It was 3 am. I sat in the sandbagged bunker guarding the entrance to the 400 year old Portuguese fort in Balibo, East Timor. Behind me nearly 100 Australian soldiers were sleeping peacefully. I was dressed in full camouflage battle dress, Kevlar flack jacket, and helmet. I rested the minimi machine gun in the crook of my shoulder and peered sleepily out through my night vision goggles at the Timorese village below.
Suddenly I sat bolt upright and elbowed the soldier next to me. There was movement. A man was running fast towards the entrance to the fort. In his hand was a long dark shape that could only be an assault rifle. I slipped the safety catch of the machine gun to fire, put the man in the centre of the sights and rested my finger on the trigger. This was real life situation that faced me in 2001. But as a Christian soldier could I really pull the trigger? Could I really kill another human being?
For me, this decision had been made long before this event, and it had been a relatively simple one for the reasons that I will give below. However, I have lived and worked with Christian pacifists in the military who have held that force is always and everywhere wrong and that to pull that trigger would be to violate the ethical teachings of Jesus. While very rare, this view does exist – especially in soldiers, sailors and airmen who are converted while serving. A close friend of mine was converted in his final year at the Australian Defence Force Academy. I remember him
struggling painfully with his chosen career as a seaman officer in the Navy and his reading of the sermon on the mount. In the end he resigned. For him the taking of life was clearly incompatible with his new Christian faith.
This ethical conviction has an honourable pedigree. St Martin of Tours
was a Roman soldier who was converted whilst serving in the Army. As a Christian he insisted: “I am a soldier of Christ; I am not allowed to fight.” Martin was still forced to come against the enemy, but stood quietly in the front lines of a pitched battle against the barbarians with his shield lowered and his sword by his side. That takes a special brand of courage. So impressed were his superiors that when the enemy attack was defeated Martin was permitted to discharge from the army.
Most Christian soldiers, however, hold to the view that force is not always and everywhere wrong. If used in certain situations and within prescribed limits the taking of another life – while regrettable – is hardly a harrowing issue of conscience. ‘We are soldiers’, the reasoning goes, ‘there have been many Christian soldiers in both Old and New Testaments. Nowhere are they condemned for their professions and told “to leave their life of sin”. In fact Jesus commends the faith of a Roman army officer in terms of the highest praise (Lk 7:9). So whatever is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching on non violence, consistency suggests that serving as a soldier is acceptable in the eyes of Christ.’
I strongly identify with this position. David was perhaps the greatest soldier of the Bible; a man with a great deal of
blood on his hands. He is also a man after God’s own heart. A man who sets in train a typology which will be fulfilled in part in the first coming of the King Jesus and then finally in his second coming as the great warrior of the book of revelation. If Yahweh is frequently described as ‘the Lord of Hosts’ (Yahweh shevaout) and the incarnate son is also a mighty warrior, then the taking of life in battle is not something to lose a great deal of sleep over.
But how can this positive view of soldiers be reconciled with Jesus’ teaching on turning the other check? Martin Luther put forward what he described as the ‘two realms’ in regard to the ethical teaching of Jesus: the realm of the individual and the realm of the state. In the realm of the individual the teaching of Jesus in the sermon of the mount must be applied, we cannot escape it. But it cannot be applied so directly to the realm of the state to which all citizens willingly or unwillingly delegate their responsibility for law and order and defence. If the teaching of Jesus applied to both realms then putting people in prison would be against his teaching, as would be preventing a rape, the police defending themselves in the course of their duty, or SAS counter terrorism soldiers stopping by force a terrorist attack that could kill thousands of innocent people.
The two realms idea also makes much better sense of passages like Romans 13: 3-5 .Paul says the authorities ‘bear the sword’, that is have armies and police forces, and that in so doing they are agents of God. It seems that the New Testament expects different behaviour from individuals than it does from legitimate authorities who are responsible before God for the maintenance of law and order, and, if necessary, the taking of life. ‘It is not for nothing that they bear the sword’. (Rom 13:4)
I believe that force is only acceptable within certain limites and clearly prescribed rules – even for soldiers in combat. As such I am an advocate of just war. Fortunately, the recent history of Australian armed intervention has, in the main, made my ethical position much easier by largely conforming with this position. For the Australian soldier, the taking of life is strictly as a last resort and the rules surrounding it are clearly outlined and constantly reinforced. In East Timor, for example, life could only be taken if reasonable grounds existed that the ‘enemy’ presented a threat to ones own life or the lives of others. An example of the extent to which these rules were enforced occurred just before I arrived in 2001. A group of militia had approached an Australian border post at night, attacked the post with a shower of grenades and then turned and ran back across the border. The unwounded Australian soldiers had their laser night sights fixed on the backs of the retreating militia. None fired. Why? Because, as they later testified, ‘the retreating militia no longer presented a direct threat’. Even in a more difficult combat operation like Afghanistan, force can only be used under strictly prescribed limits.
It is also worth adding that to read Jesus’ teaching as demanding strict pacifism has some very serious ethical problems of its own. Many Christian pacifists believe in police forces and militaries, are happy to pay taxes that go to supporting them, but personally refuse to serve in them. That seems to me to be a first order cop out. Let’s take East Timor for example. I saw there the barbarism and horror that had been perpetrated on innocent people on a massive scale. There was a house only thirty metres from the fort where I worked for 7 months. It was called the kissing house. We were told that young Timorese girls would be taken from their homes by militia, raped, then taken out and shot. If you are a Christian pacifist, you will not lift a finger directly to help people who suffer like this. And if you do encourage a peace keeping force to help them then you are asking others to do your dirty work, work that you believe is immoral. Which is the greatest evil? In my view sometimes standing by and watching evil run its course is ethically more reprehensible than using force and taking life to stop it.
I have never doubted that serving in the military, carrying a rifle and being prepared to use it, was something with which God was pleased. For all these reasons, I confidently put my finger on the trigger and prepared to shoot and kill the man running towards me with a clear conscience.
But you probably want to know the end of the story? It turned out that the man was one of our Timorese interpreters returning late and in a hurry after an extended sing along in the village. He was carrying a black guitar case.