Killing Is Your Life Work

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. The primary 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. Long before 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, In 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?” Although most Christians in America have probably heard of In His Steps, few have probably heard of a similar book by Sheldon in 1931 called He 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. What caught 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. From He Is Here, here is chapter 3, “Killing Is Your Life Work”: The Admiral 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.

He felt, 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 career. The servant 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. “Wonderful – 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.” “That 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 – ” The telephone interrupted him, with that insistent note which portended news of importance. The Admiral picked up the receiver – an excited voice came to his ears. “Admiral – ? This is Ensign Howard – I have to report, sir, that the flagship Oneonta – ” “My God!” exclaimed the Admiral, his face like ashes. “There 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 – ” The new gas bombs! The stricken Admiral staggered to his chair, dropped his face into his hands. “My ship – my men – my life work – ”

“Killing is your life work – why are you not pleased with your success?” The Admiral’s 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. “Your whole life has been devoted to the trade of killing. Why are you do grieved at the loss of a few more lives?” And then – 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. “But – these were – my own men,” he tried to say, brokenly. “The men our country has trained for its protection – ” “So 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.” The stranger stood, with blazing eyes fixed upon the Admiral, and said in a voice that stabbed like a sword: “You perfected that terrible instrument of destruction – the blood of those young men is upon your head – you are their murderer!” The Admiral cowered, unable to speak. “What 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 – ” He paused, and the Admiral caught himself whispering the word, “disciples!” Who could speak that word – ? “My 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?” The Admiral attempted to assert himself, to speak as he was wont to speak; but his voice would not obey his will. His visitor went on: “The 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?”

At this, 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: “Oh 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?” The Admiral 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. “You – heard?” “I heard all – ” the Bishop’s head, too, was bowed, his proud look had vanished. “It – it was he!” They stared at each other, humbled, humiliated. “He actually asked you to resign from the navy, and go out into the world to work for international amity and peace?” “He not only asked me to do so, he demanded it.” There was a long moment of silence between the two old friends. “And will you do a thing like that?” asked the Bishop. There was a still longer silence. “I do 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 The 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.” Pieters lays down two propositions: Proposition A – War is always wrong. Proposition B – War is sometimes right. He maintains 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.” Now, unless 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: The word “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.” That Pieters 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. Pieters’ problem 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. The decision of the constituted authorities must be usually accepted as a right decision, without further question. That being 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 out before 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” about opposition 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: In condemning 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. Needless to 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, 1919).