Onward Christian Soldiers

Who was the first Gentile baptized by Peter? Cornelius.

What did he do? He was a soldier.

God loves soldiers, though Christians throughout the ages have sometimes been unsure. Can you really be a soldier and a true Christian? My own thinking on this issue has evolved a lot.

soldier-waving-to-civiliansMy father was a Jewish refugee to New Zealand. He served in the New Zealand Air Force during World War II – he once told me he would have been first in line to volunteer to help drop the A-bombs on Japan – but after the war refused to accept the medals to which he was entitled, as some kind of anti-war protest. (After he died, in 1994, I wrote to the New Zealand Defence Department to check if the medals were still available. They were, and I have them now in my desk drawer.)

He and my mother became leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in an intensely anti-war environment. Yet at the same time my uncle – my father’s younger brother, who as a boy had been smuggled by Jewish groups into pre-war Palestine – was a career officer in the Israeli army.

I guess that ambivalence about military matters stuck with me. So after I became a Christian, at the age of 44, if I’d been asked my views about armed service, I might have answered with something vague to the effect that of course we need an army, but that it’s better that Christians not serve in it. Because armies are for killing, and Christians shouldn’t kill.

Or I might have said that I classified soldiers with lawyers and real estate agents. When you need them you expect them to get down and dirty. Better they not be Christians.

But gradually I’ve come to change my views. (At least about soldiers. I’m still undecided about lawyers and real estate agents.)  I’ve come to recognize something important: we need more Christians serving in the military.

In a post that is no longer online, Reverend Major General Ian Durie – a British soldier who later became an Anglican priest – examined many stories of serving soldiers in Scripture, and concluded:

We clearly see from the New Testament that soldiering is an honorable profession, but one which has to be conducted in a right way….Our Lord and the apostles (our model church leaders) approved then, as they approve now, the profession of soldier….Soldiering is an honorable profession, to which men and women of faith are called.

But don’t soldiers kill? Yes, they do. As Major General Durie explains:

There is a tendency…not to trust that God has appointed us to be soldiers, nor that soldiering has our Lord’s approval, and is a high calling under God. And when we don’t trust Him for that, when we don’t offer this part of our lives in worship to God, when we take off Christ as we put our uniforms on, then we abandon Him when we have a gun in our hand, at the time that we need Him most. Do you see that? It’s a matter of life and death, and at that supreme test we need God’s guidance more than at any other time.

So don’t be blind….Because as a Christian, if you are not ready to kill if need be, and approve of it, then you should not be a soldier. For myself, I know that in the Gulf War I was responsible for the deaths probably of hundreds, maybe thousands of Iraqi soldiers. I did what I believed was right under God, but I also know that at the last day I am answerable before Him for my actions there.

I recall C.S. Lewis in his book “Mere Christianity”:

I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.

But do not the commandments tell us not to kill? Did not Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek? Yes, but justice and righteous are over-riding imperatives of God. Major General Durie again:

Where, we must ask the pacifist, is the righteousness in rape or robbery? Such things must be stopped, and we may ourselves use reasonable force to prevent them.…The same applies at a national level, internally against terrorists and rebels, and externally against other armies who threaten violent action against the state.

His conclusion: “It is always wrong to use force, unless it is more wrong not to.”

One thought on “Onward Christian Soldiers

  1. Emily

    Thank you for this. Ian Durie was my father. He was killed in a car accident 10 years ago just as he was about to start a PhD in how to apply the just war theory in an age of terrorism and the blurring of state boundaries in war. This morning as I listened to analysis on the radio of the current terrorist crisis going on in our world I was brought to a fresh grief that his wise, courageous and compassionate voice is no longer audible in a world that so desperately needs that wisdom.

    It was beautiful therefore in googling his name to stumble upon this article. Thank you for keeping a little of his voice audible. If you still have a digital copy of that paper I would love a copy of it? This morning I looked back at another paper he wrote (which I have an old draft of) where, amongst other things, he said “terrorism arises from weakness and hopelessness… grievance of oppression”. I think it was from a presentation he gave in the US in around 2003/4 – it was a brave counter to some of the western rhetoric of the time, reminding us that whilst pragmatic action may be needed, simply pointing the finger of blame at ‘the other’ takes us nowhere and oversimplifies a complex picture. My prayer is that there are equally wise voices willing to speak up with such a degree of wisdom, compassion and courage. We need them. He is deeply missed on so many levels.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>