A Call for a New Mind Regarding War and the Military

Editor: This is the Daystar Journal’s third article in the winter issue, which is focusing on “The LCMS in the Public Square.” The first article analyzed the current emphasis of “Freedom to be Faithful.” The second article offered the personal account of an LCMS pastor and his colleagues during the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement. This third article questions whether merely supporting our troops is the proper Christian response to war and the military. The author, Scott Geminn, is the associate pastor of Village Lutheran Church and The Chapel School in Bronxville, New York. He graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2009. His undergraduate degree is in history. He has a strong interest in the intersection between history and theology.

A Call for a New Mind Regarding War and the Military

By Scott Geminn


I was in my sophomore year at Concordia College-New York when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings and murdered upwards of 3,000 people. Like most New Yorkers, I was personally affected in many ways. Two weeks after the attack I was on my way to work on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was standing on the subway platform at W. 59th St., waiting for the 1 train to arrive. When the train approached I saw that it was covered in the dust of the towers. It was an eerie sight that will stay with me forever.

Like many at that time, I wanted retaliation. I wanted justice. My frustration grew because there was no specific country we could attack. Sure, we went into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, but that was small in comparison to the force that was before us (Al Qaeda wasn’t bound by border lines). Over time things seemed to calm down. Then came the fall of 2002. In the months leading up to March of 2003 the United States had found its target: Saddam Hussein and Iraq. I must confess with great humility that from the start the idea of going into Iraq never made much sense to me. As a concerned left-hand citizen I did plenty of research that convinced me that this call for war was founded upon false information. Out of nowhere, it seemed, Saddam Hussein became public enemy number one, despite the fact that he was not in any way associated with Al Qaeda. More specifically, though, as a Christian the prospect of war laid heavily on my heart. I was familiar with the doctrine of the two kingdoms, but found that what the Bush Administration wanted to do was not in accord with the Just War teaching that is found in the Confessions. I found solace in the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, led by Paul John Paul II, condemned the Iraq War as unjust, but no such response came from my church body –the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

It is now 2015 and Iraq has not proven to be what the American public thought it would be. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction found, nor a link proven between Saddam and Al Qaeda, which led some to believe that the Bush administration knowingly misled the American public. Over one hundred thousand people have died in “the War on Terror,” and many soldiers are returning with various ailments, such as PTSD and Moral Injury. The suicide rate among these returning veterans has risen to 22 a day, which has caused many to regret their support for the war. Since 2001 we have spent upwards of five trillion dollars fighting “the War on Terror,” yet we fail to feel safer or shake off the perpetual fear that controls our culture. There are now calls for us to go back into the Middle East to fight ISIS, but these calls lack any thoughtfulness as to how things got to be the way that they are. As James Risen put it, our nation is using a “whack-a-mole strategy” when it comes to Islamic militant insurgencies. We attack them before they ever attack us thereby guaranteeing that they will eventually turn against us and perpetuate the endless war on terror.

These last few years the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has found itself embroiled in what many call a culture war. Our church body has found itself responding to issues like healthcare, homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion and religious freedom, secular humanism and Islam. In many of these cases the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod finds itself at odds with governmental legislation and public opinion. Interestingly though, the Missouri Synod finds itself in large agreement with US policy towards war and the military in our context. While the LC-MS has done a fair job highlighting the stresses of war and the emotional wounds that war inflicts upon veterans, it has failed to examine with a critical lens war and military. Instead, it speaks with an inherent trust in our government and leaders when it comes to our military efforts. We assume we are fighting a just war without truly examining the criteria for a just war and the negative consequences of such actions, both at home and abroad. As Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto put it in his piece on the need to heed the calling of war, “This columnist has no divine calling to second guess the decision makers.” As both right-hand and left-hand kingdom citizens, we have a responsibility to our brethren, to do what is hard for the sake of their consciences. As the people of God, can we be our brother’s keeper? Can we do better for our brother? Yes, we can. As Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr put it, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Warnings Unheeded?

On January 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell speech to the American public. In this speech President Eisenhower warned the American public of guarding against what he called the unwarranted influence of the “Military Industrial Complex.” By 1961, given the nature of world politics after World War II, the United States greatly increased its military to the point in which it spent annually more on military security than the net income of all United States corporations. President Eisenhower even stated that the military establishment had grown to the point in which its “total influence –economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” This, he claimed, was an important development, and “we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” Soon thereafter John F. Kennedy would be sworn in as President of the United States.

