Book Review: American Militarism vs the Kingdom of God

Book Review: American Militarism vs the Kingdom of God August 15, 2013

FightTo join the discussion about Fight A Christian Case for Nonviolence, or to order a copy, go here

Fight is an ironic name for a book that is a polemic on the Christian call to nonviolence.

The book’s author, Preston Sprinkle, wrote the book in response to and as a conversation with America’s militaristic evangelical community. Even though I have a few problems with some of his interpretations of specific scriptures, I think he’s got a point. In fact, I think he’s dead-on accurate in many of his conclusions.

I remember seeing a video of one of our preachers here in Oklahoma City. This preacher was speaking (I can not regard his speech as a sermon of any sort) to a thoroughly roused-up and enormous congregation. Since the speech was going out over the airwaves, his actual audience was much larger.

This preacher was charging up and down the stage, mike in hand, using all the theatrics at his disposal. He would bend over and lower his voice to make a bottom dropping point at one place, and then straighten up and shout out his next point. It wasn’t a sermon. It was a performance.

And it wasn’t even vaguely Christian.

This man was taking verses out of the Bible to weave a totally fallacious case that somehow or other Jesus supported invading Iraq.

He had his audience in the palm of his hand. After all, most of them came to this particular church because they liked performances for their sermons and because they wanted “christian teaching” that would get them going emotionally while making them feel great about whatever they wanted to do in the first place.

The audience cheered and yelled like they were at a football game.

I haven’t seen many things that disgusted me more than this performance sermon and its clearly heretical mis-use of Holy Scripture to support a war.

I knew, even then, that the whole Iraq invasion was a sham. This was an unnecessary war that we were going into for reasons that had nothing to do with what we were being told. I have never understood why anyone would have had trouble seeing through the excuses for this war.

I also saw that if America’s Christian community did not stop using Christ to justify war, it would eventually destroy itself. People will follow the theological heresy of militarism so long as if feels good. But, as Europe has shown us, bombed out buildings and gas ovens do tend to dim the luster of it.

War is an almost preposterous evil. The Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, the same General Sherman who burned Atlanta and waged war on the civilian population in his infamous march to the sea, said that war is hell.

He was right.

A friend of my husband’s went to view the federal building after the bombing here in Oklahoma City. “That is nothing,” she said as she gazed at the ruins. “Nothing.”

She had lived through war waged on a large scale. She had, in her youth, seen whole cities razed to bombed out hulks, human beings burnt to ash as they hid in their bomb shelters.

We are so soft when horror comes to us. We can not bear our losses, cannot abide our pain. But we treat war itself, which is savagery writ unimaginable, as if it was a computer game. Maybe we do that because we can switch our wars off in the same way that we switch off computer games.

There is very little reportage of what is happening on the perpetual warfront that America has embarked on. We bomb and slay without the rest of us here at home knowing about it. Our best hint of what is happening is when we see our own soldiers, returning to us with shattered bodies and — often — shattered minds.

Something ugly is out there on the other side of the endless rambles of the talking heads debating their endless gaffe reporting about what some politician said to a friend in an elevator or mumbled under his or her breath when he or she thought the mike was off. Something really ugly is out there, but we can’t see it, don’t know about it.

Our only real intimation is that we hear constantly about our national debt. We are told that the cause of this debt is us. It’s Social Security and Medicare. It’s the public schools. The whole debt and economic malaise of this country is the fault of those who pay the bills: The American people. No one mentions, no one even whispers, that we are funding a war colossus that asks for more, more, more ever single year and has been doing so since World War II.

We never talk about that 800 lb gorilla sitting in the middle of the room eating all the bananas. Such talk would be unpatriotic. It would mean that we don’t want to “defend ourselves” against all those people out there “who want to kill us.”

Militarism is a false idol. It is also, according to the author of Fight, anti-Scriptural and anti-Christian.

Fight takes the reader on a survey of the Scriptures from the viewpoint of looking at God’s teachings about war and militarism. Notice that militarism is a category that is distinct from war. One is an action of government-sponsored violence. The other is an outlook, a belief in war itself. It is an idol.

