This is part one of three. Here's a link to a related post.
Memorial Day 2011
Beginning with Memorial Day and ending with the 4th of July extends a period of time associated with American tradition and patriotism. It's a time of flags, parades, outdoor barbecues, air shows, graduations and vacations. These civil holidays have always been part of American Church life but over the past twenty years or so, particularly since 2001 these days seem to have taken on a whole new meaning.
Soldiers are praised, the military celebrated, and for not a few families there has been a forced reckoning and wrestling with the related moral issues as a family member or someone they know has been killed or maimed while wearing an American uniform and participating in the invasion and occupation of other countries. They must wrestle with big questions concerning war, nations, politics and the Church.
All too often the wrestling is superficial. There are many assumptions held that are part of the cultural consensus. They cannot be questioned. Raising the question brings on existential crisis. If the answer is wrong, for many of them, their world, their very identity would crumble.
Usually they emerge from the wrestling period lacking all doubt. They find only affirmation for their social/national belief system. Again, especially if someone they loved has died, to think otherwise is in itself unthinkable.
This type of thinking is incompatible with Biblical Christianity. It is as I will continue to argue a form of idolatry and worldly wisdom. It establishes a rival ethic, a competing value system that operates alongside Biblical Christianity but in the end overthrows it. Growing within like a cancer this theology which baptizes culture and nation ultimately triumphs. It is a pagan impulse to ratify and vindicate human power with a god's stamp of approval. This Sacralist impulse is as old as Babel. The Christian form known as Constantinianism has existed in many forms throughout the centuries and affects the present situation in many profound ways.
I argue it inverts many Christian doctrines and frameworks. One is in the realm of war and violence. Constantinianism baptizes and celebrates war and is quick to pervert the Biblical teaching in order to meet this end. Once embraced the nation or culture tends to become a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The agents who promote and protect this civilizational construct are the forces of good fighting evil. To question Just War and concepts like Christian soldiery or even war itself is to question the foundational pillars of the system. The devoted Sacralist who has invested his life and the lives of family members in this system, in this vision is often unable to think in these terms. As I mentioned it's unthinkable. It's like questioning the Faith itself.
It has to be assumed that the wars are valid and even if the geopolitical morality becomes a bit foggy, always under all circumstances those who bear arms wearing the country's uniform are honourable heroes who are defending our national integrity, our freedom of speech and religion, even our language. They are the bastions and defenders of all that is good in the world.
These myths are presupposed and prevent most American churchgoers from being able to ask the right questions and apart from a work of the Holy Spirit it prevents them from ever arriving at an answer that accords with Biblical doctrine.
What grants a soldier immunity from the charge of murder? Does a uniform grant moral validity to violence?
Some appeal to the Mosaic Law and argue that God made provisions for soldiering. While it is certainly true that Israel was a nation in Covenant with God and its very charter was grounded in Redemptive-History, it does not follow that Israel is the pattern for any nation today. Rooted in Adamic imagery Israel was both the 1st Adam reborn and the 2nd Adam in terms of symbol and promise. Its wars, polity and agenda cannot be applied to any nation today. This is to fundamentally misunderstand God's plan of redemption worked out in history and it is to appropriate in a rather sacrilegious manner things set apart to symbolize and teach salvation. Taking them and mixing them with a multitude of other cultural and political concepts leaves one with a system that does not in any way represent Biblical teaching nor can it claim in any sense the sanction of God.
The Old Testament must be understood to relate organically to the New but the New is formally different. Anyone who doubts this need only to read the book of Hebrews. We are under a High Priest of the order of Melchisidec not Levi.
Some try and argue that various nations such as Scotland, England or even America are somehow covenanted with God by virtue of the man-made covenants drafted in the 17th century etc... If they would bother to look a little closer at the Biblical covenants they would realize they are framed monergistically, not synergistically. These terms merely distinguish between an arrangement wherein one party establishes the terms vs. an arrangement where the two (or more) parties negotiate the terms.[i] The covenants of Scotland etc... were man-born, generated by men, not God. Men took it upon themselves to attempt to sanctify their nations, something I would argue is impossible. God never told them to do that. Only God can initiate a covenant and set the terms. If He wants to enter into a covenant with a nation today, He certainly will let us know. These attempts by men also demonstrate a theologically weak non-redemptive non-Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament. By attempting to apply it to a non-Holy nation like Scotland or America is to deeply misunderstand what they were in the first place.
