Imagine a world where half the nations are almost entirely all Christians. The Christians all refuse military service, and quite consistently, they refuse to hire mercenaries. What will happen?
If the non-Christian minority serves in the military while the majority Christians refuse service, the Christians will surely incur resentment from the minority, who will have given their children’s lives for the sake of people who will not defend themselves. That seems wrong. It’s not so hard to admire a small percentage who refuse military service as a matter of conscience, but if nearly everyone refuses to defend their neighbors, Christians and Christianity will be despised.
It’s easy to pretend that nations never go to war unless provoked, but this is just not true. Nations conquer other nations for lots of reasons, and rarely is provocation the cause.
Now, if God really does require Christians to refuse military service, even in a Christian nation and even for solely defensive purposes, they’ll die as martyrs. But it seems to me that allowing evil men to prevail violates “love your neighbor.”
Indeed, it violates “love your enemy,” as the best thing that can happen for a people ruled by evil men is for their evil to be defeated. I mean, are the people of Germany and Japan (and their conquered territories) — on the whole — better off or worse off for their having lost World War II? Why has the United States been on good terms with both nations for decades after that war, even though the US and its allies defeated both countries, killing many of their people?
And this brings us to the police. So far as I can tell, the need for police came later than the need for the military. You only need police when a city becomes large enough that family and community ties aren’t enough to enforce good conduct.
Even today, many small towns have no police or only one police officer. The neighbors all know each other, and so they rarely commit crimes against each other. The need for police comes from the alienation that arises from large cities – or from the need for an oppressive government to control its people.
We don’t read of police in the Law of Moses and during the time of the judges. The law was enforced by village elders, not by force of arms (they were elderly men) but by peer pressure and family honor.
Then again, even in later times, I find no evidence of a distinction between the police and the military. The same people did both jobs – as the military/police were simply men charged with enforcing the king’s will, domestic or foreign.
In Judges 19 -20 we have the story of the rape and mutilation of a man’s concubine by the Benjaminites. In response, the other tribes raised an army – to deal with a domestic crime.
(Judg 20:20-21) The men of Israel went out to fight the Benjamites and took up battle positions against them at Gibeah. 21 The Benjamites came out of Gibeah and cut down twenty-two thousand Israelites on the battlefield that day.
When Saul sought to kill David, as a threat to his throne – a domestic dispute – Saul used soldiers.
(1 Sam 26:7) So David and Abishai went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him.
Of course, the Romans also made no such distinctions, at least not in Palestine. They didn’t have soldiers at the borders and policemen in the cities. They had soldiers – and it was soldiers who crucified Jesus – as a criminal.
In the First Century, you couldn’t choose to be a policeman or soldier. They were the same job – and this surely remained true for many centuries afterwards.
Now, let’s tax a fresh look at Yoder’s distinction: the military’s purpose is to kill people, but this is not the purpose of the police – although both may kill people in the right case.
But most nations have militaries solely for defensive and deterence purposes. There are countries that haven’t sent soldiers to kill for over a century. There have been plenty of military actions fought where the soldiers were instructed to disarm and capture rather than kill unless necessary to protect themselves. Indeed, it’s probably always been true that a wise general would prefer to avoid bloodshed if at all possible.
Just so, the police force will inevitably kill people in performing their duties, even though this is never the desired outcome. But sometimes it’s necessary to take the life of an evil person to protect the lives of innocents. And the police very often have to threaten a criminal’s life to obtain his compliance. But if the police won’t — on principle — pull the trigger, the gun means nothing. The police only succeed in their jobs because their threat of violence is real. And because it’s real, they usually don’t have to use violence.
But this is the identical calculus that drives the taking of lives in a defensive military action. If your country is at risk of being invaded, you first prefer to prevail by deterrence: don’t attack because we have overwhelming defensive forces. If your bank is at risk of being robbed, you first prefer to prevail by deterrence: we have cameras and guards and police: don’t rob use because we have overwhelming defensive forces. But if someone invades or robs anyway, the guns come out. You try to capture rather than kill, but failing that, sometimes the invader or robber gets shot.
Now, in very recent times, in the US, the Supreme Court has severely constrained the use of deadly force by the police, but this a novelty in the history of policing. The Romans crucified thieves, and until very recently, many a thief was killed by the police when he resisted arrest.
Even today, in many nations, the police kill many of the nation’s own citizens. There is nothing inherent in policework that makes the police less likely to kill than the military, when killing is required to get the job done.
Just so, Yoder also distinguishes between the police and the military arguing that the police are subject to closer supervision by the courts — which is true in this country. In the US, the military is overseen by the President with very little oversight by the courts, whereas the police are overseen by the courts as well as the executive branch. But both are under civilian authority — in this country. But it’s hardly a universal rule that one is more strictly governed than the other.
One more thought experiment
Imagine the idea that it’s a good, Christian, gospel-worthy idea for Christians to serve in the police in order to regulate the evil of individuals, but it’s wrong, un-Christian, and anti-gospel for Christians to serve in the military to regulate the evil of entire nations. Why is it good to use the threat of violence to control individuals but not to control entire nations?
Of course, when you confront a nation, the amount of violence threatened is all the greater, but so is the evil. Why may Christians, as police, prevent murder by individuals, but as soldiers may not prevent mass murder by cruel dictators?
It could be argued that a war against a murderous nation involves the deaths of innocent soldiers forced into service in the dictator’s army as well as the “collateral damage” of civilians — it’s not just the murderous dictator whose life is at risk — whereas for individual murderers, it’s unlikely any innocents will get hurt. And that’s true.
But it’s also true that failing to stop the murderous dictator results in the deaths of many innocents. In a religion that has as its primary ethic “do unto others,” how can we conclude that there never is a case where military action can be, on the whole, more good than not taking military action?
For that matter, the military often deals with purely police actions — to end piracy, to police the borders — so I’m just not seeing Yoder’s point.
Again, this is hardly the end of the discussion. It’s just that I don’t think you can argue that the military is inherently evil while the police are inherently good. Both can be used for evil and for good. It’s easy to think of plenty of examples of just that.
A policeman can be ordered to do evil — and a Christian so ordered must refuse to do so. Just so, a soldier can be ordered to do evil as well, and a Christian soldier must say no. And history is replete with examples of both kinds of evil orders. But what would the world be like without the police and the military? You see, both are at the heart of why we have government.
Both have been empowered by God to use the power of the sword to punish evil and reward good — and I think both are much more likely to honor their God-given purposes if Christians participate.
That’s not to say that there are no limits on what wars a Christian may participate in. It’s just to say that I don’t see a per se rule that all military action is wrong whereas service in the police is okay. Indeed, I don’t think God meant to design a system where, just as soon as a majority of the people are converted to Christianity, the nation disbands its military and offers no resistance to invasion — or, worse yet, allows non-Christians to die defending a nation that the Christians control but won’t defend.