Can you love someone and kill them? A reflection on war, pacifism and the Salvation Army

By Captain Sam Tomlin (Corps officer, Liverpool Stoneycroft Corps)

War has once again come to Europe. The tangible shock and horror is evident across the world. Writing but a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, all major news outlet leads with updates, and almost every other news item is pushed well aside.

What ought followers of Jesus to make of this war, and war more generally? Specifically for the purpose of this article, how should Salvationists respond? Is it possible to love your enemy and kill them, as just war theory suggests, or is a pacifist approach a more faithful route for discipleship, where lethal violence is off the table? We have been here before, of course, and in order to answer this question, it will be important to briefly reflect on how our predecessors have responded.

The Salvation Army and previous wars

The Army is still a relatively young denomination at just over 150 years old. With its origins in Great Britain, wars which Britain would fight in would inevitably prove the most interesting case studies for Salvationism in relation to war. In this regard, General Shaw Clifton’s excellent Crown of Glory, Crown of Thorns provides the most comprehensive analysis of the Army’s involvement in and approach to war. Covering the Boer war (1899-1902), the First World War (1914-18), and the Second World War (1939-45), Clifton carefully sifts through the sources and suggests three main principles which governed Salvationist reactions to war in this period:

The spiritual principle of Christian evangelism and soul-saving;

The practical priority of compassionate good works;

The upholding of Christian internationalism.

The first two will not come as a surprise to those within or outside the Army. Clifton details remarkable stories of sacrifice and compassion combined with a commitment to witnessing to God’s goodness in word and deed that have made the Army famous around the world. Despite complications with national governments, a misunderstanding of what the Army was (a church, charity, movement etc.?), the Army’s dedication to military personnel, widows, orphans and refugees was second to none when its comparatively small size among denominations is taken into account.

It is the third of the principles, however, which will be the main focus of this article, for I think it raises a number of questions for us as Salvationists today as our minds (at least those of us in the West) turn to the prospect of war once again.

The internationalism advocated by the Army during the three wars was not, according to Clifton, the result of painstaking political or theological inquiry, but a very pragmatic response first from William Booth in the Boer War and continued by the Generals in the subsequent wars, Bramwell Booth and George Carpenter. With countries going to war where the Army was working, it was felt too dangerous to international unity to come out on one side or the other, and this unity was to be protected at all costs. If, it was thought, a government perceived the Army was on the side of its enemy, the work of the Army in that country would be compromised so an official policy of offering least offence possible was adopted. Crucially, as we shall see, despite his abhorrence of war, William Booth refused to stipulate whether Salvationists should take up arms, leaving it to individual consciences. In 1914 it was even claimed by Bramwell’s wife Florence that the question of participation in war did not touch ‘the essentials’ of Salvationism.

Clifton makes it clear, though, that however noble the intentions, the Generals and national Army leaders found it difficult to adhere to the stipulated internationalism. The pull of patriotism was strong, and to varying degrees senior Commissioners and even Generals at times allowed this pressure to cloud their judgment. This is especially true in the United States, where the influence of William and Catherine’s daughter Evangeline ensured the Army’s ‘life was lived with its roots going deep into the soil of American patriotism and nation-building’ during WW1, and in WW2 Salvationist publications stressed the compatibility of the gospel and military service. In one official publication, conscientious objectors were told to ‘Live in blissful isolation until you die, and when you die the world will not miss you much.’

Estimates vary on the number of Salvationist combatants there were in each war and figures do not exist for every nation, but around 60,000 Salvationists took part in fighting forces in WW1 and 20,000 with the Allied forces in WW2 worldwide, with many more in non-combatant roles. According to Clifton, this ‘‘numbers game’ preoccupied the Army to a surprising degree considering its claim to be neutral and above the conflict.’

Salvationists were, therefore, not only prone to patriotic fervour, amounting at times to forgetting their brothers and sisters in other nations, but were in theory (and probably practice) pitted against one another on the battlefield, a serious theological issue, as we shall now see.

The body of Christ and war

For the avoidance of doubt, I am arguing in this article for a pacifist position and hope to persuade my fellow Salvationists of the merits of this perspective. At one point, Clifton notes that a TE Russell signed up after being conscripted in 1916 at just 18 years old: ‘He felt neither hatred nor regard for the Germans. He had simply answered to the statutory compulsion, unaware there was any realistic alternative.’ I hope to begin to provide the beginnings of some form of alternative for Salvationists today, building on the testimony of Salvationist pacifists including Ben Blackwell, Catherine Baird, Frederick Coutts and Carvosso Gauntlett, who strongly influenced General Carpenter in his role as editor-in-chief and acting Literary Secretary during WW2.

