Gospel: Matthew 18:23-35 1st Reading: Deuteronomy 5:6-21 2nd Reading: Romans 13:1-7
A prayer from Martin Luther: “Dear Lord, Thou seest that I have to go to war, though I would be glad not to; I do not build, however, on the justice of my cause, but on Thy grace and mercy; for I know that if I were to rely on my just cause and be confident because of it, Thou shouldest rightly let me fall as one whose fall was just, because I relied upon my right and not upon Thy sheer grace and kindness. Amen.” From "Whether Soldier's Too May be Saved" P 18
Here is the burning question that I hope to address today. It is one that I have been asked many times in my ministry and I know many people struggle with it: “How can God forgive someone fo killing other human beings while fighting in a war he was drafted into?” To address this topic, I read various Bible passages, as well as a 30 page letter that Martin Luther wrote in response to just such a question called “Whether Soldiers, too, may be saved,” and I also consulted “Just War Theory” that comes from our Christian tradition and gives some guidelines for when it is ok to go to war and when it isn’t.
Let me start with a quote from Martin Luther that sums up my feeling. “And here enters the fact that when we try to set up fixed for this matter, there arise so many cases and exceptions that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to decide everything accurately and equitably. This is the case with all laws; they can never be fixed so certainly and so justly that cases do not arise which deserve to be made exceptions.” Basically, he’s saying this is a complex question with no easy answers, as his 30 pages attests to. Don’t worry, I will condense this all down to 3 pages.
Complicating the issue, you can get both sides from the Bible, right? On the one hand it says, “Do not kill,” “Vengeance is mine says the Lord,” “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” and “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Few of us can think of anything more horrifying and sinful than war.
On the other hand the Israelites attack the Canaanites to get the promised land in the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho and they used the sword and killed lots of other people in various battles, some of which they won and others they lost. In Exodus 35:2 it seems that God’s laws say that anyone working on the Sabbath should be put to death. And some psalms seems to revel in killing and triumph over the enemy. I couldn’t find any similar examples in the New Testament, although Jesus himself says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He is probably referring to the kind of violent reaction that he knows people will have to his message. He seems to be a pacifist himself, not even using self-defense when others come to take his life. Also in the New Testament, Paul, in the reading for today reminds us to pray for and obey our leaders on this earth and reminds us that God put them in charge, which gives us the message that when our leaders tell us to go to war, we ought to do it.
The foundation of our faith is that Christ gave his life for us, to give us life. We are all guilty because of our sin of putting him to death on the cross and he not only forgives us, but comes to us and offers us peace and life. We can be forgiven for causing the death of God’s Son, so certainly we can be forgiven for killing people. Matters of our salvation are a done deal. God has given us eternal life, period. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, period—not even killing someone.
Having said that, we want to know how to best live our lives in that life, grace, and hope. Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that no one sin is greater than another—even thinking the thought counts as a sin. He doesn’t say this to make us feel more guilty, but to help us see that we all fall short and none of us can say we are without sin. Killing is not any greater a sin in God’s eyes than any other sin. On the other hand, we know that killing has a great impact on other people. The hurt never goes away. The pain and suffering of the family goes on and on. So we have a greater duty to see that others aren’t caused unnecessarily pain, so killing goes on the top of our list of what is hurtful and wrong. This is part of treating others like we’d like to be treated. So, of course, killing is to be avoided whenever possible.
Those of you who have been soldiers and know and love them will be glad to know that Martin Luther was very gentle on soldiers and offered a lot of grace. He pointed out that God can work through something as terrible as war to bring good. He is just as concerned about greed and sloth in a soldier than killing. He sees that war can sometimes be a necessary evil to prevent worse evils and that it can also bring peace. Used in self-defense, it is justifiable, he says. If we didn’t have swords, the world would run rough-shod over us and take everything we have and hurt us. He says, like anything, war and violence can be misused just to get what you want or to bully others or to get glory and in that case it isn’t right. He also says, it depends on your motivations as a soldier. Two people might go to war, side by side, and one is doing wrong and sinning, and the other is righteous and has a good conscious. It is a good sign that you are examining your heart to know yourself and your motivations and thinking about the consequences of your actions, because that means that you are open to God’s instruction and wisdom about whether you have done the right thing.
