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Christians in the Military?

February 28, 2010
There's a lot of debate right now over whether or not we should openly permit gays to serve in the military; but hardly any Christians seem to be asking the much more important question--should Christians serve in the military?  The early Church Fathers, as a general rule, thought not.  Ah, we say, but that's because they were pacifists, and we know better than that now.  Well, no, not necessarily--for one thing, opposition to killing is not the primary reason they cite for their concern.  Rather it is, as we see in Tertullian's The Military Chaplet, a concern that enlisting in the military would require a kind of allegiance and loyalty that only God could properly command, that it essentially committed one either to idolatry, or to invite severe punishment by refusing to engage in the practices required of a soldier.  Ah, we say, but this does not apply now.  Rome was pagan, and so their military was deep in idolatry, but we're secular, and so none of our practices can be idolatrous.  
Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  
So-called "secular" phenomena can be every bit as religious as those associated with traditional religions.  After all, the main idolatry that the early Christians were concerned about, and martyred for refusing, was the emperor-idolatry--declaring absolute loyalty to the state and its rulers, and participating in rituals and symbols designed to enact their allegiance and reverence to the state.  How different really are things now?  Not very, if you listen to William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence.  He cites the historian and US diplomat Carlton Hayes, who identified "the American religion's saints (the founding fathers), its shrines (Independence Hall), its relics (The Liberty Bell), its holy Scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), its martyrs (Lincoln), its inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism), its Christmas (the Fourth of July), and its feast of Corpus Christi (Flag Day).  According to Hayes, the flag occupies the same central place in official ritual that the eucharistic host previously held: 'Nationalism's chief symbol of faith and central object of worship is the flag, and curious liturgical forms have been devised for 'saluting' the flag, for 'dipping' the flag, for 'lowering' the flag, and for 'hoisting' the flag.  Men bare their heads when the flag passes by; and in praise of the flag poets write odes and children sing hymns.  In America young people are ranged in serried rows and required to recite daily, with hierophantic voice and ritualistic gesture, the mystical formula: "I pledge allegiance to our flag and to the country for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."  Everywhere, in all solemn feasts and fasts of nationalism the flag is in evidence, and with it that other sacred thing, the national anthem.'"
It is truly bizarre that Protestants, with all their paranoia about any hint of Catholic Eucharistic devotion, have no objections about any of this except the omission of "under God" from the pledge, since they feel that we need to bolster the sacral dimensions of the pledge by affirming that God himself has commissioned this nation.  
But, I stray from the matter at hand.  What about Christians in the military?  Well, Tertullian has an interesting concern about the crown of laurel leaves that soldiers were to wear: "Is the laurel of the triumph made of leaves, or of corpses? Is it adorned with ribbons, or with tombs? Is it bedewed with ointments, or with the tears of wives and mothers? It may be of some Christians too; for Christ is also among the barbarians. Has not he who has carried a crown for this cause on his head, fought even against himself?"  
How dare Christians wear a symbol that commemorates the state's slaughter of its enemies? Tertullian asks.  This seems like overkill to us, but we need to ask ourselves--should Christian American soldiers object to bedecking themselves in apparel and symbols that honor the triumphs of US soldiers against its enemies in many unjust wars?
But here's Tertullian's biggest concern: "Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour?... Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ? And shall he ask a watchword from the emperor who has already received one from God?"
Is this kind of loyalty a thing of the past, or do modern militaries also go too far in the allegiance they demand?  It's certainly a question worth asking, as, when you look at the kinds of loyalty oaths that the various branches of the military demand, and how they describe the kind of allegiance they involve, it certainly borders on idolatry.  I won't name any names here, but it's certainly worth reading up on some of the material on the US military websites.


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