Returning to the more immediate topic, Biblical appeals to legitimize soldiering in the New Testament seem to fall short as well. Some would appeal to the Temple guard who approached John the Baptist and argue he didn't delegitimize their vocations. I would counter that he didn't necessarily endorse it either. In a similar vein Jesus acknowledged Caesar and exhorted his followers to pay tax, but that hardly means he endorsed the Roman Empire. But I would add in addition that these soldiers served Israel (they weren't Roman) and technically the Old Testament order was still in effect. John was the last prophet of the Old Testament (Luke 7.28). The New Covenant/Kingdom era weren't initiated until Jesus formally began his ministry and began to declare it. It was formally ratified with the tearing of the veil in the Temple and the elimination of the Holy of Holies, the Shekinah Presence as something only accessible via the Levitical system. The torn curtain signified a new order.
What about Jesus and the Centurion or Cornelius in the book of Acts? Nowhere is their soldiering sanctioned. I can point to many other verses that would create problems for the occupation of soldier. We're not told what they did after their conversions. Did they participate in crushing the Jews? It doesn't seem likely but the text doesn't tell us. Tradition says Cornelius became a bishop but that's not reliable.
Today people generally argue that soldiers are legitimate when they wear uniforms and are sent by a legitimate government.
Who decides which government is legitimate? Does one country have the right to declare another's legitimate or illegitimate?
What makes it legitimate? A Christian charter? I don't think so.
The consent of the governed, a social contract?
A group of extended families living together is a clan or in some cases with a slightly different emphasis...a tribe.
Anytime you have more than a few non-related families living together you have a society and in a society you must have some form of organization, some form of rules and regulations that everyone agrees on. And if the society is of any size at all you must have a government to enforce these rules.
What makes it work is that everyone agrees the delegated people (the government) are the ones who get to wield the violence legitimately. As a private citizen I don't have the right to enforce the law or exact justice...and neither do you. When a government has a challenge to its right to wield the legitimate monopoly on violence...you have Civil War. Vigilantism is often a precursor to this and signifies a breaking down of government authority. Private citizens executing judgment and violence is a form of anarchy or non-government. In order for there to be some kind of government the private citizen has to give up his rights to the supposedly neutral entity.
Instead of seeking justice through our own means, we have agents that enforce the law and judge its application. How? Coercive violence. Thankfully it doesn't always come to that but behind every law there is a threat. If you keep refusing to conform, keep refusing to pay the fines, at some point people in uniform with guns will show up and force you to do whatever it is they want you to do...leave a property, go to jail or whatever. What is a police officer? He's a person vested with authority (the uniform) to use violence. He is both a deterrent and a threat to all around him. Instinctively we all know that and perhaps that's why so many of us are uncomfortable around them.
As a society we grant them moral validity because of the social contract. If I show up at your door with a gun and compel you to do something I'm assaulting you or kidnapping you. They can do it because supposedly (at least we hope) they don't act as individuals but for the society as a whole.
The anti-Constantinian tradition finds this highly problematic for a Christian. In order to do the job he has to set aside his Christian morality. Society says it's okay because you're not an individual in this case but an office holder.
I don't find that sanctioned in the New Testament.
Well then who will do it? Babylon will always be with us until the coming of our Risen King...a Kingdom that rejects the sword. Let Babylonians do Babylon's work. We'll pray for the peace of Babylon (a stable society) but I'm not going to be a Babylonian hatchet-man or enforcer. The police, in fact the government itself serves a purpose in the realm of Common Grace. Actually these entities are blessings in a sense. They prevent chaos and absolute rampant sin. Not all of it by any means. It can only deal with a limited number of externals. But hopefully we can walk down the street and feel safe and not be ripped off and robbed every time we take a step.
