Soldier and Christian

An Interview with Chaplain Beach

by MGen Clay T. Buckingham, USA (Ret.)

I was born and raised in Vero Beach, Florida. My father, a veteran of World War I, was a pioneer in the citrus industry. He was a man of consummate integrity. My mother was an energetic homemaker. We five children grew up understanding the meaning of telling the truth, hard work, financial responsibility, educational achievement, unselfish service, church attendance, community involvement, and patriotism. The moral values we absorbed at home were derived from the Bible.

At age 18, I entered West Point, thus beginning a military career which lasted for 37 years. It was at West Point that I became a believer--a follower of Jesus Christ.

Early in my sophomore year, some of my cadet friends invited me to a Bible study. Like most college students, I had some very real doubts about the truthfulness of the Bible itself. However, I was willing to read and study it with my friends and let the Bible speak for itself. Going through the Gospel of John, I read the great "I Am's" of Jesus Christ:

  • I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.
  • I am the bread of life. He that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.
  • I am the door. By me, if any man shall enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture.
  • I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
  • I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.
  • I am the vine, and ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same shall bring forth much fruit, for without me ye can do nothing.
  • I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And he that liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
  • I am the way, the truth and the life. No man cometh to the father but by me.

Gradually I began to realize that here in the Person of Jesus Christ I was finding the answers to my deep questions regarding the purpose and meaning of life. I decided that if what I was reading in the Bible was true, then I needed to do something about it. I also realized that I could never prove that the Bible is either true or false.

For centuries people had been trying to do just that. Believers had tried to prove that the Bible is true. Skeptics had tried to prove that the Bible is false. Neither group had succeeded in their attempts. I understood that I had to put human reason behind me, and accept the Bible "on faith." As someone has said, "The highest achievement of human reason is to recognize that there is a limit to human reason." So without knowing much biblical doctrine, I decided to put my trust in Jesus Christ, to believe what He said about Himself, and to follow Him. It was only later, as I began to understand Christian doctrine, that I realized that when I put my trust in Jesus Christ, I had been converted, saved, regenerated, born again, and that it was not I who had been seeking God, but God who had been seeking me.

And thus began my identification with Jesus Christ, which became the defining relationship of my life. When I decided to follow Jesus, a new life began in me. Old attitudes and ambitions and desires began to pass away. New attitudes and ambitions and desires began to form in my heart and guide my decisions and actions.

Faith and the Military

Early in my Christian life, I realized that I had to come to grips with two central questions. The first concerned the impact of my new faith on my military career. Could I integrate my faith with my profession, or should faith and profession be compartmentalized? Faith over here--profession over there. Or could I carry into my military career the moral and ethical values taught and lived by Jesus Christ?

Would it be possible to demonstrate, in the way I performed my military duties, the character of Jesus--His justice, His mercy, His compassion, His reliability, His faithfulness, His attention to duty, His unselfishness, His obedience to the Father?

The more I learned of the Christian faith, the more I came to understand that true faith should overarch and permeate every facet of life, otherwise it is only a sham. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states that, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away. Behold all things are become new." All things are become new.

Not just some things, but all things. To be "in Christ" should be a total experience, impacting every aspect of life--personal, family, intellectual, recreational, social, and professional. I knew, because God's Word taught me, and I now accepted the Word of God as Truth, that I could not separate my life in the Army from my life in Jesus Christ. They had to be one--totally integrated.

A Soldier and a Christian?

The second question concerned whether soldiering and the Christian faith were compatible. Can a soldier be a Christian? Can a Christian be a soldier? I had a "gut" feeling that there was an essential compatibility between being a soldier and being a Christian.

After all, my father--an honorable man--had fought in World War I; and our nation, at its core founded on Christian principles, had expended vast human and material resources during World War II to free the world from the terror of the Nazi tyrants and the brutality of the Imperial Japanese war lords.

However, it took me several years to sort out intellectually, and to be able to articulate, the underlying compatibility between the Christian faith and the military profession. As a matter of fact, for years I had no ready answer to the apparent dilemma posed by those who said that the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," invalidates the military profession, and that if a person truly believes in Jesus Christ, he cannot serve in the military forces of his nation.

Of course I could cite the many apparently "honorable" wars of the Old Testament, the apostle Paul's non-condemning references to soldiering, and Jesus' own commendation of the Roman centurion. And I knew that a proper translation of the commandment was not, "Thou shalt not kill," but actually, "Thou shalt not murder," an important distinction which implies taking the law into one's own hands and, with malice, killing a fellow human being.

