IS IT MURDER to blow the head off an enemy soldier?
Or what about executing a prisoner of war captured in the heat of battle – executed because you don’t have enough soldiers to guard him?
That’s the Bible Question of the Week. It comes from Tommy Hartman. Actually, he says he got the question from a buddy of his.
“In the 10 Commandments it says ‘Thou shall not kill.’ Does our military who have killed people in war get put in the same category as murderers?”
It depends on who is doing the putting, I would guess.
Political leaders. Politicians who ordered the soldiers into war certainly would not put them in the same category as murderers.
Defense lawyers. Technically, murder is not just “killing a person.” It is “unlawfully killing a person.” That’s the Merriam-Webster definition of murder. So if the lawmakers in our nation’s capital order our military into war, the killing that goes on there is legal.
Early Christians. For the first three centuries of Christianity, most Christians were pacifists. Apostolic Tradition, a church rulebook from the A.D. 200s, included three rules about Christians and the military:
- Christians cannot join the army.
- Christians already in the army cannot fight.
- Christian military officers had to resign.
It wasn’t until Christianity became the preferred religion of the Roman Empire, backed by the Emperor himself, that Christian leaders started building a case for the “Just War” theory, giving Christians the right to defend themselves. For more on this, see my article “Q&A: Christians, guns & self-defense.”
Military. I suspect that for some in the military who have killed an enemy, it feels like murder. My guess is that some of these men and women spend the rest of their lives trying to convince themselves that it was not.
My dad fought in World War II in the Army of Gen. George Patton. Dad was a mortarman who arrived in Europe just in time to fight in the famous Battle of the Bulge.
He seldom watched war movies. On those rare occasions when he did, my mom got angry. She knew she was in for a night of him thrashing around in his nightmares.
He never talked about war, except when we asked him questions. And we knew not to ask very many.
I did ask him one day what they did with prisoners of war they caught during battles. He didn’t say exactly. He simply asked, “What else could we do?”
As Dad approached death at age 74, he wanted Mom to tell me and my brothers and sisters that even in the war, he never raised a gun to shoot another person. But he said he knew had killed many people. He admitted that he became expert in hitting targets with his mortar. He didn’t say that bragging. He said it sadly.
The Bible doesn’t say if God puts the military in a special category when it comes to killing people.
Special Category: legalized killing in a Just War.
In Jesus’s encounter with a Roman soldier, Jesus said nothing to condemn him. Quite the opposite: “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Luke 7:9).
The soldier, instead of trying to kill someone, was trying to save someone. He was asking Jesus to come and heal his servant – and he trusted that Jesus could do it long-distance, without even bothering to go to the soldier’s house. That’s the faith Jesus was talking about.
I don’t know what Jesus would say to a soldier headed into battle. But I would like to think he would say much the same thing that I hope my grandpa said to Dad when he left his West Virginia farm as a teenager: “Don’t be a hero.”
That’s what we say to someone we love headed into danger.
As for what Jesus might say to my dad, or to any other military person who feels guilty for killing enemy soldiers or for accidentally killing civilians, I would expect Jesus would quote his Bible:
How far has the Lord taken
our sins from us?
Farther than the distance
from east to west!