The church and the military

February 3, 2008

church / politics / theology

I want to look at a scenario that is fairly common in the American church. A church has a member of the military return from duty, wherever that may be, and said member of the military gets a big recognition. Maybe he gets a standing ovation, or maybe she gets to come to the front of the church and say a few words, or maybe he gets to talk about the miracles of God that protect America in a foreign land.

Maybe, especially if it’s a holiday, the church will praise the soldier for his sacrifice. She has sacrificed for her country just like Jesus sacrificed for his people.

Setting aside political rhetoric and opinion from the right or the left, this last scenario, especially, is a biblical and theological heresy of the worst kind. Death in a war of any kind, by its very nature, goes against the heart of Jesus. Regardless of whether one believes it is possible to be called by Jesus to be a soldier and fight in a war, the fact that it involves killing one’s enemies instead of praying for them dictates that it cannot be compared to the sacrifice of Jesus, which of course is forgiving and praying for his enemies to the extent of dying for them.

Greg Boyd writes The Myth of a Christian Nation, which relates to many of these issues. In it, he explores the idea that the kingdom of the Cross is and must be entirely separate from the kingdom of the world. A New York Times article from 2006 gives some of this information:

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute "voters' guides" that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn't the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing all of these kind of requests, Dr. Boyd preached a series of sermons entitled, “The Cross and the Sword,” before the 2004 presidential election. In it, he stated that the church should stop seeking political power, stop moralizing sexuality, stop claiming the United States as a Christian nation, and stop glorifying American military campaigns. After the series, 1,000 of 5,000 members left the church.

When the church glorifies military personnel, it is giving a message. That message, whether it is spoken or not, is that the church should support whatever the soldier is doing, and thus whatever the military is doing. This message is given because, among other reasons, you will probably never see a garbageman recognized and prayed for in the front of a traditional church, or given the opportunity to talk about the miracles of God that happen in his job. You will probably never see a traditional church recognize the businesswoman who returns from a trip to China and give her the opportunity to talk about the miracles that occur in peaceful dealings with a culture that is not a democracy.

There are churches that, given the presence of military personnel, will pray for them in their situations and recognize them when they come home without giving this message. They can do this because they do recognize those of all the other professions. They pray for the random church member who is having medical issues at the same time they pray for the soldier who may be deployed to Iraq.

No one is given special treatment because everyone is given special treatment. They are prayed for, recognized, and loved because they are people, not because of their professions.