Is Your Life Work
by Laurence M. Vance: Thoughts
on the Killing of Osama bin Laden
I don’t know
who first said it, but the aphorism "Join the Army, travel
the world, meet interesting people, and kill them" has been
around as long as I can remember.
job of the soldier is to kill people and destroy property, not to
clean and paint equipment, refurbish aircraft, march in formation,
attend technical schools, play war games, take rank tests, go on
maneuvers, practice on the firing range, restore basic services,
rebuild infrastructure, spread goodwill, promote good governance,
or provide disaster relief.
At issue is
not the question as to whether the U.S. military should be defending
the country, but whether the U.S. military should be killing people
and destroying property overseas. This is the question now, in regard
to Iraq and Afghanistan, and it was also the question before, during,
and after World War I.
the "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) fad, Congregational
minister Charles Sheldon (1857-1946), in 1896, wrote In
His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Based on a series of sermons,
His Steps, which became one of the best-selling books of
all time, is the story of a minister who challenged his church members
to not do anything without first asking "What Would Jesus Do?"
Christians in America have probably heard of In His Steps,
few have probably heard of a similar book by Sheldon in 1931 called
Is Here. Like his first book, in He Is Here Sheldon
presents in story form the things that he thinks Jesus would say
and do if he were now here among us.
my eye about this latter book is Sheldon’s story of an admiral in
the U.S. Navy who was told by a mysterious visitor to stop grieving
about the loss of a few lives since his whole life had been devoted
to the trade of killing.
Is Here, here is chapter 3, "Killing Is Your Life Work":
had just returned from the great naval demonstration at Panama.
As he recalled his own part in the stately review, and saw again
the great war machines maneuvering in the battle formation – heard
the roar of the mighty guns of which he was so proud – listened
to the "zoom" of the air fleet as it circled over the
canal – his hear swelled. These were the nation’s defenses; and
the fact that he had played no small part in influencing Congress,
and the public, to provide those mighty instruments of naval power,
filled him with satisfaction.
in fact, very well pleased with himself. Life had been good to
him. He had been born of a wealthy and socially prominent family
– there was nothing of the commonplace about him. Promotion in
his chosen profession had come to him, not sensationally, but
in dignified order, from one rank to another – no vulgar scramble,
but a gentlemanly climb up the heights of seniority, until at
last he had arrived at his present rank. Now, with official commendation
still ringing in his ears, he could look forward with complacent
pride to honorable retirement, and easy years during which he
would live over again, in memory, the vents of his distinguished
announced a visitor. His Bishop – ah, yes, he would be glad to
see the Bishop. They were old friends, classmates in the University.
The Admiral was a staunch churchman, when his duties would permit.
And the Bishop was jolly, and good company. Together they talked
for a while – the small talk of friends who have known each other
since school days. Then the Bishop congratulated him upon the
way he had handled the fleet.
– really a marvelous demonstration of your skill as commander.
The Secretary of the Navy personally told me that your handling
of the flagship Oneonta was masterly."
is indeed gratifying," replied the Admiral, glowing with
pride at the compliment. Then a note of hesitation came into his
voice. "But – we cannot afford to fall behind the other powers.
We must have a larger air force, and more submarines – particularly
submarines; in those important department we lag behind more than
one of the other great powers. I have devoted a great deal of
thought to the matter of maintaining our forces at the proper
strength. And I will tell you, confidentially, that one of the
things in which I feel the greatest pride is the new combined
gas bomb and torpedo which our navy has developed from ideas and
plans suggested by me. It was tried out for the first time at
Panama. Its destructive power is greater, far greater, than any
bomb yet devised. I may claim that I invented it; and I consider
it one of the most important achievements of my – "
interrupted him, with that insistent note which portended news
of importance. The Admiral picked up the receiver – an excited
voice came to his ears.
– ? This is Ensign Howard – I have to report, sir, that the flagship
Oneonta – "
God!" exclaimed the Admiral, his face like ashes.
has been an explosion – " the Ensign sign’s shaking voice
gave the terrible details. "The ship? Badly damaged, we fear.
