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  • Adam Embry

A Theology of Understanding Warfare

This is a blog series entitled, "A Theology of ..." written by various Anglican priests and deacons in our Jurisdiction.

We continue with a theology of understanding warfare by the Reverend Steven Abbott, Army Chaplain and Anglican Priest.

Growing Up with Sixth Commandment Defying Media

As a 32-year-old millennial, my generation and I got the first heavy dose of desensitization to killing through video games. I spent many hours sitting on my bed playing PlayStation 1 shoot-’em-up and first-person shooter games (Medal of Honor, Doom, and Metal Gear Solid). Little did I know that I and my adolescent peers were participants in a grand global experiment–a trial of the new desensitization drug known as video games. Not only was it addictive and fun, it introduced us to worlds we had never dreamed of and allowed us to become people we had never imagined we could become. We killed Nazis and zombies alike–we showed no partiality. Whoever stood between us and conquering the next level in the game would become our cannon fodder. We ran through the streets of Europe, dungeons, and old bombed out fortifications while vanquishing our virtual foes.

With the advancement of gaming, new high-speed systems were released with higher resolution graphics and more complexity. The killing became even more real, the faces of adversaries were no longer simple blobs with eyes, noses, and mouths, but they had definition and you could even see them cry out in agony as they collapsed to the ground as a result of your expert marksmanship. I could kill faster, regenerate after dying faster, and I could exterminate vast armies that stood in my way. In 1997 the first Grand Theft Auto was released. I remember this game well. It even allowed the player to kill, mug, and have sex with prostitutes and murder them. My parents were pretty aloof about the virtual crimes these games actually allowed me to commit and being just 10 or 11 years old, I was enamored by it.

Fast forward twenty years later and gaming has continued to be a major industry where technological advancements now give us virtual reality headsets and breathtaking graphics. Where we are today with gaming, movies, and television might have been hard for Dave Grossman to imagine in 1995 when he first published his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Killing in War and Society. Since that time we’ve had hundreds of school shootings across the country and a level of gun violence that was unheard of before the 1990s. Grossman predicted in his book that the excessive promotion and glorification of killing in video games, movies, and television would desensitize people from a young age. This would make it easier for the average civilian to kill–let alone the psychopath. Statistically, while per capita violence has decreased overall in our nation, gun violence among teenagers, especially black teenagers, has been a leading cause of death for decades.

God Hardwired Humans to Resist Killing

Human history is filled with stories of violence and murder. Within just the first few chapters of Genesis we find Cain murdering his brother, Abel, in cold blood. The interesting finding from Gossman is that, even though killing and murder are deeply entrenched in the human psyche through story, myth and legend, for the most part killing is not the norm. Instead, most of the violence we see throughout history, even among hardened warriors, is simply posturing. Whatever clan or army could raise the loudest yell, look the scariest, and create the biggest intimidation would usually be the winner.

Grossman argues that if we study most violent interactions, it begins with a shove or a punch. Often those engaged in the altercation puff themselves up and try to intimidate the other person into submission before any actual bloodshed happens. Grossman attributes this to human evolution, but this also makes sense from Scripture. God clearly tells us that we are made in his image and most of humanity, whether they believe in the Bible or not, have an innate feeling that killing their fellow-man is wrong and only justifiable in the most extreme situations. Paul writes in Romans 2:14-15, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” Unless a person is a psychopath, they will most often resist doing what God has written on their hearts not to do and what society has taught them, from birth, not to do.

Overcoming God’s Hardwiring and the Consequences

In order to quickly and efficiently kill the enemy, the military has conditioned her soldiers through training with classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the observation and imitation of vicarious role models in social learning. A soldier, for example, who hears gunfire is conditioned to fire back and take cover rather than the more natural act of freezing, fleeing, or hiding. Throughout history, soldiers were not actually very effective at firing back at the enemy or intentionally aiming to shoot and kill the enemy, but through advancements in military training, soldiers have become much more effective at shooting back at the enemy and killing. Grossman says you can see within the data a dramatic increase in effectively firing and killing the enemy from the time of the Civil War to modern warfare. This has been accomplished through teaching soldiers to fire at moving targets shaped like people, rewarding expert marksmanship, instilling a culture of killing, and even dehumanizing the enemy.

Over the last two centuries, we have become much better at conditioning our soldiers to kill, but at what price? And what about the cost of allowing our adolescents and American citizens to indulge in video games, television, and movies that glorify guns and violence? These are a few ideas that we should consider as Christians in a world where killing–and particularly killing with guns–has become so common.

Jesus says clearly that, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Jesus has also said that peacemakers shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9). In my particular ministry as an Anglican priest and Army chaplain, I recognize that war is necessary and posturing with weapons and a strong military is vital to remaining a strong nation. Our Anglican 39 Articles of Religion (1571), Article 37, states, “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.” We understand the necessity of warfare to “restrain with the civil sword" those who enact evil against a just nation. In light of this instruction for the permissibility of warfare, I also want our soldiers to recognize the innate and God-given worth of every human, even their enemies. Within just warfare, our military only uses a level of violence necessary for defeating the enemy. We must avoid the double-edged sword of dehumanizing our enemies and inhumanely treating our prisoners of war (POWs) and those who surrender to us in combat. As Grossman points out, killing enemy POWs often only strengthens the resolve of the enemy. This was actually one of the actions of the Nazis during WWII that helped lead to their downfall. When we dehumanize the enemy we lose our own humanity in the process, we forget that human beings are innately valuable because they bear God’s image, and we destroy our image in the eyes of humane enemies and allies when they witness our inhumane actions.

Those who drink deeply from the well of violence get drunk with its poison; losing their own humanity and, in the process, their respect for the humanity of others. As Christians, we should avoid indulging in unjust violence and taking a life in our own hands outside of just war because our Lord warns us of the dangers of a violent life. We should also teach our children the value of peacemaking and only engaging in violence when absolutely necessary with only the minimal violence required to defeat the enemy. We can rest assured that most humans will resist killing unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we should, as a society and especially as the Church, avoid unnecessarily desensitizing and conditioning ourselves to the unnatural act of killing our fellow man.

In closing, I want to highlight two occasional prayers (32 and 33) that stand next to each other in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer.


Almighty God, we commend to your gracious are and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face their perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence whenever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


O God, the Creator of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you in Jesus Christ in whose Name we pray. Amen.


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