It is well documented that when John F. Kennedy walked into the Oval Office he was a Cold War hawk. Yet he was soon transformed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and his correspondence with Premier Nikita Kruschev. In his now famous commencement speech at American University on June 10, 1963, President Kennedy spoke of the need to work towards world peace and to take a step back from military proliferation. He called for a peace that “makes life on earth worth living…” and “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” President Kennedy even lamented the fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union were “devoting massive sums of money to weapons that would be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease.” He went on to state, “We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counter weapons.” About four months later President Kennedy would be assassinated and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson would be sworn in as President of the United States. This would have an immediate impact on American involvement in Vietnam.

Despite the words and actions of President Kennedy, “the Military Industrial Complex” would increase its profits and power such that by 1965 the United States, under President Lyndon Johnson, was heavily involved in Vietnam. More and more troops and supplies were sent that way. That situation compelled the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to give one of his most memorable speeches, entitled “Beyond Viet Nam.” Given on April 4, 1967, this speech served as a sort of addendum to the warning of President Eisenhower just six years earlier. Dr. King was known for speaking out for civil rights but many were confused when he also felt compelled to speak out against the war in Vietnam. He explained in this speech something worthy of our attention. The war in Vietnam was the symptom of a far deeper malady in the American spirit – a malady that would lead to “spiritual death.” Like President Kennedy, Reverend King would be assassinated a year after making this speech.

Looking Back and Looking Around

Looking back at the words of President Eisenhower, President Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., one wonders why we have failed to heed their words of warning and hope. It’s always struck me as sobering that two decorated war veterans such as President Eisenhower and President Kennedy were gravely concerned about the “Military Industrial Complex.” In regards to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are all very familiar with his “I Have A Dream” speech but his “Beyond Vietnam” speech is very jarring and shocking. We can all support one man’s dream that one day his children would live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but rather the content of their character. It’s another thing to support one man’s speaking out against the United States government for being what he called “the biggest purveyor of violence in the world today.” There’s only so much that we can handle, and for most of us the military is a sort of sacred cow. What’s most striking is that respect for many of our institutions—from Congress to organized religion—has gone down these last few decades, but respect for the military has actually increased.

Nonetheless, if one looks closely, one can see that the “Military Industrial Complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about was at work and it still is. For example, military projects have been spread out to as many congressional districts as possible. This means that every time a military budget cut is proposed a congressional district may have a significant amount of constituents directly affected by that cut and therefore they might be less likely to vote for their representative in the next election because they took away their livelihoods. This puts considerable pressure on Congress not to cut military spending, for just like their constituents they fear for their jobs. For example, in the 1980s some in Congress tried to cut funding for the B-2 bomber. That is, until it became clear that work for the project was being carried out in 46 states and no fewer than 383 congressional districts (there are 435). As we can see, there is a vast network of vested interests that affect the day to day lives of so many people and families. Unfortunately, with the advent of the “War on Terror” the line between corporate and military interests has been further muddied. One man who worked for decades overseeing Pentagon contracts said to reporter James Fallows, “The system is based on lies and self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving.” The old adage, “follow the money” definitely applies here. The CIA relies so heavily on outside contractors that many case workers quit and come back as a contractor a week later to do the same job, only now they are making twice as much money.

To add to this discussion, we are also becoming more and more aware of the effects that warfare has on those returning. It seems as if every day we hear or read of another story in the news about the rise of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as Moral Injury in our returning Veterans. Men and Women return home changed and numb by what they saw and did, contradicting the very morality and ideals with which they were raised. They were led to believe by both their government and their religion that what they were setting out to do was noble and good. They feel a sense of alienation and deference to the world around them. The suicide rate among veterans is climbing with more than 22 a day. It is believed that one in five veterans will commit suicide. We as a society don’t know what to do with such things. Sadly, there is little help for veterans who return with Moral Injury. Our government provides extensive training and preparation for troops going into battle yet the Defense Department and VA have almost nothing for the moral wounds that endure after soldiers return. As one Veteran riddled with PTSD and Moral Injury states, “It’s hard to find yourself again, because you’re never going to be the same person. I am trying to figure out how to forgive myself for everything I did over there, and it’s hard to figure out. I’m messed up. I’m tired of just taking pills…We are still having suicides by people who don’t tell anyone why they are hurting inside. We are still at war.” Is this the spiritual death of which Dr. King spoke?

