When Christians Kill

Don't make a virtue of necessity

I opposed the war in Vietnam and was active in the antiwar movement. I would do it again. The war we are engaged in now is thoroughly different. Like many who opposed our involvement in Vietnam, I believe a military response was necessary after September 11.

Still, I can’t buy into the just-war theory as it is usually presented; I have always found it impossible to accept as a Christian argument one which does not need at any point to mention Jesus Christ. The early church made people wait for years (sometimes even until their deathbeds) for re-admission to the Eucharist if they shed blood, even in self-defense. This was a witness to the gravity of what it means to kill even a killer-one for whom Christ also died. Participation in a necessary war means that we are involved in evil; but the evil may be necessary. We must go into this with a sense of mourning, an understanding that this is tragedy, and there can be no real triumph, only an attempt to keep even greater evil at bay. In Neil Young’s song "Let’s Roll," written after September 11, there are words which sum it up well: "I hope that we’re forgiven / for what we’ve got to do."

Thinking about these things, I remembered the days when I worked as a draft counselor, and some of the military people I got to know during that period. I found that I often liked them more than some of the antiwar people I knew. Years later my next door neighbor was a retired army colonel who had worked alone with some mountain people in Vietnam, seldom seeing other Westerners, and he loved it. His favorite reading during that period was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We got to be friends. None of this is surprising-it is possible to be friends with people who are hawks, pro-choice, or agnostic. It was a bit of a stretch, though, when I wound up regularly celebrating the Orthodox liturgy at West Point.

Saint Vladimir’s Seminary supplied the priest for West Point, a reasonable drive from the campus, and I was assigned to go there. It seemed strange to me, though-the thought of a former antiwar activist celebrating the liturgy with tomorrow’s military elite went against the grain; and besides, what about my plans? I had thought of remaining a permanent deacon, and looking for work in publishing. The decision to ordain me to the priesthood was made because they needed a priest for West Point. When I mentioned this to my wife Regina she said, "It should teach you that ordination isn’t for you; it’s for the church."

The drive to West Point was a beautiful one, as are the grounds once you get there. I liked the chaplains I met, and the cadets. There were approximately forty who described themselves as Orthodox; at most we had eight or nine on any given Sunday. (Like many college students away from home for the first time, Orthodox students used college as a holiday from churchgoing.) We met in a basement chapel, small and catacomb-like. The cadets were a diverse lot, from all economic backgrounds, polite and respectful to a fault, and serious about their studies. They reminded me of my neighbor.

Given the war our country is currently fighting, I find myself torn. I cannot accept the idea that pacifism is an appropriate response here, though Christian pacifism must be taken seriously and not waved away as if it were a merely sectarian quirk. My objection to a pacifist response here is that it will not stop the violence; our use of force seems right, in that it may lead to less violence over the long haul. But Christian pacifism is not about winning; it says that you might in fact wind up crucified, and that is better than killing, no matter what the cause. I can see a willingness to choose death for myself, but I cannot see passively accepting the deaths of people whose crime was showing up for work on September 11.

On the other hand, any deaths that result from our action-not only the civilians who die but even the terrorists-defile us. Our response must be repentant, and the idea of a victory parade is truly obscene.

What impresses me about many of the military people I know is that they often have a keener appreciation of the tragedy of war than civilians do, especially civilian political leaders, and this is probably to be expected. We might learn from that. At the same time, we must as Christians communicate the idea that even a war which seems necessary is tragic, and we involve ourselves in a mystery of evil. Just as Oedipus was defiled by sleeping with a woman he did not know was his mother, and by killing a man he did not know was his father, we participate in an evil, however necessary it may be, when we kill people for whom Christ died.

Published in the 2002-01-25 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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