The Devil’s Tools

Next Monday is Memorial Day, and I must admit that I feel torn every time one of these
patriotic, military-based holidays comes along. As a pastor, I have a responsibility to
provide pastoral care to every member of the community, and to offer unconditional love
and acceptance to every person. And I realize that not everyone shares my views on
the whether it is permissible for Christians to use violence or participate in warfare.
I also know that many honorable people have, for reasons they find perfectly valid,
chosen to enter military service and have fought in our nation’s wars. I know that many
have died in those wars, leaving a gaping hole in their families and communities, and
that even more have returned maimed in body, mind, or both. I feel deeply for these
men and women and their families, and I think it’s scandalous that our government is
willing and eager to send them into harm’s way but cannot seem to care for them after
they are harmed. I also find it troubling that so many members of our “volunteer” military
come from low-income backgrounds, and that recruiters use promises of steady pay
and a college education to lure them into signing up. Many of them do so because they
see few other real options for their future.
Perhaps worst of all is the way not only the military but also politicians, media
personalities, celebrities, and even religious leaders pound an incessant drumbeat of
propaganda designed to glorify warfare and those who wage it, and to paint anyone
who dares question their narrative as traitors or worse. After the senseless slaughter of
World War I, the 50 million dead in World War II, the quagmire of Vietnam, and all our
military misadventures since, with their untold numbers of victims, it is irresponsible at
best to use religious or quasi-religious language and imagery to promote new wars.
When Christians do it, I would call it more than irresponsible. I would call it evil.
So when holidays such as Memorial Day roll around, I feel torn between, on one hand,
my feelings of compassion for the victims of war and my respect for the honorable
convictions of those who have chosen to serve in the military and, on the other hand,
the clear teachings of Jesus on the subject of violence. He went further than simply
declaring the futility of violent resistance; he declared it to be positively
counterproductive. He didn’t say, “It’s useless to take the sword”; he said, “Those who
take the sword will perish by the sword.” More than that, he says that succumbing to the
temptation to use violence puts one at the mercy, or even in the camp, of evil. As I
argue in my book, “Once one chooses violence, even for supposedly noble purposes,
one sets in motion an ever-escalating cycle of violence in which there can be no
winners except the forces of evil themselves” (Turner 2015, 128), and, “When you play
by the devil’s rules, using the devil’s tools, it doesn’t matter which side you think you are
on. The devil always wins” (Turner 2015, 132).
In the first four centuries of church history, back when the church still understood itself
to be a countercultural community, before it became part of the imperial Establishment,
Christians took Jesus’s words about putting away the sword quite literally. Listen to the
testimony of some Christian leaders from that period:
• “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” — Tertullian (160–220 CE)
• “The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron.” — Clement of
Alexandria (150–214 CE)
• “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of
peace, and they know not how to fight.” — Irenaeus (130–202 CE)
• “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the
sword.” — Tertullian
• “A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be
received [into the church] at all.” — Hippolytus (170–236 CE)
• “You cannot demand military service of Christians. . . . We do not go forth as
soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.” — Origen (185–254 CE)
• “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.” —
Marcellus the Centurion, upon leaving the army of Emperor Diocletian (298 CE)
• “I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his
country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the
heavenly Jerusalem.” — John Chrysostom (347–407 CE)
We’ve come a long way from then to now, haven’t we? No longer do we demand that
soldiers renounce their arms before joining the church; in fact, in some quarters, the
“warrior” is held up as the paradigmatic Christian. No longer do we refuse to obey the
emperor because of our allegiance to Christ; in fact, in some quarters, no daylight
appears between allegiance to Christ and allegiance to the American Empire. No longer
do we assert that Jesus has abolished the sword; in fact, in some quarters, the loudest
voices advocating for war and violent retribution on our enemies belong to Christians.
As we approach this Memorial Day weekend, I want to be respectful to those who have
chosen to take up the sword and to the families and friends of those who have died by
the sword as a result. But more than that, I want to be faithful to the one who forswore
violence even in his defense, who faced death with courage but without weapons, and
whose death (and life) offered a clear repudiation of the forces of domination and
violence. I want to be faithful to the nonviolent way of the reign of God. I do not want to
compromise with evil. I do not want to use the devil’s tools or play by the devil’s rules.
I do not want the devil to win.
Turner, Robert S. 2015. Our Father Who Aren’t in Heaven: Subversive Reflections on
the Lord’s Prayer. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.