Laurence M. Vance.
Vance Publications, Pensacola, Florida. 418 pages.
Reviewed by Chuck Fager
In the spring of 2011, a young soldier came to see me, at the Quaker peace project where I work. He wanted to talk about filing a Conscientious Objector (CO) claim.
Once a very enthusiastic recruit, he had been in the elite Special Forces training program. But the realities of military life had quickly disillusioned him. Raised a conservative Baptist in Texas, he said his worldview had changed so radically that – here he paused to take a deep breath: “I’m not even a Republican anymore.”
Not that he was now a Democrat. Instead, when I explained that he would have to describe his current views in his CO claim letter, and show how he had arrived at them, he handed me a book he’d brought with him.
The book was Christianity and War, by Laurence Vance.
I don’t know how the GI’s CO claim turned out; like many who call or visit, he hasn’t followed up. But for me, Christianity and War was a godsend, and a revelation.
Why? For several years I’ve been increasingly convinced that something which can be called “American War Christianity” (or AWC) is a key pillar of U.S. militarism. A crusading variety of fundamentalism has become pervasive in the armed forces, including the top levels, and its impact is frightening, its potential even more so.
There are books and articles that document this phenomenon: one, With God On Our Side, by Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, was a trailblazer when it appeared in 2006. Another is a paper by Air Force Col. William Millonig, “the Impact of Religious and Political Affiliation on Strategic Military Decisions and Policy Recommendations,” which despite the lengthy title is concise and straightforward. These and others have been valuable to me. (Millonig’s paper is online at: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi- bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA449308)
But ever since I came to an awareness of AWC, I figured that besides journalistic or sociological reports, there must also surely be some theological challengers to it. I began looking for them, to guide me in raising a specifically religious challenge to this dangerous phenomenon. Any day I expected to encounter a cadre of liberal religious thinkers who were all over it.
Not so. Yes, I have run across a number of theologians who are writing from an “anti-imperial” perspective, but the empire in question usually turns out to be the Roman (or Babylonian, if they’re Old Testament types). When it comes to our current plight, their writing typically recycles cliches from such sources as National Public Radio.
Interesting, but hardly adequate. Besides which, much such “postcolonial” writing is encased in such impenetrable academic jargon that even the Air Force’s bunker-busters couldn’t penetrate it.
The closest thing I found to an actual theological challenge to AWC as a force today was Wayward Christian Soldiers, by Charles Marsh. But while Marsh effectively called out the warmongering rhetoric of a handful of evangelical leaders on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003, he denied being a liberal, instead swearing fealty to Karl Barth’s “neo-orthodoxy.” Besides, his small book didn’t go beyond the handful of targeted statements to examine the broader theological phenomenon involved.
Marsh was a bright brief candle on a dark horizon. Elsewhere among evangelicals, the voices were either uneasily equivocal or more often entirely on board with the AWC outlook.
So when the young soldier handed me Vance’s book last spring, I was still in search of an informed, vocal liberal theological opponent of AWC.
I’m still searching – for a liberal or conventionally evangelical challenger to AWC, that is. But not for an effective one; not anymore. Christianity and War wields a theological bat like Babe Ruth on a tear, knocking pro-war piety right out of the park. A representative affirmation:
“The love affair that many conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have with the military is an illicit affair. It is contrary to the tenor of the New Testament. It is an affront to the Savior. It is a cancer on Christianity.”(254)
And again, in 2006: “it is a blight on Christianity that many of those who continue to support [former President George W.] Bush and his [Iraq] war are evangelical Christians who will support Bush until the bitter end – no matter how many more U.S. soldiers are killed, no matter how long the war continues, no matter how many more billions of dollars are wasted, and no matter what outrages the president commits against the Constitution, the rule of law, and Christianity itself.” (327)
But the author, Laurence Vance, is no liberal. As he modestly puts it, “I am willing to match my Christian, Protestant, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, Baptist credentials up against anyone.” The difference is that Vance is all these things, and a staunch Libertarian. A Ron Paul supporter (tho the book doesn’t deal with presidential politics), he names names, calls a spade a spade, and cites scripture, the Church Fathers, the Founding Fathers, Erasmus, Charles Spurgeon, and even the occasional Quaker to back up his strongly held views.
