On this Veteran’s Day weekend, I would like to recognize those who have served. Military service is inherently dangerous, whether you’re carrying a weapon or not. Military service can often put people in very difficult circumstances that don’t necessarily subject them to hostile action, but can still present life-threatening circumstances. I served 29 years in the Coast Guard Reserve. The Coast Guard Reserve is different than other military reserves. It is such a small organization, about 12,000 people in the entire United States. In order to effectively train and serve, we augmented regular active duty units and were expected to maintain qualifications, including weapons, to match our active duty. In those years I did law enforcement, which never entailed my using lethal force, but there were occasions that were a little sketchy. Add in severe weather and sea conditions I had to work in and other conditions performing search and rescue, I certainly came closer to dangerous circumstances than my regular employment associates. After Sept 11 I was mobilized for about nine months, when I was demobilized, went back to my civilian employer who waited the time they were legally mandated to wait and then fired me. When I went to the Veterans Administration for some kind of protection or redress they were worse than useless. Thank you for your service. I would never say people shouldn’t serve, they should, but there are physical risks as well as professional.
There has always been an element in Christianity that has claimed that Christians cannot legitimately serve in the military or police. That is anything that might put them in a position where they might have to kill someone in the course of their duty. In today’s military that argument is becoming more and more invalid. In today’s military there are about five people for every one person in the field. That includes people who repair and maintain equipment. That’s people who provide provisions for soldiers, who provide clerical services (the ones who made sure I got paid), those who provide pastoral services, medical/dental services, training, recreational etc. One can serve in the military and probably never be in a position where they will even have a weapon, no less use one. They still perform very important functions, making it a lot easier for the people in the field to effectively perform their duties.
In Dr Gene Veith’s book God at Work Dr Veith presents Dr Martin Luther’s perspective, which Dr Luther primarily presented in his pamphlet Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved and was his response to those in his time tried to preclude Christians from the military or police. The following from Dr Veith gives Dr Luther’s perspective, which I think much more faithfully presents the Biblical perspective than the superficial understanding of some Christian sects:
“…Luther asked whether God is allowed to take a human life or to punish sin. Indeed, He is. Luther maintained that it is God, working through the offices of the judge or soldier, who takes life and punishes sin. [I would like to note, that to be consistent the “conscientious objector” would also not be able to serve in the legal system. This person might be put in the position of judge with the authority to condemn someone guilty of a crime. It does seem that “conscientious objectors’ are only concerned if it’s they who are put in danger – Driskell] Christians can indeed occupy these offices, being called to them as divine vocations. So a soldier is loving his neighbor when he protects his country, and a judge is loving his neighbor when he puts a criminal in prison or delivers him over to the executioner…”
“And yet this by no means negates the commands to love our enemies and to forgive those who trespass against us. In their personal lives, soldiers, judges and executioners must indeed love and forgive their enemies. But in their vocations, by virtue of their offices, they are authorized to ‘bear the sword.”
With instances of civilian police overstepping by using too much force, this is instructive. All those who bear the sword are only authorized “the force necessary to compel compliance”. These are what we as Coast Guard officers are held to. I don’t know if civilian police are under the same limit, I have to believe they are. Once you have a suspect under control you are no longer allowed to apply physical force. If someone’s being a jerk you have to ignore it, you can’t take it personally and frankly I think there are a lot of poorly trained law enforcement that feel they shouldn’t be subject to any personal insult. As a Christian under authority you certainly have a duty to safeguard someone you’ve taken responsibility for by detaining or arresting. Anything else, you just can’t take it personally.
Having said that, Christians are certainly authorized to serve by asserting force. If they are protecting their fellow citizens against enemy aggression or criminal activity a Christian soldier or law enforcement officer is serving the innocent, that is certainly a worthy pursuit. Peter baptized the Roman Centurion (Acts 10:47) Jesus certainly didn’t call out the Roman Centurion who appealed to Jesus for his servant’s life. Paul gladly accepted the protection of the Roman cohort against the Jews in Jerusalem who were trying to kill him. God certainly blessed Joshua and David, to name a few, who were soldiers in the Old Testament.
In this day and age fewer people are credibly trying to make a case of “conscientious” objector. We could look at Augustine’s justifications for Christian military and police, but that would take a long time and I’m not up to it. Nonetheless, for those who are Christians and have served and have even been put in the situation where they had to kill someone, and did so within their authority, please know that you are forgiven. Exodus 23 says “thou shall not murder”. Killing in the line of duty is serving the innocent and a just and righteous God against the guilty, it does not violate the commandment against murder. If you had to kill, that does not mean that you are lost or cut off from God. Jesus died for all our sins and it really can’t be called what you did in duty to the innocent as sin. But if you need to cope with this by knowing that either way, Jesus died for you. This does not preclude you from Jesus, His church and all the benefits that you are entitled to in the church as a baptized, confirmed member of His church.
So we honor our veterans as a country accordingly, and we at First Saint Johns also honor our veterans as men and women who probably at some point in their military service had to function under duress, danger, discomfort, enemy fire, or just being a long way from home in a strange environment. In this day and age you’ve done more than about 90% of the rest of the population and deserve a day of honor and respect in your life. For those in the rest of society, business, government who cause veterans unnecessary hardship or refuse to serve, well Jesus does forgive all sins. I hope you can live with your conscience. For those who grieve over those who have been justly imprisoned and have to live in difficult circumstances, try “hotracking” over a torpedo tube as my brother who served on a submarine had to. I’m not saying that prisoners should be mistreated, but our military endure a lot to protect, even if they’re not being shot at.