Martial Missions?

The recent plight of the Christians in the Middle East, first in Syria and then in Iraq, has raised for me the question of crusades. The popish doctrine of the mediæval Crusades was rightly rejected by the Reformers. As William Ellis says in his Lectures on Popery, Exhibiting the Chief Doctrines of Romanism,

But the Popes, who ultimately monopolized the power of granting indulgences, dispensed them with the most reckless prodigality, as well as for the most unhallowed purposes. They granted them for military service; promising, as in the Crusades, to those who thus forwarded their views, that all their sins should be forgiven; declaring, that to proceed to Jerusalem from devotion, should be reckoned instead of all repentance: and so powerfully did this act, that, in the first instance, according to Gibbon, six millions of human beings accepted the offer.

Without the doctrines of indulgences and papal dominium, however, the question remains even for Protestants. We understand that the temporal is not the spiritual. We know that temporal force of arms, though useful in its own way, is not the way in which the spiritual rule of Christ is advanced. Yet the Protestant conception of the two kingdoms, of Christ’s spiritual and temporal reigns, does not deny that the temporal ruler is placed in charge to serve spiritual ends and not only temporal. His ministry is not only to fatten the people up but also to look after their spiritual well-being, and this he does (if he is Christian) as a great deacon of the Church. If Christians abroad are in constant physical danger, it is no frivolous question to ask, Whether it be a missionary work for part of the Church to support another, assaulted part by force of arms.

First, however, I think I should note that the Church’s concern and outrage should not be simply because many of the victims are Christians. That such things are done to anyone, not just to Christians, is an atrocity. The same things the Islamic State (ISIS) does to Yazidis and Shīʻites should equally be condemned in the strongest terms, not least by the Church. In China, likewise, the savage persecution of Falun Gong adherents is no less to be condemned than the sometimes desperate persecution of nonjuring Christians who worship outside the structures approved by the Communist Party. Injustice against any person created in the image of God is something the Lord himself will redress, something against which the Church should testify.

But holy Scripture also calls Christians to love Christians especially, just as God has loved the Church especially. St Paul says in Galatians, As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith. For our Lord says also, A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. Christians are to be marked by their love, but apparently they are particularly to be recognized by the especial love they show to other Christians. Here we are not called to love pagans less, but to love Christians more.

It seems right, then, for Christians to try especially to protect other Christians from persecution. To preserve other Christians’ lives, after all, is even more basic than relieving their poverty, an activity in which St Paul undoubtedly was involved. For this reason Protestants in Europe were often ready to support the military defence of other Protestants who were being persecuted by the Romanists. When the Thirty Years’ War broke out, Puritans in the English Parliament were eager to go to war to defend the Palatinate from the forces of popery. To defend the faith is also to defend those who bear it.

If anyone demand how a Christian can fight against a non-Christian to protect a Christian, and how a Christian so fighting can claim to love those who are not Christian, my answer cannot be better than that of Brutus:

If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.

It is only natural that a Christian should, not for lack of care for the whole commonwealth, but for love of Christ, take up arms for the lives of other Christians. For he knows it unjust for Christians to be killed for their faith, and he feels their deaths closer to his heart than those of pagans, because the reverence he gives to their lives is the reverence he owes to the body of Christ. Whoever will treat the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with reverence should also revere the lives of those who believe in Christ, as surely as he receives the body of Christ in the sacrament.

So a Christian will not set his own life above the lives of his brethren. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Perhaps he will even be gunned down by an Islamic State militant as he fights for his brethren in Iraq, and for the bearers of the gospel to live in that country.

Of course, the words of Christ do not demand that Christians use violent force to defend other Christians. I have, however, limited myself to supporting violence used to defend the innocent, not violence used to punish Islamist criminals. Punishment still belongs to an authority with the jurisdiction to punish. For now, it belongs to the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities, unless by utterly lawless acts they forfeit it and the restoration of order falls to the Russians or the Americans. Nevertheless, it seems lawful to form a Christian militia to protect the lives of innocent Christians and help the proper authorities restore an order that protects Yazidis and Shīʻites, and perhaps it is even good and wise to do so. After all, most of us would, seeing an innocent person be beaten, think it lawful to intervene in his defence; and all the more if we and the innocents are both Christian, being of the same household.