Depending on how you look at it, we have that stability...or some may argue (and I'm quite sympathetic to it) that we don't really have that. The government has failed to create a reasonably stable and safe society and we are indeed robbed at every turn and most transactions involve some kind of deception or means of extracting extra money from you.
Ultimately we're reasonably safe and we can be thankful for that. Many parts of the world and even many parts of the United States cannot say that.
Thus far we've only considered domestic issues. In terms of geo-politics Constantinians have dreamt up doctrines like the theory of Just War. Again, it's not something that can even be remotely sanctioned by either of the Biblical Testaments. The Just War criteria were not applicable to Israel. Their wars were divinely commanded and sanctioned, which no nation can claim today.
So why is some war considered legitimate? Why are American soldiers good and guerilla fighters in El Salvador, Iraq or Vietnam bad?
What's the criterion? Social consensus? If that's the case then another country couldn't possibly claim any right to make that decision. It would have to be internal.
If one country can morally judge the legitimacy of another then why can't another country declare American soldiers to be illegitimate? What is a poll shows 51% of the public is opposed to a specific war?
If it's because they're legitimized by the present regime in Washington then how can Washington morally claim the soldiers of Iraq as being illegitimate? When they or soldiers of another country kill they can quickly be condemned as murderous and evil...but American soldiers are always moral, heroes even....even when they are engaged in morally dubious actions...actions considered to be quite evil by those on the other end who are often in their own country fighting what they reckon to be an invasion force.
This argument for legitimacy breaks down on other fronts as well. Very few Christians will want to argue that Democracy is the ultimate standard for morality. Just because 51% of the people vote for something doesn't make it right. They can and often are quite wrong. There has to be another standard. Laws and their implementation even if democratically supported can still be wrong. And that's true even if 99% of the population supports it.
And yet why then when we turn to questions of military moral legitimacy do we fall back on the social consensus argument?
"We don't," some would reply. Then where's the legitimacy? The uniform? If not, then how can you argue that others who in their own country (and may even represent far more than 51%) take up arms and without a uniform fight the United States?
Is it a question of tactics? The terrorists fight in an unfair manner. Well how is it then that pilots like John McCain are innocent while bombing and killing non-combatants, civilians...women and children? Is that fair to use that kind of weaponry against a people who can't defend themselves?
Or the pilots who tried to take out Saddam Hussein just prior to the invasion...they killed and injured people and failed to get their target. In fact the intelligence that he was even there was pretty weak. Are they even remorseful? Not when I've seen them interviewed.
Why are they legitimate and yet men who strike at American civilians using guerilla tactics are not?
There has to be a declared war some would argue. As a Christian does that now make it legitimate for me? Were the Vietnamese who overwhelmingly rejected the rule of Diem now illegitimate because they refused to submit to his government?
Shouldn't Iraqis have supported their legitimate government and fought back against American invaders? When they set aside their uniforms and took to guerilla tactics...why is that illegitimate? Isn't that just a tactic?
Americans accuse these forces of cowardice because they won't come out and fight in the open. Why would they do that? Don't they want to win at all costs? Hiding behind concepts like honour is just laughable if it wasn't so morally repugnant. Do drone pilots, bombers or Special Forces fight in the open?
John McCain has honour because his bombs dropped from an A-4 which ripped children's limbs off and incinerated mothers and grandfathers...he has honour, while the men striking the USS Cole in 2000 did not? Or perhaps neither have any concept of honour?
I can't follow the logic or the moral argument. Would it have been legitimate if the Al-Qaeda operatives flew jets and wore uniforms? Is that the criteria?
They're not a functional state.
Were the Contras? Were the 'rebels' in 1956 Budapest? Were the Mujahedeen in the 1980's? Were the Sons of Liberty and the American rebels under Washington?
Even those who try to hide behind theological sleight of hand and fictions like the Lesser Magistrate doctrine cannot possible cover all the options...options which many American citizens, policymakers and historians have considered moral.
It seems to me that in the end the ethic guiding most American Christians is...might makes right.
[i] Usually these terms are discussed in terms of the doctrine of Justification. That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm referring to the nature of entering into Covenant with God.