There are two issues I want to raise with the Salvationist response between 1899-1945. The first is made on evangelical grounds and concerns the first of the principles Clifton notes above. It was argued in each major war by Salvationists that involvement in the armed forces (combatants and non-combatants) provided a good opportunity to witness to fellow military personnel. Indeed, in one respect this was a success – many thousand conversions were noted in Army literature and a deep ‘passion for souls’ was a driving factor in the Army’s involvement in the wars.

This is all very well for witnessing to one’s own ‘side’ in a war, but what about the souls of your enemy? Indeed, in allowing Salvationists to take up arms and kill their enemies, does this not severely compromise witness to our enemies, the souls of whom Salvationists presumably were not confident would be bound for eternal glory?

‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’ Jesus says. This is not some arbitrary command, but fundamental to the essence of the witness Jesus calls his followers to. Throughout Christian history there are many examples of where disciples would rather die and have their death as a witness rather than take the life of someone who does not know God. After Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts, for instance, he specifically prays that God not ‘charge them with this sin,’ with Saul explicitly consenting to his execution (8.1). Very soon after, Saul meets Jesus – the witness of Stephen’s death surely playing a role, as the deaths of other martyrs in the Roman world challenged the Romans to re-think their bloodthirsty ways. Martin Luther King insists over and again that the aim of nonviolence is to win the enemy and release them from their desire to oppress – to help them see their error.

In allowing Salvationism to include the taking up of arms, the Salvationist combatant inadvertently makes a judgment that the salvation of one’s own side becomes more important than that of the other – if not, why would Salvationists be willing to kill them?

The second and more substantive point also concerns the importance of witness, but this time with reference to brothers and sisters in Christ. Time and again in the scriptures the point is made that God’s people are to be set apart for a purpose. In the Old Testament, God calls Israel from among the nations, not because they are better than the other nations, but because God chooses to make himself known through the witness of a particular people. In the New Testament this calling is extended to the Gentiles through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the ‘new humanity’ that is established around the person of Jesus has as its primary mode of engagement with the world as witness. Witness to what? Witness to the fact that God has defeated the powers of sin and death (see especially Romans 5-8), and those who put themselves under Christ’s lordship do not need to live in servitude to them anymore as they continue to rage, unaware of their defeat.

This witness involves not only love of enemy and neighbour, but crucially love of brothers and sisters in Christ. ‘By this everyone will know you are my disciples, that you love one another,’ says Jesus in John 13, and a little later expresses the desire that all his followers be ‘one’ just as he and the Father are one (17.21). The dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed, says Paul (Eph. 2.14), and this inherently involves a politics – understood as the arranging of social life together. This social life, far from being an additional extra to the gospel, is inherent to it – Paul confronts Peter in Galatians 2 for not eating with Gentiles and says that by doing so he was not ‘acting in line with the truth of the gospel’ (v.14). If the truth of the gospel is compromised when we choose not to eat with others, it is surely also so when we are prepared to kill our brothers and sisters in Christ because they come from another nation. Put another way, the issue of taking up arms is not some tangential issue of Christian ethics that rears its head every few decades with a new war – it deals with the essential nature of the gospel and the new life Jesus promises.

The vision of the New Testament is one where people from all parts of the world are reconciled – not in a way that eradicates their cultural differences, but so that these differences do not get in the way of genuine fellowship. This fellowship of humanity reconciled to God and to each other is a fundamental part of the body of Christ witnessing to an unbelieving world. That we might be prepared to kill our brothers and sisters, even in a just war severely compromises this witness.

Interpreting scripture

It might be objected that I am using a selective understanding of scripture. Indeed, for Salvationists whose first doctrine claims that the Old and New Testaments constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice, the interpretation of scripture is paramount. There are two principle dangers when it comes to interpretation on the issue of war and killing.

The first is ignoring the centrality of Jesus as the fullest revelation of God. In various debates I have had over the years on this topic, it is not uncommon for just warriors to reach for Old Testament passages to justify participation in war. This approach effectively amounts to saying, ‘I know Jesus forbids it, but it says x in Joshua.’ This is a questionable approach to interpretation for many reasons.

