From what Slate and my Google Analytics tells me, most of you won’t actually read much past the first couple paragraphs of this post. So, before you assume you know what I’m going to say and start blasting me in the comments, let me start by first laying down some disclaimers. I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now, and I am hopeful for the meaningful dialogue that might come from it. But, I’ve been hesitant to raise this topic for a couple reasons.1
First of all, I know that there is a lot tied up in this. If you are someone who has served as a police officer or soldier, you no doubt have a lot of pride in the work that you’ve done. You’ve worked hard, and it’s a dangerous occupation. Moreover, whether we like to admit it or not, the value of serving in these roles is usually attached to the fact that people make a living doing these things. We all like to believe that our efforts are noble and good, especially when it is the source of our income. And attached to income are things like family, homes, social status, necessary and leisure purchases, and so on and so forth. There are few things that we Americans guard as carefully as our wars and our wallets, and the two are often connected. Because of all of this, it takes a great deal of maturity and understanding to be able to have this conversation without getting emotionally charged. I get that. So, if you can, as you read through this post try to detach your heartstrings from the income that armed services provides. Those things will certainly come into play in your own personal life decisions; however, I think that such things should be secondary to biblical principles.
Also, I want to take a second to be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying in this post that all soldiers and police officers are nothing more than licensed and blood-thirsty thugs. I have many, many friends who serve (and have served) in these roles, and they are usually some of the nicest people you could ever meet. Admittedly, there are soldiers and cops that are too quick to pull the trigger, and unfortunately they tend to get the most press. But, the vast majority of folks in armed service are there because they genuinely want to help create and maintain peace. They don’t like the idea of killing people, and violence for them is almost always a last resort. So, please don’t think that I hate our police and soldiers, or that I think they want to harm people (even criminals).
Now, bearing all of this in mind, let’s take an honest look at the question posed in the title – Should Christians be soldiers or police officers?
Let’s just be honest on this point. There is nothing uniquely Christian about using violence to seek justice. Virtually every culture, every civilization, every religious persuasion, every social philosophy does this and has done this throughout history. As far as archaeology can determine, humans have been trying to settle our issues through armed conflict as far back as the Mesolithic era (roughly 13,000 years ago). Even uncontacted people groups, those that have had seemly no contact with other civilizations (much less Christianity), have been reported to use violent means of protecting themselves and their xenophobic people.
So, we could call the attempted use of violence for the sake of peace “noble” or “necessary” by worldly standards. But, let’s never say that it is the “Christian” thing to do. There’s simply nothing particularly Christian about it.
On the other hand, one thing that is uniquely Christian is loving one’s enemies. To my knowledge (feel free to fact-check me on this), no other major religion teaches its adherents to love their enemies. All of them teach their followers to treat others kindly, to show respect and care to family and friends, and many of them admonish believers not to repay violence with a disproportionate amount of violence in return. But, Jesus is unique in his teaching (and especially his degree of emphasis) on responding to enemies and attackers with active love. In what is likely his most extensive teaching on this subject, Christ taught:
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.2
It’s difficult to find a teaching among any great thinker that sounds more pacifistic than this. In fact, contrary to what many people falsely assume, Jesus’ pacifism is anything but passive. He doesn’t say, “stand there and do nothing” when someone attacks you. Instead, he tells his followers to actively “turn the other cheek.” He doesn’t merely say, “don’t do bad things to your enemies.” Rather, he says, “love your enemies, do good to them.”
