Sunday, July 4, 2021

When You Go Out to War...

“Our subject teaches us how much we should deprecate the calamities of war, especially those of a civil war, the most awful of any, if it could be avoided. And oh, what an awful dark cloud, pregnant with all the horrors of civil war, hangs now over this whole continent of British America!” lamented the preacher.1 It was Sunday, the fourth of June, 1775. It had been a month and a half since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, and a siege was underway of Boston. But this was nowhere near there. This was Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And 21-year-old militia captain James Ross sat in church, together with his company of men. James' family had a lot to do with current events: his father George was one of Pennsylvania's eight delegates to the Continental Congress, while his cousin John had a clue yet how famous his wife Betsy's flag-stitching work would one day become.

But this Sunday morning, James and the men of his company had urgently asked a visiting preacher, 46-year-old John Carmichael, to come to Lancaster's Presbyterian church and give them a word in this trying time. The militia men had never imagined they'd be on the brink of war, and though they'd volunteered for this militia association, their consciences were troubled by their Mennonite and Amish neighbors who said that taking up arms would be little different from murder. Rev. Carmichael put his finger on the issue when he preached:

You are sensible, my hearers, that there are some Christian people in the world, and some of them in these parts, who... maintain it, as a sacred conscientious tenet not to be dispensed with, not to go to war or take up arms on any occasion whatsoever. … As far as these sober people make use of the Bible to found their principles on, they rely on such passages as these: Genesis 9:6, “He that sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed”; and Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill”; and in the New Testament, “But I say unto you, love your enemies...; if any smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also...; for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword,” Matthew 5:39,44, and 26:52 – hence conclude, though I think falsely, that all war is unlawful...

Confronting the fears and concerns of the militia men, Rev. Carmichael laid out an argument that the pacifists were wrong, that the Bible couldn't be condemning military service. He outlined instructions for just how these militia men could face off against the 'murderous' redcoats sent by Parliament. And he insisted to them:

We have truth and justice on our side! … Courage, then! Courage, my brave American soldiers! If God be for, who can be against you? … Go forth in the name of the Lord of Hosts, and may he protect you, bless you, and succeed your very laudable and grand undertaking in connection with all the militia of North-America; and may God grant that, out of these present tumults, disturbances, and commotions, a great and mighty empire may rise up in this western world for King Jesus...

So preached Rev. Carmichael, readying Capt. Ross' volunteers for the battlefield. Ten days after that sermon, the Continental Congress established the Continental Army; the next day, they appointed a commander-in-chief, a Virginian named Washington. A civil war in the British Empire, a revolutionary struggle by thirteen colonies, was underway. Rev. Carmichael, and countless preachers like him, assured troubled troops that, when the Lord thundered from Sinai, “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not murder,” the things they did on the battlefield need not be in view of that commandment.

But three stories from those years raise a question. The first scene is September 1779. Col. Durbin's men are marching through western New York, part of Sullivan's expedition against Native Americans allied to the Crown. Ignoring Durbin's orders to spare one old woman they find with a disabled child, two soldiers hang back. They lock the woman and boy inside a house, and then set the fire. The home burns with the civilians trapped inside, and by the time other members of the company realize what's happened and run back to try to rescue them, it's too late. What the arsonists did, burning those two to death – was it war, or was it murder?2

Then we go to North Carolina, February 1781. A young Continental soldier named Moses Hall tells the story. In the wake of a battle, he and his fellow Continental troops had taken some Loyalists prisoner. Suddenly, some soldier mentioned a story from the prior year when Continental soldiers trying to surrender were stabbed to death by their opponents. In vindictive fury, Moses' comrades repaid the atrocity on these six Loyalist prisoners of war: they drew broadswords and hacked the men to death. Witnessing it, Private Hall wrote, “Returning to my quarters and throwing myself upon my blanket, I contemplated the cruelties of war until overcome and unmanned by a distressing gloom.” But his experiences the next day, of seeing a boy dying of a bayonet wound, hardened Pvt. Hall's heart, until he said, “I desired nothing so much as the opportunity of participating in their destruction.” What he saw – was it war, or was it murder?3

Finally we come to Ohio, March 1782. There's eighteen months of war to go, and a unit of Patriot militia from Pennsylvania has gone rogue. They march west toward a neutral village established by Moravian missionaries for some of the Lenni Lenape natives who have received the gospel. Not a person in the village is a combatant in the war. But the militia march on the village. As their commander disavows responsibility, the men take a vote on what to do. Sixteen or so men vote to relocate the natives; the rest vote for execution. And so they strike down and scalp the men, women, and children who are singing hymns with their dying breath. Benjamin Franklin, hearing about it, denounces what happened there as “abominable murders.”4

Now, of course the story of the Revolution can be told by highlighting the just and virtuous conduct of the other enlisted soldiers or militia men. It would also be just as easy to recount atrocities, violations, and murders by the British. But however we tell it, we cannot avoid the truth that war can be an ugly thing, a playground for the devil who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Are our Mennonite neighbors right, or is there a way to pursue justice while taking up arms in the time of war? Is there a way to live as a disciple of Christ when the fight is on? Rev. Carmichael himself said that a war “must be a just war, conducted in a lawful, righteous manner, for the legality of the action will never justify the illegality of the manner of prosecution.” In saying that, he was following the continual witness of generations of Christians down through the ages who maintained that “even in the business of war, it's considered necessary to assess whether a particular war is just or unjust,”5 and that “good faith and justice need to be respected even in war.”6 It took a while for the Church as a whole to reach a certain position: the early Christians wrestled back and forth for centuries on how to handle members and prospective members who were part of Rome's military machine.7 But in time, the Church came to a consensus on how to evaluate wars so that they don't fall afoul of this commandment.8

The first question the Church asks about a war is whether it was declared by a legitimate authority. For instance – if I go around and tell my neighbors it's time to finally grab our pitchforks and torches and march against New Jersey, should anybody go? No! It can't be a just war. And how do we know that? Because I have not been authorized by God to lead troops into battle. God has not given me authority to declare a war. Who does have that power? Those Paul calls “the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), the “rulers” (Romans 13:3), those to whom God has entrusted “the sword” (Romans 13:4), who have special rights and responsibilities. Those who hold governmental power at a certain level have God-given authority to declare war under the right conditions. Rev. Carmichael thought there was legitimate authority for the Revolution in “the final determination of all America agreed to in the Continental Congress.” Whatever was true then, in the United States we know there's a military chain of command headed by the president as commander-in-chief, while declarations of war are constitutionally required to come from Congress. Outside of that, our people may not wage war. So the Church would warn us that no soldier should fight unless they're acting within a military chain-of-command that's empowered by a legitimate governing authority to whom God has entrusted the power to send troops to war.

The second question the Church asks about a war is whether it has a just cause – whether the cause is right. For instance, if Congress declares war on Japan because we want to annex Mount Fuji and make it American soil, no one should go: that's not a just war, there's no injustice done by the other country. Or if the president orders troops to attack another country because that country's head of state pushed our First Lady down some stairs, again, no one should go: an injustice was done, but it's not enough to start a war.

Paul reminds us that there has to be a real and serious injustice that's the specific reason to go to war, the cause for war. Governing authorities are only allowed to wield the sword of military force, he says, as “an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4), being “a terror to... bad conduct” in the world (Romans 13:3), bad conduct serious enough to justify a military response. Following St. Paul, one ancient Christian explained that “a just war is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor.”9 Rev. Carmichael insisted that the colonies met this standard, preaching about “the certainty we have for the justice and goodness of our cause.” Documents like the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (July 1775) and the Declaration of Independence (July 1776) were basically attempts to spell out publicly what the Continental Congress believed added up to a just cause for a war of revolution – what injustices warranted a potential military response from the colonials. Whether they were right or not, we leave for now to the debates of historians and ethicists.10 The usual examples of just causes would be repelling an unjust attack that's already underway, recovering people or territories that were unjustly taken, or restoring moral order to the world. But it's always about pursuing the common good, not just what's good for one side. And the Christian tradition insists that soldiers should not fight in a war whose cause they're can see is unjust – in that case, it's time for selective conscientious objection. But the same tradition understands it can be hard sometimes for us to make that call – the average citizen or soldier doesn't have all the facts – so while a soldier is responsible to use due diligence and think about it, the government gets some benefit of the doubt to at least try to make its case.

The third question the Church asks about a war is whether it was entered too hastily, or whether – as is right – war was a last resort. For instance, say another country takes hostages at our embassy; suppose that, without even picking up a phone to negotiate the hostages' release, we just send our planes and start dropping bombs. That would not be a just war. For all we know, we could have resolved the crisis without violence, with no loss of life! “If possible,” Paul reminds us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Rev. Carmichael believed the colonists had met that standard: “We have tried every lawful, peaceable means in our power, but all in vain.” (Again, whether he was right is a question for the historians.) But the Christian tradition insists that war is a last-resort measure, available only after all other workable options for dealing with the injustice have been exhausted. When the other party remains open to good-faith negotiations or third-party arbitration or diplomacy, it isn't time for war. That gives us all reason to push for peaceful measures first.

