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”?