On the other hand, martyrdom has a foolish power of its own, and the folly of God is greater than the wisdom of man. It was through dying on a cross that the Son of God redeemed the world, and only then that his body was raised in glory. Likewise, for our bodies to be raised in glory, they must be sown in dishonour. To shine glorious, they are sometimes bathed in blood. Sometimes God wishes to have us die the death of martyrs, and sometimes to fight for justice to be served. Both are spiritual battles. Who knows when one is preferable to the other?

Or sometimes, when a bloody martyrdom would do no good, flight and bloodless suffering are part of the divine plan. It was in this way that the Way gained adherents outside the land of Israel. Likewise God works today in a mysterious way. Since the gospel as now known in Jesus Christ is not tied to the land of Israel, but rather turned to worship anywhere in Spirit and in truth, we too must orient ourselves not to temples made by human hands but to the human bodies and souls that bear the truth of Christ. It is they, not their buildings, that are images of Christ; and it is they who can build new buildings dedicated to the service of the Lord. Though land is important, and our bodies are attached to physical homes, in our experience of exile the strength and beauty of the Lord will appear. It is right to weep for the loss of earthly homes and the defilement of sanctuaries once used for true religion, but it is also right to accept what the Lord has dealt out. The prophet Isaiah once wrote, Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. So lament. But the prophet says this as well, as he pleads for the Lord to rend the heavens: But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Drop, drop slow tears, but our hope is always in the Lord. From exile we know we shall return, and knowing this we can hang our harps and imprecate the righteous judgement of God upon our impenitent tormentors but also be firmly planted wherever the Lord wishes.

And in our speech the Church ought to be careful, that our words may be chaste and full of grace. Talk of international Christian solidarity can itself be a cause of anti-Christian violence. In the First World War, for example, the Ottoman Turks rightly perceived that Russia had used such solidarity talk to gain the loyalty of the Turks’ Armenian Christian subjects, and to preempt any fifth column from materializing proceeded to commit acts of genocide against the Armenians. Rejecting papalist theology about earthly dominium, and mindful that the Lord’s claims on the earth rest not upon our own military might, but upon his Spirit dwelling within his people, we may chasten our expectations of intervention of arms. What matter most are not the places, as if they were in themselves holy (was not the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed?), but the persons who confess the Almighty. If we speak of fighting, then, we should speak of lives and souls, not of places to be defended at all costs.

The Lord will give dreams and visions by his own counsels, and to these the Muslims will respond. If the Christians conduct themselves godly and wisely, their neighbours will know. Iraqi Muslims already have found themselves in sympathy with their Christian neighbours and sometimes, for the sake of the righteous, even dared to give up their own lives. O Lord, show thy mercy upon us, and grant us thy salvation. Aye, he will do this however he sees fit, and the Church must neither despair nor take it upon ourselves to make or keep a land Christian by any other means than the word of God. The sword is a handmaid only; our deeds will be in vain if our confidence be in horses and men. An army of preachers coming at Islamic State forces will only be gunned down with no mercy, but prudent force serving prudent speech can prevail.

In the end, I affirm that going to Iraq to keep Christians from being slaughtered is a godly ministry, but only if we put our trust not in princes but in the Prince of Peace. Those who will, let them go to the Middle East in response to the cries of God’s people, who daily are butchered in the holy Name of Jesus of Nazareth. Though attending to the needs of the body, their mission is not to be belittled. Their service, a service of deacons, will not be despised in the Kingdom of God, if it uphold the witness of the gospel. The ordained ministers of the word may say, Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And some suitable men may be appointed, full of faith and power, some to live and some to die.

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One response to “Martial Missions?

  1. Here (HT: Dominic Foo) are some stories of people who have gone to Iraq to fight alongside the Peshmerga and protect the Assyrian Christians.

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