The fourth question the Church asks about war is whether there's a reasonable chance of success. For instance, if the country of Luxembourg declared war against the United States, well, its soldiers shouldn't go. No matter how we upset them, it wouldn't be a just war. Why? There's just no reasonable chance that Luxembourg can achieve its military goals against such a mismatched foe. To wage war like that would just be to throw human life away. Jesus asked, “What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace” (Luke 14:31-32). Rev. Carmichael thought the colonists could meet this standard, because “if God is on our side, we need not fear what man can do unto us. … God will never forsake his own side of the question.” But generally, that isn't how we're supposed to think about it unless God gave a specific verbal promise. The Christian tradition insists that if a war can't be won, it shouldn't be started, and if it was started and now can't be won, it should be stopped, whether by negotiation or by surrender, and its cause should be left in God's hands.

A fifth question the Church asks about war is whether there's a right intent – what's the motive, what's the intent, what's the spirit lurking behind it? For instance, say we lay out a declaration of war and have just cause for it, but the actual motive is to conquer territory or get our hands on a natural resource or get revenge for something in the past, or just because we hate the other country's ethnicity. That would not be just! Bad intentions, bad attitudes, bad motives – these render a war unjust, and we know that God's word is “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts [and] murder...” (Mark 7:21). Rev. Carmichael thought the colonists were acting with right intent, since at that stage they didn't seek independence, but only “desire to be as we were in the beginning of the present unhappy reign.”

The Christian tradition tells us that a soldier can't fight justly with bad motives or bad intentions. He can't fight justly if he's motivated by racial hate, or fueled by greed, or driven by revenge, or callous to the preciousness of human life. Like St. Augustine said, “The desire to do harm, cruelty in taking vengeance, a mind that's without peace and incapable of peace, fierceness in rebellion, the lust for domination, anything of that sort – these are the things that are rightly blamed in wars.”11 “War is waged to gain peace. Be a peacemaker, therefore, even in war, so that, by conquering them, you bring the benefit of peace even to those you defeat.”12 The Christian way of viewing war insists that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, that has to happen on the battlefield too, else we'd best get off the battlefield if we can't obey him there. Combat is as much an arena for discipleship as anywhere else. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink … Overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20). Love, mercy, and forgiveness must be how a Christian behaves in wartime.

So a soldier who fights justly is one who fights for the common good, including the good of the enemy. That means the soldier is never hoping to cause death, even when he has to use lethal force. The soldier is aiming, out of love, to render the enemy incapable of continuing in injustice. The soldier regrets any life lost on either side, and is ready to stop the fight when the enemy yields or repents. He's fighting out of a determination to press them to repent, because repentance is good for them, and he loves them enough to want the good of repentance for them. The soldier's intention is to redress or prevent injustice but also to bless the enemy by bringing about a just peace. The soldier is fighting for the day when he can sit at the same table with the people fighting now on the other side. He's fighting with compassion and with a readiness to forgive the evils of war. That is a soldier who's fighting justly, with right intent, with right motive.

The sixth question the Church asks about war is whether the soldiers are fighting discriminately. The examples mentioned earlier from the Revolution – the old woman and disabled boy burned to death, the prisoners-of-war chopped up, the neutral village executed – those are clearly murders, and it's because not everyone, everything, in war is a fair target, and not every weapon or tactic is lawful. Soldiers and civilian contractors on the other side have, while on duty, assumed responsibility and risk that their wives and children haven't. As Jesus warns, “Those who've taken the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). On the other hand, those who pose our soldiers no threat aren't fair game. That's why the Israelites, even in a brutal world, were warned to spare women, children, and livestock (Deuteronomy 20:14). This rules out things like bombing cities, exterminating villages, mistreating prisoners, and so on, because God expressly says, “Do not kill the innocent” (Exodus 23:7). And Rev. Carmichael was worried about this, saying that “as soldiers carry with them the instruments of death, they are too prone to conduct themselves towards the defenseless with pride and insolence.” Ever since the Middle Ages, the Church has worked out lists of people who shouldn't be harmed – like women, children, clergy, the disabled, and prisoners-of-war – and places that shouldn't be harmed, like religious sites, cultural sites, or the infrastructure that civilian life relies on. And even today, this living Christian tradition insists that soldiers have a responsibility to actively protect non-combatants from foreseeable harm.

