There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build. Ecclesiastes 3, verses 1, 3.
I was once a warrior. I proudly served in the US Air Force from 1985 through 1996 (and another 2 years in the AF Reserve after that). Much of what I know and how I work today I learned during those years. They helped make me into who I am today. I’m intensely proud of my service and the fact that I served. Many days I wish I hadn’t voluntarily separated from the military, but I think back on when I did and remember that I made the best decision I could at the time.
Knowing that (so you know where I come from), let me ask you this question: does this verse condone war?
I have many friends who are anti-military, pacifist and anti-war. Personally, I have always had low regard for those outlooks but high regard for the character of people who can honorably maintain them. It takes courage to stand up and say “I don’t agree with that.” One of my favorite movies is “Friendly Persuasion,” which is a Gary Cooper movie about southern Indiana Quakers during the Civil War. The Quakers, Shakers and Amish (and even today’s Wisconsin Synod Lutherans) are all strongly pacifist. When I was a member of the WELS, I was surprised to learn that pastors in that synod are informally encouraged to not serve in the military. There are many reasons for that – no, that church isn’t unpatriotic. There are other reasons – but there is a strong vein of pacifism running through the organization.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I struggle with that. In this time of war, I wrestle with the concept that all are free because some serve, that some fight our battles and that, because of it, all of us don’t have to. That’s a blessing of our living in a country where serving one’s country is a freedom we can choose or decline. It doesn’t mean that you’re unpatriotic or unbelieving if you don’t serve: it simply means your gifts are useful elsewhere. For most people I believe this is true; the rest run for political office.
But it still doesn’t answer the question: does this verse mean God condones war? The Bible is replete with stories about conflict. To take possession of His promised land, the Israelites made gruesome war on the inhabitants. Above all else earthly, King David was a general leading powerful armies. The soldiers who executed Jesus were soldiers of occupation who, only a few decades before, had overrun ‘modern’ Israel. And the very last book of the Bible, Revelation, talks about how war will bring about the end of all things here; how God would use war to purge His creation once and for all of all sin.
If God doesn’t condone war, He certainly allows it. That, you know, may be the biggest ‘duh’ statement you read this week.
No, the verse doesn’t condone war and it doesn’t give praise (or scorn) to those of a martial bent. I believe what it does is to acknowledge that all things occur under God’s good timeline, including killing, healing, tearing down and building up. Just as He allows us to commit our other sins, so He allows war in His creation we made imperfect. I think there is tacit acknowledgement that some among us will fight in war and some will help to heal from it. Either way, both happen under God’s oversight because both use God-given talents.
Notice, too, that the writer pairs killing with healing and tearing down with building up. You’ll remember that these first 8 verses use those opposites to demonstrate contrast. Here I think it’s especially helpful to note them. Before conflict, there is rising tension, degenerating relations. During conflict all hell can break loose. After conflict? Afterwards is the time to rebuild, to build back, to do better. Ditto with killing. Something drives us to kill, gives us the motivation to do it. For those who kill and those who have known someone killed there is time to heal afterwards. Sure, that’s easier said than done; no simple words like mine can make it easier. But there is still the time – and the opportunity – for it. That’s a blessing.
It’s a central blessing that God wanted us to note. He sometimes uses the terrible thing of war to bring about change for a better future. Who can say with a straight face that Germany would have been better off as the Third Reich, or that South Korea is worse off than it’s sibling to the North? Yes, there is still so much struggle in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that they are functioning democracies now is undeniably better than the brutal dictatorships they were before. You’re a fool to think that God is indifferent in human affairs, or that He doesn’t lay the groundwork for something better through the violent reality of war. Once again, He takes our sin and turns it around for His greater good.
Last week, my wife and I watched “Hatfields & McCoys.” We really enjoyed it, and we spent some time after talking about how ironic it was that McCoy, who had been so devout, ended up faithless and desolate while Hatfield, who had been humanly brutal was a believer in God when he died. Their story started in the Civil War when Hatfield, a Confederate officer, deserted after seeing the futility of the Confederate cause. The brutal 20 year feud that followed resulted from this seemingly cowardly act. Yet Hatfield was a realist, too, and he made a choice to spare his own life when others would surely have sacrificed it. Cowardly? Perhaps, but the movie also made it somewhat understandable.
Sometimes I struggle with that too when I think back about ‘divorcing’ the military. I got out by choice; nobody forced me. I worked in a highly sensitive career field that had been politicized and was (I thought) being managed by incompetent leaders who didn’t understand what they were doing. The men & women I served with, my immediate peers, friends and supervisors? You couldn’t ask for a better & more talented, more devoted group of people. The generals and civilians who commanded the force back then? Incompetent. I’d had enough and cashed in my chips, thinking I could do better with the rest of my life than I could do in the remaining 9 years until retirement. Since then, I’ve been blessed with a rich and successful life even when it’s been full of up’s and down’s. Still, I wonder what it would have been like if, like so many of my friends, I put in a full 20 years and made a career out of it. Today I’m very proud to have been part of it all. We not only condoned war: we prepared for it. That’s what the military is supposed to do. We did our best as God gave us the ability to see what that was.