Presidential Politics, Big Military and Jesus

Military Jesus
Early this week the presidential candidates got to debate about foreign policy as each of them claimed to be the biggest tough guy…and the least like Jesus. Sadly, for many Christians that is perfectly fine. This fact was brought home to me again last week when I went into the local Panera restaurant where I usually work on my sermon.

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).

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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.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/otro.tierra Otro Tierra

    Love of Jesus must be prioritized over lust for Caesar and Constantine. Will the Christian Taliban listen?

    • Drew

      I would appreciate if you would engage in real, substantive dialogue instead of repeating your same catchphrases over and over again.

      • http://www.facebook.com/otro.tierra Otro Tierra

        Matt, I agree that much dialogue is needed, and I appreciate the efforts of RedLetterChristians to try and get things started regardless of the vitriol. Sorry you didn’t like my comment. I’ll try to do better in the future.

        • Matt

          I didn’t comment on your post…maybe you meant Drew?

          • http://www.facebook.com/otro.tierra Otro Tierra

            whoops–there must have been a Disquis glitch earlier. sorry about the confusion.

          • Matt

            No worries.

    • guest

      There’s no such thing as a Christian Taliban.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DeepNarcosis William J. Green

      Christian Taliban? That is as oxymoronic as Giant Shrimp or Jihad-less Islam

    • SamHamilton

      Please stop using slurs to describe people who disagree with you. I don’t know who you’re talking about when you say “Christian Tailban.” If you’re going to throw around hyperbolic terms like that you’d better be specific.

  • Matt

    As a veteran (turned pacifist), I agree whole-heartedly with what you are getting at with this. Great article, Craig. Thanks for sharing and God bless.

  • 22044

    I am a Christian. I would vote for an atheist for President if I was convinced that he was the best candidate to follow the Constitution, which advocates for a national defense to protect the freedoms of American citizens.
    Additionally, a couple of additional points need to be mentioned:
    Reluctantly or not, the American military is big because geopolitically America is seen as the defender of the free world. Other nations have military units, but they don’t have that designation.
    Additionally, nearly all of the military engagements are diplomatic & peacekeeping, but necessary so that freedom may be practiced, in the United States and many other nations.

    • Eric

      Goodbye Jesus! Hello American military might! We -i.e., the US- have a responsibility to be the cops of the world and we -i.e., the church- shouldn’t let the foolish notion that discipleship actually has something to do with following Jesus’ teaching and example to get in the way. We need to dump that crazy idea that God prefers to use our Christlike faithfulness rather than our military strategies, weapon technology and calculations of outcomes. God may not have too the side of the greater military power in ancient days but we know better now. Proverbs 3:5-6 is for chumps!

      • 22044

        Thank you for not engaging any of my points. As a courtesy, you should have posted this separately instead of replying to me.

      • SamHamilton

        I don’t know how much I agree with 22044 that America has to be the cop of the world, but your response doesn’t respond to what he said.

        He’s basically arguing that without American military might deployed around the world a lot of people would be doing some very unjust things that they aren’t doing now. It’s obviously a debatable point, but you don’t even address it. Lame. What you argue could just as easily be said about the local police force. Should we disband that too?

        • Eric

          SH, here’s the deal: a bunch of critics fail to really deal with the articles in RLC -and do this sort of thing on a regular basis- and then whine when their posts are not responded to in the manner they would prefer. My response to 22044 is all that it deserves. He tried to shift the discussion from Jesus and the Bible. Instead of actually addressing the texts and the issue of discipleship Watts writes about, he turns to consequentialist thinking and America’s role in the world. His “Thank you for not engaging any of my points” just doesn’t cut it given that he didn’t try to address the author’s points.

          • SamHamilton

            Your response to 22044 was 95% sarcasm. If you felt he missed the point of Craig’s post or redirect the thread you should tell him so. The point he was making, as I understood it, was that Craig’s philosophy has real world consequences that need to be discussed.

          • Eric

            Actually, my post was 100% sarcasm. But 22044 is utterly wrong about not engaging his points. That is exactly what I did. Sarcasm notwithstanding, I challenged the priority he gave to the “real world consequences” of super power America without him even bothering to address discipleship or the witness of scripture. I think consequentialist thinking has had devastating “real world consequences” insofar as the witness of the church is concerned.