And then the seventh question the Church asks about war is whether the force is proportionate, measured. For instance, suppose an army only needed to capture a base, but instead it bombed the base into oblivion. Or suppose their soldiers were equipped with frag grenades made of materials designed to be hard for doctors to detect and remove. Those aren't necessary – they add no military advantage, they just increase the harm. Moses tells us that the guilty should be punished “in proportion to the offense,” and the same rule applies in war: force is applied in proportion to what's necessary to address the injustice, but nothing more than necessary. That rules out overkill. On this one, Rev. Carmichael said that after the Revolution is won, “the Christian soldier should lay by the sword and disband the army.” The Christian tradition is clear that force has to be kept within bounds. Lasting harm, total destruction – those are off-limits to the disciple of Christ on the battlefield.

The Church knows, as it asks all these questions, that doing justice is a hard thing, a risky thing, a costly thing. Following Jesus tends to be that way. But doing justice, even in war, is part of what it means to follow him.

At this point, we might ask, why does all this matter? Why bother talking about it here, at this church? Isn't this question about the commandment irrelevant to us? No. First of all, while we have some members here who come out of 'peace church' backgrounds, we also have members who have seen service in one military branch or another. And whatever your background, you need the clarity that these church teachings provide. Second, some of us here have sons who came through military service, faced the serious moral quandaries it poses, and may have lingering pains and questions to work through. And third, some of us have grandchildren currently enlisted in the military, who may one day enter combat; and if they do, they need the church's help to shepherd them through the moral and spiritual demands of that service.

In recent years, military psychologists have finally discovered that post-traumatic stress disorder isn't the only kind of lasting non-physical injury soldiers can sustain. There's also something called 'moral injury.' One doctor defines moral injury as when people are “damaged in the cores of their personhood by life experiences that violently contradict deeply held, and deeply necessary, beliefs about themselves and the world.”13 In recent years, one officer has lamented the destructiveness of encouraging those suffering moral injury to stay silent,14 while a Marine captain has written about how the VA's mental health system is “confronted all the time with veterans who are struggling, searching, digging, aching to know whether their personal actions and their wars were just or unjust,” and the VA clinicians aren't generally equipped for that.15

And here we find the church's calling.16 The church is called to train her children in the character, attitudes, and virtues needed if the summons to military service should one day come – and in the assurance needed to know when and how to say yes, and the courage needed to know when and how to say no. The church is called to guide and counsel her children when they enlist, listening patiently and lovingly to their hopes and worries, challenging them with the commandment of God, and praying for them earnestly. The church is called to take advantage of her freedom to speak a voice of conscience to the state, reminding the public authorities that she speaks in the name of the One without whose blessing they have no authority to wage war or govern at all. The church is called to welcome back soldiers by reintegrating them into a life of peace and pointing them toward reconciliation with God and man. That's why, in the Middle Ages, soldiers returning home from battle were set aside by the church to undergo a forty-day season of confession, fasting, prayer, and penance as they processed together, under church guidance, all the things they'd seen and done, whether the war had been just or unjust; and then, at the end, they'd be reconciled with the peace of the community and welcomed back in.17

The church is called to invite veterans to bring any scars and wounds of war into the open, to share their stories, and the church helps them sort through the burning questions that may linger – or, sometimes, should linger. The church is called to confront veterans, soldiers, and civilians alike with the word of God, to convict all of sin, to call all to repentance, to hear confessions of rights and wrongs, to prescribe medicine for the healing of the soul, and to lead all to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ who offers a grace greater than all our sins and a peace deeper than all our wars.

And the church is called to remind us all that, far more than the military engagements of worldly forces (whether just or unjust), all of us have been enlisted as Christian soldiers in the army of the Lamb who himself “judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11); and that we are equipped with “the weapons of our warfare” that “have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4), first and foremost the strongholds within ourselves – all that stands between us and doing justice, us and mercy, us and forgiveness, us and love of every neighbor, including those who treat us as enemies. Let us so use whatever freedom we have. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another,” whatever army or country that 'one another' might be in. I close today by offering that preacher of the 1770s, Rev. John Carmichael, the final word:

Let all then be exhorted by a sincere, unfeigned repentance, for past sins and reformation of life and manners, to fly to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith as a hiding place from the storm and a covert from the tempest. Be much in prayer to God to overrule these unhappy disturbances for his own glory and the best weal of Zion. … It is our duty to be both frequent and very fervent in prayer to God for the spiritual kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, which consists so much in peace and love, to come with divine power and energy to check and stop these evils that now rage in the world... Glory shall be given to his holy name, now and forevermore. Amen.

