Steven writes an excellent blog. I follow Steven’s blog. See Steven’s blog.
I asked Steven a question.
I see you were in the Marines. I have a
question for you. How do you synthesize military service with your Christian
faith? I am not aware of anything in the teaching of Jesus that allows
Christian violence against enemies.
It’s a good question and one I
would have thought ridiculous when I joined and was active. My answer now is
that I don’t know and I live currently in a state of unresolved tension on the
issue of Christians and use of violence. As far as revenge goes, it is quite
obviously out of the question. I’m opposed to the death penalty, for example.
As far as military goes I’ve come to believe that our [American] wars are not
morally justifiable and therefore put Christians within the military in a
rather awkward position. Whether or not we could have a morally justified war
is unknown to me, and the best answer I can give for the time being is, “I’ll
let you know if I see one.” For the most part this generally wasn’t a question
that bothered me while I was in the Marines, but I was beginning to have early
misgivings on my second deployment about the morality of it all. I think this
was the beginning of what lead to where I am now. My early misgivings about the
war coincided with the re-igniting of my faith while I was in the Marines.
Complex stuff to say the least, how I was awakening to faith in the Jesus who
taught us to turn the other cheek and who set a powerful example of nonviolence
in his life, while I actively walked around a country where my presence was itself
a threat of violence and a symbol of domination. My attitude toward the Afghan
people, including toward our “enemies” with whom we exchanged gunfire and
violence, did noticeably change in a more Jesus-ward direction my second
deployment as my faith was gradually seeping into more aspects of my life and
thinking. I may not have been ready or able to articulate a critical view of
American militarism but neither was I eager to destroy my enemies in the name
of blind patriotism like I was the first deployment. In the past couple of
years I’ve developed a rather critical view of the use of violence in general
and military force in particular, but I’m not ready to sign on to the idea of
pacifism in a strict sense of the term. This arises more so out of honesty with
the fact that I know I would personally use violence in self-defense in extreme
circumstances, even though I may be tempted at times to think more
high-mindedly of myself.
Regarding the use of violence
generally, in my job in EMS we sometimes have to use what amounts to bodily
force in conjunction with chemical sedation in certain [rare] cases of patients
experiencing acute psychiatric crises who become violent despite our best
efforts to de-escalate the situation. Our bodily force really just amounts to
pinning somebody down only enough to prevent them from harming us and
themselves, and only just long enough until they calm down, such as when
chemical sedation sets in. This may not make for an exciting fight scene but it
nonetheless counts in my mind as physical force and therefore leaves me
wondering how in principle this is morally different from me using bodily force
to defend myself or someone else from attack, assuming my goal is preservation
of life and peace rather than vengeance against my momentary opponent.
Ultimately what keeps me from crossing over into pacifism is the conundrum of
wondering how I can say I love my neighbor if I refuse to stop someone about to
cut his throat, assuming I had the ability but refused because I believed it
would morally sully me if I inflicted some type of bodily injury on the
would-be murderer. Less hypothetically, in my job as a paramedic it would be
negligent of me to allow a psychiatric patient to go on a violent rampage where
he’s likely to hurt himself or somebody else, if I could have done something to
intervene and stop it. Part of his medical treatment initially will involve
restraining him and maybe forcibly injecting him with chemicals intended to
calm him down, but it’s restrained “violence” directed toward the good of the
patient, myself, and the public.
Mind you, I speak in terms of
using only the necessary amount of physical force to put an end to threatening
situations and not going beyond that into gratuitous use of violence or
starting out with overkill. I’m also speaking in terms of reaction and haven’t
mentioned the necessity of working toward a more just social order where
untreated mental illness and general criminality isn’t as widespread as it
currently is. Nonetheless, even in the most just society this side of the
eschaton, that “rare circumstance” will always exist where somebody will use
violence against somebody, and we must decide in a moment whether to let it
continue or step in an intervene at risk of harming the assailant.
To close this out, I’m in a position where I believe I actually do want to be an honest pacifist, but my concrete experience simply prevents this. I extrapolate the general principles derived from my EMS experience, wherein I believe that sometimes use of bodily force becomes the only morally right option for the treatment of certain mentally sick patients (though this is rare), and apply this conceptually when I seek to follow Jesus’s command to love my neighbor where concrete experience unfortunately puts us face to face with violence and hard choices. That said, even though I cannot at this moment adopt a position of strict pacifism I nonetheless believe following Jesus entails allowing more injustice to happen to ourselves, un-avenged, than we normally tolerate in daily life (ask my wife about me and the car horn/high beam headlights!). I won’t get into my sorry track record on turning the other cheek, but I will say that even if we admit the possibility of legitimate use of violence in rare circumstances, Jesus nonetheless calls us to be peacemakers and to forgive offenses against us that mainstream society simply can’t fathom. The ethos of the day is to assert our rights and make sure anybody who violates them, pays. Truly following Jesus means we must rise above this, and this is a struggle. Speaking individually, I tend to think I should focus more on attaining mastery over the small areas of “violence” and vengeful tendencies in my life before I torment myself too much with larger meta-principles pertaining to pacifism and war (see Luke 16:10). This may seem like a cop-out, an individualistic and over-spiritualized evasion of hard questions, but I believe moral clarity tends to be achieved in graduation as we submit our lives to God from the ground up. While issues about American militarism and destructive foreign policy, or domestic police brutality, or how we as Christians are to relate to the civil authorities are highly important, my thinking is that it would be contrary to the Gospel if I became preoccupied with those issues while neglecting the injustice I perpetuate in my own life in seemingly small ways. More pragmatically, the inconsistency would not go unnoticed and would only hurt any chance I had at promoting more peaceful ideals, if in person I turn out to be a vengeful man even as I wax eloquently about the need for nonviolence. But neither does my imperfection absolve me from the responsibility to think and seek the answer to these questions, and act. This is about as close to an answer as I can give you for now.
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