A large part of what Mr Sprinkle writes about the Old Testament necessarily focuses on discerning what God meant, rather than what He said. This is important to all Christians because the Old Testament seems in many ways to challenge the New Testament. Western Civilization is at its best when it is responding to the clear teachings of the New Testament, and at its worst when it looks for excuses for its murderous impulses in the Old Testament.

How are Christians meant to understand the seeming contradictions in attitude between the two covenants?

Mr Sprinkle does a fine job of presenting his answer to this, at least so far as it concerns war and war making. Fight is a well-written, well-researched presentation of his viewpoint concerning violence, war and the call of all Christians to follow Christ, even to the cross.

I don’t honestly know what I think about some of the points he makes. I need to think them through first before I can say. But I do think the book is a good read that opens a debate American Christians need to have.

I do not want to see Christians in this country fall into the trap that Christians fell into in Nazi Germany of supporting militarism right down to the pit of hell.

I am not and never have been a pacifist. I believe in self defense. That would seem to put me outside the ideal Mr Sprinkle is advocating. However, I cannot deny that his presentation is compelling.

My main interest in his book is that it starts a needful conversation. I remember that preacher charging around the stage, preaching what was clearly the heresy of militarism to a cheering crowd. I see this country edging ever closer to economic ruin while we feed our resources into the maw of a war machine. And I know that we must change or die.



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34 responses to “Book Review: American Militarism vs the Kingdom of God”

  1. Note: I am not going to allow the comments on this post to devolve into an attack on Christianity. If you try, be prepared to be deleted.

  2. This strikes me as a strange arena for Sola Scriptura arguments, particularly from the New Testament canon. Our history and tradition since Constantine is considerably different than the world of the Apostles.

    That said, I do think we’ve gotten out of balance. I understand, I think, the real reasons we went into Iraq, and the given ones weren’t as contrived as many self serving people say either but, the government was far from honest with us. I doubt it was really necessary. I also think we need to make war appear to be the frightful exercise it is instead of making it all pretty for our citizenry. Is it sometimes justified? Yup. But even then it’s is still terrible, and a failure of other means as well.

  3. Rebecca,
    Although i agree with a great deal of what you say in this post, and you are aware that i dwell in that subset of the Body of Christ that is called Evangelical Christian, I would state it in this way. I believe that the idol that is called Militarism is prominently placed, in fact positioned altar-centric, in the temple that is Nationalism. That was the great false god that the National Socialist Party raised on high to set a standard for the German people to follow into destruction.

    We are doing much the same thing. We subordinate God and His Word, will, and calling to righteousness to our definition of what is holy. We make rights something that serve our desired outcomes; so, we, as you say, deny justice to others and discredit people to achieve power. This is a ruinous path that God will not honor. Too often and for too many of us in the community of faith, we have taken that very faith and placed it inside of and in a secondary position to that supreme being that is Nationalism.

    This is a disturbing trend in America and in many other countries as well. The debate on exactly what constitutes Godly response to the violence of our world is a challenging one that i have not resolved for myself as yet. But I am seeking God’s revealing of truth.

    I will pick up Srinkle’s book and read it. Others in my recent reading that dialogue on this general subject: War and the American Difference by Stanley Hauerwas; Migration of the Holy by William Cavanaugh; and The Sacredness of Human Life by David Gushee. all worth considering.

  4. D.A.: the use of Constantine as a watershed is a commonplace that needs killing off. There was no great mutation of the Church in 313-325, and in particular, there NEVER was Christian pacifism of any kind. None of the ante-nicene fathers condemns war. The records of the persecutions show that the Roman legions were full of Christians; indeed, Tertullian, IIRC, speaks of a whole legion made mostly or only of Christians. Which is by no means unlikely, since some of the recruiting areas, such as the Syrian and Anatolian borders, were densely Christian from an early age. (Another Constantine legend that needs killing is that the Christians were an insignificant minority until very late – if they had been, they could not have remained in power after the death of Constantine.)