The apostle Paul repeats this same teaching in his letter to the Christians in Rome, where he exhorts them to “never pay back evil for evil to anyone” and “never take your own revenge,” “but if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17-21). Paul actually juxtaposes this teaching for how Christians ought to live and engage our enemies against how worldly governments treat their enemies. Immediately after his call for believers to respond to evil with love, Paul writes:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.3
To be sure, Paul clearly believes that governments and the violent enforcement of their laws are in some way part of God’s way of keeping order in the world. And, if understood properly, I think he is correct – in a violent and sinful world, law enforcement agencies serve as a necessary evil. However, as good exegetes, we should be careful to notice the shift that Paul makes in his language from speaking to his audience directly in the second person (“you”) at the end of chapter 12 to speaking about governing authorities in the third person (“rulers,” “it”) at the beginning of chapter 13. Paul is not including believers in his estimation of how governments conduct themselves, except to say how governments affect believers. The two are not the same. In fact, they are positioned in contrast to one another.
Getting back to Jesus, one of the most challenging parts of his teaching on non-violence is his claim that upon loving your enemies “you will be children of the Most High” (Lk 6:35). Matthew renders this teaching even more clearly, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45, emphasis mine). Binary as it may sound, and contrary as it may seem to certain understandings of sola gratia, Jesus is clearly saying that our adoptive inclusion as God’s children is contingent upon our active love for our enemies.
All of this raises an interesting question – can you love someone while doing violence to them?
This is an important question because, if the answer is yes, then soldiers and police officers are not disobeying Jesus when they fire their weapon at a criminal or enemy. And it is my guess that most Christians, at least in the U.S., would answer in the affirmative. However, if the answer to this question is no, then it is
difficult impossible to avoid the conclusion that soldiers and police officers are being directly disobedient to Christ, even if only for a short time, when they shoot at an enemy.
It is my contention that you cannot love someone while you are doing violence to them. You can love them immediately before or directly afterward. But, at the moment that you are actively attempting to harm them, you are simply not loving them. To be fair, this notion of loving our enemies internally while treating them in an unloving way externally has a long history in the church, stemming (at least in part) from the writings of Augustine of Hippo, who interpreted Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek by saying, “what is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.”4
The problem I find with this understanding of loving our enemies is that it divorces our internal lives from our external lives. We have a sad tendency to do this in almost every area of our faith, and teaching this division of inward and outward faith perpetuates all sorts of issues, such as whether or not Christian generosity extends to our bank accounts, or the importance that people place on being involved in a local church. After all, if we can love enemies without acting lovingly toward them, then we can be a “Christian” in every way without it ever affecting how we live.
In fact, the New Testament has a lot of not-so-nice things to say about folks whose internal lives are separate from their external lives (Mt 7:21-23; 25:41-45; Jas 2:14-26; 1 Jn 2:9; 4:20; Titus 1:16).
Perhaps the most troubling passage that I cannot reconcile with Christians being police officers or soldiers is Matthew 26:52. As Jesus is being arrested, Peter uses a sword to maim the slave of the high priest. Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Now, of course, this is not a universal descriptive of how things are. There are many people who have used weapons, swords or otherwise, and did not die by them; likewise, there are many who have never used a weapon, and yet still find themselves on the destructive end of one.
There is, however, I think a universal principle that this passage teaches, and one that carries particular weight for Christians. You see, Jesus could have just said, “Put your sword away, for now is not the time for violence” (or something like that). Instead, he makes a sweeping statement about sword use in general.5
Now, the wording itself, and the surround narrative context, indicate that what Jesus is addressing is the use of violence as a means of protection. With this in mind, the statement could rightly be rendered, “those who take up the sword to save their lives shall lose their lives by the sword.” I have often heard people claim that the use of violence is perfectly justified so long as it is merely for protection and/or self-defense. But that is exactly the thing that Jesus is denouncing in this verse.
Moreover, the more popular rendering of Jesus’ statement here, “those who live by the sword die by the sword,” ought to still raise issues for Christian police and soldiers. After all, with the exception of assassins for hire, who else could be said to “live,” or make a living, by the sword? In the sense that one’s paycheck is directly tied to their sidearm, they would be the perfect example of someone who is living by the sword.
