I grew up in a military family. My father was an Air Force pilot, as was his father before him. I always admired them both. So it made sense that, when it came to deciding on my future, the military held prominent appeal.
I entered college with a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship; my goal was to earn a college degree then begin my career as an Infantry officer. I woke up for physical training at 4 AM. I ran extra miles on the weekend. I dreamt of going to Ranger School.
I was always aware that there were some people who viewed my choice of profession as immoral, even anti-Christian. And I had no problem publically disputing such claims. I wrote editorials for the school newspaper. I cited Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Augustine as support. And I appealed to Biblical notions of justice, wrath and even Christ’s demands for selfless service.
But then I underwent a transformation. Through conversation, research, and prayer I adopted pacifist beliefs. This change of heart did not occur in isolation; I was deeply influenced by numerous writers, friends, co-workers and mentors.
Here’s a few of those people:
- Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne is a radical character. His father was a Vietnam veteran and died when he was young. He attended college and seminary, during which he developed a firm conviction for Christ’s calling to nonviolence and radical love towards others.
During my junior year of college- my third year of Army officer training- I picked up a copy of Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution. C.S. Lewis once said that a young atheist couldn’t be too careful with what he reads; the same should be said for a young Army officer.
In his book, Claiborne tells of how he journeyed with a group of like-minded Christians to Iraq during the United States “Shock and Awe” campaign at the beginning of the Second Gulf War. While there, Claiborne witnessed the pain, horror and aguish brought about by American bombs. He saw hospitals destroyed, churches annihilated, and children orphaned. Such tragedies weren’t necessarily news to me. But American media reported them callously. They were “collateral damage”: a necessary evil for a greater good.
But Claiborne pulled bodies from wreckage. He cried and worshiped with scores of Iraqi Christians, huddled in bomb shelters and church basements. During this time, he had a conversation with Iraqi Christians who wondered why American Christians were bombing them. Claiborne tried to explain that the Christians who dropped bombs believed that, in doing so, they were doing God’s will.
This story had a profound impact on me; it prompted me to realize that the enemies of my country are not necessarily enemies of mine. More troubling was the thought that they also weren’t enemies of Christ.
- Sergeant Jones
Shortly after encountering Shane Claiborne, I participated in a day of weapons training. I was waiting in a line of fellow officers at the range, preparing to practice firing an M240 machine gun. A sergeant was inspecting all the officers, ensuring proper wear of our flak vests and earplugs. He was a grisly character, vividly wrinkled and scarred. He had about half a container of chewing tobacco stuffed in his bottom lip.
As he went along the line of officers, he asked each of us: “why did you join the Army?!”. It didn’t matter what the answer was, Sergeant Jones always responded with: “WRONG! You joined the Army to kill!”
Sergeant Jones may have had the appearance and demeanor of a Dostoevsky antagonist. But his philosophy is neither unprecedented nor rare in military ranks and training. Army running cadences unite soldiers with cries of: “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot to kill!” All soldiers- regardless of their duty description- are required to qualify at the weapons range. The Soldiers Creed- also memorized by all- states that members “… stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States.”
Sergeant Jones opened my eyes to the poignant reality that engagement in the military demanded forfeiture of personal convictions to those of my nation. If my nation said: “kill!” then I had sworn to kill.
But I’m a Christian whose sole allegiance is to Christ; Christ who tells me to love my enemies, pray for those who would do me harm.
How then can I serve?
- Adolf Hitler
The history books of my youth shied away from one vital lesson: the villains never believe they are villains.
Adolf Hitler is a good example. A simple reading of Mein Kempf reveals a conscience who: “believes today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.” Vincent J. Donovan, in his book Christianity Rediscovered, tells of how Hitler always prayed for the blessing of “Almighty God” upon his troops. Donovan recounts a conversation he had with a Nazi doctor who told him how the nuns and students in German schools were sure to pray for blessings on the Nazi endeavors.
Adolf Hitler believed he had a duty to “be a fighter for truth and justice.” To such an end, Hitler said, “It matters not whether these weapons of ours are humane: if they gain us our freedom, they are justified before our conscience and before our God.”
When I stumbled upon these little tidbits of history, when I compared the rhetoric of my military leaders with villains of ages past, I felt a shiver go down my spine.
What side of history would I have been on? What side am I on?
- Jesus Christ
It is not fair to say, as many pacifists might, that Jesus words on this issue were “cut and dry”. Though I hold to the belief that Jesus truly commanded nonviolence, most of his teachings were parabolous and vague. And appeals to a purely literal reading of Christ’s words aren’t helpful to the nuances of this conversation. Additionally, such arguments are easily bypassed or shot down.
But what Christians cannot overlook is the story Christ’s life told. Christ who had infinite power did not use it to subjugate creation to his will. Rather, he submitted to his enemies and suffered as the recipient, not the perpetrator, of violence. As Christians, we are committed to making Christ’s story our story.
NT Wright put it well when he said: “our story is not a power story but a love story.” And I have come to the conviction that I cannot live as a testimony to this story while also accepting employment as a lethal weapon for my country.
Still, it’s easy for me to tout this ethic from the comforts of middle-class America. My family will probably never be threatened and I am unlikely to ever be put in a situation that forces me to choose between my commitment to non-violence and my own personal safety. As such, I hold this ethic humbly and understand the cost it demands is not one I may ever have to pay. I live in a country defended by men and women who bravely (and virtuously) fight for my freedom.
But a necessity for humility does not mean I should abandon a pacifist ethic. I cannot control the times in which I live, but I can control the story I tell. As a Christian, the story of my life should be one that follows closely and fervently in the steps of a crucified Savior. And there is no room for an M16 on the cross; no swords allowed in the hands of his disciples.
It is with such a conviction that I proclaim that I am a Christian. And, therefore, I am also a pacifist. For I truly believe that, as Tertullian once put it: “Christ in disarming Peter disarmed every soldier.”
And so I lay down my sword.