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Modern nursing was strongly influenced by two institutions: the convent and the military. Florence Nightingale's experiences with nursing nuns in Paris and the deaconesses in Kaiserswerth, Germany, and her wartime organization of the care of wounded soldiers at Scutari, in modern-day Turkey, shaped the way she envisioned the reformation of hospitals and nursing, elevating nursing to honorable work. Christian nurses have seen their work as God's call in both secular and religious institutions and in the military as well.

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However, some Christians believe that military service-even as a nurse-conflicts with loyalty to Jesus Christ. In times of war it is difficult to articulate these convictions, especially when our friends and relatives are sacrificing their lives in what is seen as a fight against evil. We are sometimes accused of not loving our country and of undermining the morale of our troops, but the U.S. government allows conscientious objection during times of mandatory draft to military service. We are grateful for this provision, knowing that many nations do not have this option.


Augustine's Arguments

Although there is much evidence that early Christians saw Christ's teaching of love and humility as incompatible with violence and killing, most Christians have long supported the Just War theory first articulated by St. Augustine. After the fall of Rome in AD 410, Augustine worried that there would be a backlash against pacifist Christians who did not help to defend the city. He argued that although there is no "private right" to kill, Christians could kill under God's authority "as communicated by direct or implicit command from God, or by a legitimate ruler who carries out God's intent to restrain evil on earth." Augustine further suggested that one who obeys such a command "does not himself kill." He acts only as an instrument of the one who commands.1 Augustine concluded, "The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power."2


Augustine developed a complex set of criteria for both starting and conducting a "Just War." However, he was not clear about what constituted just causes for war. Some interpret him to mean that states may justly go to war to defend or avenge a violation of their rights. Others think that means war may be waged against evil anywhere in God's moral order.


It should be noted that Augustine wrote during the period of history when the church and state had been working together for nearly a century, following the conversion of the emperor Constantine. The government selected church leaders and approved church doctrine. Rulers expected the blessing of the church on their armies. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the church provided stability for civil life. The church, through its leaders, supported and even initiated wars for the next one thousand years. Some of those wars, seen in light of history, seem less than just and sometimes included forced conversions from pagan religions to Christianity.


Anabaptist Alternatives

During the Reformation some church leaders, including Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons, argued for a separation between church and state. They argued that kings and city councils had no right to interfere in church leadership and doctrine. Neither was the church obligated to obey every command coming from the state. They referred to Peter's words to the religious council of Jerusalem when ordered by them to quit speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus. "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge" (Acts 4:19) and "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29).


These early Anabaptist leaders (so called because they insisted on adult believer baptism, even for those who had been baptized as infants) read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. They saw Christ's Sermon on the Mount as the constitution for Christian life. There he said that his followers were not to resist evil, but turn the other cheek (Mt 5:38-44). When Christ said to give to Caesar (the nation) what was his and to God what was his, he implied that some things were not Caesar's (Mt 22:19-21). The Christian's first loyalty is to Christ's kingdom, not to the nation.


Biblical Precedents

Paul argues in Romans 13 that Christians should obey civil rulers who are put there by God for our benefit. He sees their use of force as God's means to restrain evil. He urges Christians to fulfill duties of citizenship-paying taxes and respecting civil authorities. In 1Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes that we are to pray for government leaders so that good civil order will prevail. He used his Roman citizenship when it served his purpose (Acts 21:39; 22:25).


But Paul's first loyalty was to Christ's kingdom and not to the local leaders put in office by Rome or to the Roman government itself. When he could do so in good conscience, he submitted to and supported the government. But there were higher demands on his loyalty-those of Christ's kingdom. Just before his words urging support for civil authorities, Paul instructed, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:17-21).


The objection of Anabaptists to war is not selective. For example, many peace activists during the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq objected to these specific wars and not to war in principle. What are now called "peace churches" object to participation in any war, just or unjust. There are some differences in the way they articulate their beliefs. Some go so far as to make non-resistance almost the focus of the gospel. My beliefs are gleaned from the peace church tradition and my study of Scripture.


My primary objection to military service is the claim of the nation to my first loyalty. My citizenship in Christ's kingdom guides my role as a citizen of the state and not the other way around. I have talked with Christians in the military that struggle with this issue. They resolve it in differing ways-some ignore the dilemma; others live with the tension; most see Paul's teaching to obey the civil government as their obligation.


Mixed Motives

A related objection is that issues between nations are never quite what we are told when war is being justified. Is the primary concern fighting evil or preserving our economy and lifestyle? International relationships are complex. Nations try to maintain a favorable balance of power in world affairs. An enemy at one time is an ally at another, depending on national advantage.


Furthermore, Christians have often killed other Christians in war. Also, the violence of war kills more than just bodies; it kills the spirit. Military training includes how to kill. It nurtures the worst instincts of human nature. What soldiers see and do leave inner wounds, some of which never heal.


Anabaptists disagree with Augustine. Rather than self-preservation through war, Anabaptists look to God for protection. Like the three Hebrews threatened with death because they would not bow down to an idol of the king, they say, "God will protect us, but even if he does not do so, if we perish we perish" (Dan 3:16-18). Who knows how history might have been different if Christ's followers had followed their example?


Historically, we find hints of how wars might have been prevented had Christians been faithful at being salt and light in their societies. For years before World War II, the German church lacked spiritual life and commitment to biblical truth. When Hitler came on the scene, many church leaders gave him their loyalty. Today, if American Christians were building bridges through education and compassionate sharing of resources with the poor of the world, would there be less animosity toward us in countries where terrorists thrive?


Impossible Utopia

Some peace activists promote the idea that we can resolve all conflict by diplomatic means. Anabaptists know that this is Utopian thinking. There will never be peace on earth until Jesus Christ returns as King of kings and Lord of lords. In the meantime, nations will continue to settle differences through war.


Neither do Anabaptists suppose that we can make our nations Christian through power politics and protesting. Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds counsels us that good and evil will exist together, even come to fruition until he returns at the end for a final separation (Mt 13:24-30). In the meantime we try to live lives that promote peace-peace in our daily lives, in our families and between nations. We do that by being salt and light, by living lives that demonstrate what life in the kingdom of God looks like.


Of course the questions always come, "What would you do if someone were threatening your neighbor? Just stand by?" Is there never time to use force, even killing to protect another person? Should snipers be allowed to kill innocent bystanders? Should pacifists never call the police because they carry guns and can kill?


These questions are not easily answered, and I struggle with them. I have told my police friends that I am glad they are there and that I am also glad they carry guns. One of them responded, "Please pray that I never have to use it." He knew some officers who have never gotten over having to kill someone.


Christians who object to participation in war often show national loyalty by serving in other ways. During World War II many conscientious objectors (COs) gave alternative service, some of them in hospitals. The influence of these COs who saw the conditions in mental hospitals and agitated for better care led to sweeping reforms of mental health care in the U.S. Many Christian mental health hospitals were founded as a result.


A Faithful Community

During World War II the French government urged cooperation from all citizens in rounding up Jews to be shipped east for Germany's Final Solution. However, a pastor in the village of LeChambon declared, "We will not fight the Germans, neither will we cooperate with them." On Sundays he urged his hearers to "fight with weapons of the spirit." In the end, the 5,000 residents of the area spared the lives of some 5,000 Jews. They were primarily poor farmers who could barely afford to feed more people. One Sunday two government officials came to the worship service. The congregation, descendants of persecuted French Huguenots, sang the old hymns of standing firm even when facing death. One woman recalled, "We were ready if they had lined us up against the wall to shoot us." The villagers founded schools and safe havens. Even though wounded German soldiers eventually came there to heal, only one person was killed in the area.3


What about nurses and other health care workers who serve in the military? Some Christians have found military service one way to express Christ's compassion, even to civilians and enemy soldiers alike. Many Christian nurses in the military offer spiritual care as well. Others question whether this contributes to the total war effort.


I have not needed to make a personal decision as a nurse about the military. What would I have done if there had been a mandatory draft of nurses? Perhaps I could have served as a nurse. More likely, I would have declared myself a conscientious objector and asked to serve in some other way.


Christians answer these questions differently. Perhaps we each have something to say as we seek together in finding the best way to be salt and light in a violent world.


Characteristics of Peace Church


1. Proclamation of the gospel of peace (Mk 2: 17; 2 Cor 5: 19; Eph 2: 14).


2. Love of all human beings, even the enemy (Mt 5:44; Rom 5:8).


3. Rejection of violence (Mt 5:39).


4. Commitment to the victims of violence (Lk 10:37).


5. Community and solidarity (1 Cor 12:27; Phil 3:20).


The home page of Church and Peace, originator of the Bienenberg Declaration, is accessed at


1 Robert L. Holmes, "How Can War Be Christian?" [Context Link]


2 Ibid. [Context Link]


3 Weapons of the Spirit by Pierre Sauvage, U.S.A./France, 1989, 90 minutes, color-35mm, 16mm, video, Chambon Foundation & Greenvalley Productions. [Context Link]