Talking, Theology, and War

I’ve been told that I have the reputation of being pretty stand off-ish. I’m that guy, the one that doesn’t look like I want to talk to you. I have every reason to divert my attention when I move from place to place – I’m listening to music, I’m reading a book, or I’m staring off into space. Most people know I went to war, an off-putting subject to many, and I am very open about it (I even wrote two books on the subject). War is very present in my life, and newspaper headlines and Facebook newsfeeds alike suggest it is also still very present in the world at large. It irks me that so many people go on about their daily lives as though we aren’t at war, even as the war still rages inside me and continues to rage around the world.

Most don’t even realize that the way we fought the Global War on Terror, as it was called throughout my service, was historically unprecedented. In WWI and WWII, professional sports stopped. Food was rationed and people could not escape the reality that war required our attention. During Vietnam, men were drafted and even those with wealth had to at least make excuses about why and how they seemed to avoid being forcibly enlisted at the rates poor people did. Even as recently as the early nineties, the “First Gulf War” was televised and watched with at times breathless anticipation, but it ended and people came home. For me, there is no “my” war and there has been neither victory nor defeat; the modularity of it all means it belongs to nobody and it belongs to everyone at the same time. For me and my generation of veterans, much has changed and I feel very clearly that I am different from most others. I feel alienated from the American public and especially the academic circles in which I’ve invested myself for about six years now.

Making matters worse, I aspire to be an scholar, but there are very few theologians with the intimate and personal knowledge of war that has infected me. Exemptions for ministers and seminarians during the last draft means that few, if any, senior faculty at religious studies departments are veterans. There are few experienced mentors for Christians in academia who want to leverage their military experience for improving the Church’s thought and practice about war and peace. Sometimes I feel as though I have to make it up as I go along, which can be a very isolating and aggravating experience.

I’ve read enough theology to know that what “theologians” think is important about war is not what I think is important about war. Fellow students and professors read all kinds of very interesting material, none of which animated me as an artilleryman in Iraq or consoles me now as a veteran carrying combat stress home from war. It might be that I’m wrong and they’re right, but then what do we do with the idea that experience is our best educator? What do we do when people thinking about war are forced, by lack of experience, to derive “knowledge” exclusively from abstractions and second hand speculation? Current “theology” seems to me to be radically disconnected with the actual reality of war, unrelated to the things I discovered about myself, about God, and about living in the tension required of communion in the midst of conflict.

It is not that I don’t want to talk as I speedily traverse from one place to another. Quite the opposite; all I want to do is talk, to think deeply about shit that matters, about human knowing and being in this fucked up world for which the Church was called into being. But my default has been to withdraw after the behavior or words of enough students or professors suggests to me that what is important for them does not match up with what is important to me. I see a world at war, I hear blood crying out to God from the ground. Hell – some days it’s all I see and hear. Some days all I can do to get by is sink deeper into my distractions. Maybe that makes me just like everyone else.

Where are all the moral professionals at?

I have been involved in discussions about combat stress for a good number of years now. Even if you don’t count my combat deployment in 2004, I was being treated for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder since my discharge in 2006, and was eventually diagnosed in 2008. As a student veteran at Hawaii Pacific University, I read Brett Litz’s journal article on “moral injury” and my participation in the 2010 Truth Commission on Conscience in War included my being both a testifier and a commissioner. Of course, that was after I returned as a civilian to my former field of battle (Iraq), but before I wrote two books on my experience wrestling with who and what I was as someone touched so personally by war.

I then listened, read, and watched a lot of podcasts, articles, and documentaries about this new “moral injury” thing captivating the attention of the VA. Of particular importance was the Huffington Post series on moral injury, but it was by no means the only or most important things I encountered. I liked it because they had some great pictures, some videos, and they seemed to acknowledge the complexity of the issue of combat stress and its manifestation as moral injury.

However, I noticed something odd about those and the vast majority of other public discourses about moral injury especially. I wrote a Masters thesis about it, in fact. One important aspect of any injury is the body upon which it is inflicted, which I have not heard very much deliberation about. How can we treat an injury if we don’t have a solid comprehension of the body itself? It’s like having the ambulance crew staffed by first year medical students…

This impacts me tremendously and is inseparable to my identity as both a veteran and a student. As a veteran, a lot of people are talking about how I should be treated, and how something my body, mind, or soul, etc. should be diagnosed. As a student, I am very concerned about intellectual accountability, and I worry those who are doing the diagnosing don’t have the training necessary to adequately assess the thing which they are observing. For these reasons, we all must ask why those who are talking about moral injury often have no training in moral philosophy or theology. In many of the discussions about moral injury, mental health professionals are considered expert, but that relegates this injury to a problem primarily of mind or body, which is thought to be more or less something to which only I have access. But morals (and any injury against them) are derived in community, they are about right and wrong, which vary between cultures and families.