  5. While I agree with a majority of your article I believe there is a difference between militarism and the necessity of war. War is not evil in and of itself. That said we are getting involved in too many other countries business nowadays. But on the other hand we may be remiss in staying out of other countries where genocide is occurring.

  6. Fabio, I don’t know enough to dispute with you in this area, and so won’t. But there is a material difference between Christians in the ranks and an expressly Christian army/empire. Historians whom I respect do use Constantine for a watershed for that reason. Your point that Christianity has never been pacifistic is certainly valid, too many forget that there was at least one sword in the upper room, and only Christianity has ever (to my knowledge, anyway) worked out anything even close to a “just war theory”.

    And of course, some of the earliest converts were Roman officers, a centurion was the Roman equivalent of a captain or possibly a major after all. They wouldn’t have been likely to purge their ranks of their co-religionists, especially when the army was one of very few paths to Roman citizenship.

    So, I guess I don’t disagree with your main point, although I do disagree that Constantine wasn’t a major break point in church (and civil) history.

  7. I think you and the author of this book do a dis-service to the evangelical community. I don’t think they are uniformly militeristic. Plus the militeristic community are vaguely Christian, and not rooted completely in their religion. They are similar to loose Catholics like Nancy Pelosi who support abortion. Anyone trying to define Catholics by using Pelosi as an example would be very wrong.

  8. Although I am staunch Democrat, I have to give George W. Bush some slack on what he did after 9/11. In hindsight, it is clear to see that Iraq was not a good move. I just think that he saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to stability in the Middle East. Hindsight is 20/20.

  9. The trouble is that the idea of the great big Constantinian mutation is the daily bread of all kinds of groups with an agenda. It is their universal belief that all the wonderfulness they want to find in the early Church was driven out by its unholy pact with Evil Political Power, from which arose the corrupt, worldly, paedophiliac, etc., church they think they know and certainly do hate. In fact, Constantine was unchallenged emperor for some ten years, the previous fifteen having been spent in getting rid of one rival after another; and the facts say that if he and his successors had been able to impose their own image on the Church, they would have made it Arian. I would say that, more than a change, we have to speak about recognizing reality. Large areas of the Empire were Christian, and a generation of increasingly vicious and bureaucratic persecution had done nothing to uproot the new religion. They may, however, have taught them a more militant and worldly attitude, which might explain why Constantine – though probably not the first emperor to be privately a Christian – was the first to profit from a political alliance with the Church.

  10. You’re right Manny. I needed to be more specific in what I said. I fell into the trap of overgeneralizing. Thank you for pointing this out.

  11. I would agree, this seems an important area of policy where there is a considerable variation among US Christians, with both sides abundantly referencing scripture in support of their thesis. However, as much of that “debate” neglects to address the fundamental differences in exegesis, I suspect much of it will continue to be simply Christians talking past one another.

  12. An awefull lot of terrorists were killed fighting in Iraq. It drove Al Qaida down to nothing. It really hasn’t regrouped since to any sizable strength. The current problems in Iraq have to do with us pulling out completely. We were supposed to have a base there with our presence. It would have helped with stability. But even so, Iraq appears to be a functioning democracy, though imperfect one. The jury is still out as to whether it was a good move. Forcing out Mubarack in Egypt seems like a monumental mistake. I have no idea why we would force out an ally and someone who kept stability.

  13. Manny, your first contention about the invasion of Iraq harming Al Qaida might well be a legitimate reason for committing American troops. It at least makes it a debatable question.

    The second is not. American soldiers are to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not everyone all over the globe. Our military is not an international peace force. I think that idea takes root when we do not have an army composed of the children from every strata of society. It is buttressed by a war machine that finds war profitable and is always searching for a new war for us to get into.

    Don’t ever forget that this isn’t a computer game. It’s real. We killed a lot of people, including a number of our own. We destroyed the infrastructure of a society. And we did it under false pretenses.