A Renewed Mind…

If one examines the Lutheran Witness issues from the past three years, one will note the critical lens the LCMS has taken towards the surrounding culture in which we live, but nary a critical word spoken about war or the military. What’s interesting is that while we may find ourselves at odds with our culture on various moral issues, we find ourselves in agreement with our culture’s stance on war and military. The August 2012 issue of the Lutheran Witness was dedicated to the topic of war and military. That issue addressed these topics through an approving lens that is not congruent with the call to nonconformity that we find in Romans 12:2. Upon reading this issue, it seems the writers assume that the United States is automatically on the side of right and of justice. As one LCMS chaplain wrote, “Throughout her history, the United States has defended freedom at home and around the World…” Our country would like to paint a picture that it is concerned with freedom around the world, but as John Adams said, “facts are stubborn things,” and the facts seem to be stacked against us.

In 1953 Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran wanted to nationalize a British-owned oil company. This company was the only oil company operating in Iran. There were no others. Unhappy with this decision, the United States and the British led a coup to remove Prime Minister Mossadegh from power and to restore the Shah to power. When the Shah came to power the oil industry was restored to foreign ownership. Under the Shah’s 25-year reign Iranians lived under great poverty, police terror and torture. Thousands were executed in the name of fighting Communism. The Shah’s military and police force were maintained by U.S. aid and training.

From 1964 to 1973 the United States worked to undermine the influence of Salvador Allende and Communism in Chile. Funds were funneled to anti-leftist organizations along with the dissemination of false information in various newspapers meant to undermine Allende’s influence. Chile’s military received training and weapons from U.S. officials, creating a level of trust that would prove beneficial to U.S. interests. In November of 1970 Salvador Allende became President of Chile. In response the United States withdrew financial assistance and the World Bank refused to give Chile any loans. This was all done in an effort to destabilize Chile and turn back the tide of Marxist influence. Despite this, the U.S. increased its military assistance to the Chilean military in 1972-1973. In the midst of these hardships the 1973 elections revealed that the Chilean people were still very much in favor of President Allende. On September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende was assassinated by the Chilean military, with the aid of U.S. military personnel. As a result, General Pinochet assumed power. His regime would be known for rampant human right’s violations. Thousands of Chileans would disappear in the dark of the night only to be tortured for days, months or years. Some would be executed and others would never be heard from again. Many of the disappeared were fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This was all done in the quest to rid Chile of Communist influence, exercised with American support and aid.

In 1979, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, El Salvador called upon President Carter, “Christian to Christian,” to cease providing military aid to the Salvadoran government and its paramilitary groups known as “death squads.” The next day he would become the eleventh priest murdered in El Salvador in three years. Throughout the 1970s the CIA and the U.S. military assisted the security agencies from which the death squads came. Just like in Chile many would be tortured and/or murdered and some would disappear, never to be heard from again. Such activities occurred under the veneer of warding off Communism. From 1980 to the early 1990s American military aid to El Salvador totaled more than six billion dollars and over 75,000 of their civilians had been killed. Two years after leaving office former President Jimmy Carter commented about El Salvador, “I think the government in El Salvador is one of the blood thirstiest in the hemisphere now.”

Similar situations occurred in countries such as Italy, Greece, the Philippines, Korea, Albania, Germany, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Syria, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Ecuador, the Congo, Brazil, Peru, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as many others. Such causes contradict our humanitarian impulse. Lastly, one wonders how Native Americans would respond to the chaplain’s words. Wouldn’t such actions classify us as the evildoers that Paul refers to in Romans 13:4?

In the same issue of the Lutheran Witness Jeni Miller interviewed General John Vessey. One of the things she asked was how his Lutheran faith played a role in his courageous work as a soldier (both on active duty as well as in retirement). In response, General Vessey cited Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession, which says that Christians may serve in just wars which is something that one can take comfort in. The odd part though is that most of us don’t know the actual requirements of Just War criteria. As Walter Wink so aptly states,

“Though most Christians, Catholic and Protestant, will, if questioned, claim that they support the use of violence in certain cases on the basis of just war thinking, they do nothing of the sort. Just war theory is a very rigorous and complex ethical discipline. It has never been taught to the average church member or even to most clergy. The vast majority of professional theologians would be at a loss to list the seven or more criteria used in just war decisions. What most people call “just war” is really something else. Some mean by it the entirely different idea of the holy war or crusade, which know no limits and admits no ethical quandaries. From the Hebrew conquest of Canaan to the medieval Crusades to World War I (the war to “make the world safe for democracy”), holy wars have been total wars aimed at the utter subjugation or extermination of an enemy.”

