A Vietnam vet shares Luther’s perspectives on soldiers and the “sword” as well as tells his own personal story of discovery about what God says about war.
Erhard P. Opsahl
Many people today find war odious and are offended by anyone who is or has been in the military. This hatred was witnessed firsthand by most of us who returned from Vietnam to jeers and spit. And many today coming back to civilian life from stints in our Armed Forces are experiencing isolation and disrespect, even in some congregations. Why?
Well, warfare is disgusting behavior. Soldiers participate in the awful barbarity of purposely destroying homes and cities while also taking the lives of others, including noncombatants. That is unthinkable, especially for many Christians.
It may be surprising to know that St. Augustine addressed the question of Christians and serving in the military during the Roman Empire in his book The City of God. Augustine affirms that two kingdoms simultaneously exist—an earthly, visible kingdom (secular government) and a believing, invisible realm. One is temporal; the other spiritual. Both answer to God.
Maybe more unexpected is that five hundred years ago, the Reformer Martin Luther was pressured to write something on Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, also translated as Christians Can Be Soldiers (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 46, pp. 89-137).
A key character in the story behind Luther’s book is Assa von Kram (or Asche von Cramm, Aschwin IV, Ascanius von Cramm). Born about 1490, Assa was a heralded cavalryman from Lower Saxony who made his name on June 28, 1519, at the Battle of Soltau, a “nobles’ feud.” He led a 400-knight regiment on the battlefield in the victory of Henry the Middle over Henry the Younger. Martin Luther was a good friend of Assa.
During the summer of 1525, Assa happened to be visiting Luther in Wittenberg and convinced Luther to commit to answer questions people had been asking Luther to address for five years. Apparently, interest was piqued by the fact that the Turks seemed determined in trying again to extend their Islamic sultanate/caliphate into Christian Western Europe. Another factor may have been the growing desire of some to exterminate the Lutheran heresy by force. Misunderstandings of Luther’s writing during the Peasants’ War were still being argued. Luther had voiced opposition to the peasants when they resorted to force and rebelled against the nobles.
Luther wrote that the “sword” of an earthly kingdom/nation/state has been instituted to punish evil, protect the good, and preserve public order (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13,14). He stated that going to war is to bring about peace and obedience.
“Killing” can be a “work of love.” For example, says Luther, a good physician cuts off an infected arm to save a person from dying. He wrote, “What men write about war, saying that it is a great plague, is all true. But they should also consider how great the plague is that war prevents” [LW, Vol. 46, p. 96). War can seem like an unchristian work completely contrary to Christian love. But he reminds us that “if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world would be ruined because of lack of peace” [LW, Vol. 46, p. 96).
Accordingly, the work of being a soldier, in itself, is right and godly. Luther holds that God can tolerate a soldier who goes to war and kills, as one does to enemies by military law and in time of war. But, he also warns of the abuse of this power and again cites the example of physicians who would “needlessly amputate a healthy hand just because they wanted to.”
Luther cites John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-18) as praising the profession of arms when Roman soldiers came to him for counseling. At the same time, Saint John rejected any abuse of their positions of power. Luther noted that Old Testament heroes who participated in war (e.g., Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David) were not condemned by God.
Readers of Luther’s book on the likelihood that soldiers could be saved also are referred to another of his writings: Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (LW, Vol. 45, pp. 75-129).
Luther makes two points to remember:
1) Christians live under a spiritual government and are subject only to God.
2) As far as body and property are concerned, Christians are answerable to their rulers here on earth and owe them obedience. Luther contends that “if worldly leaders call on his people to fight, then they ought to and must fight, and be obedient, not as Christians, but as members of the state” (LW, Vol. 46, p. 99). Worldly leaders are also subject to God, Luther adds.
A personal reflection
My awareness of history in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s centered on the specter of Communism taking over the world. There was Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain, then Korea, then the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then Vietnam. The United States seemed to be playing “whack-a-commie-mole” around the globe.
A charismatic young president was persuasive in urging Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I enlisted in the Army right out of college.
All of a sudden, some things seemed to change. The news media and academia led the movement of questioning the validity of the Vietnam War. Was it a “just” war? Were our soldiers out of control? Everyone agreed that the massacre at My Lai was a terrible tragedy. The battlefield was on TV every night at home.
Four men under my command died during the year I spent in a mechanized infantry battalion. Little did I know that almost 40 years would pass before I recognized symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies circulated that 22 veterans a day were committing suicide; the average age was 55. I was shocked into action.
Getting involved with veterans’ organizations helped me see sources of much of the pain. Current and former military people are not always certain about their acceptance by the general population. All too often, vets are being shut out of “civilian life.” Most non-veterans don’t seem interested in finding out about the sacrifices our military members and their families made—and continue to make—in order to help preserve America’s precious democracy.
So what do we do? Where do we go?
For me, the words of the Bible, St. Augustine, and Martin Luther are helping soothe the guilt that society imposed and still imposes on me and my comrades. Finally realizing that most Christians do not believe that all killing that soldiers do is murder opened my eyes even more. I am getting a picture that I should have seen much more clearly some five decades ago.
The recently published Small Catechism confirms the proposition unambiguously and concisely, “God alone has the right to end a person’s life, but he delegates that right also to his representatives in government. A person serving under the authority of the government as God’s representative—a government official, a soldier, or a police officer—may carry out capital punishment, take life in a war, or take life to protect the lives of others” (Luther’s Catechism 2017, p. 77).
Coming to a better understanding of this troubling issue helps me fight my doubts, distress, and depression each and every day.
Erhard Opsahl, president of the Lutheran Military Support Group, is a member at Risen Savior, MacFarland, Wisconsin.
Learn more about the Lutheran Military Support Group at lutheranmilitary.org.
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Author: Erhard P. Opsahl
Volume 104, Number 11
Issue: November 2017
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