My father-in-law and I debate whether fighting in a war is consistent with Christian morality.
The disagreement never gets heated, however, because we are both right. The Old Testament lionizes war. And the New Testament demonstrates that a moral person will choose to be flogged or killed rather than fight.
The excellent propaganda film “Sergeant York” addressed this dilemma. It spoke to the tens of millions of men who were about to transition from part-time church-goers to full-time warriors. It was the top-grossing movie of 1941.
Alvin York was as unlikely a celebrity as ever existed. He was from Podunk Appalachia – the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. When we meet him, it is the early 20th Century. But his family farm doesn’t have any technology that would impress someone from the 15th Century.
York (Gary Cooper) is uneducated and simple. He works all day and he drinks with his idiot buddies all night. He scrapes together extra money by hunting and selling the pelts. His handiness with firearms is going to come in handy.
York’s big goal in life is to earn enough money doing odd jobs to buy a piece of quality farmland in order to impress the girl he likes.
When the (relatively) rich folks in town thwart his attempt to get good land, York plans some back-country vengeance. On his way to the fight, however, a lightning strike knocks the rifle out of York’s hand and fills him with the Holy Spirit.
York’s conversion instills a genuine WWJD? mentality. He forgives. He offers to work for his former enemies. He loves his neighbors. He definitely isn’t going to join the army after the US declares war on Germany.
If you are expecting a war movie, “Sergeant York” is going to disappoint you. This is a character study about a religious conscientious objector. Alvin York tried everything he could to dodge the draft.
Ultimately, of course, Uncle Sam got his way. More than 90 minutes into the film, Alvin York finally gives in and heads to Europe.
York became an instant legend when he single-handedly captured a handful of machine gun nests and took 132 Germans prisoner. Director Howard Hawks and Cooper show us how it was done.
After accepting the medals and enjoying the ticker tape parade, Sergeant York was offered endorsement deals that would have made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He turned them all down because he deemed it unholy to profit off killing.
“Sergeant York” is a completely successful and satisfying drama. The film never convinces us that war is consistent with Christian morality. But it did convince young men in the audience that signing up and killing Germans is their duty. And in late 1941, that was good enough.
As for the perpetual argument between my father-in-law and me, it sure would be easier if the Bible wasn’t contradictory. If we got rid of the New Testament, the government could justify all of the perpetual wars of choice. Or if we got rid of the Old Testament (my choice), we could change our ways. We could be like sheep among wolves; as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.