Having psychologists as the primary commentators on moral issues is not just a confusion of the functions and categories of the academic and medical disciplines involved, but it also neglects the centrality of bodies’ dependence upon communities (i.e. how does “moral injury” name the damage done as being caused and felt by entire groups?).

We need to leverage a more diverse set of faculties and disciplines to this concern. Moral injury, as one of innumerable constructs through which the modern world has made sense of combat stress, needs to be reflected on by professionals other than those in the mental health and medical fields. Though each are necessary and important elements in these discussions, they must not be the only fields thought to be expert therein. In fact, insofar as morals are about meaning and ethics, theologians have especially rich resources from which to speak. As religion plays a central role in informing our self-identity, we need to take seriously that Biblical scholars, philosophers, and theologians have just as much to say about moral injury and combat stress as other disciplines.

**update: edited 20140218.1830 for clarity. 

New Post on Sniping at Cicero Magazine

[Photo: Flickr CC: USMC Archives]I learned about Cicero Magazine from a fellow student veteran at Duke a good while ago. Unfortunately, I did not check it out until I saw that my former employer (and ex-Marine sniper) Matt Victoriano of Intrepid Life had written a very thoughtful essay for them and posted about it on Facebook.

A week or so prior, I had reflected very briefly on Michael Moore’s infamous tweet about cowardism and military snipers, the gist of it being that (I suspect unbeknownst to the documentarian), he was actually keying into an important aspect of Just War traditions, being as they are based on Ciceronian and Aristotelian virtue. Just Wars, among other things, are exercises determined by both personal and collective integrity. A just war is not just a legal concept, but an ethical one as well.

The question Moore’s tweet really gets at is whether or not sniping is honorable. Matt insisted, as a former sniper himself speaking from first hand experience, that it was (and is). But I think the question is still open, as the mechanical distance separating the sniper from the target puts the target at a profound disadvantage. The question then becomes whether the sniper’s unfair advantage violates the honorability of his (or her) actions. Rather than a strategic consideration this is, especially, for Just War, a question about combatants equally availing themselves to injury or death at one another’s hands.

My very short reflections on this are over at Cicero Magazine’s Opinion section, and I think I see something like a published response to it already… see you over there!

Theology Without Witness?

In a November 4th panel at Duke Divinity School, well-known pacifists Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas, Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 9.43.06 AMand Amy Laura Hall reflected on war, violence, and a Christian alternative they preferred to call nonviolent “commitment” (Hauerwas) or “reconciliation.” (Hays) You can watch the hour-long panel via iTunesU (it does require a download though). The panel’s moderator, local news anchor David Crabtree, noted that not only did the date chosen for the panel fall on Election Day, but that it also fell precisely one week prior to another particularly American holiday; Veterans Day. Veterans and soldiers were not a primary subject, though, with Hays emphasizing in his welcoming remarks that the panel on pacifism was not meant to present both sides of the issue at hand. I think Hays meant to refer to people, which is the animus if Christian faith, not issues. Specifically, the panel was not meant to present non-pacifist persons, who were confusingly (and inaccurately) conflated with military personnel past or present, as though soldiers cannot be pacifists (a series at Centurions Guild overlapped the panel, in fact, & troubles that problematic assumption).

Hays took time to discourage any notion that Christian soldiers or veterans hear the panel’s remarks as a “criticism or attack.” Instead, the purpose for the panel was to “talk about how scripture & Christian theology informs how Christians ought to think about issues of war.” He went on to elaborate specifically that there needs to be a clear distinction between questions of “what is or should be the normative Christian theological teaching on how the church positions itself in relationship to war and violence” on the one hand and “what is the church’s pastoral response to veterans and how do we wisely and compassionately deal with” those who have served in armed forces on the other. He understood their task at hand to be strictly theological, not pastoral.

The problem is that Hauerwas, one of the panelists there to speak (and under whom I am grateful to have studied), taught me and many other students to be profoundly suspicious when anyone suggests that theology and ethics be sharply distinguished, as though we can believe one thing in our mind and testify to something else entirely with our bodily behavior. In fact, Hays never seemed to substantiate his claim about a clear distinction, continuing on to contradict himself by repeatedly remarking that Jesus both taught and lived what he believed, and insisted his followers do likewise. For example, in reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5, Hays reminded his listeners that Jesus rejected violence, “he taught love of enemies. He lived it out.” Teaching and witness are synonymous in this claim he makes about Jesus, he implies that abstracting pedagogy from practice contradicts the testimony of scripture. How then, can we make sense of Hays’ earlier claim that theological teaching and an ministerially responsible reply should (or even can) be distinguished?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too upset. After all, the strawman constructed itself, with Hall’s stated impetus of the panel (the need for a properly nuanced pacifist argument in public spaces) being ironically crammed into a mere 50 minutes between three theological powerhouses and a TV news anchor. What seems to be lacking in the pacifism she, Hays, and Hauerwas profess in their lives and with their lips is a degree of ecclesial modesty. Ever the bull in the China shop, Hauerwas provocatively illustrated this privation of reserve in his response to an early question by a student veteran, who asked what pacifism meant specifically for theologians at a place like Duke Divinity, already known for its pacifism. In order to illustrate his reply that the relative ease of pacifism didn’t necessarily make it wrong, Hauerwas described telling his young son what to do in class, in 1969, after then-president Nixon began a bombing campaign over Cambodia. “Raise [your] hand in class when Nixon’s name [is] brought up and ask ‘Oh, you mean the murderer?’” He acknowledges wanting his son’s life to be hard, but the problem is that any violent reaction to such an inflammatory comment would not have been a response to someone being pacifist or Christian, but to someone being an asshole.

Biography as TheologyWhatever teaching moment that might have been possible was bulldozed by belligerent rhetorical exhibitionism. Were Hauerwas to pause a moment and consider the implications of his illustration, he might have realized that the people indicted by his illustration were not just presidents, but those who pull triggers and release bombs, several of whom were in attendance. Besides being willing to divorce ethics from doctrine, the Duke type of pacifism fails to display much regard to or sympathy for the lives and stories that make the thing we call “war.” Being pacifist seems more determinative than being at peace with fellow Christians, like those that Hays revealed a concern for offending.

Even if what Hays suggested were true, that scripture and theology informs how Christians think, scripture and theology do not alone constitute the Body of Christ. How Christians ought to think specifically about issues of war must be based, therefore, on those lives that can give us a particularly Christian account thereof (que another plug for the soldier saints series at Centurions Guild). After all, any scripture without Matthew 8, Luke 7, or Acts 10 is not canonical. Any theology at all morally proximate to the thing we call war is utterly incoherent if it is ignorant of the stories containing the ecclesiological density capable of narrating and embodying the harrowing return from the hell thereof. Being a Christian (pacifist or otherwise) requires soldiers being sought out, seen, heard, and embraced as living members of Christ’s body, for that is what they are. The stories of Christian soldiers and veterans can be, have always been, and must continue to be fully integrated into the theology and ethics of the Church. Is it ecclesiastically responsible to be the bull in a china shop when it’s already filled with broken potshards?

To be clear, I consider myself deeply committed to the convictions that each of the panelists articulated. Not only have I studied under both Hall and Hauerwas, but I have also most often deeply appreciated their wise words. But preaching and teaching is not all words, as Francis of Assisi implored his followers, “Preach always. Use words when necessary.” Any “discussion” of violence or pacifism in a properly Christian context is inadequate if it does not attend pastorally to all involved – from the commander-in-chief on down – who participate in war (which, as tax paying citizens, includes most “pacifists”). To think of our convictions as being separable from their method of delivery before a classroom or a congregation, to think that one can be a pacifist without first and foremost being a person who believes by behaving in accord with the life that Jesus exemplified in his own, is a huge mistake. And it is one too many Christians have been making for too long, pacifist or not.

Remembering what, by who, and why?

poppiesThe other day was Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom. I am in Scotland this academic term working toward an M.Litt in Systematic and Historical Theology studying with the likes of NT Wright, Mark Elliott, Judith Wolfe, and John Perry. Each year, November hits me like a freight train out of the blue. The problem is, I know its schedule; like clockwork the world rotates around the sun and every 360 days or so I’m right back where I started. Novembers contain a few trauma anniversaries for me, annual events I hope I am continually processing and learning to have reconciled in my faith by Christ. Eleven years ago, I watched Specialist Daniel McConnell die slowly under the weight of a Humvee. Every November 16th I remember his death. I remember his memorial service at the tiny outpost at which he was stationed was interrupted by mortar fire, so everybody just disbursed without comment. That was when I realized the importance of memorial.

