John Howard Yoder argues that Christian pacifism should reject service in the military but not the police. After all, until Jesus returns, it’s obvious that life would be pretty awful for everyone if there were no police. The difference between the police and the military, he argues, is that the police don’t have the taking of life as a goal and are subject to strict oversight, with their actions being under guidelines reviewable by the courts. And that’s not an entirely unfair distinction. But it’s not entirely accurate either.
First, let’s begin with a little political science history. Why do we have government at all? By and large, government began back when humans began to plant fields. The invention of agriculture led to stationary villages and farms – and abundant food and other goods that could be easily stolen.
When some kings (of cities) raided Sodom and Gomorrah to take their possessions, it was not a war of conquest but of greed. It’s easier to steal than to work. And Abraham raised an army to get the goods back.
As we see in Judges in the story of Gideon, it was common for neighboring tribes short on food to raid their neighbors at harvest time, letting someone else do all the work and then stealing the grain.
Weather doesn’t always cooperate, and food supplies can be short. And birthrates may be higher than the local lands can support. Or the raiders may just prefer theft to work. It has its advantages!
God therefore appointed judges to defend Israel against the aggression of its neighbors by raising armies to fight wars.
Also, village life can also result in internal disputes, with neighbors disagreeing on their boundaries, or who owns what sheep, or who broke what promise.
Therefore, in Judges we see God appointing Deborah to decide disputes among the Israelites, and we see Gideon, Deborah, and others called by God to lead the people in war to defend against invaders.
Therefore, earliest governments appear to have had a judicial function and a military/defense function. We don’t see much need for police, as these matters were likely handled by village elders and the people themselves – call it “self-help” justice.
Later on, the Israelites asked for a king (1 Sam 8). The neighboring countries were growing more powerful, Israel was gaining wealth and population, and the people were looking for greater security.
God told Samuel that he was not happy about appointing a king, but he did so. And while it would be easy to take God’s displeasure as an indictment of all government, we can’t forget that God chose to consider the throne of David as the prototype for the Messiah – who sits on David’s throne! If kings are inherently wrong, why would Jesus be a king? Why sit him on the throne of David? Why not overthrow the throne instead? And, of course, the judges were a form of government. Under the judges, Israel had an early form of the judiciary and secretary of defense.
It was under Saul that Israel finally defeated the Amalekites as God had commanded, and under David that the Promsed Land was fully placed in Israelite hands. It was under Solomon that God allowed his temple to be built. God obviously blessed all these efforts despite their being led by kings. Indeed, God appointed the first three kings himself.
Anyway, it seems likely that the military is older than the police, and in the case of Israel, God-created. Even if we dismiss the wars of conquest God commissioned as for a limited, special purpose – to establish control of the Promised Land – the wars of the judges (and later the kings) to defend the borders were designed to protect the property and lives of God’s people.
I’m using Biblical examples, but government evolved along these lines throughout the world. People gathered into villages to take advantage of agriculture. This led to raids by neighbors, which led to the need for defensive forces, which led to the need for some sort of leadership. Judges were needed to settle disputes. And as villages grew into cities, the leadership became less ad hoc and more formal — with Israelite cities, and many others, being led by “elders,” older men respected for their wisdom. Think “city council.”
Now, if a raiding party steals this year’s wheat harvest, a family or clan dies. There were no banks and no government loans. Either protect the wheat or watch your children starve – not to mention that the village craftsmen and others relying on the farmer’s harvest would die as well. It was just that simple.
Now, Israel had no standing army until the time of the kings. Judges raised armies as they were needed, and when God gave them victory, the soldiers went back to farming and tending sheep.
Nonetheless, these defensive actions were wars. The goal was not to conquer or to kill but to protect land, property, food, and lives. However, it was often the case that killing was necessary to prevail.
Having a standing army actually could have a deterrent effect, making such wars unnecessary – but also creating the temptation to use the army for less noble purposes.
Now, to consider these matters from a gospel perspective, we should note that defensive wars can’t be justified solely as being defensive. They have to be justified within the context of “love your enemy” – but not to the exclusion of loving your own family and village.
Therefore, if a neighboring clan needs food, the Christian clan would share what they have, even sacrificially, but I don’t think that they’re called to starve their own children for the sake of others. I think they get to stay alive. But they don’t get to live in prosperity while their neighbors starve due to a drought.
It’s different, of course, when the neighbors are hungry due to being lazy or preferring raiding to farming. Paul said if he won’t work, don’t let him eat – that is, don’t be an enabler — and that is sound advice, consistent with the gospel, at both the individual and national levels.
Far more difficult is when a nation is starving because of corruption or foolish decisions by its leaders. Do you allow the people to starve when it’s not their fault? And the international consensus today is that you don’t – which I think is right. You try to negotiate whatever relief you can for the people as a condition to international charity, but ultimately, you feed the hungry.
On the other hand, what if a neighbor invades solely out of greed — so they can live at ease on the backs of a conquered people? Does the gospel compel us to resist or to enable the sins of the evil doer? It’s not an easy question, is it?
Do we let the evil man eat our food for which he did not work? Do we act as enablers, encouraging theft as a way of life — for an entire nation?
Of course, defense will mean war and the death of people — perhaps good people, perhaps Christians — on both sides. How can death be better than submitting to conquest? Isn’t life the highest of all values?
Actually, I think not. First, the Bible nowhere says that staying alive or keeping others alive is the highest of all values. And while there are certainly times when I should be willing to die for my principles, does that mean that I should let others die for my principles?
It’s been true throughout history that people have willingly given their lives not to be subjugated to evil rulers, for political freedom, or for other principles. To many people, life is not at all the highest value. And for Christians, the highest value is not life, but faith expressing itself through love (Gal 5:6).
Next, we need to consider Abraham once again. He raised an army to force the return of the goods stolen from Sodom and Gomorrah – but no one stole from Abraham. They had taken Lot and his family captive, but they took none of Abraham’s possessions (Gen 14). His participation in the war was not, strictly speaking, defensive. Rather, his was an act of compassion.
And Abraham did not content himself with rescuing Lot and his family. Abraham regained all the goods stolen and returned them to their owners, other than a portion given to God.
Consider a case today where an aggressive, wicked king seeks to conquer a neighboring territory solely out of greed. May the invaded nation raise an army to defend itself? I think the answer is clearly yes. This is at the very heart of why God gave us government.
May that king seek allies? If not, the strongest king will always win over his weakest neighbors. How is that good? Indeed, helping the innocent weak defend themselves against the wicked strong seems like a very loving thing to me. And once the willingness of the strong to defend the weak has been made clear, others are much less likely to attack the weak. Alliances can and do prevent war – but only if you’re not bluffing. You have to mean it.