By Rick Phillips
I have decided to go see the movie American Sniper because by all accounts it thoughtfully delves into the moral contours of warfare and killing. Whether we prefer to acknowledge it or not, our society has been at war for over a decade and large numbers of our young people have had to face the trauma of combat. We owe it to them to face the reality they have been living and to help them deal with the psychological challenges of active military service. It is my hope that American Sniper will play a role in that cause.
Given the popularity of the movie, the question is raised as to whether or not Christians should celebrate snipers. That is, should we approve not merely of faithful military service in general but also the brutal specialization of killing humans one deliberate and well-aimed shot at a time? In short, my answer is Yes. In my view, a balanced biblical view calls us to praise snipers for their courageous and skillful service in defending us from evil.
Let me work through this answer in 5 points:
1. The Bible’s value on human life does not condemn faithful military service, including that of snipers.The most common objection is to assert that Jesus was non-violent and therefore does not approve of snipers. Peter Enns makes this argument in criticizing those who would praise these deadly marksmen (see here). Like most Christian pacifists, Enns bases his argument on the Sermon on the Mount, failing to note the difference between a Christian individual who refuses to take vengeance for personal slights (Mt. 5:38-39) and a Christian who fulfills his covenantal duty to protect the innocent and weak (Neh. 4:16, for instance). In a more balanced biblical view, military service against blood-thirsty enemies is not analogous to a Christian individual refusing to take vengeance, but is much more analogous to Jesus’ own violent actions in cleansing the temple from those who were exploiting the poor in Jerusalem (see Jn. 2:15).
2. The New Testament clearly states a Christian’s duty to “be subject to the governing authorities,” which are “instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). One of the duties that God requires of civil rulers is to “bear the sword” as “the servant of God” and “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). A sword has only one purpose, roughly the same as a sniper rifle: to take human life violently. This means that Jesus not only requires civil rulers to employ deadly force against evil but also requires Christians to serve as soldiers in that just cause. It is precisely in this respect – as faithful citizen soldiers and as valiant defenders against evil – that snipers ought to be praised. (Admittedly, the question of whether or not the people our snipers were shooting in Iraq and Afghanistan should be considered evil – or at least the agents of evil – is another question, one with which I am personally very satisfied.) It is therefore quite in line with the Bible to believe that Jesus gives a positive verdict to faithful Christian snipers: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
3. We should also note Jesus’ own care in fulfilling his duties to the secular authorities. It is easy to trot out a pacifist Jesus who would never endorse violence, just like a Jesus who would abhor a literal reading of Old Testament holy war passages (as Enns has argued — see here). In fact, when Enns makes the “Jesus would never be a sniper” argument, he selectively ignores the very cultural context he usually highlights. The reality is that in Jesus’ time, Jewish men were not enlisted into Roman armed service, but were a subject people of an occupying tyrant. Therefore the “would Jesus be a sniper?” question has no historical context in which to be answered. But a related question can be answered: “would Jesus willingly pay taxes to an evil ruler?” Here, Jesus answered in provocative terms that should inform our view of his stance to military service: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Jesus then took the Roman denarius he had procured and used it to pay his taxes to the wicked Roman government. It is hard to see how the same Jesus who was so careful to fulfill his own civil obligations would condemn an American citizen who faithfully answered his country’s valid call to military service.
4. Those concerned about the praising of snipers do, however, raise concerns that we should consider. I, for one, am just as weary as Peter Enns when it comes to the wrong kind of Christian patriotism. Despite our often boastful cry of “God bless America,” our nation does not possess an automatically favored status with heaven, and I believe there are real concerns to be raised about a spirit of militarism today. Moreover, Christians should take a sober and even mournful view of the necessities of warfare and the awful damage done to precious human lives, Christian, secularist, and Muslim alike. Faithful service as a sniper is, I believe, a good deed we should praise. But the necessity of having snipers at all is an evil that every Christian should deeply lament. Yes, let us praise and thank our faithful snipers, even as we weep with and for them and, yes, also for those who are innocent victims of war on the enemy side.
5. As we praise and thank our faithful warriors, let us look forward to the day when there will be no snipers, just as there will be no terrorist armies. Our true celebration is in knowing that Jesus is coming soon in a final judgment that will be terrible in violence even as it puts an end to all violence and evil. For when Jesus returns in power and glory, he will bear the last sword in the victory to end all wars: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Rev. 19:11). For after Jesus has slain all the wicked with the sharp sword that comes from his mouth and has trodden “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15), then will come a peace that will never end.
The day has not yet come when our swords and sniper rifles should be beaten into plowshares, but that blessed day is coming soon (Isa. 2:4). Then, God’s says, “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). But for now, let us gratefully praise the faithful soldiers who have defended us as snipers, and as tank crewmen, fighter pilots, and artillerymen. And may God send us many more snipers to defend us with courage and skill until Jesus finally comes and relieves of us the terrible burden of war.