1  John Carmichael, A Self-Defensive War Lawful, Proved in a Sermon, Preached at Lancaster, Before Captain Ross's Company of Militia, in the Presbyterian Church on Sabbath Morning, June 4th, 1775 (Francis Bailey, 1775).

2  Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn, diary entry for 22 September 1779, in Frederick Cook, ed., Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779... (Knapp, Peck, & Thomson, 1887), 77; Lt. William Barton, diary entry for 26 September 1779, in ibid., 13; Gen. John Sullivan, letter to John Jay, 30 September 1779, in Otis G. Hammond, ed., Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army (New Hampshire Historical Society, 1939), 3:133; Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), 644

3  Moses Hall, in John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 202-203; Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth (Crown, 2017), 320-321

4  David Zeisberger, diary entries for 14 March 1782 and 23 March 1782, in Eugene F. Bliss, ed., Diary of David Zeisberger, A Moravian Missionary Among the Indians of Ohio (Robert Clarke & Co., 1885), 1:73, 78-82; William Irvine, letter to his wife, 12 April 1782, in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 1781-1783 (David Atwood, 1882), 343-345; “Philadelphia, April 16,” The Pennsylvania Packet; or, The General Advertiser 11/872 (16 April 1782): 3; William Irvine, letter to George Washington, 20 April 1782, in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 1781-1782 (David Atwood, 1882), 99-102; Benjamin Franklin, letter to James Hutton, 7 July 1782, in Ellen R. Cohn, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (Yale University Press, 2003), 37:586; John Heckewelder, A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren Among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians, from Its Commencement, in the Year 1740 to the Close of the Year 1808... (M'Carty & Davis, 1820), 311-324; Joseph Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783, Inclusive, Together with a Review of the State of Society and Manners from the First Settlers of the Western Country (Office of the Gazette, 1824), 249-254; A True History of the Massacre of Ninety-Six Christian Indians at Gnadenhuetten, Ohio, March 8th, 1782 (Gnadenhuetten Monument Society, 1843); Eric Sterner, Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782 (Westholme Publishing, 2020)

5  Ambrose of Milan, On Duties 1.176

6  Ambrose of Milan, On Duties 1.140

7  See, e.g., John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Brill, 2010), 78

8  Among much literature on the subject, one might see Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather Than the State (Brazos Press, 2009), and Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford University Press, 2014).  These discussions and otbers will be drawn on throughout this sermon's discussion.

9  Augustine of Hippo, On the City of God 19.7

10  For discussions on whether the American Revolution was a just war by this and other criteria, anybody interested might read George Marsden, The American Revolution,” in Ronald A. Wells, ed., The Wars of America: Christian Views (Mercer University Press, 1991), 13-31; Glenn A. Moots and Philip Hamilton, eds., Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American War of Independence (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018); and John D. Roche, “'Fear, Honor, and Interest': The Unjust Motivations and Outcomes of the American Revolutionary War,” in Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles, eds., America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 50-73.

11  Augustine of Hippo, Against Faustus the Manichean 22.74

12  Augustine of Hippo, Letter 189.6

13  Dr. William P. Nash, “Introduction,” in Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds, God Is Not Here: A Soldier's Struggle with Torture, Trauma, and the Moral Injuries of War (Pegasus Books, 2015), 14

14  Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds, “God Is Not Here,” in Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryor, eds., War and Moral Injury: A Reader (Cascade Books, 2018), 49

15  Tyler E.  Boudreau, “The Morally Injured,” in Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryor, eds., War and Moral Injury: A Reader (Cascade Books, 2018), 54

16  Warren Kinghorn, “Combat Trauma and Moral Fragmentation: A Theological Account of Moral Injury,” Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics 33/2 (Fall/Winter 2012): 57-74

17  See, e.g., Theodore of Tarsus, Penitential 4.6 and 7.2; Bede, Penitential 2.6, both in John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, eds., Medieval Handbooks of Penance (Columbia University Press, 1990 [1938]), 187, 190, 225; and, for further discussion, Warren Kinghorn, “Combat Trauma and Moral Fragmentation,” 68-69

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