Martin Luther composed two prayers for soldiers to say to keep them focused on God’s will rather than their own. One I offered at the beginning of this sermon and one I will offer at the end.
Now for those of you who are draft-dodgers, Luther addresses a second question: “Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.” I reply: If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, and not fight or serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God. “Nay,” you say, “my lord compels me, takes my fief, does not give me my money, pay, and wages; and besides, I am despised and put to shame as a coward, nay, as a faith-breaker in the eyes of the world, as one who has deserted his lord in need.” I answer: You must take that risk and, with God’s help, let go what goes; He can restore it to you a hundredfold, as He promises in the Gospel, “He that leaveth house, home, wife, goods, for my sake, shall get it back a hundredfold.” In all other works, too, we must expect the danger that the rulers will compel us to do wrong; but since God will have us leave even father and mother for His sake, we must certainly leave lords for His sake. But if you do not know, or cannot find out whether your lord is wrong, you ought not to weaken an uncertain obedience with an uncertainty of right, but should think the best of your lord, as is the way of love, for “Love believeth all things; thinketh no evil” (1 Corinthians 13:7). P 23
Martin Luther admits that war should not be entered into lightly and goes into times when war is justified and when it isn’t. I have to think that some of his thought process went into developing “Just War Theory.” Or maybe it is just common sense:
These include that: The cause of initiating war must be just. War cannot be initiated justly except by those who hold the proper authority and responsibility. The moral merit on our side must clearly outweigh the moral merit on the other. The intention of going to war must be to obtain or restore a just peace. Desires to punish or humiliate are not adequate intentions. All non-violent alternatives must be exhausted before resorting to war. If the prospect of success is hopeless, war is not justified no matter how just the cause. The good expected must be greater than the estimation of anticipated costs. War should be regarded as a tragic necessity.
Some Principles for Conducting War include that No action should be taken that generates more harm than good. A strong distinction must be maintained between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants must never be deliberate or primary targets of military action. No use of evil means (even for a just cause). As much as possible, the enemy must be treated in good faith in order to keep open the possibility of reconciliation.
More than forgiveness from God, which is guaranteed, killing in war brings a necessity of two other kinds of forgiveness. There is forgiveness of those you have wronged. Many times in war, you can’t go back and find those you hurt and make amends. Sometimes you can try to right that wrong by traveling back to the country where you killed in war, or in some other way give back to the community where you may have caused injury. One of the most difficult steps is self-forgiveness. How can you have grace with yourself and let yourself go from those things you did? Even if you can justify it and say, “I was drafted,” or “I thought it was a just cause,” still I’m sure you can never erase the images from your minds of the things you saw and did. But somehow, can you admit to yourself all that you did in wartime and forgive yourself, although you never forget and move on to try to make a better world from here on out? Knowing that God has forgiven you and all of us who participated directly or indirectly, I hope that in time you can find the grace and love for yourself that God has for you and forgive yourself.
Here is one final prayer from Martin Luther: “Heavenly Father, here I am, according to Thy divine will, in the external work and service of my lord, which I owe first to Thee and then to my lord for Thy sake. I thank Thy grace and mercy that Thou hast put me into a work of which I am sure that it is not sin, but right and pleasing obedience to Thy will. But because I know and have learned from Thy gracious Word that none of our good works can help us and no one is saved as a soldier but only as a Christian, therefore, I will rely not at all on this obedience and work of mine, but put myself freely at the service of Thy will and believe from the heart that only the innocent blood of Thy dear Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems and saves, and this He has shed for me in obedience to Thy holy will. On this I stay; on this I live and die; on this I fight and do all. Dear Lord God the Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me by Thy Spirit. Amen. P. 26