Wait — Spurgeon was a peacenik? Spurgeon, the legendary 19th century British Baptist preacher, who built the prototype of a “megachurch” that regularly gathered crowds of 5000, and who delivered at least 3561 sermons, which are still in print– he was antiwar?
Yes. Hear him, in 1857:
The church, we affirm, can neither be preserved nor can its interests be promoted by human armies. We have all thought otherwise in our time, and have foolishly said when a fresh territory was annexed to our empire, “Ah! what a providence that England has annexed Oude,”—or taken to itself some other territory—“Now a door is opened for the Gospel.
A Christian power will necessarily encourage Christianity, and seeing that a Christian power is at the head of the Government, it will be likely that the natives will be induced to search into the authenticity of our revelation, and so great results will follow.
Who can tell but that, at the point of the British bayonet, the Gospel will be carried, and that, by the edge of the true sword of valiant men, Christ’s Gospel will be proclaimed?”
I have said so myself; and now I know I am a fool for my pains, and that Christ’s church hath been also miserably befooled; for this I will assert, and prove too, that the progress of the arms of a Christian nation is not the progress of Christianity, and that the spread of our empire, so far from being advantageous to the Gospel, I will hold, and this day proclaim, hath been hostile to it.
Vance cites other theologians and preachers from many centuries, and not a liberal in the lot. He’s been making his fundamentalist antiwar case across the internet for several years, based at http://www.lewrockwell.com , a major libertarian website. Indeed, Christianity and War is less a treatise than a compilation of blog posts. If that fact makes its text often repetitive, it doesn’t diminish the force of Vance’s arguments, or the pungency with which he makes them.
There’s plenty in his fiery sermonettes likely to offend the large mass of church folks of various denominations who value politeness over any point of doctrine or ethics, especially when it concerns those in their own circles. But Vance doesn’t care about that. He cares about truth and the Gospel. His model is the Gallilean who ignored all advice to go easy on calling his Pharasaic opponents “hypocrites,” amid much more incendiary terms. No, his vehemence will not commend this book to such “nice” folks; but Vance says he has heard from many disenchanted soldiers, who once accepted the USA=God’s-licensed-killers, but have been cast into a wilderness of confusion by the lies and hypocrisies of imperial war. Many found Vance speaking truths in a way theu could understand. And it was one of them, a soldier rather than a genteel church elder or disttracted seminary professor, who brought his book to me.
Why I hadn’t heard about Vance before mid-2011 probably bespeaks my share of this provincialism; and none of my liberal friends had heard of him either. Too bad for us.
But that doesn’t mean Vance hasn’t been heard. Oh, indeed, he has. And he has answered: Three times he repeats a list of epithets often flung at him: “Yes, I know, I am a liberal, a communist, a Quaker, a pacifist, a peacenik, a traitor, a coward, an appeaser, an America-hater, and an anti-war weenie.” (p. 189; also 102, & 122)
Well, I’m here to say that Vance is NOT a Quaker; not that there’s anything wrong with that. He is no pacifist either. He makes plain that he would fully support a defensive war, if the U.S. were ever invaded. Just sayin’.
Further, his book is not just a compendium of invective. Vance’s biography states that he holds degrees in history and theology, as well as economics and accounting. Besides knowing the literature of orthodox and evangelical writers against war and militarism, he is also steeped in Biblical languages. (Among his other books is one about Greek verbs in the New Testament; another deals with its prepositions. One wonders if they are as controversial in their more esoteric fields.)
It turns out, as he shows in detail, that there is actually a sizeable body of anti-military work by very orthodox, even fundamentalist authors, most of it unmentioned by the tradition’s modern spokesmen, and ignored by liberals too, for other reasons. But Vance has reprinted many of these volumes, including one, The Morality of War, published in 1829 by a Quaker, Jonathan Dymond, which was widely circulated in its day. (Dymond’s essay is now online as a free Google book.)
Christianity and War deploys the author’s linguistic skills in a detailed linguistic-theological analysis of the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” from Exodus 20:13 (pp. 84ff). Many recent Bible translations have rendered the text as “Thou shalt not commit murder,” on the basis that some kinds of killing were not only sanctioned in the Bible but commanded by various texts.
Vance is not having it. He points out that the Hebrew term translated “kill,” in the commandment is not used anywhere in the Old Testament to refer to killing in battles.(86) And he goes on to say,
Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not kill.”God only knows how many people around the world have been killed as a direct result of U.S. foreign policy. No, I am not equating the United States with Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or Red China. [But] From the beginning of the Iraq War, I have maintained that participants in this evil war violate the express teaching of the biblical commandment against killing. Christian apologists for war say that either the commandments don’t apply to the state, and therefore killing done in service for the state is permissible, or else that the sixth commandment is limited to murder, and therefore killing done in wartime is permissible. Therefore, just as Calvary covers it all, my past with its sin and shame, so the wearing of a uniform covers it all, my military service with its death and destruction. Thus, killing someone you don’t know, and have never seen, in his own territory, who was no threat to anyone until the United States invaded his country, is not murder if the U.S. government says that he should be killed. No soldier is responsible for the death and destruction he inflicts in a foreign country as long as it is state-sanctioned death and destruction. I reject this ghastly statolatry.(106f)
He also takes on those “Bible believers” who defend American wars because the Bible says, “the Lord is a man of war” (Exodus 15:3):
That this is a true statement there is no question, but how this phrase justifies the United States becoming a country of war shows how warped the Christianity of some people is. (261f)
Further, as a biblcal literalist, Vance acknowledges that indeed, “God commanded the nation of Israel in the Old Testament to fight against heathen nations (Judges 6:16). ”
Then he goes right for the jugular:
but George Bush is not God, and America is not the nation of Israel . . . .God sponsored these wars, and used his chosen nation (Deuteronomy 7:11-12) to conduct them,[but] it does not follow that God sponsors American wars, or that America is God’s chosen nation. It does not follow unless, of course, one is a Christian apologist for the U.S. government and its wars.”(p. 126, 129)
But that is precisely what American War Christianity comes down to: the shockingly idolatrous identification of U.S. interests as being dictated by God, and treating its leaders (especially conservative presidents), as the equivalent of God. (And no, Vance does not regard Romans 13 as a “get-out-of-hell-free” card.)
Such nationalist idolatry is hardly new, nor is it an American invention. But in U.S. history its tracks go back more than two centuries, and its advocates have included many religious leaders considered “progressive” in their day. But in our time this sanctified militarism has become an evangelical-fundamentalist phenomenon, and the paper by Air Force Colonel Millonig shows how groups associated with it have intentionally and diligently colonized much of the armed forces since the Vietnam War:
The rise of evangelicalism in today’s Armed Forces can trace its roots to the Viet Nam War. Public support for the war declined steadily as the years wore on, but evangelical Christians remained generally supportive of the war throughout. Over the course of the war, they found themselves progressively more aligned with the military – a military which increasingly found itself isolated from the general population. . . .
By the early 1970’s, prayer groups, breakfasts, and luncheons became commonplace in the Pentagon. Some activities were sponsored by International Christian Leadership and others by the Christian Men of the Pentagon. An informal outreach group called Teams of Two began to increase its evangelical efforts. Many
General Officers actively supported the groups and even held leadership positions as these conservative Christian groups continued to grow in size. By the 1980’s, nearly 20 evangelical groups held regular meetings.
Under this supportive leadership umbrella, participation in conservative Christian groups also increased at the service academies. . . . Throughout the 1990’s, a conservative Protestant shift in the chaplain corps mirrored the regular force. Since 1994, the number of Roman Catholic priests in the Air Force alone has dropped 44 percent and similar decreases exist in mainstream Protestant chaplains as well. (Millonig, 4f)
Millonig’s critique of this colonization is carefully nuanced, and secular: his point is that, especially at the top, when an organization’s leadership all(or mostly) share the same worldview, the resulting groupthink atmosphere leads to bad decisions. For instance, Millonig says,
When the [G.W. Bush] Administration issued its policy of pre-emptive war in the National Security Strategy, many “mainstream” religions and nearly all Democrats rejected it, insisting pre-emptive war rejects the United Nations charter of war as a last resort and takes a unilateralist, militant approach to national security.
Many conservative Christians however, applauded the declaration. In a letter to President Bush, several prominent conservatives strongly endorsed the policy of pre-emptive war against Iraq as “prudent and fall(s) well within the time honored criteria of just war theory.”
