Clear Thinking About Military Service
In many ways, I am a child of the Second World War. As a young boy, I saw the terrible devastation of those years—ruined lives, diminished families, and large-scale upheaval of society. My family had evacuated to the country, and for the five years of the war we lived in the caretaker’s flat of an old school building. The classrooms had been turned into dormitories that housed more than 300 young German soldiers.
I remember one day toward the end of the war asking my mother, “Why are the German soldiers crying?” I could hear them sobbing in their rooms. My mother replied: “They are just young boys. They miss their home; they miss their mommies and daddies. They don’t understand why they have to be here in the cold of northern Norway. They don’t understand why they have to be a part of all this.” They were young men, deprived of the chance to grow up and experience a youth of a different kind.
Today, more than 60 years removed from that time, the world has undergone profound changes—political, economic, and technological. Yet the role of the military in the life of many nations, as well as in transnational disputes around the globe, continues to place firmly before us an important moral and spiritual question: How should a Christian—a Seventh-day Adventist Christian—relate to the military? And when faced with a choice to serve in the armed forces—either as a combatant or in some other capacity—what principles should guide us?
We each feel strong kinship—a sense of solidarity—with our own people and our own country. Our citizenship in a nation commands a sense of loyalty, a sharing in both the struggles and the joys of the people among whom we live. There is no virtue in isolating ourselves from our communities. It is natural to feel civic pride, and it is healthy to participate in the life of the nation to which we belong. Yet how should this sense of solidarity express itself when it comes to the military of our country, when our paramount duty to God raises tensions that are not always easy to reconcile?
I believe any discussion of this topic must rest on two essential foundations.
First, the church is called to be an unambiguous voice of principle.
War, peace, and participation in military service are not morally neutral issues. Scripture is not silent on these things, and the church, as it interprets and expresses the principles of Scripture, must be a voice of moral authority and influence. This is not an “optional” responsibility—one that we can put aside should it become uncomfortable or go against majority feeling. If we are silent, we fail in our duty to God and to humanity.
Second, the church is God’s agent of grace.
carry arms you
you are prepared
to use them to take
This, also, is a fundamental responsibility. Every human being, no matter what their choices or conduct, is of infinite value to God. As the church expresses itself on this issue and offers counsel to both its own members and broader society, it must never allow itself to forget this one unchangeable fact: the God we serve is a healer and a Savior. Healing and saving are also the first business of the church. As individuals struggle with these questions—and perhaps make choices that, in hindsight, they wish they had not—the church must constantly reflect God’s infinite, healing love.
So, keeping these things in mind, I’d like to reflect on two questions regarding the church’s attitude toward military service, both historically and today. These questions—broad areas of concerns—have come to me time and again over recent years as I have visited with both laypeople and church leaders in many parts of the world.
1. A loss of clarity?
The historic position of our church regarding service in the armed forces was clearly expressed some 150 years ago—very early on in our history, against the background of the American Civil War. The consensus, expressed in articles and documents of the time, as well as an 1867 General Conference resolution, was unequivocal. “…[T]he bearing of arms, or engaging in war, is a direct violation of the teachings of our Savior and the spirit and letter of the law of God” (1867, Fifth Annual General Conference Session). This has, in broad terms, been our guiding principle: When you carry arms you imply that you are prepared to use them to take another’s life, and taking the life of one of God’s children, even that of our “enemy,” is inconsistent with what we hold to be sacred and right.
Through the years, this principle has shaped the conduct of Seventh-day Adventists both in times of peace and conflict. Many have chosen to engage in medical work within the armed forces. They participate as healers. They say to their nation: “I cannot operate as a taker of life; it would destroy me as an individual. But I can help people who are hurt by this conflict. I can function as a Christian if I can function as a healer.”
Today in some countries young people are subject to a draft—a period of compulsory military service. Fortunately, in most instances an alternate service is offered, one that does not require an individual to train with or use arms. This option could simply be spending a year and a half doing hard labor building roads or helping with some other civic project.
There are, however, some countries where the draft deprives you of the ability to conduct yourself as an Adventist believer. You cannot keep the Sabbath. You are given no option but to carry arms. In such circumstances, you have before you a very serious choice. Accepting the penalty of dissent—perhaps even imprisonment—may be the decision you make simply to be faithful to your fundamental convictions and your Lord.
Is there today any confusion about the church’s position? Have we done a good job of articulating these principles? Clearly, this question will not be answered in the same way in every part of the world church. Yet, in talking with church members in many different countries I have sensed, at times, a certain ambivalence toward our historic position—a sense, perhaps, that “that was then, and this is now.” And yet I know of no reason why this should be so.
2. A lack of moral guidance?
This leads me to my second question. Do we provide adequate guidance in our churches and schools for our young people as they face difficult choices regarding service in the military? Have we at times neglected our role as a moral compass on this issue? In the absence of guidance from their church, do some of our young people view joining the military as “just another career option,” rather than a complex moral decision with potentially far-reaching, maybe unforeseen, consequences for their own spiritual life?
It is not difficult to understand the forces that may lead someone to consider a military career. Their choice may be driven by a desire to serve their country, or the military may open up educational and professional opportunities that may seem unavailable anywhere else. Young people may see it as a short-term option, a much-needed stepping-stone to something else. They may view it as a “necessary evil”—a road to the future that, for lack of financial resources or other opportunities, they must take in order to fulfill their potential.
Yet in some instances, to voluntarily enlist in the armed forces is to sacrifice one’s choice not to bear arms, or to request provision for Sabbathkeeping. You freely choose to give up your rights in these things. And so I would ask: “Have you really thought about this? Have you considered the consequences to your relationship with Christ and to your own deepest convictions?”
Some may calculate the risk and say: “Although I technically don’t have a choice about whether or not I will carry arms, the chances are, nine out of ten, that I will not find myself in a combat situation where I will need to use them.”
But regardless of whe-ther you go into combat or not, you have made a decision about certain basic values and declared this publicly. You are accepting the possibility that you may have to go down that road, and this will inevitably do something to you as a person. It will change and shape
you. In proactively choosing to accept circumstances where you may be required to carry arms or forfeit your ability to keep the Sabbath, I suggest that you have placed the spiritual and moral foundations of your life in serious jeopardy.
So, when military recruiters come to our universities and colleges, or even our secondary schools, laying out before young students the opportunities that the armed forces present, is the church providing a clear, alternate message? Is there someone also asking: “Have you considered this? Have you thought about what this may do to you? Have you thought about the price you may pay in terms of the basic values you really treasure?” The Department of Chaplaincy Ministries at the General Conference is developing some specific initiatives to help provide much-needed advice and counsel within our schools and churches, and I welcome this.
I feel especially for those individuals who have taken the “calculated risk” and find themselves drawn into a combat situation, the very position they had hoped and prayed to avoid. They see no way out. What should their church say to them? “I told you so?” “Shame on you?” No! The church is a ministering, healing, saving community. This is the moment when a young person, regardless of poor choices or wrong turns, needs to feel the embrace of their church.
This is not a simple topic, nor is it “complete”; it is just one aspect of the broader issue of war, peace, and Christian responsibility. And the questions I have posed do not lend themselves to sound-bite answers or pat responses. They are questions that generate strong—sometimes visceral—feelings. They reach deep into our self-understanding and identity, as both citizens of our country and members of God’s family. Our responses are shaped in large part by our own experiences and culture, as well as our love for our country and our desire to share in its history and future.
Although these are difficult issues, they cannot be put aside simply for this reason. So let us consider these things together—in our homes, our churches, and our schools—and let us do so with open hearts and a spirit of humility.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.