Militarism and Foreign Missions
By Thomas Williamson
For the purpose of this article, we will define “Militarism” as an attitude among followers of the Christian Right and other conservative Americans, which favors an aggressive, military approach to foreign policy problem-solving.
Militarism is that which favors “pre-emptive first strikes” and military intervention in foreign nations, based on such justifications as total obedience to the President, looking for weapons of mass destruction, revenge for 9-11, war on terrorism, nation building, clash of civilizations, bringing democracy to the Third World, fulfillment of Bible prophecy, etc. (Desire to help Israel and to control foreign oil reserves are also possible reasons for our military actions, but these motives are not supposed to be discussed publicly).
The Christian Right in general has become known for its support for militarism. This attitude is widespread among fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics and other segments of the Christian Right. Prominent televangelists and prophecy teachers are regularly trotted out in support of militarism, to assure the faithful that God’s will is being done as we fight in the Middle East, and that “the stage is being set” for fulfillment of ancient Biblical prophecies. However, there are some Christians who wonder if the Bible really commands us to kill people or start wars for the purpose of fulfilling speculative Armageddonist prophecy scenarios that may not even have any real basis in Bible prophecy.
The impression is sometimes given that all Bible-believing, conservative Christians support militarism, or that they ought to do so as an expression of their Christian faith. The perception of the general public, nationwide and worldwide, is that evangelical Christians in America provide the main bulwark of support for our war in Iraq. Of course, there is nothing new about the role of organized religion in supporting war. In World War I, churches on both sides of the conflict dutifully supported that disastrous war, and some observers feel that this use of religion to promote war is partly to blame for the lack of interest in God and religion on the part of the disillusioned masses of Europeans from that time until now.
Is it possible that we as fundamentalist Christians will create disillusionment and turn people away from our faith, by our insistence on keeping the war going in Iraq, even when good conservative Republicans like Henry Kissinger and Senator Chuck Hagel say that the war is unwinnable? Should we make support for the war in Iraq a test of fellowship, when at most only 27% of Americans now support the war as it is currently being fought?
Perhaps we should also pay attention to the possibility that the effectiveness of American missionaries to foreign countries may be adversely affected by the perception that American Christians are promoting militarism.
Recently I spoke with an independent Baptist missionary to a Third World country, who criticized the militaristic emphasis of American Christianity. He told me that our militaristic stance is harmful to the work of American missionaries overseas, and that he and other missionaries have to disassociate themselves from that militarism or risk losing their effectiveness. He stated that it would be “terrible” if America invaded Iran, since it would make it appear that America was trying to run the entire world.
This missionary’s perception was that the association of American missionaries with militarism would be a hindrance to the progress of the Gospel. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent the views of all Baptist missionaries, but nevertheless his perspective is worthy of consideration.
Thomas Starkes, in the book “Mission 2000" (written in 1979) discusses the question of the identification of the American missionary with militarism and imperialism: “Missions for the future will need a sense of the mystery, human variety, creativity and worth as made in God’s image. This sense will aid the American missionary to drop his need to control. The control-syndrome has plagued some missionaries of the past. There is currently an innate American need to control the world. We feel we must unilaterally control every aspect of nature to maximize our wealth. Thus, we must control our wealth to enjoy it. In turn, we must control our neighbor so that he or she will not steal ‘our’ privileges. So, we must control world markets and resources [including oil? - editor] so that our society will prosper. This requires a military establishment capable of controlling the hostile impulses of other societies who must also have military establishments aimed at controlling our covetous impulses. The end result is a constant compulsion to control the resultant balance of terror.
“Christian missions of the future can be a sign to those who think they must control. Missionaries who would be a sign of freedom (not control) must build the church and other societal institutions on creative social patterns based on mutual respect rather than mistrust, competition, conformity and manipulation.”
As Americans with a mostly white European ethnic background, it is perhaps natural to feel that we, and other peoples like us (such as Great Britain, and Israel, which was recently settled by newcomers mostly from Europe and North America) should provide guidance and benevolent rule to the less enlightened peoples of the world.
When it comes time to invade Third World countries and do nation-building there for their own good, we are assured that the military operation will be a “cakewalk” and that the natives will welcome us as liberators. When it turns out that the “liberated” peoples do not really want us imposing our rule on them, and the nation-building mission becomes a “long hard slog,” naturally we become resentful at the ungratefulness of the benighted peoples we are trying so hard to help. We attribute malevolent motives to them (they hate us because we are free, etc) and we become more determined to do whatever needs to be done until the mission is accomplished.
