Praying for Soldiers at War?

Our church’s July 2008 church newsletter contained an (unsigned) article on suggestions for praying for the U.S. military forces, especially in Iraq. It struck me as sincere but theologically misguided. In the August 2008 newsletter, I offered another view in order to stimulate some additional thinking and discussion in our church—and now more broadly. Apparently, it has stimulated some controversy, though only one person has directly approached me about it.  It follows:

The first point to be made is that whenever Christians pray, but especially during a war, we pray as Christians, not as Americans (or Canadians or whatever). It is very easy for Americans or anyone else to assume that some power called “God” is on their side. But it is more difficult to know what and how we as Christians should pray during a time of war.

We need to put prayer during war into a wider spiritual framework, and not just assume (like the misguided minister and his flock in Mark Twain’s famous poem “War Prayer”) that God is on “our” side—that is, our particular country’s side. We should remember that when the U.S. went to war in Iraq, most major denominations and many theologians (myself included), both in the U.S. and around the world, protested that the war would not meet the criteria for a just war.

Whatever one’s view of this specific war, some things from Scripture are crystal clear:
1.God does not desire war but, instead, peace, justice, and reconciliation. God “breaks the bow, and makes wars to cease.” God in Christ dealt with us, his enemies, with love, not death. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
2.Jesus calls us, his disciples, to be peacemakers and to love our enemies.
3.God has a special concern for the poor and oppressed, the victims of injustice.
4.As Christians, we are part of the universal body of Christ, and that is far more important than any national identity

These truths should affect the way we as Christians pray:
1.We should pray for the war to end, for the establishment of justice, for reconciliation among enemies, for creative alternatives to violence. Pastor Steve does this frequently in church.
2.We should pray for the courage to make peace, and to love those who might be perceived as our enemies.
3.We should pray for the victims of war, especially the families of innocent civilians, refugees, etc.
4.We should pray for the church in Iraq, which has been horribly affected by this war.

As for the soldiers themselves, there is no mandate from Jesus to pray for them. Historically, however, when Christians have thought about whether Christians are even permitted to participate in war, the church’s largest concern has been that soldiers might actually have to kill or do something else that violates the teaching of Jesus. Historically, the church has often required all returning soldiers to go through a period of repentance.

Therefore, the chief prayer we should offer to God for Christians who are in a war zone is not merely that God will protect them, but that God will protect them from committing evil, from doing anything that violates the gospel of Jesus Christ. For some of us, this will mean praying that they will not kill anyone at all and will even lay down their weapons. For all of us, it will mean praying that they will not kill the innocent or do anything else that contradicts the will of God. And it will mean asking God to forgive all of us for contributing to humanity’s incessant penchant for war and violence.

At the same time, we can pray that God will keep all those involved in the war (on all sides) from doing evil, that all will seek peace, and that God will provide for the families and friends of all who are away from home because of war. This might be at least one spiritually acceptable way to pray both for those we know, and for those we do not know, in a time of war. It might even help draw this long, horrible conflict to a close.


5 Responses to “Praying for Soldiers at War?”

  1. Mike C. says:

    Sir, I agree, and I always appreciate your teaching. This pushes me to reflect on of the machinery and the structures of which we have become a part. I would like to offer four theses—chiastically, if you will!–to your observations of the scripture’s prompts.

    1. Christians have been co-opted into global violence through parochial interests.
    2. Christians have a hope beyond borders, and a call being sounded likewise. Not only by the poor and oppressed or the victims of injustice, but enemies also wait for the children of God to be revealed (Rom. 8.19).
    3. The rise of republican governments will likely allow Christians to be legally involved in conflict as never before. Technology and transportation now also allow unprecedented interaction potential for peacemakers and lovers. Jesus calls us in an interesting time!
    4. With this freedom and ability to participate, diligent and consistent Christians can offer clear actions and expectations to a watching world. Clarity will not only build trust in Christian peacemaking and grow a readiness to offer Christians new opportunities in crises, but it will also rightly place Christian efforts and action at the service of God’s plan for healing creation.

    Thanks for this prompt on praying for soldiers. May we all prayerfully deploy.

    Mike C.

  2. MJG says:

    Good words, Mike C. It’s sad that so few Christians realize how co-opted we have been. But I love your term “hope beyond borders.” May I use it? Some day it could be the title of a book (by you, not me).

  3. Mike C. says:

    Sad it is…calls to mind some of the dis-association in the Galatian cohort.

    You sure can share “hope beyond borders”. I feel like I lifted it from Paul (Gal 3.28-29, & 5.13-14), which reminds me…it is only right to share it with you (Gal 6.6)!

    …and I’m picking up crumbs behind you for that book!

  4. Tracy Todd says:

    My husband of 26 years is on his third deployment (now in Afghanistan). He works 16 hour days (sometimes more). He is a LTC and in a position of leadership. There is stress beyond belief. He has no time to grieve, question his allegiance or even feel lonely. War has a way of hardening a heart and stripping soldiers of the energy to feel or even pray. Any soldier (including my husband) could die at any moment. My question is this: How can we as Christians and Americans pray for daily salvation for our deployed soldiers and how can we help them to daily connect with God for repentance and salvation. The “enemy” is more than the polital enemy. The true enemy is the toll satan takes on the soul of the soldier through exhaustion and distraction. It’s easy for those of us back home to bask in salvation even in grief and turbulance because we are not under continuous physical and spiritual attack. I know faith and salvation is personal. But, fighting for one’s life and the life of others in the midst of unrelenting chaos brings a spiritual war I am trying to understand. As Americans back home, what can we do?

  5. MJG says:

    Dear Tracy,

    Thank you for your honest message.

    I am sorry for the pain and anguish that you and your husband are experiencing. Your words express what we all know: that war is dehumanizing. Your husband does not deserve to be dehumanized; no one does. It is not God’s will, for God wills wholeness, what the Bible calls shalom.

    I for one do not pray as an American; I pray as a Christian, and I pray for you and your husband that you will be quickly delivered and healed from this dehumanizing reality. Blessings on you.

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