by Cadet John Bass
A speech given by Rev. Bass' son before leaving for the United States Military Academy, June 2008
In less than a week now, I will be leaving for West Point, marking the beginning of my service in the United States Army. And although I have never been asked directly as to how I and others like me can reconcile our faith in a gracious and loving God with service in the military, it is an issue that definitely demands a great amount of thought and which I think is relevant to this generation.
There are those who think that these two things, faith in a sovereign, loving, all-powerful God and military service, are in some way mutually exclusive, or others who have never seriously considered their relationship or deeper implications. However, I would propose to you that these can not only be practiced together, but in a number of ways also support each other quite well.
Both the Bible and the history of our own nation show that a Christian can serve in the military without any burden to conscience or infringements upon moral or ethical principles and that at times he even has a duty to serve. I have heard both non-Christians and Christians quote Matthew 5:39 as an excuse for pacifism; it is a passage familiar to nearly anyone: “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” At first it might be easy to adopt a pacifistic attitude from these words, but a careful distinction must be made as to what this applies. That distinction lies between how to deal with violence and threats on a personal level and how to deal with them on a national or governmental level. The pacifist would argue that this passage requires that the Christian always and exclusively ‘turn the other cheek,’ no matter the threat. The pacifist would argue that the teachings of Jesus always stipulate against any violence, from personal threats to national threats, but especially war. However, from the context of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5:39 and from other passages in the Bible you can see that one of the implications of this message is that it applies to personal interactions with friends, workmates, and strangers during our everyday lives, especially when facing persecution or criticism for one’s faith. The context for Matthew 5:39, which is Matthew 5-7, is a series of messages delivered by Jesus, instructing His early followers in godly living and an explanation of much of the Mosaic Law. In this sense, it is important to understand that Christ’s message applies to how the Christian lives out his daily life in a world that is hostile to Christ and His gospel. Thus it is fundamental that the Christian, while witnessing his faith and living out the gospel, should be gracious and loving, forgiving insults and provocations, while solving any problems in a nonviolent way if possible and thus best show forth Christ in an active manner. The principle of turning the other cheek is a valuable and guiding one to the Christian, but it cannot be broadened to include the actions of our government or how it deals with threats and violence. The line must be drawn when violence goes beyond the witness of personal faith or threat to personal safety.
Far from condemning war, I believe that there is ample evidence that the Bible justifies war under certain circumstances and in the right hands. In Romans 13, Paul speaks about our responsibility to submit to the authority of our government, revealing the authorities with which it has been invested. The government is invested with power by God and we are therefore called to obey it. Christian obedience is never passive, that is, true obedience is not just not doing what is wrong, but also supporting the laws by actively doing what is right, supporting the justice of laws and those who hold them. Thus we are not only to abide by the laws which it lays down, but to also respect the authority with which it has been invested and support that authority when the government employs its God given powers. In the passage just before chapter 13, Paul is speaking of the Christian’s duty to live peacefully with all men, that we should never repay evil for evil or avenge ourselves because God says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” It is by no means our place to wreak vengeance or war upon fellow man, but it is God’s place, and He uses those means that He has chosen, namely the state. The power to ‘wield the sword’ is one of the powers that are laid down in chapter 13. Thus Paul brings out the fact that it is not us, individually, that have any right to wage war, for we are commanded to live at peace with all men, even praying for our enemies, because the power to wage war is reserved for the government, given it by God. This is one of the principles of ‘just war,’ that war, in order to be just, must be carried out by a governing state, not rogue groups of civilians or what might commonly be called pirates or vigilantes.