Firstly, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament knew the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) upside down – this was their only scripture, as the New Testament had not been canonised (officially accepted as scripture) or even written yet. Using this form of argument puts the modern interpreter in a better place to discern the meaning of the Old Testament – in light of what God has done in Jesus – than Jesus himself and the writers of the New Testament. As the New Testament makes clear, key aspects of the Old Testament witness remain in light of what God has done in Jesus, but others are reinterpreted or developed – for example the food laws in Acts 10 and, I would argue, the use of lethal violence.

Some years ago ethicist Nigel Biggar debated the issue of violence in the New Testament with New Testament scholar Richard Hays (you can read their debate here, here, here and here). You can judge for yourself who gains the upper hand, but in my mind the evidence rests strongly with Hays who argues that the New Testament simply does not provide any example of the use of lethal violence where it is shown as a faithful option for discipleship. True, Jesus and Peter do not rebuke Roman military commanders, but the issue being raised at these moments concerns Jewish-Gentile relations, not the endorsement of killing. Arguments advocating Christian use of lethal violence based on the New Testament are reduced to arguments from silence which are shaky at best.

What about Romans 13 I hear a chorus reply? Indeed, reading Romans 13 was the express advice of The Red Shield Army publication in the USA in 1944 for Salvationists considering whether to join the military along with the advice: ‘get out and do your duty by serving in the armed forces.’ There is not space to dissect Romans in detail here, save to say it is a misnomer (see here for more in depth analysis for why Romans 13.1-7 is not the call to take up arms to defend your homeland). A careful reading of Romans 12-13, in fact reinforces that followers of Jesus are to ‘bless those who persecute you,’ (12.14) and not to ‘replay anyone evil for evil’ (12.17). The function of the governing authorities of 13.1 is to keep peace through the use of force (13.4), but we misunderstand this passage if we read through our modern eyes. Since the Enlightenment we are used to trying to justify ethics for anyone as a universal ethic. What is true for Christians must be true for those who do not follow Jesus. Yet this is not the perspective of Paul (or the dominant witness of scripture, I would argue). Paul suggests the state is used by God to keep a level of peace and reduce violence, but it is not the Jesus followers’ responsibility to do this. It is simply not possible to ‘bless those who persecute you’ (12.14) and ‘bear the sword’ as an ‘agent of wrath’ (13.4) at the same time.

Does this mean Christians are absolved from participating in government or the common good? Certainly not. As an expression of our love for our neighbour, we are to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ (Jeremiah 29.7), but we do this in the terms Jesus gives us, not the terms set by the city or nation where we reside. Where the nation asks us to compromise our allegiance to Jesus and his way (like with the use of lethal violence), our higher allegiance is to him.

There is a danger the other side too, however. We can easily fall into an old Christian heresy called Marcionism. Marcion argued that the God of the Old Testament, with all his violence and destruction was fundamentally different from the New Testament God revealed in Jesus. The Old Testament, therefore can be thrown aside as we only answer to the New. This was rightly condemned by orthodox Christianity, as it unmoored Christianity entirely from Judaism. The New Testament may develop or reinterpret the Old in certain respects, but Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish, and thought in specifically Jewish ways. You cannot understand the New Testament without the Old, just as Christians would also argue the Old Testament is unfulfilled without the New. As much as Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is an expression of the ‘new’ thing God is doing, it also clearly emerges from and is unintelligible apart from Israel’s prophetic tradition.

Salvationism and war today – a modest proposal

Drawing us back to the present, what might this mean for followers of Jesus in the Salvation Army today as war rages between Ukraine and Russia?

Firstly we need to pray. This emphasis of each wartime General was completely right and is still true today. We should pray not only for an end to the violence, but also for the world leaders (even those we do not like) for wisdom and discernment (1 Tim. 2.2). Resources for praying for the war in Ukraine can be found on the 24-7 prayer website.

We also need to continue our practical response just as we did in previous wars. Already the Army has shown its true colours by responding within Ukraine, in surrounding countries and in territories like mine where work is happening to advocate for the UK to take in more refugees and to encourage Salvationists to consider how we can support refugees when they arrive (as has been the case in many recent refuee crises in different parts of the world).

Thirdly (as shown in this thread), following Jesus’ way should not preclude us from making judgments about the fault of war. Clifton critiques the Army in this regard particularly in WW2 for not coming out strongly against Hitler. You do not need to sign up wholeheartedly to everything in the liberal West and it is not Western propaganda to call Putin’s invasion what it is: barbaric and inhumane, causing untold suffering. Christian pacifists can also condemn this war as unjust on just war grounds – drawing out the point from Romans 12-13 above, accepting that there will be wars even if they refuse to use lethal violence. They might question the conclusions some just warriors come to, but Christian just war tradition beginning with Augustine (see here for a helpful short summary of the theory) is clearly an attempt to make war more humane and limit its destructive power. On this, Christian pacifists and just warriors are in agreement.

