Sword of empire or sword of Christ

by George Clifford

November 11 is both Veterans Day and the annual commemoration of Martin of Tours, a coincidence that prompts mixed feelings.

On the one hand, many Christian soldiers claim Martin as one of their patron saints. This claim largely reflects an ignorant domestication of Christianity, two terms I use intentionally. On the other hand, I find the real Martin truly a saint, someone whose example and ministry are especially appropriate on Veterans Day.

Born in 315 or 316, Martin is one of the earliest saints about whom we have reasonably reliable information, mostly from a biography written by Sulpicius Severus. Sulpicius had actually met Martin, stunned that the then Bishop of Tours offered him hospitality in the Bishop’s residence, which was a monk’s cell in the wilderness. Sulpicius reports that Martin washed Sulpicius’ hands before dinner and his feet that evening. Even though the biography is clearly a hagiography – a glowing, somewhat fictionalized account designed to prove Martin’s holiness by recounting numerous miracles that he allegedly performed – Martin’s commitment to following Jesus’ example of poverty and to obeying Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self are plainly genuine.

Raised in a pagan family, Martin became a Christian catechumen at age 10 on his own initiative. Apparently forced to join the army at 15, perhaps because of a law requiring the sons of army officers to join the army, he quickly became an officer in a ceremonial cavalry unit assigned to protect the emperor. This unit rarely saw combat. Although a soldier, Martin tried to follow an ascetic, monastic lifestyle, e.g., reversing roles with his appointed servant by cleaning the servant’s shoes.

When the threat of barbarian invasion caused the Emperor, Julian, to go to Gaul, Martin and his unit faced the likely prospect of combat. While there, the best-known incident in his life occurred, a paradigmatic event especially beloved by military chaplains. Riding on horseback, Martin spied a shivering beggar; he stopped, used his sword to cut his own cloak in two, and gave one-half to the beggar. That night, in a vision, he saw Jesus wrapped in the piece of the cloak that he had given to the beggar. The etymology of the English words chapel and chaplain recalls that incident, sharing a common root with the Latin word for cloak, cappella. The next day, Martin asked to be baptized. This incident portrays the domesticated Martin, the one who does nice things to help people in need.

What most Christians in the military do not know is that some two years later, on the eve of what was to have been perhaps his first battle, Martin refused to fight. He told his seniors, Put me in the front of the army in harm’s way, without weapons or armor; but I will not draw my sword again. I have become a soldier of Christ. Furious over his refusal and believing him a coward, his seniors told Martin that they would grant his wish the following day. They then imprisoned him to prevent his fleeing that night. Defying all predictions, the barbarians unexpectedly sent word the next day that they wanted to negotiate peace. This led to Martin’s release from prison and the army. In other words, the patron saint of soldiers refused to fight – he had become a conscientious objector!

I am not a pacifist. On rare occasions, I believe that Christians justifiably use lethal force to stop evil. World War II was morally justified because of the Nazi commitment to exterminating all non-Aryans (Jews, people of color), persons the Nazis deemed social misfits (GLBTs, the mentally and physically challenged), and dissidents. This evil was so pernicious and egregious that committed Christian pacifists including Dietrich Bonheoffer and Reinhold Niebuhr changed their views. More frequently, nations fight wars that are not morally justifiable from a Christian perspective. Incidentally, Just War Theory, the only widely recognized moral framework for assessing the morality of war, represents an important contribution of the Christian tradition to western philosophy and international law.

World War I, the war to end all wars, concluded with a treaty signed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Four years of war had caused 16 million fatalities and 20 million casualties. The United States established Veterans Day on the 11th day of the 11th month to remember and to honor annually the sacrifices of those who serve or have served in our armed forces.

As a Christian, I find that I best observe Veterans Day by an informed commemoration and emulation of Martin Tours.

First, many veterans resemble the beggar with whom Martin shared his cloak: they have great needs the nation widely and blithely ignores. Disproportionate numbers of the physically maimed, the unemployed, the homeless, and alcoholics are veterans. Many of these veterans suffer invisible wounds, i.e., psychic or spiritual injuries that interfere with the veteran living a normal, healthy life. As a retired chaplain and priest, veterans sometimes honor me by telling me their stories. The injuries are real, the horrors of war brought home from the battlefield. Sometimes the vet knows when and how the injury occurred; sometimes the injury manifests itself in unexpected ways years after the person has returned home. Words of appreciation and one-day discounts are nice, but, like Martin’s generous gift to the beggar, our veterans deserve better and need more.

Second, we soldiers of Christ do well when we emulate Martin and courageously refuse to wage war except as a last resort and then only to end an evil that threatens to impose great injustice. Sadly, militarism seems firmly entrenched in the American psyche. Our political leaders generally rely upon the armed forces as the first responder to most international crises. The American “can do” spirit that helps communities and individuals to achieve so much then becomes a liability because we expect that every problem has a solution and that the military should be able to achieve victory (or solve any problem). Unfortunately, that thinking embodies more hubris than realism. The military is not the best “tool” for every problem (no more than a carpenter uses only a hammer) nor can the United States, working unilaterally or multilaterally, solve every global problem.

The military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower worried has morphed into a military-industrial-political complex in which large defense contractors intentionally site facilities in every congressional district, giving senators and representatives political reasons to support expansive defense budgets. The 2013 sequestration cut defense spending and the impending 2014 sequestration will cut even deeper. However, even if the 2014 cuts occur, the U.S. will still outspend the total amount the next twenty nations spend on defense. If that level of spending is insufficient to fund a reasonable defense in a world in which the U.S. is the lone superpower, something is greatly mismanaged. Tragically, the defense budget cuts have evoked louder and more numerous protests than have reductions to programs designed to aid our society’s most vulnerable and needy among whom, ironically, are many veterans who bear the wounds, visible and otherwise, of their military service.

Hilary of Poitiers ordained Martin a priest sometime between 350 and 353. Martin spent the next two decades as a monastic, establishing monasteries and conducting missions. In 372, to his great dismay, the people of Tours elected Martin their third bishop. During his episcopacy, he worked tirelessly to establish justice and compassion throughout his diocese. The date of his consecration, July 4, Independence Day, is perhaps a chance coincidence, or perhaps a synchronicity, which along with his commemoration on the anniversary of his death (Veterans Day, Nov. 11), calls us to care for veterans better and to rely, as did Martin, on the sword of Christ instead of empire for our security.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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