          • 22044

            Honestly – I don’t know if it’s best from a geopolitical viewpoint for America’s military to be as involved as it is, and I’d certainly welcome thoughtful viewpoints that propose how things should be different.
            I appreciate your agreement with me though – Eric didn’t respond to me and he has no business trying to claim that he did.
            Why do people have to be instructed on how to have a discussion? It’s frustrating sometimes.

          • 22044

            Eric,

            I will reply to you directly as well. Maybe I don’t directly address the article’s points, but I propose a different viewpoint about the general topic. I do not insult, harangue, or use needless sarcasm. If you reply to me doing those things, your witness for Jesus is compromised. If you can’t reply with civility – it is OK to just read. I can certainly be tolerant of your less than civil tactics, but I believe the Lord is grieved.

  • Drew

    In theory, there is nothing wrong with having a strong military. Yes, putting our “faith” in our military is wrong, but having a strong military for defense is no more wrong than having a strong health care system for illness. Should we cut funding for health care in this country because we rely on God for healing? That would be foolish.

    In practicality, you’re dead on. Our defense budget is the most bloated, wasteful budget in any country in any time in history. With regularity you have multi-billion dollar projects that overrun their budget, are useless, are scrapped during the project, or are given as a favor to certain politicians or corporations. That’s what needs to stop. That’s money that can be given to our troops, or saved, or used for other programs, or a combination of the three.

    • SamHamilton

      I tend to agree Drew. There’s nothing unbiblical about maintaining a military, just as there’s nothing unbiblical about maintaining a police department. However, it’s hard for me to believe that the U.S. couldn’t maintain an adequate military and still cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the military budget.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeepNarcosis William J. Green

    Why is it that Christians who evidence virtually NO KNOWLEDGE of the Constitution want to weigh in on issues related directly to the Constitution? The President’s FIRST duty is NOT to protect the safety and well-being of Americans nor even to eliminate poverty via a War on Poverty but to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God!”

    The swearing of allegiance before God and witnesses, invoking God’s Name, is not to a theocracy, nor even the Kingdom of God, nor to a Big Military, but to ensuring that the Constitution’s laws, mandates, protections, etc., are followed, obeyed and defended against all attempts to destroy them.

    Hence, it is what the Constitution actually states that the three branches of government swear and adhere to. And that includes Christians within government — they swear the same oath.

    So, what does the Constitution say specifically about the military? To that we must turn to the Enumerated Powers from Article 1, Section 8, where the powers of the State — which the sovereign States delegated to the State — are listed. Lets listen to what leaders swear to God to preserve, protect, and defend:

    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imports and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; [Altered by Amendment XVI "Income tax".]

    To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

    To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

    To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

    To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

    To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

    To establish Post Offices and Post Roads;

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

    To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

    To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

    To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

    To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

    To provide and maintain a Navy;

    To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

    To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

    To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; And

    To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    There are 18 paragraphs in this section that enumerate powers to the State and EIGHT of them contain topics related to our nation’s Defence [sic], thwarting piracy on the high seas, maintaining a militia, equipping an army, and recruiting and outfitting a navy.

    Forty-four percent of the paragraphs contained in Section 8, Article 1 of the Constitution where the duties, responsibilities and tasks of the State are described are dedicated in one way or another to our nation’s military.

    Think about that for a minute before you bloviate the series of “buts” that are rushing through your mind.

    What wo/men swear to, invoking God’s help, when it comes to what they’ll do as national leaders, has a great deal to do with building, maintaining and funding a BIG ENOUGH MILITARY capable of protecting our citizens around the globe from piracy (think the Islamic Barbary Pirates) on the high seas and Islamic Jihadist Terrorist attacks against our sovereign territories such as our embassies and consulates where our U.S. citizens serve and represent our nation to other nations.

    No one FORCES pacifist Christians into higher office. Everyone volunteers. But every Christian who decides to volunteer and campaign for higher office MUST KNOW beforehand what s/he’ll have to swear to before God and witnesses, and if s/he can not in good conscience do so, it is morally and theologically incumbent upon her to either NOT run, withdraw from the race if s/he’s entered, or resign from office once s/he decides s/he can no longer before God and witnesses faithfully discharge the duties and responsibilities of the office as mandated in the Constitution of the United States of America.

