As we celebrated Memorial Day weekend and (hopefully) stopped our festivities long enough to honor those who have died for our country, I found myself reflecting upon the phrase "incompatible with Christian teaching." Our UMC Social Principles uses that phrase in reference to two activities: the practice of homosexuality, and war. Quite a strange coupling, isn't it? It would seem that there might be many other things that we regard as "incompatible with Christian teaching" – things like prejudice, selfishness, cheating, racism, drunkenness, and gambling – and indeed our Social Principles have strong statements against such things. But these two behaviors are the only ones which our Social Principles identify as "incompatible."
I found myself wondering why we have so little discussion about our belief that all warfare is incompatible with Christian teaching. Over the centuries, Christians have debated this issue often and in many ways. There have been "just war theories" about the times that war might be justified (e.g. in defeating an evil like Nazism). There have been Christian pacifists who believe that any type of violence is contrary to the teachings of Christ, and often those Christians have been accused of being "unpatriotic." Oftentimes Christians have valued and respected the service and sacrifice of our military people, even though we have debated the value of the war in which they fought. During the Viet Nam War, we tended to blame our military service men and women because many believed that the war was unjust. During the various wars in the Middle East we have tended to honor our military people and their sacrifice, even while we have had disagreements over the wisdom of those wars (which now have lasted longer than any other war in U.S. history).
But seldom do we United Methodists have discussions about our belief (as stated in our Social Principles) that war is "incompatible with Christian teaching." We seem much more ready to discuss sexuality, and we ignore the huge ethical questions around war.
Why? I suppose it is much like a speech I heard given at the first General Conference where I was a delegate (1980), when a speaker wisely observed, "We are always against war, until the next one breaks out, and then our patriotism overtakes our Christian values."
So I am left wondering ... How do we honor those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom we enjoy, without automatically assuming that our own country is "right" in any war? How do we have serious discussions about the ethical implications of our warfare economy? How do we follow Christ who is the "prince of peace" while living in a world that is full of war?
I also wonder about our use of the phrase 'Incompatible with Christian teaching." What does that really mean? In terms of war, it evidently means that war is always bad, but sometimes it is a better choice than giving in to something like Hitler. In terms of sexuality, the phrase is less clear. For many United Methodists it means that homosexual attraction is not a sin, but homosexual behavior is. Other United Methodists seem to believe that homosexual behavior is acceptable if it fits the same standards we have for heterosexuals – namely, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness. For a smaller group of United Methodists, they evidently believe that the phrase is simply wrong. Given those differing opinions, what does "incompatible" really mean? Is war always bad and wrong? Is homosexual practice always bad and wrong? Or, in both cases, is our answer more nuanced? Perhaps our discussions of "incompatible" could be improved if we included both activities which our Social Principles name. Or at least it is time for us to have a healthy discussion about war – especially since our war in Afghanistan is now reaching 15 years through two different Presidents.
In the meantime, it is proper to honor those who have given their lives so that we can have the freedom to have these discussions. We owe it to them to have real discussions as a free society – and not simply wave the flag or pound the Bible to prevent us from hearing contrary opinions. If the sacrifice of those we honor on Memorial Day means anything, it should mean that we owe it to them and to one another to have mature, informed, and respectful discussions. That is the hallmark of the freedom of speech and freedom of religion for which they gave their lives.