St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Hanover, Minnesota; May 30, 2016
Pacifism is defined as “opposition to war or violence of any kind, and the refusal to serve in the military because of one’s beliefs.” There is, in the history of the Church and in the history of the United States, a long and noble tradition of Christian pacifism. In every war, there have been Christians, like the Amish and Quakers and others, who when called upon to serve their nation in the military, have said “No, because of my religious convictions, I cannot do so.” Many of them also said, “I will gladly serve our nation, but I will not serve as a soldier who may be called on to kill another human being.” Our nation has provided for these conscientious objectors alternative forms of service, as medics or chaplain assistants or perhaps even in some non-military social service. In other times and places, not in the United States of America, but other places, such options were not always given, and Christian pacifists would go to jail or perhaps even be executed for refusing to serve as soldiers. One can admire such individual courage and faith, and at the same time appreciate that our government allows such freedom of conscience.
On the other hand, the majority of believers in the history of the church and in the history of this nation have held a different opinion. Thus, there is also a long and noble tradition of Christian soldiers, followers of Jesus Christ who believed they were serving God by serving their nation, even when that meant taking the life of others. From the early days of the church there has been what is called the ‘Just War Doctrine,’ which recognizes that in this wicked world there are evil people who seek to conquer and kill and destroy, and they must be stopped. Therefore, sometimes lives must be taken in order that many more lives may be protected and peace can be preserved. This does not mean that every war is a just war, and it can all get very confusing. But it does say that the commandment against killing has to be applied differently in a time of war. The intent of that commandment is to protect life, and many times wars must be fought and some people must be killed so that many more lives can be saved.
While I can admire the faith and convictions of the pacifists, and while they may at times be correct in refusing to fight, I do not agree with them. And certainly, most Christians in most times and places have not been pacifists, but with or without knowing it, have been in agreement with the Just War Doctrine. Most people, if their lives, families, and homeland are threatened, are willing to put up a fight, rather than submit to the threat. Jesus did tell us to turn the other cheek, but that has usually been understood as having to do with getting along with others individually, and not intended to direct government policy.
In fact, the Bible declares that governments must not turn the other cheek. Romans 13 says that God has given governments the task of restraining evil. Government is ‘an agent of God’s wrath,’ it says, to bring ‘punishment upon the wrongdoer.’ And how can the government do that work except through people? And that must include Christians who are told in that same chapter to obey the governing authorities. This is all far too complex for one sermon, but I want to say a few things about how this applies to Memorial Day.
Good and honest Bible believing Christians have disagreed on all this, and there is room in the Church for such diversity. I have never served in the military, but I am not a pacifist, and if I had been called on to serve, I would not have been a conscientious objector. I have a deep appreciation for all who have served, and am grateful for our strong military.
There is a quote on this question that is well worth pondering. It is a little hard to determine who said it, but it has most often been attributed to the English writer George Orwell, who died in 1950. If he did not say it, it certainly expresses his beliefs. George Orwell was at first a pacifist, so in one war he was a conscientious objector, serving as a stretcher bearer to carry the wounded. Then he changed his mind, and in the next war Orwell served as a soldier and carried a gun. Here is the quote: “We sleep peacefully in our beds only because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would do us harm.” I have also seen it stated in these words: “Those who protest against violence are free to do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.”
This is not to say that every act of war by every nation is always justified. That is another question. But Christians must not have a knee-jerk reaction against the violence that soldiers are trained to do. I do realize I might be preaching to the choir, and that most of you here today are probably already with me on this. However, I know that many veterans have an uneasy conscience about what they were called on to do in the military, and they should know that one can serve God as a soldier just as well as one can serve God by being a minister.
As American citizens, we have much to be grateful for to you, our veterans, and especially to those who are not here today because they lost their lives on the field of battle. The freedom and prosperity we enjoy, and, our government ‘of, for, and by the people,’ have been often threatened, and hundreds of thousands have died to preserve it. It is still being threatened, as we all well know. A strong military is needed even in peacetime, and so we remember and honor also those who served in the military and were not called on to go to war.
Without the sacrifices and service of our veterans over the last 240 years, we would not have survived as a strong and free nation. I agree with Abraham Lincoln who said a long time ago that the United States of America is the world’s last, best hope. Therefore, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the whole world, we want to preserve what God has given us here.
Not only as citizens, but also as Christians, we have reason to be grateful. One of the most basic of those freedoms that has to be defended is the freedom of religion, which is, in the history of the world, a rather recent freedom. If you look around the world today, you see that the freedom of religion is a most fragile and vulnerable freedom. Even in nations that are attempting to build democracies, religious freedom often takes a back seat to the need to settle ethnic differences. The religious freedom that we have taken for granted here all of our lives is not automatically guaranteed, and again, we can thank our veterans for its preservation thus far. (continued…)
Romans 13:1-4 — Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer