Thursday 3 December 2009

Theology FAIL: Christians enjoy killing

OK, the world is filled with bad theology. But you'll seldom come across anything as bad as this – in a 2005 essay entitled "Onward Christian Soldiers", Gene Edward Veith asks the question: "Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?"

He replies that war is "fun" since we have a "primal love of war". There is "a pleasure in battle", an "excitement, exhilaration, and a fierce joy that go along with combat". We should "appreciate our troops' facility in fulfilling their purpose, namely, killing the enemy." Christians with a military vocation should thus "go forward with joy"; quoting Luther, Veith counsels Christian soldiers to "smite [their enemies] with a confident and untroubled spirit." And so his remarkable theological conclusion: "As in other vocations, so in the military, there is nothing wrong with enjoying one's work."

A friend came by my office today and read me this passage aloud. I burst out laughing, thinking for a moment that it was a parody. But alas, I was mistaken. Which just goes to show that the test of Very Bad Theology is whether it's beyond parody.


Ben Myers said...

It occurs to me that "Theology FAIL" (inspired by the Fail Blog) might become a regular feature here at F&T. Feel free to email submissions if you spot a noteworthy theology FAIL.

Anonymous said...

who marks our doctrine papers at Moore? :)

Chris Tilling said...


Now we have seen a lot of questionable theology on the web before, but this really takes the p.

Anonymous said...

When will we learn that it's only Jesus who laughs as he kills
Psalm 2

John David Penniman said...

wow. this is horrendous.

even classical just war tradition has a sense of melancholy essential to it. This is but the pleasant captivity of a lesser mind.

Sally D said...

Not only insulting to Christians but also to military professionals, whose purpose is NOT in fact, "Killing the enemy" but the achievement of particular strategic objectives which might or might not involve destruction or killing but preferably would not if they can be achieved without loss of life.

I presume that this is why many people who've spent years if not working lifetimes in military service can go home or retire and become useful, prosocial members of their communities, behaving in kind, caring and tolerant ways.

The question of whether Christians can or should bear arms is an entirely different one. Personally, I don't think this drivel should be dignified with the term "theology" at all. An attempt to reconcile juvenile violent fantasies with a superficial commitment to the Gospel, is probably closer to whatever it is.

Jesse said...


Printed in a 'pro-life' publication.

Anonymous said...


I was looking into this guy, you may have heard of him, named Bultmannnn, or something, & I think he might qualify for a Theology FAIL post :)

S. Coulter said...

Re: Anonymous (#2)

For the record, in Psalm 2, YHWH is the one laughing, not the Annointed. Presumably Christological interpretation of this psalm would identify Jesus with the Annointed.

And, personally, while I'm fine with associating this enthronement psalm with Jesus as the Annointed one and the exalted king sitting at the right hand of the Father, I think using it to say that "Jesus gleefully kills people" is overly simplistic. And certainly in tension with Jesus' teachings in the NT Gospels.

Anonymous said...

Is Stephen in fact Colbert? That comment sounds suspiciously similar to something on the Report :)

christplaysnz said...

"It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace. It is no good quoting "Thou shalt not kill." There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew. All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery. When soldiers came to St. John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army: nor did Christ when He met a Roman sergeant-major-what they called a centurion. The idea of the knight-the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause-is one of the great Christian ideas. War is a dreadful thing, and I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken."

"What I cannot understand is this sort of semipacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage- a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness."

"I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it."

"I imagine somebody will say, "Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy's acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?" All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves- to wish that he were not bad. to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, jot feeling fond of him nor saving he is nice when he is not."

Sounds like C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity.

The Navy Christian said...

Ok, I'm in the military and I don't like the thought of killing anyone. Who in their right mind would? I enjoy objectives, tasks, and such, but not the idea that killing someone is awesome. This is undoubtedly written by someone who was never in the military.

Rudy Allen said...

Cf. Barth, III.4, 463: “We cannot separate the question of the just war from the two questions of faith on the one side and obedience on the other. And these are reciprocal. If war is ventured in obedience and therefore with a good conscience, it is also ventured in faith and therefore with joyous and reckless determination.”

Anonymous said...

Get in Darin! Who's laughing now folks?

Seriously - come on - Psalm 2 - I didn't write it. Do whatever you want with Jesus and the Gospels (I used to be a believer but no more) but the fact is (whether its God or Jesus) he laughs and those who oppose him, rebukes them in his wrath and his anointed smashes them to pieces like poetry. Hey, it's divine comedy.

Mark said...

I hate to say it, but the man quoted is from the same American Lutheran group I am and the logic employed is not uncommon. Roughly:
I am a [fill in the blank]. Luther says that the Christian [fill in the blank] is not the one who tacks a cross on his work but who does his work to the best of his ability. Therefore I can do what my vocation requires to my best ability.

When the blanks were filled in by cobbler/shoemaker as it was in the original quote, the tasks required of a cobbler are not so wide as to encounter problems with the conclusion.

But the basic formula seems to be mutating into an excuse to justify all types of activity under the term of vocation. It misses the fundamental law/gospel points that even the cobbler sins in doing his best. It is Christ who redeems all the work.

Luther on vocation can be a necessary correction to the church that only saw value in monastic activity or other churchy work, but today it is turning into an all purpose "that's my vocation" excuse. Even in Luther's time it was handy to justify the actions of the princes he was dependent on.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a "primal love of war" in the human psyche - at least for white, politically powerful males. And in nature there is a "primal love of war". As in so much else, Christians have to fight this very powerful urge.

Anonymous said...

Whatever primal love of war drives human beings is precisely what drowns in the font and dies on the cross. But (as Augustine knew too well) we are awfully good at resisting the fruit of our baptism.

Anonymous said...

"I am a [drug dealer]. Luther says that the Christian [drug dealer] is not the one who tacks a cross on his work but who does his work to the best of his ability. Therefore I can do what my vocation requires to my best ability."

roger flyer said...

OK! No more anonymous posts, Ben. Nobody gets say so unless they are held to task for their idiocy or lauded for their insight.

Sick of the cowardice.

Anonymous said...

This piece by Veith is an EPIC fail. but as Lacan (and Zizek) would point out, there is the element of 'jouissance' (enjoyment-in-pain) in the act of killing the 'enemy' that must be confronted when we look at the fantasies surrounding war.

however, i wasn't aware that it's the social function of Christianity to provide the fantasy for the enjoyment of killing. But now, this Veith is marching us onward to an important social function for the status quo again! yay.

Josh said...

"I am a [prostitute]. Luther says that the Christian [prostitute] is not the one who tacks a cross on his work but who does his work to the best of his ability. Therefore I can do what my vocation requires to my best ability."

One of the oldest vocations in the book.

Justin S. said...

I once heard a pastor respond to a question put to him during an evening church Q&A: would Jesus enlist in the US Army and fight in the Iraq war? His answer: 'Well, because this a just war, I believe the answer has to be yes - yes, he would.'

Always wished I could go back to that service with a tall glass of water, just so I could spit out a nice mouthful in surprise (and/or an appropriately Moe-like 'whaaaaaaa??!!').

Ian Packer said...

'Vocation' is almost a dead word.

When Veith says, "Christians with a military vocation", I want to know who is calling...

A Christian might be called by the military, but is the military called by Christ?

Josh said...

As with much C.S. Lewis, his thoughts quoted above are barely theological. Mix together opinion, a bit of simplistic exegesis, some sentimentality, personal experience, speculation, and a reductionistic understanding of the gospel and you have the thought of C.S. Lewis. Has there ever been a more overrated theologian?

Anonymous said...

My name is John.

I dont know and I am not going to check it out but I would not be surprised if Gene Veith was/is a paid up subscriber to the supposedly pro-life Manhattan Manifesto.

christplaysnz said...

Josh, I wouldn't call Lewis- "a very ordinary layman of the church of England" - a theologian at all. He was a teacher of literature, a Christian, and a speculative thinker, and never claimed to be more. I rate him as a thinker and a writer, and not as a theologian. And I quoted him only because, as Terry Eagleton says, as thinkers we have a have a duty to confront the case at its most persuasive. And I knew where to find a similar point put much better than the article linked. And I don't think an ad hominem dismissal of Lewis is helps us at all. If you take issues with the exegesis in the passage, correct it, for all our sakes. But lets not mis-label the thinker, the intent of the passage, and insult the writer - especially, if it doesn't add to the conversation.

Anonymous said...

John again.

Please find a quote which is taken from this remarkable essay:

"The negative exploitation and killing of human beings by human beings violates the heart of one and all."

Anonymous said...

"As with much C.S. Lewis, his thoughts quoted above are barely theological. Mix together opinion, a bit of simplistic exegesis, some sentimentality, personal experience, speculation, and a reductionistic understanding of the gospel and you have the thought of C.S. Lewis. Has there ever been a more overrated theologian?"



Robert said...

Just wanted to throw this out there: I totally dig the idea of Theology FAIL becoming a regular feature...

Ian Packer said...

Justin, I would fly to the States just to be in that service with you to add to the water spit

Terry Wright said...

I'm surprised at this. I read Veith's A Guide to Contemporary Culture during my first year at uni back in 1995, and found it a decent read. I'd never have supposed he'd say anything like this.

But the presuppositions at play here are common. In my local church a few weeks back, our minister preached a sermon on Revelation 19 and, if I remember correctly, argued from 19:2-3 that Christians should take pleasure in the condemnation and judgement of sinners. I suppose that it's just a step or two away to say that if a Christian feels that his or her calling is to serve God as a member of the military, then s/he is not barred from taking pleasure in taking life - because God does, and Christians should strive to be like God.

Hopefully you can tell by my tone that I don't agree with this stance.

Paul said...

I would like to ask Veith if he ever investigated the history of the German church under Hitler, and how deeply pious Christians justified their military service for the Nazi regime--oh, what do you know, they used Romans 13 and two-kingdom theory! Who woulda thunk?

"Luther goes so far as to say that soldiers should refuse to fight in wars that are clearly evil."

Obviously most German Christians didn't have the virtues or moral resources to identify what was "clearly evil." Do we?

Josh said...


I'm not sure my post re: C.S. Lewis was an ad hominem attack.

I described his words posted above as his "opinion"; he wrote, "It my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy."

I described his cursory exegesis as "simplistic"; Lewis notes that there are different Greek and Hebrew words for "kill" and "murder," and then recalls stories in which John the Baptist and Jesus encounter soldiers. Regarding the commandment, Lewis fails to mention that when Jesus teaches it in the Sermon on the Mount (which seems to rule out the use of violence by followers of Jesus), he goes on to intensify it; Lewis suggests an interpretation that moves in the opposite direction, toward evasion rather than intensification. Regarding the stories of encounters with soldiers, the first is irrelevant (Christians are followers of Jesus, not John the Baptist), and the second is an example of enemy-love--Jesus, a Jew, helps a Roman centurion who is part of a force that occupies the Jewish homeland and keeps the Jews in line with violence (most notably crucifixion). True, Jesus does not tell the soldier (who is not one of his followers) to leave the Roman military. He simply loves his enemy, showing his disciples (at least some of whom would have preferred that he kill his enemies) what the ethic he had previously taught in the Sermon on the Mount looks like.

I said Lewis showed "some sentimentality"; here I was commenting on his romantic notion of Christian knights, as well as this statement: "It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage--a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness." Nevermind robbing people of life!

I mentioned the heavy reliance by Lewis on his "personal experience"; he writes of his experience fighting in World War I. Of course, such an experience would influence a person's thinking on war. My point was that personal experience is not a firm foundation on which to construct theological arguments.

I mentioned his tendency to engage in "speculation"; he writes, "I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it."

Finally, I wrote of the "reductionistic understanding of the gospel" often evident in the writings of Lewis; here I had in mind the last paragraph above, which conveys the notions that Christian salvation is reducible to souls going to heaven or hell and that Christian ethics is reducible to the attitude we have when we do whatever we are doing--loving people, killing people, and so forth.

I agree with you that Lewis was not a professional theologian. My concern is that many Christians to this day regard him as one of the greatest theologians. These folks may deceive themselves into thinking they are following Jesus when they nod their heads in agreement while reading the thoughts on war of C.S. Lewis.

Daniel Imburgia said...

Serious moral questions threaten to ignite conflict between 2 crews in the TV series of the Sopranos, season 3. First, there is disagreement about the borders of competing garbage contracts and drivers are being killed and trucks blown up. Then, Ralphy brutally beats to death one of the dancers/hookers at the ‘Bada Bing’ because she (Tracy) had slapped him and insulted his manhood. Boss Tony is angry with Ralphy (a made guy) about “disrespecting the Bing” and slugs him, but this is apparently against the gangster code even if Tony is a Boss. True, Ralphy’s killing may have been…untoward, but collateral damage of civilians (as non-gangsters are called) is within the margins of the code, striking another ‘made guy’ is not. Will Tony ‘whack’ Ralphy for his disrespect? And if so, will Ralphy and the murdered Tracy meet up in heaven and just have a big a laugh over the whole thing!? Should find out tonight! Obliged.

Unknown said...

The thrill of war, and its godly prosecution, is an existential fact. The OT is rife with this realization, and it does not apologize for it.

As good as the New Covenant is, it is actually an epic FAIL on your part to wipe out this OT realization. The Blood casts new light on it; it does not delete it. And it certainly gives no grounds for us to mock theologians who try to do justice to it.

However, the facile use of vocation theory, and the dangers of realizing how evil sweeps us up, are valid criticisms and duly noted.

Josh said...


Jesus interpreted the OT; I suspect he did justice to it.

Judd said...

Josh- please share with us why, in your professional theological opinion, Jesus gives his imprimatur to the historical behavior of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda.

And yes, I already know that he was present with all the dead as they were hacked to death. Praise God, he suffered with them. He was their reward, and I heartily say, more than sufficient. Had I been hacked to death there with them, I would have embraced him with all my heart, soul, and strength as I bled to death.

But one wonders, if Jesus was with the dying, why wasn't he also with the blue helmets? Did they just have to tell Him "non, merci"? and bid him be on his way across the fence, where he belonged?

I'll grant you, given the wickedness in high places, most of the world's soldiers would probably serve Christ more faithfully by conscientiously objecting to whatever it is their superiors are commanding at any given moment, and paying whatever price they had to pay as a result.

What a shame there were no such conscientious objectors among the blue helmets. But alas, when the son of man comes, one wonders if he will find any faith on the earth.

insidium said...

I agree with Josh's sound line of argument. Christ was inherently non-violent in a physical sense, and made the epistemological point that all violence of the soul is extinguished in Him, because all sin is forgiven, bound and undone. The cross extinguished it all.

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12)

We are not called to war.(Christ commands the disciples to buy two swords in Luke, but not to use them, but instead to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah, and to demonstrate a point to Peter). However, he never instructs them to fight. He instead says, "For all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt. 26:52).

I don't see how this argument can be justified at all, other than assuming that the war-driven world that the Israelites lived in was some how reflective of God and prescriptive to believers, which is insanity.


Josh said...



Unknown said...

Regarding Veith's position about the pleasure of killing, I think it's interesting to note that some of the early church barred men who had killed in battle from the sacraments for a period of time (I think usually 1-3 years). St. Basil approved of the practice, and I think Hauerwas has mentioned it as an example of how the church's attitude towards violence and warfare has changed.

Our fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that their hands are not clean. --St. Basil, Canon 13

Anonymous said...

Hello all,

I can only quickly post now - I can't check again until next week.

Here's what I wrote to Dr. Veith when he wrote that article:

...I was disturbed by your most recent column in World justifying the military man who enjoys his work.

Please don't get me wrong--I believe like you that what he does is right and good and that it is good that he enjoys his work.

I guess I think the aspect of his work that he ought to be enjoying and deriving satisfaction from the most is that he is a protector--he does something that saves lives.

Now a fireman does something similar, and may even enjoy the means to this end. In order to protect, he fights the fires and enjoys doing so.

I would not have been discouraged had the good military man (I forget his rank) talked about enjoying the means had he talked about it in a more detached, video-game, kind of way... (I hear the military trains you to more or less kill mechanically and to think of yourself as doing so to for the good of your unit that they may succeed...)

The man, however, talked about killing in a much different sense. In un-Christlike fashion, he talked of how much he enjoyed killing people because of what horrible people they were. In other words, he enjoyed the death of sinners--and not showing mercy.

I believe it is the same book of Ezekiel that condemns those who fight in war and ENJOY the shedding of blood. If you write me back, I can tell you the verse I am thinking about. I don't think I am taking it out of context.

Again, Dr. Veith--I love what you do. But because I so value you as a voice for good Lutheran theology (grace and mercy!), I think this last column is screaming for a follow-up--for Christians are ultimately people of mercy. Even protecting the weak by killing is an expression of God's lovingkindness. But he never enjoys the death of the wicked.

Psalm 139: "how happy is he who dashes your infants across the rocks", must be seen as doing so to our flesh, the devil, and death--I think

(end letter)

He responded by saying "you may well be right".

All of us write stuff we regret sometimes.


Tim said...

Veith has a blog too.

Anonymous said...


And I might say it is an excellent blog!


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