I had a discussion today with a Christian who finds contradiction between the Great Commission and Christian participation in the military and any branch of civil government that involves the opportunity to harm another human being physically. He did not say if indirect harm from terrible governance was something to be similarly loathed, but this is perhaps another topic.
The first Christian who was also in a military was a centurion. Of course, when a military is commanded to kill Christians, it would be far from a Christian calling to enter into its service, but this particular centurion lived before those days. After the persecution, Christians filled the ranks of the military once again, bringing with them Christian virtue. We find Christian restraint in the medieval era as Muslims invade territory after territory in endless pillaging. Only after many years did Christians deem it necessary to strike back in defense and reclamation of what was stolen from them. We call those strikes the crusades.
It seemed, to the greatest minds in Christian history, that combat and Christ were not opposed. Certainly, for a God who came to earth as a man in order to divide and ultimately conquer, combat cannot be inherently evil. For a God who demanded the utter destruction of ancient pagans, warfare could not be a sin. God does not change and He is perfect. If He deems warfare and combat appropriate in some contexts, they cannot be fundamentally wrong, or God would have demanded evil to be done in obedience.
This does not justify all combat, no more than that charity being a virtue justifies giving drink to a drunkard. Warfare and violence take on moral shape by their means and their end. This shape can be the dark and hellish pit of sin if killing is done for pleasure and the unjust pursuit of your neighbor’s property. However, it can take the virtuous shape of courage and manliness when you defend your neighbor against such an attack. Courage and bravery, in fact, are virtues that demand a battlefield. That the battlefield is distasteful to some is of no consequence; the battlefield will exist on Earth until the very last of days, and it is right that a man should enter into it when necessary; best that he enter it with no intent to overstay his welcome. He is a healthy and virtuous man, in fact, who seeks to leave the battlefield as early as possible, but who is wise enough to know that the limits of the battlefield are determined by where he decides to stand. To put it vividly, a man who refuses to fight in defense of the borders of his country behind ramparts will soon be defending against his will from his own bedroom window behind curtains.
The world wars have made the reality of warfare’s encroaching nature even more apparent. Should the nations of the world have decided to bow to the will of the Axis powers, millions more would have perished than died during the war. Hundreds of millions perhaps. It takes a virtuous man to risk his life and his conscience in killing an enemy soldier. An army of virtuous men can stop an army of evil men, but an army of cowards can only stand by as entire nations are slaughtered. This is not to say all pacifists are cowards, but certainly all cowards are pacifists the moment they are at risk of suffering. While to a pacifist there is paradox in spreading the Gospel while being willing to defend what is good and virtuous, to most healthy-minded men, there is no such paradox and the two are made for one another. For anything truly loved is truly worth defending. The real paradox is that pacifists only enjoy the peace that real men have fought for, for they can fight for no peace of their own. Those soldiers, real men to the core, are even more manly for letting the pacifists do so without whining about how unfair it all is – and unfair it certainly is.
While a pacifist may be virtuous, he is not virtuous in condemning the soldier for being a soldier. Each may serve a different purpose, but one is not superior to the other. The problem arises when the pacifist considers the soldier to be a moral degenerate, and thus becomes one himself.