The men? There has been loss of life – Captain Blake says at least
fifty are dead or badly injured – " and then the Admiral
groaned, and his face was drawn and gray – "a man accidentally
dropped one of the new gas bombs – it fell among the others –
set them off – "
Admiral staggered to his chair, dropped his face into his hands.
ship – my men – my life work – "
is your life work – why are you not pleased with your success?"
head came up in sudden amazement. That was not the Bishop’s voice
– and that was not the Bishop, but a stranger in the chair his
friend had just been occupying. Something in the stranger’s manner
was so authoritative, so accusing, that for a moment it drove
even the terrible news from the Admiral’s mind. But the next words
the man uttered struck him with the force of a blow.
whole life has been devoted to the trade of killing. Why are you
do grieved at the loss of a few more lives?"
– for one of the few times in his life – the Admiral felt fear.
Already shaken by the terrible disaster, he was totally unable
to rebuke this stranger.
– these were – my own men," he tried to say, brokenly. "The
men our country has trained for its protection – "
are those of all the other countries – those whom you would be
rejoiced to kill if you were at war; they, too, are trained for
their countries’ protection."
stood, with blazing eyes fixed upon the Admiral, and said in a
voice that stabbed like a sword:
perfected that terrible instrument of destruction – the blood
of those young men is upon your head – you are their murderer!"
cowered, unable to speak.
else than murderers are men trained as you have been? The great
War, in which you took part, killed ten million young men, crippled
and tortured and mangled ten million more, broke the hearts of
fathers and mothers all over the world, wasted unknown billions
of God’s money, and left a legacy of suspicion and hate among
the nations. But some of my disciples – "
and the Admiral caught himself whispering the word, "disciples!"
Who could speak that word – ?
disciples," repeated the stranger, "have created a new
force in the world – the force which will be stronger than brute
force. And there are treaties, and solemn oaths and pacts, signed
by the nations to do away with war. Why, then, do you and men
like you exclaim in horror at this disaster which is caused by
the devices which you yourself made – yet you remain unmoved after
all that great horror of killing during that War – killing for
which you are not only in part responsible, but which causes you
pride for the part you took in it?"
attempted to assert himself, to speak as he was wont to speak;
but his voice would not obey his will. His visitor went on:
millions your country spends upon war devices, if put to better
use, would be enough to feed all the hungry, and give work to
all the unemployed. During the naval display from which you have
just returned, you wasted other millions in entertainment, in
evolutions, in gun fire, in and under water and in God’s sky.
And all this was for the purpose of training young men to kill.
Is it the work of men made in God’s image to practice killing
on a scientific and stupendous scale? Is it the purpose of humanity
to make killing the main business of a liftetime?"
the Admiral’s rage suddenly broke through the spell that had held
him. He stepped forward with clenched hand raised as if to strike.
But the look on the visitor’s calm face again halted him, and
he stood still. The voice was saying:
man, made for other uses, will you step out from your place, and
spend the rest of your life entreating the world to stop this
madness of brute force, this wicked and stupid waste of men’s
lives, this appeal to the lowest in man? Will you, Brother man?"
was stunned by the words – why they were a demand, more than a
question! He stared at this figure seated where the Bishop had
been. What! Step out of his honored and dignified place as a servant
and citizen of the republic, abandon his dream of retirement for
life’s comfortable memories, join the ranks of the traitor pacifists
whom he had always held in scornful contempt – do this unthinkable
thing simply because – this unknown – but was he?
In an impulse
of the moment the Admiral turned his head to gaze at the etching
of the battle ship formation at which the Bishop was looking when
he had last seen him. And when he turned back, there sat the Bishop
as he had been when he first entered.
all – " the Bishop’s head, too, was bowed, his proud look
– it was he!"
at each other, humbled, humiliated.
actually asked you to resign from the navy, and go out into the
world to work for international amity and peace?"
not only asked me to do so, he demanded it."
a long moment of silence between the two old friends.
will you do a thing like that?" asked the Bishop.
a still longer silence.
not know," said the Admiral at last; and the silence deepened
in the Admiral’s room.
