Military Service: A Ministry of Social Justice?!

As a member and pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), I am committed to God’s mission of social justice – action that works toward promoting and preserving the dignity and right to life for all human beings, and that stands with and for those who cannot stand for themselves. This is the work the church as God’s people is called into, a response to the good news of what God does for us in Jesus Christ.

During my time at Navy Officer Development School, and one of the things we had to do is commit certain things to knowledge: Articles of the Code of Conduct in wartime, Leadership Traits, and Rank & Insignia that military personnel wear, to name a few. Another thing we have to learn is the Mission of the Navy & the Sailor’s Creed.

The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train, equip combat ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas.

I am a United States Sailor. I will support and defend the constitution of the United States of America and I will obey the orders of those appointed over me. I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and those who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world. I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with Honor, Courage, and Commitment. I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.

Consider some of the phrases in these documents: Deterring aggression. Maintaining freedom of the seas. To defend freedom and democracy around the world. I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.

It sounds a lot like a ministry of social justice to me.

Ok, before I go any further let me just deal with the pushback right now: Yes, military service and our nation’s military is certainly a “messy” thing. There is the issue of whether war is ever just, and our military and its action is tied to economic, social, and political forces, people, and agendas that are acting less in the interest of freedom and justice we care to admit. Yes, military service and action isn’t 100% pure in terms of seeking justice.

But, I’ll fire back: name me a social justice movement that is 100% pure. Think of a few throughout history: the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, NAACP, Affirmative Action groups, and the church. My point is there is no such thing as a social justice movement or organization with 100% pure motives. Doesn’t exist – it’s a unicorn. However, I think most people would agree that such organizations do work to seek social justice, and the work they do is faithful to that task.

One of my greatest frustrations with Christians is while they express their emphatic support for work and ministry of social justice, they vehemently denounce our military, its actions, and those who serve as “evil and unjust.” And some, in trying to reconcile in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” sort of way, will say that men and women today are pressed into military service against their will somehow….”just like Vietnam.”

Such a sentiment to me is simply false misguided. Today, our military force is an all volunteer force. Men and women serve by their own choice. And while their reasons are varied, many of them will echo this sentiment: they’ve seen the realities and scars people bear because of the broken world we live in, and they feel compelled to act. They feel compelled to commit themselves to the notion that freedom of life is something all people have a right to, and that it has to be defended and protected. These are people who are committed to justice in the world, and considering the messiness involved and the cost to themselves, choose to do so anyway.

If only the church so universally were committed to social justice in this way.

Yes, as a person of faith I pray for the day we no longer need a military force…I pray for a day of total peace, a just world to live in. But then I look at things like the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and today, the situation in Syria, and I also realize tragedy and violence are a very real part of our world, and as a result, people suffer. I am thankful for a military force, and those who serve in it, that puts its personal comfort aside and puts itself in harm’s way for the sake of others in need.

Perhaps you disagree….but at the very least I ask you to wrestle with this, the notion of military service as participation in God’s action towards social justice in the world. However, as a person who has served and continues to serve in our U.S. military forces, I am thankful that what I do in uniform lines up with my response to God’s call to participate in God’s work of justice in the world. It’s not always clear or pure perhaps, but then I ask myself the question, “If not me, than who?”

And the answer becomes clear: “Here I am Lord, send me.”

And maybe we as a church can learn something here…..perhaps we should be universally acting with as much courage and commitment as well. Or, maybe we acknowledge we can’t, considering the diverse beliefs and convictions we hold. So we honor those that do, and the work they do…and that includes our military service men and women.


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Filed under Missional Thinking & The Church, Navy Chaplaincy

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