Fighting in Good Conscience: Reflections on 'War and Christian Ethics,' edited by Arthur F. Holmes

War and Christian EthicsI have a deep and abiding respect for the men in our military. My admiration grew after I read Lone Survivor, the true account of a failed Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan, written by the only surviving soldier of team Redwing, Marcus Lattrell. In his moving and detailed account, Latrell describes the rigors of Navy Seal training, the brutality of actual battle, the bittersweet glories of post-combat recognition by his Commander and Chief, and the heart-wrenching responsibilities of a “lone survivor” to personally contact the families of each of his fallen brothers. Stories like these should provoke us to serious reflection on the subject of battle and military engagement. War is not a video game.

In this regard I think it is important for Christians to be able to effectively counsel men in what Martin Luther calls, “The Soldier and His Conscience.”  Within the Church, we, as pastors and laypeople, will potentially have instances where a soldier will ask us what we believe to be God’s will when it comes to his involvement in war. Luther’s treatment of this issue, I believe, is excellent and very helpful, and should serve as a guide as we seek to counsel men as they prepare for service in the military or actual battle.

When a man has a moment of reluctance and questioning as he considers whether or not it is right to kill in battle, or be a part of a military that, by its very nature, plans to kill in battle, he should be encouraged that his soul is rightly affected by the thought of war. A man once told me that if a hunter has no feeling of sadness when he kills an animal—even out of necessity—he should stop hunting, because he is tending too much toward brutality. I think he is right, and I think this principle applies to military service. War is not the way things are supposed to be: pain, bloodshed, death, and the necessity to protect oneself from other humans by the use of force are all results of the fall. Therefore, when a man who is otherwise courageous and bold in Christ, begins to question the morality of killing in battle, he should be encouraged for his sensitive spirit, not chided for cowardice. On the other hand, when one looks forward to war for the purpose of shedding another’s blood, this is a profound indication that something is spiritually awry.

Luther’s balance concerning the soldier’s attitude toward war is helpful at this point. Luther repeats the phrase, “The Lord scatters those who delight in war” (Psalm 68:30) several times, using this verse as the textual foundation for his warnings to men to not be overly zealous to enter battle. On the contrary, young men should learn from the seasoned soldiers who “are not quick to draw their sword” and who “are not contentious.” Only “fools…are the first to fight in their thoughts and even make a good start by devouring the world with words and are the fist to flash their blades, [but they] are also the first to run away and sheath their swords” (150).  In order to keep a good conscience before the Lord, a soldier must enter the fray of battle, not delighting in the destruction it will inevitably inflict, but in the fulfilling of his duty to his commander. In his heart he should be able to say, “Well, for my part, I would like to stay home, but because my lord calls me and needs me, I come in God’s name and know that I am serving God by doing so…” (158-159).

This man must also be shown, from Scripture, that neither the Old or New Testaments forbid the use of military force, or of belonging to the military. Many of the most formidable military leaders of the Old Testament were considered “great” in the eyes of God (see Hebrews 11), while both John the Baptist and Christ himself, when speaking to soldiers, never took that occasion to discourage their service in the military, but implicitly encouraged it (see Luke 3:14 and Matthew 8:5-13). One can conclude that the Scripture, while maintaining that war, bloodshed and death are unfortunate results of sin, also recognizes serving in the military is a legitimate profession, and that war itself is sometimes an act of mercy. Luther writes, “…if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world would be ruined because of lack of peace. Therefore, such a war is only a brief lack of peace that prevents an everlasting and immeasurable lack of peace, a small misfortune that prevents a great misfortune” (143). To do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8) sometimes means that you pick up your rifle and fight the enemies of justice and mercy.

Finally, we must show this man that it is pleasing in the eyes of God for one to properly obey the human authority placed over him; in this case, the government (Romans 13:1-4; I Peter 2:13-15). The government was established by God to punish wrongdoing.  Therefore, a soldier can have the confidence that he is doing the Lord’s will by being the instrument to carry out this kind of justice.  Luther notes God’s establishment of government and His call for our obedience to the government is actually an act of mercy. As Luther rightly insightfully observes, “Almighty God shows us a great grace when he appoints rulers for us as an outward sign of his will, so that we are sure we are pleasing his divine will and are doing right, whenever we do the will and pleasure of the ruler” (163).

In certain cases, however, when one is convinced that his commander is acting unjustly, the soldier would be right to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), and refrain from battle. Even if the soldier risks losing pay, military honor, and being called a coward as a result of his refraining from battle, Luther tells us “You must take that risk and, with God’s help, let whatever happens, happen” (159). But, as Luther advises, “…if you do not know, or cannot find out, whether or lord is wrong, you ought not to weaken certain obedience for the sake of an uncertain justice; rather you should think the best of your lord, as is the way of love, for ‘love believes all things’ and ‘does not think evil,’ I Corinthians 13 [:4-7]” (159-160).

Obedience to God and love for others must be the motivation behind one’s service in the military. A soldier must not be primarily driven by a desire for honor or riches. Concerning the desire for fame and recognition, Luther warns, “Seeking one’s honor is one of the greatest sins. It is nothing less than…robbery of the divine majesty. Let others, therefore, boast and seek honor; you be obedience and quiet, and your honor will find you” (161-162). A man who thinks only of aquiring wealth through his service in the military “is not happy when there is peace and not war. Such a man strays from the path and belongs to the devil, even though he fights out of obedience to his lord and his call. He takes a work that is good in itself and makes it bad for himself by not being very concerned about serving out obedience and duty, but only about seeking his own profit.” If only commanders roused their troops, not by promises of glory and wealth, but by the reminders of God and duty. Instead of saying, “Dear comrades, dear soldiers, be brave and confident; God willing, we shall this day win honor and become rich,” commanders should exhort thus, “Dear comrades, we are gather here to seve, obey and do our duty to our prince, for according to God’s will and ordinance, we are bound to support our prince with our body and our possessions, even though in God’[s sight we are as poor sinners as our enemies are” (161).

A Christian man contemplating military service, or a soldier considering his role in battle, should be encouraged to pursue military service and obey the call to battle with a heart of humility, obeying the governing authorities out of obedience to God, and shunning motivations for glory and wealth. If he does so, he will enter battle with a good conscience and will be able to serve well, as Luther observes, “For whoever fights with a good and well-instructed conscience can also fight well. This is especially true since a good conscience fills a man’s heart with courage and boldness” (141).

However, although Luther’s treatment of this subject is well-reasoned and biblically balanced, I do have a few questions for further research and reflection in this area of study, primarily regarding the soldier’s conscience concerning the justice of a particular war to which he has been called. How deep should a soldier go into understanding the just nature of a particular war? What if a specific war fulfills many but not all of the criteria for a just war? What if the war is just, but the particular battle to which the soldier is called is not just because it involves killing of innocents, or torture, or other such things? Must a soldier weigh the justice of every single action of a particular battle in order to determine whether or not he will continue to fight? These are a few of the questions that still remain as I contemplate the soldier’s conscience. I trust that as I study, think, and counsel, the Lord will shed the light of His truth on such issues for his glory and the good of his people.

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