The father of one of the children in our parish school was U.S. Army Special Forces, “A” Team, and a new convert to Christianity. A short while after joining the church, he asked to meet with the pastor. In that meeting, he expressed concern that his professional skills were mainly directed toward killing people. The pastor, a combat veteran of the European Theater in WWII, reassured him.
Luther had a similar experience. Asa Von Kram, a professional soldier, and others were troubled in conscience and sought Luther out on the subject.1 In July 1525, they prevailed upon Luther to publish what he had shared with them. He did so late in 1526 in a treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved. Although Luther had much to say on the subject, let’s look at a few highlights.
To fight and kill effectively is a good and proper vocation.
Luther pointed Von Kram to the Scriptures. “As proof, I quote John the Baptist, who, except for Christ, was the greatest teacher and preacher of all. When soldiers came to him and asked what they should do, he did not condemn their office or advise them to stop doing their work; rather, according to Luke 3 [:14], he approved it by saying, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’ Thus he praised the military profession, but at the same time he forbade its abuse.”2
If one’s skills, temperament, and abilities lead him into the vocation of warfighter,3 then while decrying the need, he is to aspire to be good at it. Luther says, “Look at the real soldiers, those who have played the game of war… They are not playing games. Their sword is tight in the sheath, but if they have to draw, it does not return bloodless to the scabbard.”4
The warfighter does not fight for himself, but for God and those powers God has instituted to protect the just and the weak who are threatened.
Luther pointed out that the moral justification for making war has nothing to do with the individual, but comes from God, who establishes governments for the purpose of defending the weak who do right from the predators who kill and steal and oppress. Those who struggle in their conscience for killing the enemy do well to heed Luther: “For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s.”5
The power of life and death is misused when it is in an unjust cause.
To use the power of the sword for vengeance, for exploitation, to obtain riches, to rebel against the divinely-established authority, or to enrich some at the expense of others is wrong. But this may be difficult to ascertain, so Luther approaches it from both sides. First, he says, “A second question: ‘Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.’ I reply: If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, Acts 4 [5:29], and you should neither fight nor serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God.”6 But then he acknowledges the usual ambiguity, saying, “But if you do not know, or cannot find out, whether your lord is wrong, you ought not to weaken certain obedience for the sake of an uncertain justice; rather you should think the best of your lord, as is the way of love, for ‘love believes all things’ and ‘does not think evil,’ I Corinthians 13 [:4–7].”7
Moral clarity is both important and elusive.
Luther started out telling Von Kram of the boldness that comes from fighting and killing with a good conscience. Moral clarity is important. It is important for the boys playing “war” in the backyard to be “killing the bad guys,” and it is a very important reason that those who kill on our behalf speak of “killing the bad guys,” especially in the War on Terrorism, where the enemy wears no uniform.
Whether used against our nation’s enemies or carrying out penalties against those convicted of crimes, the power of the sword is essentially defensive. It is not to be used as an instrument of vengeance, but for the defense of the innocent and the “punishment of those who do wrong” (Romans 13:4). Luther says, “Self-defense is a proper ground for fighting and therefore all laws agree that self-defense shall go unpunished; and he who kills another in self-defense is innocent in the eyes of all men.”8
Luther lays out a clear principle: “At the very outset I want to say that whoever starts a war is in the wrong.”9 But he also acknowledges ambiguity. When facing people dressed as civilians, as in the Peasants’ Rebellion, he said, “There are so many cases and so many exceptions to any rule that it is very difficult or even impossible to decide everything accurately and equitably. This is true of all laws; they can never be formulated so certainly and so justly that cases do not arise which deserve to be made exceptions.”10
These ambiguities open the door for what some call “moral injuries.” In stopping the suicide bomber, the soldier also kills the child he was carrying. The controller who calls in an artillery strike against the fighters killing his men also kills the non-combatants behind which the enemy was hiding. Christians understand these moral dangers and seek to mitigate them. Officers protect their men from moral as well as physical danger.
The Christian warfighter relies only upon God for righteousness.
Luther seems to have grasped the significance of this for individual Christians fighting in war. He advises Von Kram and his other readers, “You should not march out to war saying, ‘Now I have been forced to fight and have good cause for going to war.’” Instead, he says, “‘Dear Lord, you see that I have to go to war, though I would rather not. I do not trust, however, in the justice of my cause, but in your grace and mercy.’”
Luther knew that a soldier’s hope of victory and of standing righteous before God didn’t depend upon his getting everything right, the rightness of his cause, or on being “on God’s side.” It all depends upon God’s mercy. So for our veterans, especially those coping with moral injuries, find hope in the mercy of Christ.
As we Christians honor our veterans, we do not do so because they are all heroes or all good people, but because those who fight and kill on our behalf are instruments in God’s hands. Through them, He works to spare and defend the weak, preserve the just, and ultimately to create such little peace as there is in this world so that the Gospel has free course to call all people to the eternal peace that we have in Christ.
Reverend Ed Bryant
St. Timothy Lutheran Church
- Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 46: The Christian Society III. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 46, p. 89). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
- Ibid, p. 97
- We use the term “warfighter” to include those besides soldiers who are in our military services today.
- Ibid, p. 119
- Ibid, p. 96
- Ibid, p. 130
- Ibid, p. 131
- Ibid, p. 120
- Ibid, p. 118
- Ibid, p. 100