01 November 2008
Christians in the line of fire
Armed conflict is a sticky subject for a Christian. On the one hand, doesn't Jesus call us to be peacemakers? And on the other, shouldn't we stand up for what's right? Hazel Southam reports...
On Thursday, 6 November, as belated fireworks are still going off around the capital, hundreds of Christians will be heading for St Clements Dane Church in London's Strand. The reason? To pray for Britain's armed forces.
They'll be praying for everything from the welfare of the families of those who have been killed or injured to the provision of enough chaplains. They'll also ask God to "put His angels around our troops".
But can a life that could lead to killing be considered a vocation from God? How do those in the military square their religious faith and work?
For Major Mark Goodwin-Hudson, there is no question at all. Mark found himself relying on prayer when his squadron of the Blues and Royals were in Iraq last year. One day, he joined 68 soldiers on a flight on a transport plane out of Basra.
"The Holy Spirit punched me in the stomach with the urgent command, 'Pray!'" he recalls. "So I walked up the whole fuselage to a seat at the far end praying with the authority of God to annihilate whatever the powers of darkness had planned for us. As we touched down at a remote northern desert strip, there was a series of very loud bangs and the plane veered off sharply to the left. A wing of the plane had been torn off and the side of the fuselage was on fire. We had been ambushed.
"The immediate threat was that we would meet a storm of machinegun fire and that the fuel tanks would explode. Inexplicably, there was no machinegun fire, the plane did not blow up, and we all escaped without casualties." For Mark, this was an answer to prayer.
He found himself in similar need of prayer when he was sent to "snatch an insurgent leader" who was described as a 21-year-old psychopath. "He had kidnapped and personally shot in the head from behind 18 Iraqis who had been working at the airport," Mark recalls. "He was known to be leaving Basra in a convoy of six pick-up trucks and heading for safety in Iran. I had two helicopters with 22 men in each and another helicopter with two men. As I prayed about this, the Lord rebuked me for my lack of love for this man, murderer though he was. Jesus died for murderers. I was told to pray that he would not be killed. Up to this point, every subject of a 'snatch' had died in the inevitable ensuing firefight."
Mark continues the story: "As his convoy left Basra, they split up into a group of two and a group of four. I placed my two helicopters to intercept the second group while I sent the third helicopter, with two SAS men, to deal with the first group. They flew the helicopter so that it sat a few feet above the lead car and turned it over with the down draught, disorientating the occupants. The second car vanished. A door of the first car opened and out came a man. It was our man. He was bundled into the helicopter and taken to a secure place, alive."
God may well be answering the prayers of many servicemen and women like Mark, but should they be fighting in the first place? Views differ. For Lt Col (Ret) Val Hall, executive officer of the Armed Forces Christian Union, there's no doubt that Christians should be serving in the military.
"It's up to Christians to be in these scenarios," she says, "to be in the prisoner of war camps and ensure that prisoners are not mistreated, that they are not beaten, that guys in our training camps are not bullied. We have to have Christians in these scenarios to be salt and light, to stand up for what's right and to hold their colleagues to the values and standards that are written down for the services."
For those who argue that killing cannot be consistent with a Christian faith, she has a simple answer: "'You shall not murder' - that's the correct translation. It's tragic that we have to have armed forces, but the situation is that we do have terrorists and we do have regimes in various countries who do not have our best interests at heart. If we were all living God's way this wouldn't happen."
An opposing view comes from the director of the London Mennonite Centre, Vic Thiessen, who spent several years counselling American soldiers who wanted to leave the services during the first Gulf War. "It's my belief that there's an incompatibility [in being a soldier and a Christian]," he says. "Jesus' words 'love your enemies' were the most quoted words in the first two centuries of the Church. Now Christians have learned to equate being part of your country's defences and military force with being a good Christian person.
"Since the 4th century, Christians have been involved in the military and thought that it was your duty as Christians to defend the state you're in. But I would argue that [fighting] doesn't keep you safer. People haven't begun to explore the non-violent possibilities to war."
What no one is debating is that we need to pray for peace even as we pray for those serving in the military, as is planned for 6 November. Arguably, many thousands of lives will depend on those prayers.
- For information about the Armed Forces Day of Prayer on 6 November: tel 01252 311221 or visit www.pray4ourforces.org.uk
- Throughout November, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity is hosting a series of lectures on Christian approaches to armed conflict, led by former Air Force pilot Peter Dixon. For details: tel 01732 456054 or visit www.licc.org.uk