By now, spring of 2012, we’ve seen where that kind of foolishness led us; and it was from this pre-emptive cheerleaders’ sector that the religious influence on military leadership has come for nearly forty years. I’ve called this outlook “American War Christianity”; and though I’ve seldom been accused of speaking too cautiously, Vance makes this phrase look mild. These people and their followers, he insists, make up the “Christian Axis of Evil.” (99), adding:
In the Church’s conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist circles — and I identify loosely with all three — much of what is being said is not just wrong, it is evil, immoral, hypocritical, shameful, and more importantly, unscriptural. But the Church is also not saying enough. It is not saying enough about the defective Christianity of the president. It is not saying enough about the evils of war. It is not saying enough about our overgrown military establishment. It is not saying enough about our interventionist foreign policy. It is not saying enough about the warfare state.
President Bush has mastered the art of using religious rhetoric to capture the support of gullible Christians for his aggressive, militaristic, interventionist foreign policy he terms “this great mission.” (98)
He pounds this theme repeatedly. One of his most striking posts is called, “Are You A Christian Warmonger?”(27-27). With his permission, we have included this piece elsewhere in this issue. It presents the reader a quiz, or “self-assessment tool”: a list of twenty pro-war cliches, (29) For those who agreed with many of these statements, Vance’s “eldering” is sternly forthright.
Vance takes on just about all the biblical rationalizations one could imagine for endorsing wars and their killing, as long as they’re being fought by the U.S. We already heard his take on the assertion that “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply; but what about Jesus being a bloodthirsty warrior, especially during his Second Coming battle with the Anti-Christ (Revelation 19). Vance’s reply (he says he does believe in the Second Coming, but):
The problem here is a simple one: American military officers are not surrogates for Jesus Christ. Whatever Jesus Christ did or will do has absolutely no relevance to what the U. S. military does in Iraq or anywhere else, except, of course, in the depraved mind of a Christian warmonger. The Bible says that “in righteousness” Jesus Christ “doth judge and make war.” There is nothing righteous about the actions of U.S. battlefield commanders.(132)
What? The U.S. military is not a surrogate for Jesus? Iraq isn’t Armageddon? Why didn’t I think of that?
“Pray for our troops,” says a militant petition he saw.
Vance replies to it this way:
Yes, we should pray for the troops. We should pray that the troops come home. We should pray that the troops come home now. We should pray that the blood of not one more American soldier is shed on foreign soil. We should pray for the healing of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have been injured in the senseless Iraq war. We should pray for an end to this unconstitutional, immoral, and unjust war. We should pray that Congress ends funding for this war. We should pray that Bush leaves office a disgraced commander in chief. We should pray that young, impressionable students are not ensnared by military recruiters. We should pray that pastors stop recommending military service to their young men (and women). We should pray that families stop supplying cannon fodder to the military. We should pray that the troops actually start defending this country instead of every other country. We should pray for a change in U.S. foreign policy that can make this all possible.
Not only that: “. . . This ideological desire to legitimize killing in war is an unholy one, and every Christian who attempts to do so should be ashamed of himself and repent “in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).” (86)
The upshot is that Christianity and War offers the most trenchant and articulate critique of American War Christianity I have seen. In ten-plus years of struggling with the impact of this phenomenon, his work stands alone.
While he’s not at all a pacifist, Vance draws on Quaker sources perhaps more than he realizes. He quotes Friend Jonathan Dymond as “one young in years but old in wisdom,” who was exposing the pernicious work of war propaganda in 1827::
Another cause of our complacency with war, and therefore another cause of war itself, consists in that callousness to human misery which the custom induces. They who are shocked at a single murder on the highway, hear with indifference of the slaughter of a thousand on the field.. . .The inconsistency and disproportionateness which has been occasioned in our sentiments of benevolence, offers a curious moral phenomenon. . . .
But perhaps the most operative cause of the popularity of war, and of the facility with which we engage in it, consists in this; that an idea of glory is attached to military exploits, and of honor to the military profession. The glories of battle, and of those who perish in it, or who return in triumph to their country, are favorite topics of declamation with the historian, the biographers, and the poet. They have told us a thousands times of dying heroes, who “resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and, filled with their country’s glory, smile in death;” and thus every excitement that eloquence and genius can command, is employed to arouse that ambition of fame which can be gratified only at the expense of blood.(166f)
Vance also applauds “Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Quaker’ foreign policy”; as the third president put it:
Peace has been our principle, peace is our interest, and peace has saved to the world this only plant of free and rational government now existing in it. However, therefore, we may have been reproached for pursuing our Quaker system, time will affix the stamp of wisdom on it, and the happiness and prosperity of our citizens will attest its merit. And this, I believe, is the only legitimate object of government, and the first duty of governors, and not the slaughter of men and devastation of the countries placed under their care, in pursuit of a fantastic honor, unallied to virtue or happiness (192f)
And – okay, this is a bit from left field – Vance makes much of the late-life witness of Marine General (and two-time Medal of Honor winner) Smedley D. Butler. Butler became a militant isolationist and anti-militarist activist in the 1930s. He proposed a constitutional “Amendment for Peace,” which would have prohibited the American military from fighting or being based beyond a defensive zone around our coasts.
