Vietnam Reflections, by Lee Teter, 1988
(…continued) Four Scripture passages that speak to this issue…
I Samuel 17 tells the familiar story of David and Goliath. David, probably only 15 or 16 years old, accepted the challenge to fight the giant warrior Goliath, and David killed him on the field of battle. God, who many years later punished David severely for the sin of adultery, had no objection to David killing this giant enemy soldier whose army was making war against Israel. In fact, the text clearly implies that it was God who made David’s unlikely victory possible.
Romans 13 discusses God’s work through government and the Christian’s duty as a citizen of his or her government. Verse one says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” This does not mean that Kim Jong-un in North Korea and others like him, have been hand-picked by God and have God’s blessing. What is meant in the passage is that the authority of government in a general sense is an authority that God works through to bring peace and order. Certainly governments can go wrong, and these verses are qualified and limited in the Bible by verses such as Acts 5:29. There, Peter said he would not obey the authorities who were telling him to quit preaching, saying, “No, we must obey God and not men.”
In day to day life this can all get very messy, and that too is described in the Bible. Here, in Romans 13 Paul called government the servant of God, but in Revelation 13, that same Roman government a few years later is symbolized by an evil beast which, said John, received its power and authority from the devil. Government in general is a gift of God through which he can do his work, just like God can work through individuals. But governments can, like individuals, become evil, and then must be opposed by other governments so that people may be protected. As I said, this gets messy; and, as Paul said elsewhere, we walk by faith and not by perfect seeing, and so good Christian people might well disagree on what to do and when to obey and when to resist. But Romans 13 makes it clear that we must at least begin with a respect for the authority of the government.
It is not my purpose here to examine the justice of individual wars. Some would have more merit than others. The need for, purposes of, and procedures followed in the Vietnam War, certainly the most controversial of all our wars, are still being debated decades after the last soldier fell. There are many who think getting involved in Vietnam was a bad idea from beginning to end; and others who argue very powerfully for its necessity in slowing Communism’s rapid advance. If now, almost a half century later, the experts are still debating the merits of that war, it would be expecting far too much of an 18 year old draftee to have all the answers in 1967. Most Americans have simply responded to the call of duty. But those are other questions for other times. Today we honor and remember those who were willing to serve in war and in peace.
In Luke 3 John the Baptist had been calling on people to repent of their sins, change their ways, be baptized, and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Some soldiers asked John what they should do. If there was anything wrong with being a soldier, we would have heard about it here. John was not one to mince words, and if he thought that those men should get out of the military and become conscientious objectors, he would have been the one to tell them, and this would have been the time to say it. But John says no such thing, and instead tells them to just do an honest job of it: “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your pay” (verse 14). He did not even say don’t kill anyone, because he knew that a soldier might have to do that sometimes. Jesus also met a Roman soldier one time, a centurion, one in charge of a hundred men (Matthew 8). Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, also did not tell this soldier to give up his soldiering. Rather, he granted the centurion’s request, healed his servant, and then even praised the centurion for his great faith.
In John 15:13 Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus was talking about his own life that he was soon to lay down for his friends, friends that include you and me. But those same words can be applied to our veterans; those who did or were willing to lay down their lives for others. We have all been the beneficiaries of those sacrifices, and on this day we honor them.
I Samuel 17:45-46a — David said to the Philistine (Goliath), “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands…
Luke 3:14 — Then some soldiers asked him (John the Baptist), “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely— be content with your pay.”
John 15:13 — (Jesus said), “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”
Lord God of Hosts, in whom our fathers trusted, we give thee thanks for all thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Unite all the people of this nation to defend the freedom for which they lived and died. Grant, we beseech thee, that the liberty they bequeathed unto us may be continued to our children and our children’s children, and that the power of the gospel may here abound, to the blessing of all the nations of the earth, and the thine eternal glory; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
—The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church U. S. A., Westminster, 1946, page 317.