As the years drag on and the war continues with no end in sight, support for the war dries up, except among evangelical Christians who perceive the war as beneficial for purposes of fulfilling Armageddon scenarios and “setting the stage” for Christ’s return. Evangelicals who do not believe in killing, bombing and torture for purposes of “fulfilling prophecy” are regarded as infidels by the Christian Right. Meanwhile, resentment on the part of non-evangelicals, and foreigners, grows against evangelical Americans who are seen as lobbying to keep the war going in order to help Israel and “fulfill prophecy.”
Gordon MacDonald of World Relief has sounded forth a warning on what our support for militarism is doing to the image of American Christians in the Third World:
“We are now part of an evangelical movement that is greatly compromised - identified in the eyes of the public as deep in the hip pockets of the Republican party and administration. My own belief? Our movement has been used. There are hints that the movement once cobbled together by Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga is beginning to fragment because it is more identified by a political agenda that seems to be failing and less identified by a commitment to Jesus and His Kingdom. Like it or not, we are pictured as those who support war, torture, and a go-it-alone (bullying) posture in international relationships. Any of us who travel internationally have tasted the global hostility toward our government and the suspicion that our President’s policies reflect the real tenets of Evangelical faith. And I might add that there is considerable disillusionment on the part of many of our Christian brothers/sisters in other countries who are mystified as to where American evangelicals are in all of this. Our movement may have its Supreme Court appointments, but it may also have compromised its historic center of Biblical faith. Is it time to let the larger public know that some larger-than-life evangelical personalities with radio and TV shows do not speak for all of us?”
Gary Cutler of Wesleyan Bible Prophecy has sounded forth a similar alarm:
“Why do so many around the world now seem to be hating us? Could it have anything to do with our idolatrous pride and self-righteousness? Could it have anything to do with the evident hypocrisy involved in our foreign policy, and in our religion, wherein millions among us claim to follow Jesus Christ, but neither believe, nor obey, His teachings?
“Friends, the so-called ‘Christian Right’ in America today is in a SEVERE state of antinomian heresy. And it is this very church-world departed from biblical Christianity in America today, friends, that is supporting the prevailing Nietzscheian political agenda of ‘might makes right’ that, in turn, is causing our beloved country to be increasingly hated around the world.
“The Bible says that when a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes his enemies to be at peace with him (Proverbs 16:7). In a better spiritual day, friends, 9-11 would have evoked humility and soul-searching, instead of a never-ending war on terror (Romans 12:19-21).”
We need to seriously consider the possibility that our support for militarism, which teaches that America has the right to bomb and attack any nation that is suspected of having weapons of mass destruction, or that does not meet our standards of democracy, may be a bad testimony that turns the peoples of the Third World away from our Gospel message. What is more important, the Great Commission or our militaristic political agenda?
Dave MacPherson, author of “The Rapture Plot,” has raised the question, “Where are the followers of Christ commanded to pick up a sword and conquer non-believers with it - or even support such sword-bearers? Why have so many Christian Zionists, who seemingly give more attention to governments than to their Gospel, turned the Great Commission into the Great Commotion?
“. . . [John] Hagee stated on July 19, 2006 that ‘The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West.’ Which Bible verse inspired him to utter this - the one that says ‘Love ye your enemies’ or the one saying ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord?’”
The argument could be made that it is right and proper for us as Christians to obey our government and support militarism, even if sinners are offended by our doing the right thing. But does God really require that we subordinate the preaching of the Gospel to any partisan political agenda?
Chester Tulga, in “The Case Against the Social Gospel,” published in 1949, wrote:
“The church must be in the world but not of it. A New Testament church must not only be separate from the secular state in name, but it must refuse to be used by the secular state for secular ends. The church which permits itself to be the spiritual propaganda arm of a sinful state, hypocritically paying lip service to idealism in time of war, or the recruiting agent for the military forces in time of peace, or the supporter of a selfish and sinful international policy in the name of patriotism, or becomes a bulwark of class privilege or an apologist for class abuse, is in spirit a state church, having renounced its primary task, to bring all men and institutions under the criticism of the Word of God.”