    Driving back Al Qaida was not given as a reason for getting into this war. Our government lied to us to get us into a war. it was the Gulf of Tonkin, all over again. That makes the whole question of whether or not it was a “good move” moot.

  14. Rebecca, I supported the Iraq war because, before the war, I had spent years watching Saddam Hussein roll back,one by one, the results of the first Gulf war (the invasion of Kuwait). Saddam was not a clever man, but he was persistent; he believed in persistency as a value. And by September 10, 2001, he was at the point where only the USA and Britain kept up any attempt to control him. This would have been less worrying had Saddam Hussein not been a throwback to the worst of the nineteenth century, a man who believed that war was the natural condition of states and conquest the duty of any statesman. Most of the time of his rule before 1991 had been spent preparing or fighting wars of aggression, and we may be sure that if the control of the allies over his skies had ever ceased, as all other controls already had, he would immediately have sought a neighbour to assault. For this reason I can’t see the Iraq war as altogether negative, although in my view the allies could not have handled it worse. (I remember saying within weeks of the seizure of Baghdad that “This operation will only be a success if the Americans and their partners are gone within a year. To try and keep them there permanently would simply make the troops into the biggest group of hostages the world has ever seen”. Well, that’s just what happened. All the American and allied troops in Iraq ever did was to serve as juicy targets for all kinds of terrorist. Anyone who knew the Arab mentality could have predicted that.)

  15. I was for the Iraq war because of the awful things Saddam was doing to his people. But in hindsight I see that deposing Saddam left a big gap in the Middle East for Iran and others to step into. Getting rid of Mubarak in Egypt and Gadhafi in Libya were really bad mistakes. They were strong-men but some countries especially tribal countries do better that way. Neither of these countries were causing us any problems. If we had put all of our resources into Afghanistan and really defeated our enemy, then I think that would have been the best and only entry into war because to defend ourselves after 9/11.

  16. First Rebecca I know in a very tangible way it’s not a computer game. Trust me, I know what ordinance does. I’m not going to relive the Iraq War justification, but there were something like a half dozen solid reasons why the war made sense, the least of which we were spending something like a million dollars a day keeping Sadaam ina box with the no fly restrictions. I still support it and it was a serious mistake that Obama made in not keeping that base in country.
    As to your second paragraph, since the end of WWII the US has been essentially the policeman of the world. I know isolationist will argue here with me, but it not only makes sense to police the world, but it’s in our national interest to do so. It keeps world stability for economic exchange and prosperity and little wars nip in the bud world wars. That has been the national consensus since WWII. I see isolationists are gaining strength in both parties, and that is disturbing.

  17. Well, that’s not the way I remember events before the war. That country which you regard as fragile had survived an eight-year war with Iran (and, for that matter, has not collapsed yet). And there is one telling detail: in the days that immediately followed September 11, everyone expected America to come out raging out of its den like a wounded bear, and everyone ran for cover. Gheddafi (then an enemy) publicly deplored the crime and Fidel Castro rather cheekily offered help to stricken NYC. Only two governments openly rejoiced: the Taleban of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein.This clearly shows that they knew that there was no getting out of a confrontation with the America that had emerged from that disaster. The Taleban might well expect retaliation, since their complicity with Al Qaeda was hardly unknown even then and would soon become common knowledge, but Saddam, in my view, was acting from a different viewpoint. He knew that he had never spent one day since 1991 without trying to weaken the allied position in Iraq, and he rightly expected the Anglo-Americans to take the opportunity to settle the issue once and for all. This is not to do with WMD as such, but with the fact that Saddam himself had never ceased from open or covert war and had remained a menace in ways that no other leader, however hostile, ever was. Saddam thought of himself as the successor of Timur Leng, Napoleon or Stalin. That overrated his own talents, but still meant that he was a menace.

  18. Assad didn’t pull all those chemical weapons out of nowhere. I also remember the (mostly unreported by the mass media) reports of a number of transports heading for Syria in the days leading up to the war.