Now, let’s talk about an important rebuttal that is often made against all of this:
What you are suggesting just wouldn’t work. If all of the Christians in armed service followed your line of thinking and moved onto other types of work, then the only people left with guns would be criminals and non-Christians. Do you really want the enforcement of our country’s laws to lay solely in the hands of people that aren’t Christians?
To tell you the truth, what really makes me nervous is watching our nation’s rules being enforced by people who are Christians. More to the point, whatever disagreements we may have with atheists and non-Christians, the truth is that Christians aren’t the only ones with a moral compass. I would guess that the majority of human beings on this planet, regardless of their worldviews, have enough of a sense of right and wrong to be able to enforce worldly laws. Being an atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or anything else does not automatically make you unfit to carry a badge and gun. Conversely, being a Christian does not automatically make you fit to carry a badge and gun. In fact, as I have been arguing, quite the opposite – Christians ought to be unfit to carry a weapon precisely because of our commitment to Jesus and his teachings.
This objection, I think, betrays a deep-seated faith that many of us have, not in Jesus, but in our weapons. Be honest. When you imagine yourself in the old “what if someone broke into your house” situation, you probably aren’t thinking, “How would Jesus protect me?” Instead, you’re probably thinking, “What would I do to protect myself?” Not that these two questions are necessarily exclusive to one another. Christ could certainly work through you to protect you. But it does highlight our source of protection. Is it Jesus, his wisdom, his methods, his example? Or is it me, my flesh, my impulses, my resources, and my fight-or-flight response? And that is at the heart of this issue. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, the pacifistic teachings of Jesus and the apostles just don’t make enough immediate practical sense for us to want to follow them. It flies in the face of our worldly sense of wisdom, so we scramble to find any way to reinterpret or explain away such teachings.
I think we need to be upfront about that. “In Christ alone” our hope is not actually found. Maybe in Christ partially. But also in guns partially. In our violence, our hope is found. But, if we are going to place all of our trust and faith in Jesus, then that means abandoning the trust that we have elsewhere, especially the faith that we place in violence to save us from evil. Trusting Jesus doesn’t just mean having faith in what he did, but faith in what he taught us to do. I understand that’s not easy. It’s scary. And it doesn’t just happen over night. It takes time and intentional discipleship. But, if we are going to be obedient to our Lord, then that is the direction we should be moving.
Yes. Sorta. I am not saying that you have to in any sort of demanding sense. Just as I don’t think that Christians should be forced to participate in our government’s wars, or even its election process, I don’t think that a Christian should be forced to make a decision for non-violence. Coercion into pacifism is self-defeating. We are all on a spiritual journey, and we have to make choices appropriate to where we are at on that journey.
That being said, I think leaving a job that sometimes requires acts of violence is something that all Christians in those fields need to seriously consider. You wouldn’t encourage a Christian to continue working in an accounting job that only sometimes required them to embezzle money. You wouldn’t say that it is okay (much less praiseworthy) for a Christian to work in a filmmaking job that only rarely required them to film pornography. So, why then do we try so desperately to protect the idea of Christians working jobs that occasionally require them to do violence, even at times killing?
I understand that it’s a scary thing to consider. Quitting a job or changing careers is not a simple or easy thing, especially the older we get and the longer we invest ourselves in a certain occupation. This could mean placing our livelihoods in uncertain circumstances, along with everything attached to it (family, homes, etc.). I am not asking anyone to make this discussion lightly, or even right away. But I am saying, take some time to consider it. Frightening as it may be, our income should never trump our growth as disciples of Jesus. Sometimes a big step in taking up your cross is learning to put down your sword.
Thanks for reading, friends!
2: Luke 6:27-37; cf. Mt 5:38-46; 7:1-12
3: Romans 13:1-5
4: Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, book 22. 76.
5: Just to head off one objection on this point, this is not an argument from silence, since the thrust of my argument here is not merely what Jesus did not say, but rather the thing that he did say in contrast to what he otherwise could have said. Alright, back to our regularly scheduled program.