Rethinking Christian attitudes to the armed forces

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
2 Aug 2010

As Gandhi remarked, the only people who do not realise that Christ opposed violence, are Christians. This may be slowly changing, as recent years have seen increasing numbers of Christians exploring nonviolence. Yet we do so with the legacy of Christian collusion with militarism hanging over us.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the confusion around Christian attitudes to the armed forces. There will be a chance to explore this issue at the Greenbelt festival, where I will be discussing it with an armed forces chaplain.

Simply condemning soldiers would be wrong. We are all complicit in sin and violence – for example by participating in unjust economic systems – and naïve judgementalism would get us nowhere. This does not mean that we should be frightened of speaking out clearly about the nature of the armed forces as an institution. The armed forces exist for the purpose of violence, or the threat of violence. What good they may do at the same time is ultimately incidental to this core purpose. Further, their members are required to obey orders without question, which means putting God in second place. No-one can serve two masters.

Maintaining armed forces costs billions, but is an ineffective way of countering today's security threats, such as climate change and terrorism. Military recruiters target the most disadvantaged sectors of society – the average reading age of people enlisting in the British army is seven.

But while the armed forces exist, what attitude should we as Christians take towards them? I am certainly not calling on churches to stop supplying chaplains to the forces, many of whose members face desperate and deadly situations and urgently need pastoral care - whether or not we approve of what they are doing.

The problem is not with chaplaincy as such but with the way it is done. Chaplains are officially members of the forces themselves, given ranks and swearing oaths of loyalty. I have no doubt that many of them are devout, compassionate people. But I wonder how many do the work of the war machine by helping to salve the consciences of those who ask themselves whether what they are doing is ethical.

We need structural changes to allow soldiers to benefit from the services of chaplains who are not themselves members of the forces. They would be genuinely independent and not subservient to the system. Denominations can also perform a great service by providing chaplains to the unarmed forces – aid workers, mediators, human rights monitors and others who go into conflict zones without weapons. And if churches are to have integrity, their provision of chaplains must go along with efforts to transform understandings of security and promote nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution.

We cannot make these changes without addressing the legacies of Christendom. The current system of military chaplains, rather like such absurdities as a House of Lords that includes bishops, is a hangover from the days when church and state overlapped. Rather than clinging on to the vestiges of Christendom, let's welcome the multicultural nature of Post-Christendom in which we can turn again to the radical teachings of Jesus without being so compromised by wealth and power. In this way, we may reach a situation in which the nonviolent nature of Jesus' message is as obvious to Christians as it is to others.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This article appeared originally in the July 2010 issue of Ploughshare, the magazine of Christian CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). See http://ccnd.gn.apc.org/html/ploughshare.php.

Symon will be discussing Christian attitudes to the armed forces at the Greenbelt festival, which will take place near Cheltenham over the August bank holiday weekend. The event, Christian Warriors: To challenge or to minister? will be held in the Sovereign Lounge from 11.30am - 12.30pm on Saturday 28 August.

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