The Myth of a Private Faith and Reflections on Just War Theory

ImageI can always judge when I’ve read (or am reading) an important book or article or whatever when I find myself consumed in reflecting on it well after I’ve put it down.  The vast majority of things I read just simply bleed into the next article or book or whatever with minimal personal impact.  The fact that I finished Lee Camp’s book, Who is My Enemy?, last weekend and it has haunted me throughout this week testifies to its impact on me.  This post continues to reflect upon and wrestle with some of Camp’s work.  

This morning, on my way to the office, I turned on the local Christian radio station – something I almost never do.  In the brief moment I had it on, I was informed that this particular station says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning – “so you can say the Pledge with your kids” is how the advertisement ran.  While the issue of whether or not a Christian should say the Pledge is a topic for another day, I simply use this anecdote to illustrate just how ingrained and intertwined patriotism has become with the Christian faith in the United States.  Soldiers regularly are praised for serving “God and Country,” but I wonder if we’ve come to a place where we really exist in a society that extols “Country . . . and god,”  but I don’t think I mean that in the way most people will understand.   

It is perhaps the greatest paradox of our age.  The liberal view of religion – that which states religion is a private, personal matter and should be kept out of politics – has at the same time, largely brought the United States and Western civilization to unparalleled heights of power and wealth and success while (nearly?) removing any public relevance of the Christian faith to matters of policy and politics.  Last year in our small group, we were going over some of our discussion questions (I don’t even remember the topic) when someone in our group remarked rather sharply, “I feel like this is getting a little political,” and then skipped the question and moved on.  Inherent in this episode is the belief that politics are not a matter to be discussed in church.  They are too controversial.   And so . . . we have, by and large, forfeited our right as the Kingdom of God, to have any important or relevant say in matters of politics.  Instead, we have allowed the partisan blowhards and professional politicians to determine the language we use and the manner by which our arguments are constructed.  Simply put, the arm of the state has set the rules and the church has been more than happy to play by those rules.  

Lee Camp points out this reality rather sharply in his discussion of Just War Theory (JWT).  Using a similar rationale to that of his mentor John Howard Yoder, Camp takes a theory that he himself does not espouse (for Camp, no war can ever be just – as with Yoder – see his When War is Unjust, 1984) but is nonetheless widely held, at least theologically, and takes a candid assessment of America’s involvement in war.  From the genocidal settling of the American Frontier, to the bloody intramural cultural battle of the Civil War, Camp relays gruesome stories reinforcing Sherman’s assessment that “War is hell.”  The question ringing throughout, of course, is whether or not it is a hell in which Christians are ever called to participate. 

Camp summarizes the criteria for JWT under three areas: just causes for war, just acts of war, and due process governing the war.  Falling under these three categories are the following more detailed criteria:

– War must be declared by a “legitimate authority”

– There must be a just cause

– Right intention (ie. restoring peace)

– Right motivation (ie. love for oppressed and for enemy)

– Last resort

– Enemy must always be allowed to enter negotiations to end conflict

– The war must be deemed “winnable”

– Proportionality – war cannot cause more damage than it seeks to prevent

– Respect for international treaties and laws

– Only one side can be considered to be fighting “justly”

– Immunity for innocent

– Weapons must discriminate (landmines are generally understood to be in violation here)

– “Necessary” methods

– Respect for human dignity

My intention here is not so much to engage in discussions about JWT or pacifism.  For the record, I tend to lean more towards the Camp/Yoder camp (pun intended) and struggle to reconcile violence with New Testament Christianity – but again, that is neither here nor there.  More important for the discussion here is this anecdote by Camp early in the book.  In his ten years or so teaching at Lipscomb University, he has encountered only one student who has ever heard a sermon preached or a class taught on the issue of JWT. One of my gravest concerns is that these discussions are mostly limited to academic circles. 

The importance of this may be lost on you if you fail to realize that JWT has long been the established “official” position by the church for hundreds of years!  And yet, ten years’ worth of students at a Christian University (and one that actually has a pacifist branch within its tradition) only one student has received any thoughtful reflection on that from his or her church!  The question is – where is teaching on matters of the Bible and war-making taking place? 

I assure you, from personal experience, our churches regularly graduate our students as soldiers of the State through the Armed Forces – and this reality forces us to ask the very challenging and difficult question: Have we given them any thought or training or reflection to what they are doing?  Have they prepared themselves to reconcile Christ’s teaching to love their enemy as they participate in the State’s war games preparing to kill the enemy? 