It can be strongly argued that United States has failed to follow Just War Criteria in many of its conflicts from the War for Independence to the Mexican-American War to the Spanish-American War to World War I to the Vietnam War to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Just War criteria are:

1. The war must have a just cause

2. It must be waged by a legitimate authority

3. It must be formally declared.

4. It must be fought with peaceful intention

5. It must be a last resort.

6. There must be a reasonable hope of success.

7. The means used must possess proportionality to the end sought.

There are also conditions for conduct in war:

1. Non-combatants must be given immunity

2. Prisoners must be treated humanely

3. International treaties and conventions must be honored.

Again, Walter Wink states succinctly in regards to U.S. conflicts, “These wars are not justified by ethical reflection but merely by the presumed necessities of power politics.” It’s interesting to note that the Roman Catholic Church along with other churches claimed that both the War in Iraq in 2003 and Desert Storm were unjust wars that failed to follow this criteria. So what do we American Christians who hold to the Augsburg Confession do now?

But there’s more. In his Lutheran Witness article, “Just Cause,” Chaplain Mark Schreiber cites the words of William Bennet who, seeking clarity in the war against terror, claims that to teach children that non-violence is the highest human virtue is to steal from their minds one of the oldest and noblest virtues of the human race: there are still some things worth fighting and dying for. It’s a bit disconcerting that a chaplain would cite such a statement, given the very history and statements of the early Christian Church fathers. More specifically, such a statement presupposes that non-violence equals non-resistance. It also contradicts the actions of many early Christians as well as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement that he led. From Origen to Hippolytus to Justin Martyr as well as many others we read that the early Christians were expected to renounce their military profession and to refuse to kill. As Minicius Felix stated, “for us it is not permissible even to see or to hear of murder.” Better still are the words of Origen, “Celsus next exhorts us to help the Emperor and be his fellow soldiers. To this we reply, ‘You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests.’ We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this, but we do fight for him by forming our own army, any army of faith through our prayers to God.” One also wonders how Adam Bennet would respond to Jesus telling his disciples to put down their swords as he was being arrested in the garden. Furthermore, Chaplain Schreiber states that the chaplain carries on “the tradition of illuminating the just causes that are still worth fighting for. He is not a cheerleader for war, but he awakens the conscience and secures the moral high ground for righteousness and just cause.” But what if the evidence suggests that the cause is not just, or at least is not as just as we have been led to believe? Again, why do we automatically believe that what our leaders tell us is true when it comes to war?

Furthermore, in his Lutheran Witness article, “Can Christians Be Soldiers?,” Dr. Adam Francisco uses Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this than to lay down his life for his friends” as justification for warfare and soldiering. Such a use of this passage is inconsistent with the context in which Jesus says these words. Those words were part of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples after which he would nonviolently lay down his life for his friends. During the arrest of Jesus, Peter pulls out his sword and cuts off Malchus’ right ear, only to be told by Jesus to put his sword back into his sheath. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus exclaims, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” To use John 15:13 as a text in support of military and soldiering is misguided and misplaced.

Lastly, I think of St. Martin of Tours, who has an LCMS award named after him. This award is given “for exceptionally meritorious sustained service in support of the Ministry to the Armed Forces.” Ironically, Martin of Tours resolved to leave the army after he was baptized, because of Christ’s call to nonviolence. He famously stated “I am a soldier of Christ, I cannot fight.” Martin’s commanding officers saw such a request as one of cowardice until he offered to go to the front lines without weapons. Thankfully the battle did not commence and Martin was put in prison. After his release Martin joined a monastery and later became the bishop of Tours for ten years. I think it is fair to say that such things are confusing and misleading. This is especially baffling coming from a church body that prides itself in its theology and faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Confessions. What if, for a moment, we considered such things?


