Today’s the day we honor those who’ve risked their lives to defend our country. Unlike Memorial Day, which honors the fallen, Veteran’s Day honors those still among us.
In honor of our veterans, I thought I’d share one of Augustine’s letters which deals with how a Christian soldier ought to behave. It’s an important question after all: the role that fighting men and women play in a Christian society is one that’s vexed people for a long time. Does the Prince of Peace, who warned that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword (Matthew 26:52), permit violence in defense of one’s country? Augustine says yes, in one of his letters to Boniface (it’s known just as Letter 189), and has this to say about soldiers:
Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. Among such persons was the holy David, to whom God gave so great a testimony; among them also were many righteous men of that time; among them was also that centurion who said to the Lord: I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed: for I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come, and he comes; and to my servant, Do this, and he does it; and concerning whom the Lord said: Verily, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. [Matthew 8:8-10] Among them was that Cornelius to whom an angel said: Cornelius, your alms are accepted, and your prayers are heard, [Acts 10:4] when he directed him to send to the blessed Apostle Peter, and to hear from him what he ought to do, to which apostle he sent a devout soldier, requesting him to come to him. Among them were also the soldiers who, when they had come to be baptized by John,— the sacred forerunner of the Lord, and the friend of the Bridegroom, of whom the Lord says: Among them that are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist, [Matthew 11:11] — and had inquired of him what they should do, received the answer, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. [Luke 3:14] Certainly he did not prohibit them to serve as soldiers when he commanded them to be content with their pay for the service.
He then offers this advice for soldiers:
Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9] If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared.