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Learn war no more: What do our churches model to children about militarism?

January 17, 2023

“He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war – ‘This way of settling differences is not just’.” War is not just. King’s stand against militarism arose from his Christian faith.

King took seriously Jesus’ teachings to love and to desire the highest and best for others, all others, even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

King took seriously Paul’s teaching: “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.”  (Romans 12:19-21).

There are many evils in our society, but King named the big three: poverty, racism, and militarism. As a pastor, I have observed how churches do a pretty good job fighting the causes of poverty and aiding those afflicted by it, more than just about any other institution. And I have witnessed churches of some mainline denominations stand with and speak for those who are victims of racism, although I’ve also seen churches that are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

But militarism? Many churches talk the talk, but when it comes to modeling the peace and non-violence they preach about, there may be conflicts between the talk, the walk, and how the values of children and youth are influenced.

God’s gospel is peace. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on that holy ground. But what do our children see, hear, and feel about militarism from their churches?

Think of what the children see, hear, and feel about peace from their churches. At Christmas season, the word is one of the four Advent words and themes. Hymns encourage a non-violent approach to conflict resolution, in contrast to militarism. 

“Cure your children’s warring madness” beckons the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” 

“By wars and tumults love is mocked, derided,” declares the hymn “Father Eternal, Ruler of Creation.” 

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” we sing as our prayer to God. 

Down by the Riverside” leads us to sing our credo to “study war no more.”

The Christmas carol “O Holy Night” reminds us “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.”

God’s gospel is peace. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on that holy ground. But then, think of what the children see, hear, and feel about militarism from their churches. It’s probably not intentional, but they get the message on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and other times when those who participated in the military are lifted up as heroes. Children feel the rousing spirit and sometimes tearful belting out of patriotic songs, children might see cannons in front of their church, granite war memorials listing names of those who died in battle, and sometimes an American flag waving in the wind, without a Christian flag nearby.

Now, we have all had veterans in our families. Who would dare to contrast military service to God’s gospel of peace? Indeed, our patriotic allegiance to the military arm of our nation, also pervasive in our congregations, is a giant that no David with a slingshot stands a chance of bending toward a better investment of non-violent peaceful approaches to conflict resolution. 

At a Veterans Day service, there was a Litany for Veterans, an expected and traditional part of Veterans Day. Then, the pastor grabbed the handheld microphone and descended into the congregation, asking if there were any veterans. A few raised their hands. She walked over to one and asked him to tell his story, which he did. Then another and another. After that, she invited anyone who had a family member or friend who was a veteran to tell their stories. One raised her hand, then another and another and after a while it seemed like the entire congregation was lifting up beloved family members and friends who served and/or died for their nation. The pastor’s engagement on the floor with the congregation was electric, and warm appreciation was showered back upon her for doing so. 

This whole time, I was watching the children and youth. I was trying to listen through their ears to take in what they might be assimilating into their spiritual and moral value system. They were hearing words like heroes. Those who fought, served, and died for their nation were heroes, champions for democracy, and agents for the American way. People were proud of them. The children could look around and see everyone in their own congregation who they knew, who they grew up with, and who they respected, sharing stories of appreciated military experiences. When it comes to a technique to interact with the congregation and to get them “with” the pastor, I’ve never seen it done better. The lifting up of those who served in the military, during the worship of God, seemed so well appreciated. Could any child in that twenty minutes of the worship service not feel deeply moved by their parents, grandparents, and church members telling stories of those who fought in wars? Is it possible that a child might presume that all he or she had to do to become considered a hero, to be cherished and celebrated, to make others proud, and perhaps even to be loved was to join the military? Values were being shaped before our very eyes.

As I watched the children being exposed to the adulation of those who participated in the military, I longed for them to experience a counterpoint. When, in worship, might this church provide them with a celebration of peacemakers? When, in worship, might a similar values-shaping technique be employed to challenge the evils of militarism, as King described it? Peace is one of the church’s favorite words. When do the children hear the Bible’s words about non-violent conflict resolution? When are the children encouraged to think critically and evaluatively about war-making? When might they be asked to reconcile differences between their nation’s political agenda with the Bible’s teachings and the hymns of peace? Jesus stood against his culture. Might children know they would be supported if they stood against theirs to do what they believed to be the right thing?

Patriotism and the veneration of those who have served in the military is a ritual and fact of life that is omnipresent in our congregations. It would be counterproductive to advocate its removal from the worship of God. What is necessary is for churches to offer children and youth a counterpoint, so that they also hear, feel, see, and touch the gospel’s message of peace, agape (love, even for enemies), and for favoring a non-violent approach to conflict resolution. Children must also hear King’s message, that militarism is an evil. Provide the counterpoint. Name it:  militarism is bad. Children must also hear from the pulpit and the pew, like they did on Veterans Day, that their church will back them, support them, and stand with them if they should choose to take a courageous and unpopular stand to resist militarism. When the kids hear the Bible’s message taught in worship that “neither shall they learn war any more,” they deserve to know in their heart of hearts that their church will be there for them if they ever decide to practice what their church preached.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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