    • Grayson

      Why is it that Christians who show virtually no understanding of the biblical message think that the Constitution is something that followers of Jesus should bow before? Well, I guess I answered my own question: they know virtually nothing of the biblical message. William Green repeatedly posts his tedious rants about the constitution -reflecting an understanding of it that would be rejected by many constitutional scholars- and he ignores the real issues of faith. He suggests that Watts demonstrates “no skill exegeting Scripture” but Mr. Green is in no position to make such a judgment because he shows far less capacity with scripture. Following Jesus is what the Christian life is about. And you don’t need one bit of knowledge of the Constitution to do that. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the Constitution says. What matters is who Jesus is and where he leads us. Mr. Green seems to have forgotten that spiritual fact. No one who is determined to follow Jesus above all is the least bit impressed with your idolatry of the Constitution.

      • guest

        No one has any business claiming that their ignorance of the Constitution is blessed by following Jesus, if they wish to opine on matters that the Constitution addresses.
        Would you treat other subjects of knowledge the same way? Like math, physics, finance, engineering?
        “I can provide a valid opinion on those matters even though I know nothing about them, because I walk with the Lord.”
        See how ridiculous that sounds?

        • Grayson

          It is irrational to say, “No one has any business claiming that their ignorance of the Constitution is blessed by following Jesus, if they wish to opine on matters that the Constitution addresses.” Just because the Constitution deals with a matter does not require that an author writing about what the scriptures have to say on the matter needs to look at the Constitution. The Constitution has no more intrinsic authority for a disciples of Jesus than the Koran. It is irrelevant to the purpose of this site and the above article. The topic is not the Constitution. To deal with the Constitution would be to change the subject. Constitution idolaters don’t establish the contours of the discussion here at RLC. I suspect you and Mr. Green want the topic to be the Constitution because you are incapable of discussing the above article on a biblical basis.

          • guest

            It is not irrational at all, if you understand that the Constitution is the governing document of the United States.
            It is not idolatrous to understand that & to esteem it as such.
            It should be welcomed to be brought into this discussion, since it addresses the question of establishing a military and what its purpose is for.
            You actually trample the Bible by claiming the Bible addresses this matter when it doesn’t. You probably aren’t aware of that.
            Finally, I noticed you didn’t address my point about the foolishness of claiming ignorance as wisdom.

          • Grayson

            Guest@: “It is not irrational at all, if you understand that the Constitution is the governing document of the United States.” It is irrational because you assume that this discussion is for people loyal to America. It is not. It is a discussion about being loyal to Jesus. It is not a given that loyalty to Jesus entails loyalty to America or any other nation, race, ethnic group or class. I understand that all sorts or people hold in esteem all sorts of things that get in the way of following Jesus. So please stick to the real subject. Only one person who has posted about this article in a negative way has done that.

          • guest

            My assumption is pretty good, since Americans are the intended audience for Craig’s post.
            Since the Constitution can be introduced as a relevant subject when discussing the military, putting Jesus first does not mean scorning the Constitution. If you are an American, the opposite is actually true. Following Jesus means to be humble and to seek knowledge and wisdom, so if one wants to talk about public policies, understanding the Constitution is definitely helpful.
            On the flip side, I sometimes share the truth that the Bible is not a public policy manual. That is applicable here.
            See the examples of Jesus and Paul. When they talked to people, they understood the subjects and knowledge that they would encounter. They did not shun them and say “oh, let’s not talk about that.”

    • David Johnson

      You’re exactly right, there: Christians shouldn’t hold high office.

    • Questioning

      Yep… this pretty much proves it… we’re spending way too much money and meddling in way too many countries outside of the US.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeepNarcosis William J. Green

    We don’t ask folk who evidence no skill exegeting Scripture to exegete Scripture and preach and teach. Shouldn’t the same hold true for the Constitution? Please, at least evidence a rudimentary familiarity with what the Constitution says before you lambaste Christians and non-Christians for adhering to it!