The Christian is a citizen in this world and part of a governing state and that state has a right to use necessary force to protect itself and its citizens. Granted, this power is often abused and history has shown this to happen periodically; nonetheless, it is fundamental to the survival of a government and has been used many times to ensure the survival of just and godly nations, such as our own. Where would this country be without the wars we have fought or the sacrifices made by the thousands of men and women, past and present, in the armed forces? We have always and must always be ready and willing to defend ourselves and our ways of life, as we have in the past. It is not only a power that is vested in the state, but which the state has a duty to use, in order to protect its people, its laws, and its God. Admittedly war is not glorious or in any a way happy event, it is indeed a taste of hell on earth, as any combat veteran would attest. Nonetheless in the hands of a just and competent government, it can be used to achieve glorious and happy ends. To the Jews and other minorities under the boot heel of Nazi oppression, World War II was a good thing, and under the direction of the allied governments, those thousands of people’s lives were saved. The Cold War could very well have turned into a blood bath, but had the West backed down, the USSR would have spread it’s iron curtain across Europe and beyond and I’d probably be speaking to you in Russian; instead, because we stood up to the communist threat in another kind of war, thousands of people were freed from the shackles of socialism, the gospel was preached where it had been dead for decades, individuals experienced new prosperity, and the road was set for the evil to be undone, though much of Eastern Europe is still very dark both politically and spiritually. But the West knew that we might at any moment engage in a war that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and that was worth it for the defeat of the USSR and the peace that would have been brought about afterwards.
The Christian West has always advocated the just war, war that is fought by actual states, fought for the protection of innocent and helpless nations, fought so as to minimize civilian casualties, fought by humane means, and fought for the end of peace. War is by far the most hellish thing on earth, but the pacifist, by avoiding it, only serves to encourage the oppressor and leave the oppressed to the will of his enemy, or, as Roland Bainton says, “The final and most telling criticism against the pacifist is that by his refusal to destroy the oppressor he abandons the oppressed, because there are circumstances in which military intervention may terminate tyranny.” The Bible shows us that man is naturally inclined toward evil, and to use only peaceful negotiations, or to not recognize where these no longer have their uses, is to tempt the evil nature of man to its limits. Yes, it is true that before just war can be engaged, all nonviolent means of establishing peace must be exhausted. But one must recognize the limits of negotiations and peace talks and ready to back words with force. Without the use of just war, evil nations and men are only allowed to continue and expand their reign of terror. There is no place or use for ‘understanding’ and ‘coming to a round table’ when dealing with such evil men as Adolph Hitler or Sadaam Hussein.
In the very birth of our own country, godly men and women defied the injustice they had undergone and declared themselves free and independent, an act that they knew was sure to require them to back it with force and violent war. But their faith was no inhibition to this. In fact that faith supported the causes of freedom as one and the same as that of the war that was sure to come upon them. In the Declaration of Independence, the document that was to finally and fully bring war upon the colonies, our founding fathers made numerous references to God and implored for His righteous support of their just war. We read of their “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” i.e., their intentions to rebel, to go to war with Britain, and “with a firm reliance upon divine Providence” for the support of that cause.
Our own story of independence is a perfect example of how a Christian and a godly nation should act if faced with an unjust war or government. Our founders exhausted every means available to peacefully redress the injustices to which they had been subjected. In our day, we have the opportunity to vote at the ballot box or write to our representatives in protest of the actions of our government or unjust war. Many at America’s birth had misgivings about rebelling, but as justified in the Declaration of Independence, they had born that ‘long train of abuses and usurpations’ and suffered while evils were sufferable. Their rising up against the authority of Britain was not for ‘light and transient causes’ but for reasons necessary to their life, liberty, and property. So even when the Christian finds himself serving in a military that has its injustices or abuses, as all human armies will, he should be very cautious in refusing to continue serving and even then it should only be based upon the gravest reasons and evidence.
This nation of ours has a rich religious history and military tradition as well. And personally I see that as no coincidence. Although not all aspects of the military are renown for their moral habits, Christians have always recognized the ethical responsibilities and sometimes obligations of serving our country in times of peace and defending it in times of war. This is one of the greatest motivating factors that lead me to pursue a career in the Army. Godly faith upholds active support or participation in the military, just as it supports the freedoms upon which our nation is based. The Biblical principles of justice and equality that lend themselves so well to the political freedom and self-government of our nation likewise compliment the use of military force to protect those rights and the lives of innocent people.
Personally, I think it’s important to underline this aspect of my own faith and the military when it seems that so many in the newspapers and TV are so ready to degrade the military and vilify it as no better than the terrorist enemy that we’re currently fighting. I think that it’s a shame that both the media and the liberal agenda are making such blatant attempts to undermine not only the war effort, but in consequence the individual soldiers. The nature of the military, both in the ends that it sets out to accomplish, the means that it uses to accomplish those ends, and the leaders that it requires and produces, is a place where godly men and women should be proud to bear their faith and proud to serve their country. I look forward to taking my place as one of those godly men serving in the US Army.