In the years since, I’ve done a lot of reading, digging deeper into this thing called war and the people produced by its conduct, which we call “veterans,” in whose number I am counted. I think I am also a “Christian,” but unlike “veteran,” it is not a title earned by quantitative criteria like having served in an armed force. Being Christian, it seems, is dependent upon others looking at us and recognizing in our words and deeds a reflection of Christ’s love. I hope I am a Christian, but only my community can tell me if I am doing and being the love God calls forth from us in discipleship.

A professor of mine has said that Christians are supposed to have a problem with war. The trouble this leaves is that the precise nature of the problem he wishes the church to have is troublingly ambiguous. Without the necessary context, one might assume that as long as one has a problem with war, then they can consider themselves a Christian. This is both intellectually lazy and theologically problematic, for the Church has a very specific, irreducible problem with the evil of war.

The soldier who jumps on a grenade cannot be said to be conducting evil. Those soldier saints who returned to war, like Camillus of Lellis, were undeniably “participating” in war, but not in any way that can be called evil. Context is critical; war and evil do not constitute a one to one ratio. Without necessary context, “Christian” is reduced to “pacifist” and the problem they have is with the politicians, soldiers, and veterans who participate in war. The problem is, you can be a pacifist and still be an asshole, but being an asshole usually works against one being known by Christ’s love. The character of the Christian, therefore, matters.

Context is critical; war and evil do not constitute a one to one ratio.

As for Veterans Day, our memory is polluted because both the Church and the world remember what they have told themselves “veterans” are and refuse to do the difficult work of listening and thereby seeing veterans as they really are, of being human, as being the embodied tension between good and evil alike. Veterans are no different than anyone else, and every Christian should be quite clear; they would have been on the bayonet range in the crowd screaming “Kill, kill, kill!” “Crucify, crucify, crucify him!” Breaking this tragic cycle means that Christians and other citizens have to stop being lazy. We have to ask WHAT is being remembered, WHO is doing the remembering, and to what end memory moves us.

I know that as obscene and evil as true war stories must be, that they can still be frustratingly effective in commanding our attention and directing our passions. But war must be remembered, and it must be remembered in the way those who have suffered its evils would have us remember it, for its victims include both civilians and combatants alike. Too many books aboutVietnam 35th Anniversary war (both for and against) are dedicated to uniformed family or friends, and we have a responsibility to ask if the memories evoked are being given room to speak for themselves. When their memory is invoked, we have a responsibility to ask why and whether those doing the invoking are properly honoring the horrors of war so uniformly depicted by those who survive it.

Veterans who have written of war very rarely do so in ways that perpetuate the myths society spins about war. The most heavily decorated American soldier of WWI, Alvin York, refused for decades to publish his journals about WWI, and when he did sell his rights, it was spun so far from the truth that Sergeant York was pulled from theaters for violating anti-propaganda laws. His WWII equivalent, Audie Murphy, called his service a “brand,” and his popular autobiography (To Hell and Back) actually had a sequel, covering his road to recovery from combat stress, but it was never ‘green lighted’ in Hollywood.

In the history of the church, a “pacifist” read excludes Christian soldiers, ending as it must at Matthew 8:4 or Luke 6:49. A story of the Church universal, inclusive of the hard to navigate road that Christian soldiers have had to trod, is unbroken, continuing beyond Matthew and Luke into Acts 10. Soldiers are given primacy of place in Paul’s imagery to the church in Ephesus and they are the recipients of his letter to their church in Philippi. Even Tertullian’s de corona features a uniformed disciple of his that the famous pacifist never claims had left the service. An exclusionary read requires selective attention to critical detail, conveniently disregarding 300 years of context by setting up a strawman account of ecclesiastical history. The task of theology, and the hearts and minds of Christians, suffer. Remembering is hard work, but we must do it each and every week, as we re-member the dismembered bodies of war, including the Body of Christ, who descended to the hell of war and rose again on the third day with scars to prove it.

Combat and those people produced by it are far too complex to be reduced to a zero sum game, as though there is a clean division between the two, or between the community’s culpability and that of a front line soldier. If the gospels teach us anything, it’s that nobody’s hands are clean. It is not that pacifists owe it to soldiers to know what the hell they are talking about when they speak of war. They owe it to themselves. They owe it to the Church.