Butler believed that his amendment “would be [an] absolute guarantee to the women of America that their loved ones never would be sent overseas to be needlessly shot down in European or Asiatic or African wars that are no concern of our people.”
He also reasoned that because of “our geographical position, it is all but impossible for any foreign power to muster, transport and land sufficient troops on our shores for a successful invasion.” In this Butler was echoing Jefferson, who recognized that geography was one of the great advantages of the United States (404)
Why are we talking about a Marine general? Because Smedley Darlington Butler was the product of several Quaker families with deep Pennsylvania roots. He attended a Quaker school before enlisting in the Marines to join the Spanish-American War. And despite his valor under fire, Butler’s military career persuaded him that, as he later wrote in the title of a famous booklet, “War is a Racket.”(Online for free here: http://www.archive.org/details/WarIsARacket ) In hailing him, Vance is again bringing forward a strongly Quaker-influenced figure.
So like it or not, Quaker peace witness has left its fingerprints on Laurence Vance’s perspective. But most important is his fundamentalist Christian libertarian outlook. While he repeatedly blasts George W. Bush in these pages, he is no more fond of the many ways Barack Obama has continued most of his predecessor’s pro-imperial policies. Though Christianity and War was published in 2005 (updated in 2008), before Obama’s elevation to the White House; Vance’s recent blog posts do not give Bush’s successor a pass.
Yet overall Vance minimizes talk of politics outside the recent wars; his book is not a campaign screed. A look at his extensive blog posts makes clear, however, that he’s a passionate partisan of the longtime libertarian standard-bearer, Rep. Ron Paul. Vance is also a southerner, and has affinities with the neo- Confederates who despise Abe Lincoln, prefer to call the Civil War by other, rebel-friendly names, wish the Confederate states had been allowed to secede, and then abolished slavery in their own good time.
These views, and many others of the libertarian platform, are deeply problematic to me, and doubtless to many others, who may be drawn to its anti-imperial and anti-militarist features. Nevertheless, Vance prudently keeps these other matters out of his 400-plus pages in Christianity and War, and except for taking note of them here, I’ll stick to the book’s themes. Those are arguments for another day, and another book.
This judgment also takes into account this reviewer’s experience of watching numerous Republican presidential debates in late 2011 and early 2012. In these fora, I have heard Vance’s hero, Rep. Ron Paul, repeatedly make forthright and eloquent challenges to U.S. militarist and imperial pretensions, oppose current and threatened wars, and call out presidents of both parties for perpetuating a giant military-industrial complex – and do all this in the face of boos and openly hostile crowds.
Besides offering an impressive show of personal courage and integrity, Paul’s statements were the most extensive challenges to American war-mongering at the presidential campaign level in forty years – forty long years since the valiant but doomed campaign of Senator George McGovern in 1972.
I don’t say Paul has converted me to libertarianism beyond its anti-militarist stance; but dammit, when he’s right, he’s right. And he has certainly won my respect, even admiration, for these anti-militarist convictions. And likewise, Laurence Vance hasn’t turned me into a pre-millennial, dispensationalist Baptist, or made me any more sympathetic to a neo-confederate outlook. But his assault on the theological and sectarian underpinnings of American War Christianity is right on target, and an achievement that is serious and credible on many fronts. It deserves wide attention as such. It is intellectually, historically, theologically and biblically informed, and as a polemicist, his aim is true.
The book (and the blog) takes on the “Christian warmongers” on their own turf, naming names, citing sources, and demolishing every major pillar of their defense of war. After a decade of seeing this war machine close up, I remain convinced that such a deconstruction is one of the most important tasks of peace work.
Yet I know of no liberal Christian writer who has come anywhere close to a similar effort. Shame on them; shame on us. A bow to Laurence Vance, and Christianity and War, for going where we have feared to tread.