John and the Military

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
(Luke 3:14)

In yesterday’s post I reflected a bit on how John the Baptist’s words to soldiers might relate to present-day law enforcement. Today I want to share a couple of thoughts about the soldier soldier aspect of it. What, if anything, do John’s instructions for Roman soldiers have to do with modern-day militaries and wars?

A few years ago, I found myself talking with a pastor about things like US foreign policy and military violence, and whether or in what ways Christians should or shouldn’t participate in a military machine that has done and continues to do a lot of bad things. The pastor brought up Luke 3:14.

It was my first exposure to what turns out to be a common argument, which goes something like this: when Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist―and we all know that the Roman army did all sorts of bad things―John did not tell them to quit their jobs. He just gave them instructions as to how they should operate within their current roles. Therefore, John did not (and likewise God does not) disapprove of war itself or of the military itself, and it is okay for Christians to participate―as long as they’re good and moral within their roles.

I wasn’t quite convinced by the argument, but I also wasn’t sure how to respond.

Fortunately, though, during my second quarter of seminary, I got to take a whole class called Biblical and Practical Peacemaking, taught by Ron Sanders. And now I know everything!

Just kidding. But the class was really great, and I did learn a lot. I was exposed to different perspectives on things like just war theory―a specific set of standards for determining whether entering a war is just, and for limiting the injustices done both during that war and after it ends―and pacifism―the view that participating in the violence of war is never necessary or justifiable.

One perspective I found really helpful is from a book called Just Peacemaking, edited by Glen Stassen (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008). In this book’s introduction, the authors argue that, while debates between just war theory and pacifism are not unimportant, there are actually a lot of peace-making practices that we can all agree on, even though we might still deeply disagree about the high-level question of whether or not war is ever right or moral.

Does the fact that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs in the army imply, as some believe, that John was not a pacifist? Maybe. Maybe not. We can debate about it, and there are all sorts of other Scripture passages and experiences and other pieces of evidence we could bring in to fuel that debate.

Stassen et al.’s Just Peacemaking book helped me understand that we do not have to resolve all of these disagreements―we do not have to all be on the same page about just war theory and pacifism―before we seek together to move toward practices of just peacemaking. 

We can debate these things as much as we want―and we can bring John the Baptist into it as much as we want, although I suspect that he would want no such thing―but at the end of the day, the likelihood that we will all convince one another and get on the same page at any time in the foreseeable future seems pretty small.

But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe we can move forward together, as Stassen suggests, by asking different kinds of questions together. Questions like: What practices have been historically shown to actually decrease the likelihood of war and the amount of violence in the world? What are the tangible ways in which we can “promote justice and cooperation in a world whose wars are immeasurably destructive” (p. 17)?

According to Stassen et al., “peace, like war, must be waged” (p. 21). There are proactive peace-making measures we can and must take―both for just war theorists, who, at their best, are committed to trying all other possible conflict resolutions before resorting to war, and for pacifists, who, at their best, are committed not only to refuse participation in war but also to actively pursue peace and justice.

John the Baptist didn’t operate within the categories of just war theory or pacifism. These things were developed later.

What John did want was for the Roman soldiers to know that, within the positions they did hold in the military, what they did and did not do mattered. There were things they could do that would increase the violence and awfulness of war, and there were things they could do that would decrease the violence and awfulness of war.

On an individual level, the soldiers could resist the temptation to capitalize on the power available to them through their position or their weapons to take advantage of others (similar to my reflections on law enforcement from yesterday’s post). 

And, on a broader, societal scale, perhaps the soldiers could consider whether the wars in which they were asked to participate may or may not involve extorting money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and/or involve not being satisfied with your wages. After all, it is not only individuals who extort and threaten and falsify, but armies and nation-states as well. It is not only individuals who are not always satisfied with their wages―or their current level of national wealth―but countries as well.
Nations sometimes wage war for the sake of self-protection or because they hope it will serve larger humanitarian causes in the end; other times, they wage war out of a thinly veiled desire to extort (or otherwise extract) money from other countries, often employing false accusations to justify their aggression and violence, drumming up public support on false premises.

It is no secret that the US has been involved in plenty of these latter sorts of wars. I think of the Bush administration’s appeal to the public’s fears of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. I think of the recently released Afghanistan papers, which reveal some of the extent of the falsehoods told to the American public about a war that has proven mind-boggling-ly long and costly. 

I’m still not entirely sure what I would have said to the pastor who brought up Luke 3:14 as an argument that the Bible is not particularly pacifist. I might suggest, though, that we allow John’s words to prompt some deep soul-searching―soul-searching not just on the part of individual members of the armed forces but also for all of us who live in a military superpower nation that does not always use its powers for good. 
I might also suggest that we take some of the energy we tend to spend on arguments about just war theory and pacifism and re-direct it toward proactive practices that help build a more just and peaceful world―a world with fewer threats, less extortion, fewer false accusations, and more contentment with our (personal and national) wages.

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