I must confess to you that as of late I have to remind myself that I am a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rather than the “Religious Right.” Year after year we’ve had numerous articles and press releases dedicated to the discussion of abortion and the importance of being pro-life and yet nothing on the pernicious nature of war and the military in our culture. For us being pro-life from conception to birth is safe, but being pro-life thereafter is a bit of a challenge. We’ll speak out against the innocent killing of unborn children, but no such protest comes from us in regards to the innocent civilians killed in war who are both children and adults. Every January we make our voice known in Washington D.C. at the March for Life Rally, but no such voice is heard when it comes to war and military. Instead, as indicated previously, we legitimize and validate our culture’s views on war and military by doctoring it up with theological terms and phrases. It’s no different with other issues. It’s safe for us to be against homosexuality and gay marriage. It’s safe for us to be against secular humanism and Islam, but it’s not safe to go down the rabbit hole of the problems with war and military. We in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are far more in tune with the prevailing culture than we realize. While President Harrison said he was “delighted for being ridiculed by the world” for his testimony before the House Committee on Government Oversight regarding the HHS mandate, he also received much praise, adulation, and validation for doing so. This is a far cry from the persecution that Jesus warned his followers of and received himself. I often wonder if we are a caricature of what the world has come to know as “Christian.” Interestingly enough, people in Iraq have called leaders in the U.S. “Christian extremists,” just as leaders here speak of “Muslim extremists.” While serving as a missionary in Iraq, writer, author and activist Shane Claiborne had an Iraqi mother say to him, “Your country is declaring war in the name of God and asking God’s blessing, and that is the same thing my country is doing. What kind of God is this? What has happened to the God of love, to the Prince of Peace?”

In the May 2013 issue of the Lutheran Witness President Matthew Harrison stated, “And know this: As traditional Christians are driven out of the public square, the door is also closed for the Gospel.” What’s sad though, is that we have missed many opportunities while the door has been open. Having ignored the words of President Eisenhower, President Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. King we continue on foregoing the possibility that Jesus’ third way of non-violent love could work in the public square. Instead we trust in weapons and might. Violence in the name of peace gives us some sense of control and alleviates the anxiety that we feel. All the while our government leaders and media pundits convince us that the cause is just, thus validating what we already believe and feel, due in large part to their prevailing influence. When it comes to war and the military our minds, our moral reasoning and moral formation have simply been colonized by the left-hand kingdom. President Harrison was deeply concerned about the HHS provision and the burden it would put on our consciences. Oddly though, our consciences don’t seem to be too burdened by how much of our taxes go towards the “Military Industrial Complex.”

Imagine what could happen if we learned from our Lord and sought to be fully conformed to his image. We might find ourselves like the man whom Jesus exorcised of the demon “Legion,” who upon being found in his right mind began to tell people what Jesus had done for him. With our minds renewed through the Holy Spirit we would truly witness to a love that triumphed over the powers and the principalities, not through taking up arms but by laying them down. Such a witness would have a deep impact upon the public square. For a world and country on its way towards spiritual death, that would bring spiritual life.

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2 thoughts on “A Call for a New Mind Regarding War and the Military

  1. Thank you for sharing this very incisive and thought-provoking article. I hope it can be widely circulated throughout the LCms. Wouldn’t this be a great article for one of our theological journals to reprint? Or (possibly condensed) in The Lutheran Witness…

  2. Thank you for sharing this article, Pr. Gemmin.

    When I registered for the draft, I struggled with the question whether I was a conscientious objector. I had to answer no because I am not opposed to all ware and because I was a member of a denomination (LCMS) that was not opposed to all war. I hold to the principles of just war and the draft registration made no accommodation for those principles. I assumed the LCMS held to the principles of just war. And, I also assumed that the principles of just war were an American value. As the wars in Vietnam and Iraq clearly demonstrate, “just war” might be part of the American mythology but the principle does not inform our foreign policy. Moreover, LCMS’ silence in both of those campaigns leads me to wonder how closely the denomination embraces the principle.

    I was drafted in the last call before the Selective Service System adopted the lottery. In retrospect, I understand that those of us who were drafted to serve in the military during the Vietnam war were given three choices. We could serve while our country was engaged in an immoral war. We could renounce our country. Or, we could choose five years in a federal penitentiary. The third was the only moral option, the only confessional Lutheran option and I regret that I did not have the courage to make that choice. I also wonder whether, had my church been more vocal regarding the principles of just war, I might have better understood the dilemma that I faced when I received my draft notice.

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