Do Pacifist Christians “Love the Sinner, but Hate the Sin”?

Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.
Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.

Today is Veterans Day in the United States.  We remember and celebrate women and men who have served in our armed forces, whether in peacetime or war.  I wonder if a pacifist Christian can celebrate today?

Let me explain.  I recently preached a sermon questioning the commonly used phrase, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”  For a number of reasons, many of which are spelled out by my friend and fellow Methoblogger Ben Gosden here, I do not think this is a phrase Christians should be quick to use.  Other good explorations of this phrase, which comes perhaps from Augustine but likely Gandhi (but certainly not Scripture), include reflections from Ken Collins and Micah Murray.  I especially agree with Murray that Christians tend to only use this in talking about sexuality.  For whatever reason, it is largely progressive Christians who have had an issue with this phrase (and in this case I happen to agree with them).  But in some recent reading a question was raised for me: do pacifist Christians display this exact attitude when dealing with the military?  Pacifists, in my experience, will go to great pains to proclaim their love for military personnel, though they disagree with the soldier’s vocation.  They “love the soldier” but “hate the war.”

Andrew Todd, at the conclusion of an excellent volume he edited exploring military chaplaincy, argues that churches who send chaplains should be sure that they can support the (limited) use of force in certain situations.  His rationale is that

“…if chaplains need to be committed to the military mission, as a corollary of their Christian mission, then the same must be true of the churches. That means that in the interests of supporting the moral role of chaplains discussed here, the ‘sending churches’ must also be supportive of the use of lethal force by an appropriately authorized military in support of peace and justice and must believe that serving the military can be a Christian vocation. Otherwise the chaplain is at risk of discovering that in seeking to live out the gospel within the military community they have become isolated from their faith community.” (168)

In other words, for chaplains to exercise their role effectively and legitimately, the ‘sending’ churches need to approve of their vocation, and that of the Christian soldiers under their care.  The chaplain cannot adequately show Christ’s love to the soldier if the church that has endorsed that ministry believes both the soldier and the chaplain to possess fundamentally flawed notions of discipleship.

As analysis of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” has shown, in practice it is very difficult to separate a person from their actions.  I would argue that the soldier’s vocation is about who they are, about identity, rather then simply actions which they are trained to do on the battlefield.  It is not merely another job that can easily be separated from one’s personality; in part, this is because the military is perhaps the most effective contemporary institution when it comes to formation.  Just try and tell someone who is or who has been a soldier, airman, sailor, or Marine that that identity is not especially important to them.  Thus, to condemn the actions of military personnel while claiming to still love and respect them as persons is to divide their identity from their vocation in way that simply does not make sense.

So, can pacifist Christians legitimately claim to love soldiers and veterans while simultaneously declaring their vocation illegitimate in the eyes of God?  And if so, is this not just another form of “love the sinner, hate the sin”?

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5 thoughts on “Do Pacifist Christians “Love the Sinner, but Hate the Sin”?”

  1. Very similar question to what is often argued regarding loving the homosexual person but still naming homosexual sex as sinful. They insist it is their identity, not just their actions. However, Jesus did seem to carry it off with the adulteress woman. So can’t we do the same? (BTW, I am not a pacifist. I see the necessity of, in this fallen world, sometimes having to choose the lesser of the evils.)

  2. So, you’re saying that someone who is born gay is the same as someone who chose to be a soldier? Or are you saying gays chose to be gay? Or are you saying soldiers didn’t have a choice in becoming soldiers? This is a false dichotomy. There is no valid comparison in your argument. Institutions did not train people in being gay, but an institution does train people to be soldiers, and we can always critique the actions of institutions.

  3. I’m a pacifist Christian (though I dislike the term “pacifist”), and I don’t celebrate Veteran’s Day—unless by “celebrate” you mean “pause to remember those who have died in conflict.” I believe all loss of life is to be mourned. To the extent that Veteran’s Day offers an opportunity for this (I think the Remembrance Day observances in the UK are a good model), then I’m all for it.

    That being said, I don’t think your application of “love the sinner, hate the sin” works for a couple of reasons. The chief problem with “love the sinner, hate the sin” in the sexuality debate is that those using this phrase often have no interest in genuinely loving the “sinner”… and on top of that, this label is unfairly reductionist. (We are all sinners, but we are all much more than that, too.) I don’t think most pacifists have the same issue with authentically loving soldiers or labeling them “sinners” on the basis of their military service.

    More to the point, how far are you willing to push the application? Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of reasoning—that we cannot authentically love soldiers if we disagree with their choice of vocation—means we cannot authentically love ANYONE unless we agree with them on everything.

    The analogy further breaks down because sexuality is wrapped up in a person’s identity more so than being a soldier is. That’s not to say a soldier’s vocation isn’t part of their identity. It is, and that’s fine. But it’s a part of their identity they CHOSE—as opposed to sexual orientation, which is not something we choose.

    One last reason I don’t think the comparison works: I’m humble enough to admit the church is not of one opinion on warfare and the Christian’s participation in it. While the church was fairly consistent in its opposition to violence until the era of Constantine (Preston Sprinkle has done a good job demonstrating this, IMO), the same cannot be said for any point in time since. So we accept that none of us have perfect insight or wisdom, that people on both sides of the pacifism/just war divide are operating in good faith, trying to serve God as best they can in their respective vocations, according to the dictates of their conscience.

    That’s why I would not refer to a Christian serving in the military as a “sinner” even though I personally cannot reconcile military service (at least when it involves taking another human life) with my understanding of Christianity. That’s why, as an Episcopalian, I join without hesitation in praying each week for those who serve in the armed forces.

  4. Drew, I don’t know how to contact you outside of this blog, but you mentioned wanting to add your voice to our Round Table discussions over at Conciliar Post. We would love to have you join us for our conversation on the incarnation. Could you let me know your e-mail address? Mine is: thenaturalmtdew[at]gmail[dot]com. Thanks!

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