We should also accept none of us are faultless when it comes to war. Christian pacifism should not be some kind of moral insulation or proclamation of innocence regarding the complexities of war. Christians in Europe (myself included) are all part of patterns of life which lead to unjust social structures and in this case to the empowering of Putin and his cronies – whether participating in football which turned (and still turns) a blind eye to owners with deeply questionable ethics, to using Russian oil and gas to warm our homes, making our countries too reliant on Russia.

Christian pacifism should not be about dwelling on judgment of brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to take up arms to protect their families. It might be a cliché, but I have friends who have served in the military and even trained at William Booth College in London with those who have actively served in the British army. I disagree with a perspective that allows followers of Jesus to use lethal violence, but this does not mean I cannot love and be in dialogue with my brothers and sisters with whom I disagree.

It might be argued that it is easy to make such arguments for pacifism in the safety of the UK. This is a valid and serious critique to consider for Christian pacifists. I have no idea what it is like for my family to have to leave their homes, face shelling or gunfire etc. While this is the case, two responses can tentatively be made. Historically, pacifism has not always led to the avoidance of suffering. The Anabaptists in Reformation Europe were mercilessly persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics in much part for their refusal to take up arms and participate in what they saw were unjust structures of society. We saw above how Salvationist conscientious objectors were derided by their own official literature in the USA – let alone wider society, and this was also true in other denominations. Secondly, while it is true that it is easier to make arguments from a place of privilege, it is absolutely conceivable that this war branches out beyond Ukraine potentially into a third world war, and those of us in other territories must consider what our response will be. If our governments ask (or demand) that we take up arms – what will we say and do? What should Salvationist guidance be? Debate, as I have tried to show, must be founded in scripture and witness to the truth of God’s revelation in Jesus. If anyone thinks I have misrepresented the faith, I am happy to hear from them.

Finally I want to make a modest proposal to General Peddle and IHQ: I want to propose that we ask all Salvationists agree not to kill one another – or indeed followers of Jesus from other Christian traditions. This could be done in the form of an IHQ positional statement, or even included in the soldier’s covenant.

This might seem like an odd thing to ask, perhaps even setting the bar quite low, but it actually makes quite a radical claim (it is not my idea, but comes from the Mennonite tradition originally): that the call to be brothers and sisters in Christ is a greater call than that which our nation-states might ultimately ask of us. For when British and German Salvationists entered the battlefield in WW1 and WW2, however unlikely it was they might face a fellow Salvationist, they had in fact decided in their hearts that they would kill them if they did. William Booth was desperate to avoid division among the international Army, yet theologically there is an argument for saying that this division had already been created when he allowed Salvationists to kill each other on the battlefield.

I anticipate many Salvationists will want to push back against the arguments and assumptions I have made, but in writing in this article, I hope they might (re)consider this perspective. It might be argued (as it was by the wartime Generals) that this is simply something for individual consciences. But the taking of human life is a very serious matter, as I have tried to show, and it strikes me that when we prescribe ethical and moral demands such as not drinking alcohol, gambling etc., this too would qualify for a clear directive from our spiritual leaders.

The great Christian alternative to war is not the lack of violence secured by the state (although this has its rightful place), but the gathering of believers to worship the risen Christ and proclaim his victory over the powers of darkness in a world that still feels dark. We did this with Salvationists from around the world in 2015 at the Boundless congress. A picture (below) was shared recently on an officer social media page in the UK: it shows Russian and Ukrainian officers and soldiers in 1994 at a Prison ministries conference. This, more than taking up arms, subverts Putin’s war from a Christian perspective.

(Credit for sharing this picture: Joseph Smith)

One thought on “Can you love someone and kill them? A reflection on war, pacifism and the Salvation Army”

  1. Thank you for the thought put into the article. Some big assumptions made, which as you refer to, from the comfort and safety of your position in the UK. It would be helpful to ask a Christian who has fought in combat what their view is on this.
    I think if you have lived in a war situation or the threat of war of hanging over you, your view may not be quite the same.
    Whatever our view, if no-one took up arms to defend freedom, then you and I would not be here to write these words in the democracy we live in. Let’s not forget those who sacrificed everything for us, made those incredibly tough decisions to fight for us. And as you say pray!

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