By Frank Wessling
The phrase jumped out of a news story last week: a “Christian militia” was said to be plotting the mass murder of police officers in the Midwest.
“Militia: any military force composed of citizens rather than authorized soldiers.” The notion of military force as specific Christian activity is contrary to the Christian Gospel. This is obvious even to nonbelievers — perhaps especially to nonbelievers wondering how some of us who profess the name of Christ can justify violence in his name.
Yet there are people claiming to be Christian who organize for killing, like the group in that news item calling itself Hutaree. Its Web site says it is planning for the day when “there will be an Anti-Christ. All Christians must know this and prepare, just as Christ commanded. Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment.”
This is such a distortion of Jesus’ teaching that even those who say it must know it to be false. Yet it is hoisted as a banner justifying violence against authority and the murder of innocent people.
Fortunately, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had become aware of this group’s plans and arrested most of those involved before they could kill.
Not everyone and everything claiming to be Christian deserves the name. We ordinarily accept anyone’s self-definition, whether as Christian or carpenter or nurse or lawyer or teacher or whatever. But there is content to these names, and we assume that the person has the characteristics or talent implied by the name. We assume the truth, in other words.
“Christian militia” is an offensive contradiction in terms.
There will be objectors pointing out that history doesn’t favor that view. What about the Crusades? What about the wars of religion in Europe? What about the explorers from Spain and Portugal who used the sword of their conquering kings to plant the cross of Christianity in the Americas?
History contains those stains on the Gospel, as it also carries the story of Christians accepting and using slavery. But the self-awareness of Christians has not stood still. We looked at ourselves over time and realized how far from the Gospel of Christ we could stray when self-interest and vengeance, greed and pride gained the upper hand.
No serious representative of Christianity today claims that our goals are gained by violence. There are places in the world — the Middle East, India, places in Africa — where one religious group is under siege by another from time to time, and fear of annihilation makes people strike back. These are primarily conflicts involving power and the desire of dominant groups to eliminate competition. Christians in these situations may fight to survive, or retaliate in rage when attacked, but they don’t use violence as an expression of the faith in any way.
So-called Christian militias have been around in this country for some time now. They are part of a romantic strain which sees itself linked to a “patriot” and frontier past anchored in self-reliance. They are among the most rugged of people who imagine themselves as rugged individualists, with a hair trigger reaction against anyone telling them what to do. They especially despise “government,” spoken as an epithet.
They seem not to know that Jesus left us with one central commandment to love in a way that links us all as brothers and sisters, that transforms enemies into neighbors sharing common needs. They seem not to know a modern tradition of Christian nonviolent resistance to oppression — where true oppression exists, as it did under a regime of slavery and overt racism for so long in this country.
A real Christian militia grew up among us in the 1950s and ‘60s across the South under the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Compared to the initiative for justice and the courage shown by King and the thousands who stood with him in those days, today’s militias are odious fakes.
Their existence is a lie, a calumny about the Gospel.