Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 13

I've been discussing The Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill." So far, in this discussion, I've shown that:
  • God cares about our lives and expects us to regard the lives of others for what they are: gifts from God.
  • There's a lot more to the command not to kill than refraining from overt murder. This commandment calls us to be mindful of the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being of others.
  • Obeying the Fifth Commandment also means proactively helping others.
But this naturally leads to another discussion. Are there circumstances in which the prohibition of killing in this commandment is breakable? Today, I want to talk about war, one of those times when I think that killing can be defensible.

War, similar to the relational breakdown that leads to divorce between a man and a woman, always results from a sinful incapacity or unwillingness of nations, peoples, or regimes to get along. The existence of war and the necessity of armed forces (and for that matter, police forces) is a judgment on the human race.

But I believe that, as Martin Luther discussed in his essay, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, God has instituted governments to maintain order and comity in a world which, because of sin, does not live voluntarily under God's reign of love. (For a fuller discussion of God's institution of government, see here.) When military force is used defensively, to preserve life, peace, and order, it can be prosecuted without violating this commandment.

Luther writes:
...the sword has been instituted of God to punish the evil and protect the good and preserve peace, ( Romans 13:1...) is proof, powerful and sufficient, that fighting and slaying and the other things that war-times and martial law bring with them, have been instituted by God...

... Although slaying and robbing do not seem to be a work of love, and therefore a simple man thinks it not a Christian thing to do, yet in truth even this is a work of love. By way of illustration, a good physician, when a disease is so bad and so great that he has to cut off a hand, foot, ear, eye, or let it decay, does so, in order to save the body. Looked at from the point of view of the member that he cuts off, he seems a cruel and merciless man; but looked at from the point of view of the body, which he intends to save, it turns out that he is a fine and true man and does a work that is good and Christian, as far as it goes. In the same way, when I think of the office of soldier, how it punishes the wicked, slays the unjust, and creates so much misery, it seems an unchristian work and entirely contrary to Christian love; but if I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves house and home, wife and child, property and honor and peace, then it appears how precious and godly this work is, and I observe that it cuts off a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish. For if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world must go to ruin because of lack of peace...
Luther also recognizes that the use of military power can be wrongly applied by the political authorities, raising the choice of obedience to God or obedience to king for soldiers, a choice which Luther says must always be made for God. He speaks of the "office" of the soldier, an order established by God, and how the unjust use of force is not part of that "office":
There are some who abuse this office, and slay and smite needlessly, for no other reason than because they want to; but that is the fault of the persons, not of the office, for where is there an office or a work or any other thing so good that self-willed, wicked people do not abuse it? They are like crazy physicians who would cut off a sound hand, without necessity and just because they wanted to; nay, they are a part of that universal lack of peace which must be prevented by right war and sword, and forced into peace. It always happens, and always has happened that those who begin war unnecessarily are beaten, for they cannot finally escape God’s judgment, that is, His sword...
Luther's most telling justification for the existence of armies and the prerogative of governments to wage defensive wars, I think, comes in his citation of a famous incident involving some soldiers who came to John the Baptizer with a question. John was the New Testament prophet whose "office" was to prepare the Judean nation for the coming of the long-promised Messiah or Christ (Anointed One). The means of preparation, John told the crowds who flocked to the wilderness next to the Jordan River to hear his preaching, was for all to repent, to turn away from their sin. Luther writes:
...we have the greatest preacher and teacher, next to Christ, namely, John the Baptist ( Luke 3:14) who, when soldiers came to him and asked what they should do, did not condemn their occupation and did not bid them desist from it, but rather confirmed it and said, “Be content with your wages and do no one violence or wrong.” Thus he praised the profession of arms and, at the same time, forbade the abuse of it. For the abuse does not affect the office.
Had the mere office of soldiering been a sin or the killing that happens in war always an offense against this commandment, John, who never minced words and presumably would have seen the Romans as members of an occupying force, didn't call on these soldiers to repent.

Of course, we all know of the barbarism and abuse that often happens in war. We all know how soldiers immersed in battle can begin to view citizens from enemy countries as being less than human. It was from the fear of this that President Woodrow Wilson, a native Southerner born in 1856 and whose boyhood was spent under the harsh disdain of Northern dominance during the Reconstruction era, said, "Once lead this people into war and they will forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance."

Any leader who would dare to take a nation into war should prayerfully consider whether he or she will be guilty of a mass violation of this commandment. But not all wars are unjust and, just as the circumstances of life lead to the tragedy of divorce, sometimes war, with its killing, is a tragic and legitimate option.

But in protecting life, as was clearly true when the Allies fought the Axis Powers in World War Two, soldiering can be a way of keeping the Fifth Commandment.

I find that I'll need to say more about this commandment in another installment.

[By the way, there will likely be some who read this essay either as an endorsement or a condemnation of the war in Iraq. I'm making no comment about that war here or anywhere else. See here, here, and here.]

[Here are links to the previous discussions of this commandment in this series:
Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 10
Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 11
Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 12]


Pastor_Jeff said...


Good thoughts, as usual - and especially appropriate as Memorial Day approaches.

America is imperfect and always will be. But we owe a debt of gratitude and honor to those who've sacrificed to secure our freedom.

Hakim Abdullah said...

Do you think that Obstetricians that perform abortions will go to Hell? I am not trying to be funny...

I was thinking about this recently and have never asked anyone other than close friends what they thought about this... and I would like to hear you thoughts on this.


Mark Daniels said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I agree with you that for all its flaws, this is a great and good country and we can thankful for those who have sacrificed so much.

I'm not in the business of deciding who goes to hell. God leaves that decision in our hands (John 3:16-18).

But I do think that abortion is a serious matter which I will address, hopefully, in the next installment of this series. Most probably that won't be today or tomorrow, however.