It is here where I believe the reality of a private religion is exposed as mythical and heretical.  We wince at the thought of having these discussions in our churches or Bible classes, but if they are not happening there – then where?  When?  And led by whom?  The vast majority of discussions I’ve taken part in sound more like an episode of Glenn Beck or Bill O’Rielley than they do uniquely theological or biblical.  Our church members are better informed on the Republican stance on Iran than any international Christian churches or organizations.  I’ll be particularly hard on youth ministry here.  A bird’s eye view of youth ministry sees the emphasis on sexuality, relationships, identity, and many other important factors in adolescence – vitally important for a person’s development to be sure, but also extremely limited to the impact of a “private, personal Savior.”  The hope is that they’ll be celibate until marriage, they’ll avoid pornography, they’ll have a positive body image, and self-respect.  As for their public impact, the hope is that they’ll grow into important leadership roles in society, to be sure . . . but how much attention is given to the impact of what particular roles they choose to serve in?  I recently met with a woman who turned 99 years old.  I have not met her son who lives nearby, and when I asked if he went to church anywhere, she just shook her head and said, “No . . . he went all the time until he joined the military – but that changes a person, you know?”  Well, I do . . . but I wonder how many young Christians who are sitting in a recruiters office realize that. 

Why don’t churches graduate more social workers than soldiers . . . business majors?  Now there’s a question for the next youth minister’s luncheon.   





3 thoughts on “The Myth of a Private Faith and Reflections on Just War Theory

  1. Around here, the military is usually one of three things 1) An adventure to go experience; 2) The back-up plan (college didn’t work out for me); or 3) The get-your-life straight plan (I have no direction in life & because of that I am getting into trouble a lot).

    With these perspectives in mind, namely the latter 2, it seems that we are not just talking about “immaturity” (thus, go to the military because there you will grow up & learn responsibility). From anecdotal experience, there is usually something else going on spiritually/emotionally in the young person’s life which they have not resolved. Deep pains they are walking around with, but which they may not be conscious of, or at least may not be able to articulate well. I would be curious to know for how many newly enlisted individuals this is the case. This is quite a sobering thought, because in my limited estimation, it would seem that most of the individuals I know who have enlisted have no business being trained to be part of a machine of violence. Again, I am speaking anecdotally more than anything. But if its true here, where else is this true?

    With the above thoughts specifically in mind, It would seem then that the military becomes an escape of sorts, a means of “salvation”, if you will. For we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and the military certainly offers this (it is the crux of their advertising). However, it is troubling that many churches seems to go along with and support the military as the go-to option for those who fall into the 3 categories mentioned above. Adam, you ended your post asking “why don’t churches graduate more . . .” To that list I would add missionaries. It’s odd that the mission field is not our go-to option here, that we don’t pull out all the stops to encourage interest in the grand adventure of spreading the kingdom through mission work. No, instead it is the military which is a suitable and honorable field to pursue, if not a way to “get your life straight & learn responsibility.” Ironically, it seems to me a shluffing off of responsibility by the church community to relegate to the military the task of shaping the worldviews of some of our young people (worldviews that are often quite destructive, which you alluded to in your post above). As the thought goes, it is the military who will take care of these young people and train them, nurture them into better human beings, and give them stability in life.

    Of course, I speak in quite generalized terms here. I realize the military has offered a rewarding and meaningful career for several. I would hope those people are better human beings from having served in the armed forces. But as with any other career, we have the immense responsibility as the church to train our young (and older) generations on what it means to live out the kingdom of God in the life situations which they find themselves, especially their careers. I fear we have not put primacy on the kingdom of God, especially in sending our young people off to careers in the military. May God grant our churches the opportunities to pause & reflect on this, in the care of the souls that are part of our communities of faith.

  2. Ray, thanks for better finishing my question – why not more missionaries? It pains my soul to hear our teenagers rationalize entering the military for the sake of excitement, seeing the world, etc. but never consider being an instrument for God through mission. It saddens me because it serves as a sign for the absence of spiritually-engaged conversations taking place at home. If someone would come to me readily accepting the military as the best role for his or her service to God, I would have greater pause in writing this post. Unfortunately, that has never been part of my conversation with young people. It’s very far down the list . . . if on the list at all. I don’t think we have to go on a “military-bashing party” in order to be pro-missionary and attempting to encourage a God-trajectory among our young people. How are you going to serve God in your life? That should be the guiding question . . . not what are you going to do with your life?

  3. The trouble with the intermingling of God and Country is that too often one side is prostituted to the other. God becomes the justification for warfare and conquest, or politics becomes tool of those seeking to impose a theocracy.
    Paul said our fight is not against flesh and blood, but we seem to fight against people more often than not, no doubt with our real enemy laughing his head off.

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