A gathering of men was in the corner I usually occupy, taking every table. They all had Bibles in front of them. I assumed that they were a Christian men’s fellowship from one of the neighboring churches. I found a table on the opposite side of the place and sat down. The conversation from the group was very loud. I didn’t hear anything that sounded like a Bible study. What I heard instead was a lot of angry political ranting.
The low point in the rancor came when the men began to complain that US military strength had diminished during the last several years, making the country look “weak” to the rest of the world. I heard one of the men bluster, “I believe if one American gets killed in any foreign nation, we should send in the troops and kill a thousand of them!”
It took all the self-control I could muster to keep myself from getting out of my seat, walking over to the group and telling them that if they were the only representatives of Christianity I knew, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus. I now think that self-control was misspent. The witness of the group was anything but Christian, at least during that period of time I was around them.
I really shouldn’t have been so shocked by what was coming from the men’s group. After all, war is at the heart of American civil religion and civil religion has deeply impacted many churches in this country. The extent that churches have adopted a militarized version of Christian faith is most evident on national holidays –particularly Independence Day and Memorial Day- and at the onset of a war. Churches in the United States not only over-identify with America, they over-identify with the military.
As the presidential candidates debate, many Christians will be drawn to the one who most convincingly presents his vision of a militarily dominant America. Conversely, many Christians will turn away from the one whose opponent succeeds in depicting him as weakening the military might of the nation. Yet when I look to scripture, I find no support for these values, particularly in Jesus. Even at his most physically aggressive moment –the disruption he caused at the Temple- Jesus left no one wounded, much less dead (Matthew 21:12, John 2:15).
Those who try in desperation to squeeze from Jesus some support for Big Military usually abuse a couple of his parables to make their point. For instance, Jesus said, “Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:31). Jesus also said, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe” (Luke 11:21). The points that Jesus makes in these parables have nothing to do with support for Big Military, war or violence.
In the parable about the king, Jesus is teaching of the importance of making sure one is prepared to meet the tough challenges of discipleship. In the parable of the strong man Jesus is responding to those who accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. By the sort of reasoning used by those who see support for Big Military in these parables, when Jesus is recorded as saying, “I will come as a thief in the night,” (Rev. 3:3), he was expressing approval of thieves. Further, this kind of reasoning would lead us to conclude that Jesus approved of dishonest managers because he spoke favorably of one in a parable (Luke 16:1-9).
Not only is no support found for Big Military in the teaching and life of Jesus, we don’t find it in either the New or Old Testament. Time after time the Bible presents us with stories that show the strength of God working through human weakness. Foremost is the story of the escape of the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage, during which Moses announced, “The Lord will fight for you and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14). The destruction of Jericho and its fortified walls was accomplished by an act of God, not Big Military (Joshua 6:11-22).
When Gideon fought against the Midian army whose number was like “the sands of the sea”, God did not call upon him to recruit more soldiers. Instead he whittled down his forces from 22,000 to a mere 300 (Judges 7:2-23). In the contest between David and the giant Goliath, God was with the smaller and weaker contestant (1 Samuel 4:51). When King Ahaz was threatened by a Syro-Ephraimite coalition, Isaiah urges him to trust totally in God for protection and not rely upon strategies of power. Isaiah declares, “take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint…If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all” (Isa. 7:4,7).The Psalmist expressed this same conviction: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright” (Ps. 20:7-8)
Ezra prayed and fasted for protection for the Jews returning from Babylonian captivity. He would not “ask the king [of Persia] for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him” (Ezra 8:22). Again we find a rejection of Big Military. Depending upon God or depending on great armed power are mutually exclusive alternatives. Both/and is not a biblical option. Massive armed might is a clear witness that God is not trustworthy for security. The notion of “peace through strength” is utterly foreign to the Bible. In fact a quest for military strength is a sign of unbelief.
Surely, America is not a chosen nation like biblical Israel. Yet many Christians insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. And many of those same Christians want to continue increasing the military budget in what is already the most powerful nation in the history of the world. Even if the defense budget was cut in half –something I think would be a big step in the right direction- it would still be three times larger than that of the second most powerful nation, China. And all defense related expenditures are not even contained in the defense budget.
Where’s the faith? It is an offense against the Third Commandment (Exodus 20:7) for Christians in the United States to cherish “In God We Trust” as a national motto while supporting Big Military. Real trust in God is accompanied by tangible evidence, not just by words printed on currency and uttered by politicians who manipulate the religious sensibilities of the American people. And yet many Christians watching the third Presidential debate will throw their support to the candidate they see as the biggest advocate of military might…in other words, the one least like Jesus. This is not as it should be for people who claim to follow the Lord. May God have mercy.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”