  19. Archaeopteryx, about 25 years ago Syria began production of its chemical weapons. They were able to build this capacity with help from the Soviet Union.

    “Syria is now believed capable of producing several hundred tons of CW agents per year. Syrian production factiliites are notoriously small in comparison to other CBW facilities in other states and are difficult to conclusively identify. Presently there are four suspected sites. One located just north of Damascus, and the second near the industrial city of Homs. The third, in Hama, is believed to be producing VX agents in addition to sarin and tabun, and a forth near Cerin. Several other sites are monitored by intelligence agencies and are listed only as suspect.”

    Syria had had a large stockpile of chemical weapons, for 15 years or more.

  20. The regime fell quickly, as these things tend to do in the Muslim world. There are plenty of parallels for a government collapsing in days. But you said that Iraq the country was an artificial construct that could not endure – a favourite pundit’s position; and I pointed out that Iraq the country has not collapsed yet, in spite of the damage done not so much by American invasion as by utterly incompetent American occupation.

  21. I appreciate your concern, Manny. I really do. I never would want to overgeneralize nor do a “dis-service to the evangelical community.”

    I have shown in the book that the “militeristic community” indeed is not vaguely Christian. But you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree with the evidence.

    For starters, Andrew Bacevich argues: were it not for the support of tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism in America would be inconceivable. Either he’s way, way off, or you are correct. Both can’t be true. But he’s argued his case with tons of evidence that would need to be refuted for your claim to be correct.

    Again, I appreciate the pushback, even though I don’t think it’s supported by evidence.

  22. Fabio,

    Thanks for the comment. For what it’s worth, I have a whole chapter on this in my book that pretty much refutes, with extensive evidence, everything you say. You could disagree. Plenty do. But it’s not wise to disagree without evidence to support your disagreement.

  23. My only “agenda,” BTW, is to understand what Scripture (and the Early Church) say about this topic. I would love to kick my enemy’s butt if Scripture warrants this sort of behavior. But I don’t think it does.

  24. Thanks, Rebecca, for your very thoughtful response to my book! Much to think about here. BTW, I’m not against “self-defense,” only using violence (especially lethal violence) to defend yourself. But I would LOVE to kick my enemy’s butt who’s trying to harm me (or especially my family). I really would. I just have a hard time justifying this from Scripture. Therefore, I would LOVE to see a Scriptural argument that justifies using violence in self-defense. I genuinely would!

    Thanks again, Rebecca. I’m honored to have you read my book and respond so positively.

  25. The comments thread of a blog is no place to put a multi-paragraph refutation of unacceptable historical theories that must necessarily quote original documents and opposing views. Where is the space, and who is going to be interested? I am flattered that you think my views of any importance, but then I find it strange that you should imagine that my few sketchy little notes on the subject were all I have to say. Even though I find it nearly as surprising that you should think one chapter enough to say the last word on such an enormous subject.

  26. Oh, sure. Nobody ever has a preconceived idea. It’s just by chance that the same kind of stuff that has been said for centuries in the service of a certain viewpoint gets told again. But I am afraid that your crass mischaracterization of any possible just war theory as “I would love to kick my enemy’s butt” shows that you CERTAINLY have a MASSIVE agenda, that begins with visible contempt for opposing views. Nobody who even wanted to try to understand an opposing viewpoint would use such language.

  27. I guess it depends how you define Evangelical. I know people I that clearly fit in the Evangelical and clearly people who fit in the military. They are loosely related. And those that overlap doesn’t strike me because of religion, but because of a general Conservative view. I could easily qualify as part of the “militaristic community”, but I’m also a fairly devout Roman Catholic. I don’t see any cause and effect. I know people who happen to be part of the “militaristic community” who are not religious, and there are people I know who are Roman Catholic who are most definitely not. The same applies to Evangelicals. I haven’t read the book, but if the claim is that there is link between the two then i would say the logic sufferes from the fallacy of drawing a causation from a correlation.