However, the serious nature of taking the life of a human being hit home to me as I looked through the gunsights of a tank situated on a frozen Korean hillside and blew a group of Chinese soldiers on the ridge ahead of me into kingdom come.

I knew that I was personally pulling the trigger, and that regardless of the basic morality of the Korean War, I was intentionally killing another human being--in fact, several of them at once.

Throughout my service as a tank platoon leader and company commander in the Korean war, I put that great question "on hold," doing my duty throughout those eighteen months as the Army of my country had taught me to do it.

I prayed that God would somehow reveal to me His infinite wisdom on the personal morality of being a willing participant in a profession which demands the taking of life as a function of its ultimate purpose.

Searching for Answers

For me, the answer to this dilemma eventually came from a study of three things: first, the values of the Christian faith; second, the purpose of the military profession; and third, historical perspectives.

As I studied the values, or ethical principles, of the Christian faith, one value seemed to permeate Scripture and stand out above all the others as the highest value of all, and that is that human life is infinitely precious in the sight of God. The human race was God's ultimate and crowning act of creation. He made us in His image. Our bodies are the temple, the dwelling place, of His Holy Spirit. God loves each one of us with a love, which is beyond comprehension.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, "God demonstrated His love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Jesus Himself said, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish but shall have eternal life." In God's eyes, every life is precious, priceless, of supreme value, worth even the death of our Savior on the cross.

The value of human life is what has moved Christians down through the ages to establish hospitals, educational institutions, orphanages, social welfare systems, and disaster relief organizations. The value of human life is reflected in our civil laws regarding murder, assault, rape, industrial safety, child labor, equal opportunity, and the protection of the innocent in a wide variety of situations. Christians oppose abortion and euthanasia because human life, whether born or unborn, young or old, handicapped or disabled, is precious in the sight of God.

Our Declaration of Independence speaks of our "unalienable right" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The value of human life is what motivated our great nation to declare its independence from a tyrannical British crown, to fight a bloody civil war, to go to the aid of its allies in WW I and WW II, to fight in Korea, to stand against the communists in Vietnam, and to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.

The value of human life is what motivated the NATO forces, for forty long years, to face down what President Reagan called the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, until that empire crumbled under the weight of its own callous disdain and disregard for the human condition within its own borders.

The highest Christian value is that human life is infinitely precious in the sight of God, and therefore whatever protects and enhances life is good, and that whatever destroys or degrades human life is evil. Hear that again--and let this fundamental principle of Christian ethics ring in your ears for the rest of your lives--whatever protects and enhances human life is good, and whatever destroys and degrades human life is evil. Now let us look at the purpose of the military profession.

In its purest and most fundamental essence, the purpose of military force is not to destroy life but to protect life--to protect the lives of the citizens of the nation so that they may live in peace and security.

Every nation has domestic police forces to protect its citizens from the internal threat of crime--from murderers, rapists, robbers, and thieves. So also every nation has a military force to protect its citizens from the external threat of aggressor nations who would rob the people of their freedom and destroy their lives.

The ultimate purpose of the military profession of the United States of America is to protect the lives of the citizens of our nation from aggressor nations, who would rob us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This purpose is entirely consistent with, and actually flows from, the highest Christian ethic--that which protects and enhances life is good. That which destroys and degrades life is evil.

But before coming to a final conclusion regarding how all of this impacted on my personal participation in the military profession, I wanted to trace the analysis of Christian thinkers down through the ages. What I found was that from the beginning of the Christian era, Christian thinkers have wrestled with the problem of the compatibility of military service and the Christian faith.

The "Just War"

Early in the fifth century, St. Augustine reduced the problem to its essence. Augustine related a parable of a Christian man, his sister, and his mother walking down a remote path through a wilderness area. They are confronted by a band of outlaws, who surround the little threesome and move in for the assault. The man knows that the outlaws will rob and kill him, kill his mother, and rape his sister unless he fights and kills the aggressors first. But is it "Christian" to fight and kill? If he were alone, he reasons, he would not resist. He would turn the other cheek. But he is not alone. His sister and mother are with him. They are weak. They are innocent. They are defenseless. He is strong, and he is responsible for them.

Yes, he reasons, he must defend his sister and his mother. To fail to protect them would be a far greater evil than to fight and kill the aggressors. Thus was born the theory of the "Just War," which justifies the use of military force by the strong to protect and defend the innocent and the defenseless.

