “solve” a problem today, they always tend to leave wounds and animosity that fester and seed the next problem down the road. And clearly the wars of the U.S.A are not directed at the command of God but out of our national interests, as determined by U.S. politicians, who are essentially owned by large businesses. Ultimately though, all wars appear to stem out of the fear of scarcity and the fear of death. We fear if we do not fight, we will not have enough of the earth’s rapidly dwindling resources. We fear if we do not kill our enemies, they will kill us first or we will invite more aggression against us by looking weak.
Over the years I have increasingly shifted towards a position of non-violent active resistance but I have remained silent. This was and is an unpopular position in my hometown where nationalism and Christianity blend so thoroughly. However, in the last year, as my understanding of the Gospel has changed, I have become able to articulate why this position is deeply rooted the Gospel of Jesus Christ and inherent to following Jesus as opposed to an optional or debatable matter.
I will present this understanding as best I can in the next post.