Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Outreach to Military

My post on the “military Bibles” has led to a few misunderstandings I need to clear up.  I do not object to the distribution of Bibles to members of the U.S. military or any other military.  I support every effort to distribute Bibles as widely as possible, including the sale of Bibles along with free distributions.  My only objection to a free giveaway event is if there is sponsorship or co-sponsorship by government or a government agency in violation of the First Amendment’s ban on either hindering or promoting religion.  I support evangelistic outreach to members of our military or any other military.

Even during the early centuries of the church when it was nearly universally pacifist, there was strong outreach to Roman soldiers. Many Roman soldiers converted to Christianity, often after seeing how calmly Christians were martyred.  Some of these soldier-converts quickly became martyrs themselves when they refused to fight and kill after becoming Christians.   Today’s pacifist Christians too seldom establish the kinds of relationships with military personnel and their families that would allow for conversions.  As a former soldier, I am glad that I was welcomed by the Baptist congregation in Heidelberg (uniform and all), even though the pastor was pacifist.  How else would I have converted to gospel nonviolence?  Standing up for gospel nonviolence and being convinced that God does not want Christians to serve in militaries has nothing to do with condemning those who, for now, believe differently, nor anything to do with disrespecting the courage and self-sacrifice of military personnel.

My objection is not to the Bibles, but to their “packaging” with covers that seem to support war and violence and with “extra” features described in my last post which promote violence, nationalism, militarism–the reduction of the God of the universe to a tribal god of one nation. That is idolatry, even blasphemy.

One commenter said that this was no worse than other “niche marketing” Bibles–the Serendipity Bibles, Women’s Bibles (usually anti-feminist in tone), teen adventure Bibles, etc.  To this I have two responses:  1) I oppose these kinds of “study” Bibles, too.  Now, there is nothing wrong with real study Bibles–equipped with scholarly notes that help the reader with background information, etc.  There is nothing wrong as long as these study Bibles make clear the difference between the text of Holy Scripture and the notes of human scholars.  Unfortunately, I have found that laity, especially laity with less education, often find it difficult not to treat the notes as just as inspired as the text. This is even more the case with children and teens.

 The non-scholarly theme notes of “niche market” Bibles have further problems:  They encourage an individualistic and spiritualistic reading of Scripture that fundamentally distorts the gospel. They undermine the Bible as the church’s book, to be read in community. Instead, they encourage not just personal Bible study in one’s own private life, but privatized Bible study (“Me and Jesus got our own thing going”) that remakes Christian faith into something one does with one’s spare time.  They promote passivity in the face of the gods of consumerism, materialism, and other “isms” of contemporary global imperialism.  I do not say this is the intention of the editors of these niche market Bibles, but merely that these detrimental effects undermine the health of the Church and churches, especially undercutting any sense of the People of God as a distinct community, a contrast society to the mainstream culture (what the Johannine writings call “the world”).  So, I find these niche market Bibles highly problematic.

2)  Despite my comments above, I do believe that the “military Bibles” are WORSE than other “niche market” Bibles.  Those other Bibles can create bad habits in Bible reading that have detrimental effects, but I have not seen any that are heretical in and of themselves.  That is not the case with the military Bibles.  They promote the idolatry of nationalism.  They do not simply reach out to soldiers (sailors, marines, etc.), but justify war (at least when the U.S. wages it). That is not just heresy when viewed from a pacifist viewpoint, but even from a “just war” standpoint.  Traditional just war theology says that some evils must be resisted even by violent force as a “lesser of evils,” but does NOT glorify killing or militarism. The “extra features” of these Bibles do just that–turning Jesus from the Prince of Peace to a war god. That is blasphemy–pure and simple.  It must be denounced by all Christians.

June 1, 2007 - Posted by | evangelism, love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking


  1. Likewise, I do not wish what I wrote in my comment on that earlier post to be mis-apprehended. It seems to me that one of the evils of this book is that it seeks to create a Roman style blending of civics and religion. In particular, the idea of an elite set of mysteries appropriate only to soldiers smacks deeply of Mithraism, and indeed, the warlike tone of the sample pages I have read reads more of being “washed in the blood of the bull” than of the lamb.

    In any translation, there will be… difficulties in translating concepts, and I fully understand the need for scholarly notation, particularly of difficult concepts in translation. When I translated the short coronation charter of Henry II of England, I wound up with a page of notes explaining my methodology and a couple of difficult to translate concepts. This was separate from the historical notes, which were longer.

    However, the purpose of my notes was to allow the reader to come to an independent understanding of the text and its purpose and importance. So many of the notes I have seen in what I think of as “directed” Bibles seems to be intent on injecting further human commentary into the text.

    I see this one as particularly dangerous in that it attempts to set Caesar side by side with Divine authority, leading to a conflation of the two.

    Comment by plain foolish | June 1, 2007

  2. This is what I really meant to say: The Old Testament prophets responded in many ways to idolatry. Sometimes with earnest, theologically sound and thunderous denunciations.

    But other times with satire. See especially 1 Kings 18:27, or Isaiah 44:12-20.

    A camoflauged Marine Corps Bible complete with a quote by Oliver North, whose words might be usefully cross-referenced in such a Bible to Deuteronomy 18:22 is the product of a Church that has lapsed into unconscious self-parody. It’s not “sickening.” It’s ridiculous. When you can no longer tell the difference between a press release from the SBC and an Onion article about the SBC, then I think that what you’re talking about is begging to be mocked rather than “denounced.” “Denunciations” would give the thing too much credit.

    Comment by Marvin | June 1, 2007

  3. Marvin, I understand the role of satire. But nothing about those military Bibles struck me as funny. And the SBC is too big and too influential to either ignore or just mock.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 1, 2007

  4. I agree Michael. This is not funny. It is dangerous with eternal consequences. It was this kind of militant christiandom that my son encountered from the military chaplains while he served in Iraq. God is on our side. He supports this military mission….we’re on the right course…etc. My son came back from Iraq boldly declaring to me that he was now an Agnostic. Perhaps I should be thankful that he wasn’t “converted”.

    Comment by Marty | June 1, 2007

  5. Marvin, I would leave the satire for comic-book bibles. Teen study Bibles and Women study Bibles i.e. niche marketing bibles, maybe.
    The power symbols of US world supremacy (US military technolgy) seen around the world, in newpapers, TV, magazines, etc., are now displayed on the cover of the sacred testimonies to the Prince of Peace, followed by [reincarnated] warrior prayers, battle hymns, etc … These are not little statues in our homes, these are massive death-dealing machines, controlled by an ideology of Benefactors. We are not to be like that…Luke 22:25-26. I agree with Michael’s responses denunciation, boycotts…

    Comment by James gilbert | June 1, 2007

  6. “Unfortunately, I have found that laity, especially laity with less education, often find it difficult not to treat the notes as just as inspired as the text. This is even more the case with children and teens.”

    Interesting point. My early Bibles (elementary school years) had no commentary, but I could imagine being confused should they have.

    With any commentaries, I have noticed that I can focus too much on them and not on the text itself.

    Are you familiar with the NET Bible. It has very minimal notes within the actual printed Bible, but interested readers can go to Bible.org and see extensive notes and commentaries online. This produces a clear separation that you seem to be fond of.

    Comment by Chance | June 4, 2007

  7. No, Chance, that one’s new to me.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 4, 2007

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