I was reminded this morning that it was Veteran’s Day, not that I had forgotten, because I got an early note of thanks from my wife, who regularly thanks me for me military service, defending, as she always notes, her freedom. At the same time, I will either read or hear from some Christian friends who will say that military service is not compatible with being a follower of Jesus. This year, this function was served by my friend Peter Kirk, who is not happy with acts of remembrance in church, of which he says:
If military people wish to have their own parades to mark their fallen comrades, they are welcome to do so. But please can they do so well away from the churches, whose fundamental attitudes are, or should be, completely at odds with theirs. And please can churches stop pandering to the expectations of those in the world outside, and of those among their own numbers, who hold anti-Christian militaristic views and expect the church to hold ceremonies for them, and disrupt its own regular programmes to do so.
Now my point here is not to go after Peter or his position on this issue. What interests me on this is simply that I have many people in my life who simply would not be able to hear one another’s position. Many local Christians that I know consider pacifism a crazy notion held by people who aren’t really quite Christian, and probably live in California. They would be very surprised to meet Peter, hear his authentic testimony of Christian faith, and yet find that their views on war are so diametrically opposed.
I have an interesting family history here as well. My father spent part of World War II planting trees in Canada because he refused to bear arms. He was willing to work in the medical corps, a reasonable option considering he intended to be a physician, but he was not accepted into that form of service, and because he refused to train with or carry a weapon, he was given alternative service. He lived to see both his sons serve voluntarily in the U. S. military.
My father’s religious background was Seventh-day Adventist, many of whom reject bearing arms, but will serve in the military in medical capacity. One thing I found disconcerting about growing up in SDA communities was the rather large number of people who would reject personally bearing arms and yet voted for the most pro-military and pro-war candidates that were available. I have a much greater respect for pure pacifism than I do for those who refuse to do the killing themselves, but vote for the policies that lead to others doing so.
A few years ago I was teaching a group of teenagers at a United Methodist church, and I found that the one thing they wanted to know about me was whether I had ever personally killed anyone while in the military. As a veteran of the U. S. Air Force, that is unlikely. The Air Force is not generally very “personal” about killing, and I was simply a cog in the machine that made it happen.
I don’t believe that relieves one of responsibility. I consciously chose to be in that position. I chose the particular job I wanted in the Air Force. I knew what I was doing, and I re-enlisted to continue to do what I was doing. I was not a practicing Christian at the time, so it is appropriate to ask whether I would still do it.
The answer is yes. I’ve written about my position before in a post titled Why I Am Not a Pacifist. I think that there are circumstances under which peaceful protest is the correct approach. I think there are circumstances in which one must suffer evil silently. But I also believe there are circumstances in which one needs to respond with force. The state doesn’t carry the sword in vain, and my citizenship in this country in this world means I may be called upon to carry out my part.
A peaceful protest or civil disobedience is an approach that depends on the conscience of the enemy. There are times when one faces an enemy without a conscience. Peaceful protest often works by wakening the consciences of others who will bring force to bear. There need to be people with an ethical approach to bringing such force.
I recall a conversation while I was in the Air Force. Since I was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, we got an unusual measure of the nuclear freeze protesters, which was the major movement of the time. A group of us were discussing this, and most indicated they were annoyed to be defending the freedom for people to protest against them. Flag burning even got into the discussion, though I don’t recall any flag burning amongst the freeze protesters at the base. They were generally painfully courteous about their protests.
And indeed those protesters couldn’t have been doing the same thing on the other side of the conflict of the time. They were using the freedom for which we might be called to pay in order to protest against us.
But for me that was precisely the reason for me to be there–to defend the freedom of people to annoy me in any number of ways. That freedom was what made it worthwhile to serve in the military and to be prepared to be there in time of war.
It’s worthwhile noting that as a voter, I would have opposed every one of the wars in which I was involved (Grenada, Panama, and the first gulf war). I don’t think they were well conceived. At the same time, I believe that having a democracy in existence with the military force to stand against communism was absolutely necessary, and that helping to keep that democracy safe was a good thing.
Those who are regular readers of this blog will know that I have opposed the current Iraq war since before it started. But I want to be clear that my opposition is not to the use of force. Sometimes actual use of force is required. Frequently, the ability to effectively use force is necessary.
There are those who will respond only to force. For those force is ready. For this reason I look back on my own 10 years of service with satisfaction, and I thank all those others, especially those in those jobs that require one to get more personal about killing, not to mention being killed.
It’s because of you that I can engage in this debate.