The Christian Soldier

The President of the United States has appointed you as an officer in the U.S. Navy under the conditions indicated in this document. If appointment is accepted you must complete oath of office. If it is not accepted, sign and date declination. Indicate reasons for non-acceptance.

We mark our passages with paper, and one of the many single sheets floating in the history of my life begins as above, “The President of the United States has appointed you as an officer…”

Can a Christian serve in the military? Should the military serve Christianity? Clearly, the history of these things is as convoluted as their conflict. We know that early Christians could not serve in the military, more because of the dissolute lifestyle of Roman soldiers than because of any deep convictions of pacifism. Clearly, clerics in the developing Church could not serve and bear arms; many Church Fathers pointed out that shedding blood and ministry were incompatible. But Christians could and did serve, of course, often to the point of embarrassment for even the most militant of us today. The notion of the holy war, waged with God on our, or at least their, side, is abhorrent to the present Western mind. Yet it made a significant amount of history, and created a significant expansion of the Church. We conveniently forget this, especially when we criticize some of the militant fundamentalists of unfamiliar cultures.

Similarly, we can force upon ourselves the quintessential either-or fallacy: either you are a Christian or you serve in the military. This avoids the most basic duty of the Christian, the response to the command of love. There is the tension; there is the question. What, in the name of God, may we and must we do in response to that command? Can we, in fact, accept that appointment, that commission?

There is clearly nothing more abhorrent to the Christian than the taking of life. Even handling weapons can bring upon one a sudden shudder of revulsion. Yet these are the necessary implements of the military vocation. The call is, quite simply, to bear arms. Can it be done?

By some, no, it cannot. There are those who cannot under any circumstances take human life, even in self-defense or in the defense of another. The arguments for and against this position cannot and will not be answered here; realistically speaking, they who could accept their own deaths by violence without resistance are few and far between. Similarly scarce are they who could stand by while a member of their family faced such violence. But in greater numbers, with more cogent personal arguments, are they who could not engage in a rabbit shoot where the quarry consists of humans of another nationality. That there is a policy difference between opposing nations would make little difference, so long as immediate hearth, home and loved ones were not presently endangered.

We can force upon ourselves the quintessential either-or fallacy: either you are a Christian or you serve in the military. This avoids the most basic duty of the Christian, the response to the command of love.

This raises a somewhat confusing moral question. By what criteria does one accept the call to military service? Yes, Christianity is the preferential pledge, the higher commitment. Yet does such a deep and honest commitment make military service not only possible but required? Granted, the concept of war, the very idea of it, is a ridiculous perversion of the human spirit. But, given the existence of it as the means by which men solve their policy differences, how and why should the Christian respond?

“The just war, the just war!” the chorus cries. But all wars are just wars to somebody. Can the Christian subvert his independent intellect to the polity by means of a military commission? Does the Christian have the necessary information and means by which to determine if this or that particular war is a just cause for the polity he serves?

Most essentially, the Christian in the military has made the conscious decision that his service neither supports an evil or unjust government nor contributes to the initiation or exacerbation of hostilities. The most fervent hope of every military professional, Christian and non-Christian alike, is that there will be no wars, no battles, no badges, no air medals. It is the concept of deterrence at its most basic level: there will be no attack because there are a million or so other professionals just like me to convince the enemy no success is possible.

It is a foolish state of affairs, and an awful reduction of the human spirit. We look across borders at “peace” with each other because we fear having our skulls individually and personally bashed in. We need to be reminded, as we have been by the present Pope, that peace is more than the absence of war. We have not yet got beyond the stage where mutual terror keeps us apart, yet we have come quite a way.

About 1575, a craftsman named Anton Peffenhauser made seven suits of armor for Albrech V, Duke of Bavaria. The 64-pound “St. George suit” was to be worn in the pro-cession held on Corpus Christi Day. Such tilting armor was common in the 16th Century, as the crossbow became out-moded in warfare and armored riders rode armored horses in defense of God and country. The military generally do not take part in Corpus Christi Day processions anymore, and the United States Navy found out the hard way that Corpus Christi is more than just the name of a town in south Texas.

Still, we must question whether weaponry is the answer. For many it is not, but others see it more as symptom than cause of the illness which leads to war.

The Christian who decides to serve in the military has made a basic and probably irrevocable choice: acceptance of what has been termed the “unlimited liability clause.” With the understanding that defense, defense of life, defense of his life and the lives of others, is what is required of the military professional; it can be done by a Christian.

I did it a long time ago. I faced a former POW named Dick Stratton and I repeated what he said. I never had any illusions that God was on my side, but neither did I think that He was against me.

I, Phyllis Zagano, having been appointed Ensign (permanent) and Lieutenant Junior Grade (Temporary) in the U.S. Navy under the conditions indicated in this document, do accept such appointment and solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same: that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion: and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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