taking the words of Jesus seriously

As I write these words my Dad’s dog tags are lying in front of me. He was in the Army during World War 2, serving in North Africa and Italy. My uncles also spent time in the military during these same years. One was a bombardier in the Pacific, earning the Silver Star. I was told by family members that when he returned from war he deeply grieved with the knowledge that the bombs he dropped surely killed innocent people. Consequently, despite my anti-war commitments, I have no inclination to demonize soldiers. I know they have made sacrifices that impacted them physically, psychologically and spiritually, whether their bodies were ever wounded or not. But just as I will not demonize them, neither will I glorify them or the military as a whole. Those who do so, too often foolishly and flagrantly blaspheme as they celebrate soldiers and soldiering, an example of which we find in the picture above.

Identifying battlefield deaths with the sacrifice of Jesus is part of a broader effort to blend American militarism and Christianity. There are those -both in the military and outside of it- who seem determined to associate the work of the armed services with the way of faith. Col. Bob Young, who served as commander at Kandahar air base, insisted, “Arguably the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It is the easiest place in America to be a Christian.” He is far from alone in this belief.  Popular motivational speaker and former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, the center of controversy when he was invited to address the U.S. Air Force Academy’s National Prayer Luncheon earlier this year, declares that USMC stands for “US Marines for Christ.”  Several years ago Gen. Jerry Boykin made national news for his speeches in churches and before civic groups dressed in full uniform, claiming the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “spiritual battles” and stating that “Satan wants to destroy us as a Christian army.” It should not be surprising that those who find this misguided militaristic Christianity commendable don’t hesitate to speak of the war dead as though they are martyrs who were killed in Christian service.

Whatever sacrifices soldiers have made are utterly unlike the sort we see in the self-giving of Jesus who died expressing nonviolent divine love. Any linking of the deaths of soldiers to the death of Jesus is an offense against the incomparable action of God in Christ. I cringe every time I hear the words from John 15:13 quoted to honor the death of a soldier: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I cringe, not because I don’t believe that the soldier’s death should be honored. Rather, it is because those words from Jesus have absolutely nothing to do with the deaths experienced on a field of mutual hostility. Immediately before speaking of laying one’s life down for friends, Jesus declared, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (vs. 12). What Jesus speaks of here is a love like his own nonviolent love which was not anything like an act of laying down one’s life in a bloody contest of kill or be killed.

Still, soldiers make substantial sacrifices. Presidents, politicians and the civilian cheer-leaders for war are quick to declare that the sacrifices soldiers are asked to make are for the noblest causes. Solders, we are told, lay their lives down for freedom or democracy or even the very preservation of civilization itself. In fact this is rarely the case. The reasons for war more often have to do with preserving a sphere of national influence, insuring access to natural resources and opportunities for profit. Nineteenth century religious reformer and Disciples of Christ founder Alexander Campbell speculated that if “the true and proper causes of most wars were clearly understood and the real design for which they are prosecuted could be clearly and distinctly apprehended” war efforts would in most instances fail. Propaganda is crucial both to inspire soldiers and to rally the support of the general population.

The often quoted line, “Truth is the first casualty of war” is accurate for more than one reason. But certainly among the most important is that truth would likely tarnish the sacrifice of soldiers by unveiling the real reasons for war. It should be no shock to anyone that politicians are stubbornly unwilling to honestly admit they blundered in entering into a war. To do so would insult the sacrifices made by uniformed men and women who gave their lives, to say nothing of revealing the needlessness of the destruction war caused to others. And so we see, for example, that even when the primary justification for attacking Iraq –the presence of weapons of mass destruction- was shown to be without basis, President Bush could not admit the invasion was a mistake. Rather a new reason for the war had to be created: regime change.  Assurances were issued by the President that regardless of the absence of the weapons that were the original basis for starting the war, it was all still “worth it.” Admitting that the sacrifices of soldiers were based on deception or political miscalculation is intolerable. Such an admission would be seen as dishonoring those who died.

Perhaps the greatest of the sacrifice made by soldiers is not the willingness to die but something more troubling. In war a soldier is told to do what everybody is taught throughout their life that they must never do: deliberately maim or kill other persons. To be fit for warfare soldiers must abandon that crucial lesson for other, more deadly lessons. They must be trained to be killers who are capable of killing on command. “No sacrifice is more dramatic than the sacrifice asked of those sent to war, that is, the sacrifice of their unwillingness to kill, ” Duke University theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has observed. While the rigors of military life can have ennobling effects on a person’s life, at the same time, the experience of war, and specifically the experience of killing, is morally shattering, leading to guilt, shame and self-revulsion. The nature of the soldiers’ sacrifice is not genuinely honored by comparing it to the experience of Jesus any more than Jesus is honored by the comparison. Soldiers do not need glorification but they need forgiveness, acceptance and compassion. This cannot be done by claiming that killing –or dying while trying to kill- has anything to do with following in the way of Jesus.

“What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for, ” wrote Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in their powerful book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (Cambridge University Press, 1999). By this measure what is really true in the United States is found in nationalism, before which every other form of “religion is best understood as a jealous competitor.” Not wanting to admit to idolatrous devotion, many in churches, ministers included, have merged their American nationalism with Christianity.  This has resulted in a militarized Christianity in which wars are seen as battles of good against evil and the violent sacrifice of both killing and dying in conflict can be viewed as expressions of faithfulness. But this sort of Christianity is a parody of the real thing.

What is missing in militarized Christianity is Jesus. Regardless of the frequency with which he is named, and despite the fact that his death and resurrection are proclaimed, still his life and teachings as found in the Gospels are largely marginalized.  Consequently, the wrong kind of sacrifice is celebrated. Sacrifice certainly has an important role in genuine Christianity. We are told to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).  This is a sacrifice that comes directly from following Jesus in a hostile world. It entails that we “bless those who persecute” us  (vs.14), “repay no one evil for evil” (vs.17), “live peaceable with all” (vs.18), “never avenge one’s self” (vs.19), and “not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (vs.21). Little of Jesus as presented in the Gospels can be found in military Christianity precisely because following such a Jesus would be counter-productive. Those who follow Jesus can’t be taught to kill on command and don’t believe what is true is what is worth killing for. Rather what is true is what is worth defenselessly dying for.

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 (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.”

About The Author


Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist. He is lives with his wife Cindi in Oaxaca De Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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