The Christian Soldier

“The horror of modern warfare, whether nuclear or not, makes it wholly unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations.” ~Pope John Paul II, Coventry, England, 1982

I want to suggest, not that some Christians may be soldiers, but that all Christians must be soldiers, and to propose a different sort of soldiering demanded by our age and our Christian calling.

The Catholic Church has historically upheld the goals of the Just War (to deter aggression, to repel invasion, to liberate the oppressed) and praised the virtues of the individual soldier (valor, self-sacrifice, loyalty, discipline). We are called to defend life and human rights. Nothing in the nuclear age has changed this.

But two things have changed. One is the degree to which technology has made violent forms of struggle dangerously counterproductive in the physical sense, and disproportionately destructive in the moral sense. A nuclear confrontation between the Superpowers, for instance, would very likely be suicide/genocide. Suicide is not very soldier-like, and genocide is not very Christian-like.

The other thing which has changed is the degree to which the global interdependence of nations, in their cultural, political, and specially their economic lives, has rendered nonviolent sanctions potentially very persuasive.

In times like ours, it may be that “good soldiering” in the sense of protecting and preserving, must be based upon a society’s preparedness to limit its enemies’ options through nonviolent conversion and nonmilitary coercion.

Conversion means obtaining a change of behavior through a change of heart. Catholics who pray for the conversion of Russia as if they believed it could happen; people who work for the restoration of Christianity in Europe and America; networks which support human rights, East and West: such people are preparing the way for the conversion of whole societies, which is the only secure and long-term basis for peace among nations.

In the short-term, coercion is also necessary. I mean that sanctions must be uses to limit the behavior of a still-hostile opponent. Nonmilitary sanctions are psychological, social, political or economic means of applying leverage. They include demonstrations, social boycotts, economic boycotts and embargoes, political noncooperation, and carefully orchestrated Campaigns of nonviolent intervention.

The point is to make aggression unprofitable, to make invasion unworkable, to make an occupied territory (from the point of view of a frustrated and harassed occupier) ungovernable.

The most publicized instances of nonviolent “soldiering” have taken place in situations in which people already had some freedom to maneuver: free churches and labor unions, the ability to publish, to organize, to mold public opinion, etc. This has led some to the conclusion that while nonviolent soldiers (like Gandhi’s satyagrahi) could prevail against the British in India, they could not sway a state bent on suppressing all rival sources of social power.

Gene Sharp, an Associate of the Harvard Center for International Affairs, has researched Civilian-Based Defense in hard -case situations, including against totalitarian and terrorist opponents. In his upcoming book, Making Europe Unconquerable, Sharp assesses the possibility of constructing a convincing nonmilitary deterrent to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

Many of Sharp’s sources are hitherto unpublished or untranslated case-histories of ongoing campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe where suppressed people struggle year by year and decade by decade to enlarge the circumference of human rights in the face of Soviet tyranny. Of course, as with armed struggle, there are ambivalent outcomes and failures as well as successes. But these people even when beaten are not broken; even when down, they’re not out.

And anyone who doubts the utter realism of nonviolent tactics should only ask how well the Poles are doing in protecting their society in comparison with, say, the Afghans. Or how well Poland is keeping the Faith in comparison with, say, America.

I anticipate that a nation which turned, in whole or in part, on principle or from necessity, to nonviolent soldiering, would have to cultivate amongst its population the practice of — and I hope this will not be taken as ridiculous — virtue. If the citizens are all “soldiers,” all mobilized for social defense, then they must be well-disciplined, and willing to bear the personal dislocation, pain, and sacrifice of a protracted campaign which (like war) can last for years or decades, and which (like war) can cost you your life.

As Lech Walesa said on the CBS News Special Report, “Two Voices of Poland”:

“Gentlemen, victory can be achieved by various means: and just take our example, and note that we have not fired a single shot. I think that the 20th and 21st centuries should be modeled on a struggle such as the one we have demonstrated. This is a new weapon. Well, not a new one. Actually, an old one. But it is very effective, and tailored exactly to the needs of the 21st century.”


  • Juli Loesh

    In 1984, pro-life activist Juli Loesch was a free-lance writer and contributing editor to New Oxford Review.

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