Tulga, describing the Old Testament prophets, said that “The prophets were true patriots, in that they did not affirm that one’s nation is always right and its every action against other nations should be defended. They never advocated the victory of the nation apart from the will of God. . . . They were unalterably opposed to entangling foreign alliances which produced the same dubious partnerships as those in our day. (See Isaiah and Jeremiah).”
Jeremiah made a public protest against the foreign policy of the King of Judah in Jeremiah 27. The Old Testament records in detail the protests of Isaiah and other prophets against alliances with Egypt and Syria, and against various wars and military adventures of the governments of Judah. Even in the days of the Old Testament theocracy, believers were not expected to render blind support and obedience to unwise militaristic policies of their kings.
Some sincere supporters of militarism say that we ought to support pre-emptive wars because they help to advance the cause of Christianity in the Middle East. But is this the proper way to promote Christianity? When the Apostles wanted to call down an air strike on some uncooperative Third World peasants, Christ told them, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:55-56).
Frank McClelland, writing in the Canadian Revivalist, has said, “The Bible-believing Christian position is clear. Christianity is never advanced by bloodshed. Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.’ (John 18:36). . . . True Christianity is heavenly and spiritual, and is as opposed to the Roman Crusades of history as it is to Muslim violence in our day.”
Bloodshed is necessary in a defensive war, but an offensive war fought on behalf of Christianity would be very questionable - would it be any different that the Islamic policy of spreading religion by the sword? Some Christian Right preachers of militarism have been inconsistent in their application of the principle of blind obedience to our leaders. They cite President Bush as an authority to be followed when it comes to invading Iraq, but some of them opposed Bush with regard to his support of a Palestinian state, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and the recently canceled Dubai ports deal. (For the record, I supported Bush on all 3 of those issues).
On what theological basis can we demand support of the war in Iraq “because Bush says so” while at the same time opposing Bush on such issues as Israel/Palestine policy, expanded immigration, etc?
Some militarists cite the teaching of a prominent conservative radio entertainer, who appears to hold the position that once the Commander in Chief has committed us to war, it is our duty to support that war without question. And yet that same radio entertainer, who is an admitted, self-confessed drug addict, openly opposed President Clinton’s 1999 attack of Yugoslavia (also known as “Monica’s War).” If this entertainer has the right to pick and choose which wars he will support, then on what basis are we required to support all wars without question?
Since militarism has become an issue for which we in the Christian Right have become so closely identified, we need to take time to consider the impact it may have on our witness and testimony to a world that needs the Gospel message that we are offering, but at the same time lives in fear of the aggressive American militaristic agenda that evangelical Christians have been supporting so avidly - a policy that affirms that America has the right and duty to bomb back into the Stone Age any nation in the world that gets in the way of our agenda as the world’s only superpower.
We also need to consider the effects of that agenda on the effectiveness of our domestic impact and outreach. Voters in our recent November elections heavily repudiated militarism as expressed in our war in Iraq, voting out of office many conservative legislators who supported our views on abortion, the homosexual agenda, cloning and embryonic research, and who supported conservative Supreme Court justices. Was it worth it to suffer the losses we did on those issues, because of our promotion of the war in Iraq?
Is it worth it to identify ourselves so closely with the Republican Party, while Republican politicians deride us as “nuts” and use their power to line their own pockets and to buy votes with wasteful pork barrel spending, rather than to fight for our conservative social agenda?
I don’t have all the answers to all these questions I have raised in this article - I am just asking. Do we have the integrity and courage to evaluate our political lobbying and politicking, to see if we are possibly driving away the people we are trying to reach (in the foreign fields and at home), while promoting a militaristic agenda that has nothing to do with the real work that the Lord has given us to do?
Surely it is not a sin to ask questions about the militaristic emphasis of modern evangelical Christianity, to determine whether such a policy is in harmony with the Bible or in conflict with what the Bible teaches.
The purpose of such an inquiry is not to spread discord among Christians, but rather to promote unity. We need to do one of two things - we need to develop and promulgate a Bible-based theological justification for militarism, one that all of us can understand and unite on. Or if we cannot do that, then we need to allow each other soul-liberty to disagree on this controversial issue, and to avoid demanding conformity of belief over this complex political issue on which good Christians disagree.
By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60608
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