The year after
Sheldon’s He Is Here was published, Albertus Pieters (1869-1955),
a minister, former missionary in Nagasaki, Japan (1891-1898, 1904-1910),
and professor in the Western Theological Seminary of the Reformed
Church in America at Holland Michigan (1926-1939), penned a reply
to "Killing Is Your Life Work" because his "heart
was stirred with indignation" when he read it. In his book
Christian Attitude Towards War (Eerdmans, 1932), Pieters
states that "for a man to utter against the American Navy such
words as those of Dr. Sheldon, is to be guilty of a foul insult
against the people and the government of the United States."
down two propositions:
A – War is always wrong.
B – War is sometimes right.
that these propositions are universal, "intended to cover all
possible cases, past, present, and future," and contradictory,
"one must be false, and the other must be true."
one ignores the fact that God in the Old Testament commanded the
nation of Israel to war against heathen nations, and unless one
is such an ardent pacifist that he would be opposed to fighting
a war in genuine self-defense (not in Bushspeak self-defense, which
makes even the U.S. invasion of Iraq self-defense), proposition
B seems to be the right choice. Pieters even says that "any
man who holds that war is always wrong is to me theologically a
heretic and politically a potential traitor."
But when we
see what Pieters’ definition of war is, it is apparent that he is
presenting a false dichotomy:
"war" is used here in its ordinary meaning, for armed
conflict between two forces, one of which, at least, represents
a legitimate government. It involves the deliberate killing of
men not individually convicted of any crime, because by such homicide
the government to which they belong can be coerced: the object
being to attain some end desired by the government under whose
orders the military force operates.
He later adds
that this "deliberate slaughter" is not only sometimes
right, but "in accordance with the spirit of Jesus, and in
harmony with holy love."
speaks of honoring U.S. presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow
Wilson, "by whose authority war was waged," shows what
kind of wars he deems acceptable: any war fought by the U.S. government.
is that he places too much trust in the government:
To sum up
the entire discussion from the Christian standpoint, war is sometimes,
– perhaps seldom, but certainly sometimes, – right, and when waged
by governments conscious of their responsibility to God, and desirous
only of establishing righteousness in the earth, is an activity
in which Christian men may take part without violating either
the divine law of homicide or the law of love.
In the time
of war, it is the duty of the individual Christian citizen, and
of the Church as an organized body, to accept the decision of
the State to make war, as a just and right decision, unless the
contrary appears with extraordinary and unmistakable clearness.
of the constituted authorities must be usually accepted as a right
decision, without further question.
the case, and the decision of the government to wage war being
accepted as a right decision, the duties of the Christian citizen
and of the Church become plain. The former must obey the orders
of his government, even to the extent of bearing arms if called
upon to do so. The latter must teach with insistence the Christian
duties that must be in the foreground in time of war. They are,
first of all, the duty of obedience.
Now, I know
that Charles Sheldon was more of a social reformer than a minister
of the New Testament (2 Corinthians 3:6), and that he preached more
of a social gospel than the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24),
but that doesn’t negate the truth of his antiwar position.
I have pointed
that when conservative Christians see liberal Christians deny the
authority of Scripture and the bodily resurrection of Christ while
expressing support for abortion and the ordaining of homosexuals,
but also oppose war and militarism, they draw the false conclusion
that it is liberal (bad) to oppose war and militarism but conservative
(good) to support them.
It also bears
repeating that there is nothing "liberal" about opposition
to war. Just like there is nothing "anti-American"
to militarism. And what could be more Christian than standing
firmly against aggression, violence, and bloodshed?
I think that
Murray Rothbard, in The
Ethics of Liberty, makes a profound statement about the
libertarian attitude toward war that bears repeating:
all wars, regardless of motive, the libertarian knows that there
may well be varying degrees of guilt among States for any specific
war. But his overriding consideration is the condemnation of any
State participation in war. Hence, his policy is that of exerting
pressure on all States not to start or engage in a war, to stop
one that has begun, and to reduce the scope of any persisting
war in injuring civilians of either side or no side.
say, instead of Professor Pieters’ The Christian Attitude Towards
War, I recommend C. John Cadoux’s The
Early Christian Attitude to War (London: Headley Bros. Publishers,
M. Vance [send him mail]
writes from central Florida. He is the author of Christianity
and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, The
Revolution that Wasn't, and Rethinking
the Good War. His latest book is The
Quatercentenary of the King James Bible. Visit his
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