My conclusion was that, as a Christian, and without apology to anyone, I could be a soldier, a participant in the military profession, and that my duties as a soldier, even if they required me to kill in carrying out the purpose of my profession, were consistent with the highest Christian values.

But can the purpose of military force be prostituted? Can military force be used for evil? Of course it can. Military force in itself is neither good nor bad, moral nor immoral. It is how it is used which gives it moral content. Military force used to defend our nation, our people, and our way of life--is good. Military force used to attack other nations or people for selfish purposes--is evil.

It also follows that military leaders, at all levels, have a responsibility to insure that military force is used for good and not for evil. Throughout its history, with only one exception, the military forces of our nation have been employed in support of the highest value of the Christian faith--to protect and enhance life.

Now what does this all mean? First, it means that as a Christian, you can and should integrate your faith with your profession. You must allow your relationship with Jesus Christ to influence every facet of your life, to include the daily duties of your military profession. To do otherwise is to deny your faith. And, second, it means that you can throw yourself into your military profession with the full confidence that you are involved in an endeavor which is entirely consistent with your Christian faith. In fact, to fail to perform your military duties to the very best of your capabilities is, again, a denial of your faith.

At West Point that I became a believer, a follower of Jesus Christ. What, truly, does that mean? When a person becomes a Christian--that is, when he is converted, saved, regenerated, born again--he pledges his total allegiance to Jesus Christ. He vows--promises--to follow Him, to believe Him, to obey Him. The new Christian adopts the values of Jesus Christ as his own.

Whatever Jesus says is true, the Christian accepts as true. Whatever Jesus states is right or wrong, the Christian accepts as right or wrong. Whatever Jesus says is important, the Christian accepts as important.

Becoming a Christian is not joining a church, although all Christians should join together with other Christians in worship, fellowship and service.

Becoming a Christian is establishing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is like getting married. In the marriage vows, we promise to forsake all others, and cleave only unto our spouse. Becoming a Christian is making a vow to forsake every other way of life, every other philosophy, every other set of values, and to cleave only to Jesus Christ.

Our ultimate purpose is to be like Him, to be conformed to His image, to think like He thought, to respond like He responded, to reflect His character before the world.

We are to emulate His attitude of humility, selfless service, and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. We are to become like He was: a giving person, and not a getting person; a person who seeks to contribute to society, and not suck the sweet juices out of society for selfish pleasure. We are to look at every situation, every assignment, and every personal relationship, with an attitude which says, "What can I give, not what can I get; how can I contribute, not what's in it for me."

What was Jesus really like? Jesus was the very epitome of integrity. Unlike the hypocritical Pharisees, Jesus lived what He taught. He taught what He lived. His teachings reflected His own character.

He was a doer of the word, and not just a hearer of the word. His life and teachings were the same. Jesus lived the words of Micah 6:8, in which the prophet states, "He hath shown you, O Man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly, [faithfully,] with thy God." In Matthew 23, Jesus admonished the Pharisees because they had neglected the weightier matters of the law--justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus was a man of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus "did justly."

There was no corruption in His life or on His lips. He approached every situation seeking to do what was right, just, fair, and honest. Jesus "loved mercy," His mercy extended to all people, rich and poor, young and old, powerful and weak. He loved people. He had compassion on people. He loved helping people, healing people, giving to people. He sought the very best for everyone. He was not a getting person. He was a giving person--giving life, hope, and encouragement.

And Jesus "walked humbly and faithfully" with God. He loved prayer. He loved to be alone with God. He carried out His mission in life faithfully. He never wavered or questioned. He walked humbly with God, and he was faithful to others also, including His family, the disciples and the multitudes. He kept His promises, and could be relied on. If He told you something, you could believe it.

And so, as Christians, in every facet of our lives, we should reflect the character of Jesus Christ. We should do justly, we should love mercy, and we should walk humbly and faithfully with God. As we serve in the military forces of our nation, we should do what is fair and just and right. We should do what is merciful and compassionate. We should do what is faithful and humble before God. There is no other way.

As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, as believers, we must live our lives on a higher plane. We must always take the higher road and do the harder right rather than the easier wrong. And we must lead. We must lead our soldiers, our peers, and, by example, our superiors, to higher ground, leading them to faith, hope, purpose, and commitment. By faith we lead them to do justly to love mercy, to walk faithfully and humbly with God.

This is your path. Walk ye in it.