The Business of Killing
“Get in step, soldier!” I heard the cadre member call out.
“I’ve never been called that before,” I thought to myself. I was scared, nervous, and anxious. I was taking the traditional first steps of a basic cadet entering the United States Air Force Academy—marching with others in formation up the “Bring Me Men” ramp to the place I would call home for the next four years. It felt awkward at first—the yelling, the marching, the uniforms. Though I didn’t think much about it then, those were the first steps I took towards entering the profession of arms. As a member of the United States military, my vocation would be filled with duties ultimately related to the killing others.
Five years later I am now a commissioned officer, a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Since those initial steps onto the Academy’s terrazzo area, I have often reflected on the nature of the profession I have entered. In simple reality, the ultimate goals of a military officer are to meet strategic national objectives, which almost inevitably means taking life in the process. What’s it like to know that the job I go to every day is responsible for killing people? What goes through the Christian soldier’s mind as he takes life under the orders of his nation’s military? After all, doesn’t the Bible contain the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill?”
As the global war on terrorism rages, we constantly face the realities war brings. Each day we receive news of another loss of life, another battle, another conflict. Is war justified? Is taking life in war breaking the Fifth Commandment? These are good questions for Christians to ask, and good questions for Christians to be able to answer.
First, it is good to make a distinction between the word “kill” and the word “murder.” The Bible does not explicitly forbid all kinds of killing; the word used in the Fifth Commandment is the Hebrew word for “murder.” We can all understand the distinction between killing in war and murdering a person. What is forbidden in Moses’ law is murdering.
It is important for all Christians to realize that God uses armies of nations on earth to carry out His own objectives among us. The soldier’s job is a vocation God uses just like the farmer or the plumber. He works through the farmer to feed us, through the plumber to fix sinks. God uses the soldier to provide safety and wage war. We read in Romans, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is not authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (13:1). “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong…for he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer” (13:3a,4). Notice that all in authority are there because of God’s providence. The leaders of our nation and the leaders of our armed forces have a divine appointment from God. They are his agents to protect us and to “bear the sword,” punishing evildoers.
People have posed the question over the years about whether a Christian can be a soldier. Is the military a valid profession for the Christian man or woman? Some pacifist groups and faith traditions believe all war is wrong. Some argue that waging war and killing is incompatible with Christianity, and that no solider could really have saving faith. It was enough of an issue in Luther’s day that he wrote an entire treatise on the subject, Whether Soldiers Too May Be Saved. Luther’s answer and our answer is “Yes.” Reference a conversation Jesus has with a Roman centurion in the gospel of Luke: Jesus encounters a humble centurion and, after hearing what he has to say, tells a crowd, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (7:9).
Make no mistake about it. Uniformed men and women serving in our military today are in the business of killing people. And yes, many of these men and women, like me, are Christians. We carry out our vocation in confidence, knowing we work for God and under His authority. In the spiritual kingdom, we are Christians saved by grace, called to love our neighbors, and save the lost. In the earthly kingdom, we are soldiers armed and ready, called to protect the innocent and provide justice by bringing God’s wrath upon those who do evil. It is a unique and honorable calling, serving as God’s agents on earth, a member of the armed forces.