    • Brown

      For Christians who put Jesus first the Constitution is secondary at best. Your preoccupation with the Constitution shows a misplaced faith. And you have never show one hint of being competent in interpreting scripture so your pot-shots have zero credibility.

    • David Johnson

      If Jesus/the BIble doesn’t trump the constitution, who are we to be calling ourselves Christians?

      • guest

        IME, people who make that claim know nothing about the Constitution and therefore the claim ends up being with no merit.

        • Brown

          LOL! What are you talking about? Are you really saying that the claim that Jesus and the Bible trump the Constitution has “no merit” without a knowledge of the Constitution? Really? Dude, you’ve lost your way in a Tea Party forest.

          • guest

            Thank you for the unhelpful ad hominem attack.
            Wow, what is it about Craig Watts’ posts that draw the Internet idiots to vomit their stupidity?

          • Brown

            Guest: LOL! “the unhelpful ad hominem attack… the Internet idiots vomit their stupidity?” A gem! LOL!

          • guest

            Thanks for proving my point.

          • Brown

            It is just too funny how you can’t see the irony of your own words. You call others “idiots” and then whine that someone else is making an ad hominem attack on you. Yes, as you said, I guess I proved your point…the one you missed.

    • SamHamilton

      What in Craig’s post conflicts with the Constitution?

    • ski

      You have a point about Christians expecting non-Christians in government to uphold Jesus and the Bible first. That’s a ridiculous expectation. Those who are not claiming to be Christians cannot be expected to follow Christ. However, we should expect Christians who decide to enter the realm of politics and government to uphold the values and teachings of Christ. And we as Christians should call out our brothers and sisters who are not doing so. Not in a mean, petty way, but with love and grace, because we know we ourselves fall short nearly every day. However, if they are choosing to acknowledge Christ on such a public stage, they also should be extra careful to give true witness to Christ and His teachings.

  • Chris

    Did not David, the man God’s own heart, bring about peace through strength? Did he nor create a buffer zone around Israel by conquering the enemies which surrounded them? Did the scriptures not comment that the Lord have David victory in a run down of these conquests, even when David lined up the Moabites and killed two of every three? Does the New Testament not tell us that God instituted governmental authorities in order to carry the sword and maintain order?

    I agree that many Christians have lost sight of the restraint all Christians should strive for, even in foreign affairs. However, to state that the Bible never leaves any room for a strong military is to overstate your case and lose your credibility.

    Please, let’s have an honest discussion.

    • guest

      I would love an honest discussion. I don’t think anyone else does, though.

    • SamHamilton

      You ask a good question, one that troubles me greatly. How come the God that sent the Prince of Peace also command Israel to slaughter so many other nations filled with His beloved creation? Were those other nations that much more evil than some people today? Did the writers of the Old Testament mis-attribute God’s will to Israel’s actions? Did Jesus change the rules? Did God’s perspective change? Obviously, this is just a short blog post and I don’t expect Craig to address every counter argument, but perhaps a follow-up would be helpful or at least a link to resources that address these questions…

      • http://www.facebook.com/christian.pacifism.3 Christian Pacifism

        An excellent series on that question at Eternity Bible College faculty blog:
        http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2012/09/26/did-god-command-joshua-to-slaughter-babies/

        • SamHamilton

          Thanks. I’ll take a look.

      • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

        I know I’m a month late to this, but I would just like to note how sad I feel seeing you asking the difficult questions, and receiving in response a heap of downvotes for it. Are we really that afraid of a deep exploration of Scripture?

    • Zeke

      Chris, the author didn’t claim God never used an army or violence in the OT. He simply demonstrated that the broad sweep of the story in scripture gives no support to the idea that God sanctions his people in the pursuit and use of superior military power. The victories of God’s people were miraculous. God didn’t just add a little blessing to an outcome that was already likely to occur. The issue -at least in the confines of this article- is what he calls Big Military, not all military. Christians giving support for biggest military in the world and advocating strengthening it further seems out of keeping with a biblical faith.

    • http://www.facebook.com/christian.pacifism.3 Christian Pacifism

      This is what God told David: “‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth.” 1 Chron. 22

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