No God in the Fight: Why a Christian Army is a Terrible Idea

As a former military servicemember, I’m fascinated by the idea of a “Christian Army” explicitly formed to fight ISIS, as reported by Mother Jones.

It is—on various levels and from various perspectives—immoral and noble, barbaric and insane, and cause for both positive and negative government intervention. Of the many ways to respond to ISIS, this guy from Baltimore, Matthew Van Dyke, went to Iraqi Kurdistan to train Christians to fight ISIS, had no idea what he was doing (probably due to his having no military background), and quickly burned out with the existing militia forces and with his own actual military trainers. So in this particular story, we find once more that devout Christian belief alone might not get the job done when money, combat experience, international law requirements, or any actual barrier get in the way. (But you might check into the Restore Nineveh Coalition which seems to be making a somewhat secular go at armed resistance.)

Setting aside this one attempt, let’s consider this Christian Army idea. It’s fair to say that ISIS is a brutal religious extremist regime that wants nothing but death and destruction for anyone who doesn’t fit in their tiny orthodoxy. Humanists support peace, but humanists also have a realistic understanding of the real world—a really violent world. When Muslims or Christians in some combination are killing each other, it’s easy enough to say we have no god in that fight. But we do care about people of all beliefs, especially those innocents caught in ideological conflicts. With due respect to the pacifist perspective, most humanists recognize that when there is an ongoing and violent humanitarian crisis, military intervention is called for.

But should that intervention be in the form of a Christian Army? Very simply, we can say that two wrongs don’t make a right. While it would be unfair to assume a Christian militia would engage in human and cultural genocide as ISIS has, it would still be an extremist regime. The sorts of training camps necessary for such an activity would be entirely indistinguishable from what we normally call “terrorist training camps.” An at-least nominally secular militia, like Nineveh Plains Protection Units (part of the above-mentioned Coalition), might focus on a military objective. An explicitly Christian organization would be caught up in end-times prophecies, dehumanization of non-Christian enemies, and a “divine mandate” that would undercut any sort of ethics in war. Such a militia would appeal to leaders and recruits who wish to carry out violent theologies they may already be committed to, no matter whether any “true” Christian would ever be so violent. Crusade and jihad are the same word, just of different languages and religions, and neither is noble when carried out with weapons.

So what about us humanists? Should we suit up and head over to start our own secular militias welcoming to humanists and people of all faiths? Van Dyke said he committed $12,000 to his militia effort. I think we could all spare that if we committed to combat life in Iraq. You, reader, could do that tomorrow, and there are organizations ready to outfit you for war if you’re drawn to it. But, as I learned in over ten years in the Army, including four at West Point, war is complicated. From tactics, operational strategy, and logistics to technology, politics, and diplomacy—it ain’t Call of Duty.

ISIS demands a military response, and you may choose to say goodbye to your comfortable western lifestyle and find a Middle Eastern militia to join, but that’s probably one of the least helpful things you can do. If you are intent on fighting ISIS and are of fighting age, join a professional outfit like the US ArmyMarinesNavy, or Air Force to enter the conflict within the bounds of international law.

But most global problems, including ISIS, also demand a nonmilitary response, and that’s where you can help. Consider donating to education and aid organizations to help those displaced by ISIS and military responses to ISIS. Send care packages to those who are fighting. If you have a problem with how our military is used or how it is being used in response to ISIS, then be a citizen lobbyist and influence your elected leaders to better employ our armed forces. Lobby your government to employ the military exclusively for humanitarian purposes, only with international mandate and participation, and only with the clear need and direction of those local leaders and families who are directly affected by the violence and who best understand their own culture and needs.

So now as with all times in history, armies fighting under the banner of some god are bad news. If you’re Christian and outraged, there are lots of non-Christians to be outraged with and to make a real difference. Find a cause or five to support, give generously of your time, money, and skills, and the world will be a better place. But don’t join any holy wars.