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.

Ten Saints Ten Days

Through Centurions Guild, I’m running a series on Soldier Saints, from All Saints Sunday through Veterans Day on November 11th. Be sure to follow the countdown with @centurionsguild on Twitter with the hashtag #TenSaintsTenDays.

At the bottom of the page, I’ve tried to curate the series, with numbers representing the countdown (if you look real close, the numbers do actually link to the different entries). Head over there, read, comment, and share!

a Scottish pause and an American interlude

Logan M. Isaac:

Laura has written a wonderful post about our recent return to the states.

Originally posted on Bits ‘n Bobs :

Two weeks ago, we left windy and rainy St. Andrews for Chicago O’Hare. Our first two stops: Starbucks and Taco Bell.

IMG_8164 We had a lovely trip to Wisconsin and North Carolina for Lindsey and Adam’s wedding. We even got to stop in Cincinnati on the way back to say hi to some good friends, the Cornelius family, over dinner.

Logan and our friend Keith improvised as wedding ceremony co-coordinators at Lindsey and Adam’s wedding when the church coordinator didn’t rise to the occasion at the rehearsal. Megan made it safely to and from Durham, NC for the 14-hour car ride, 8 months pregnant. And after all of the bread and cheese I’ve had in the past few months, I fit into my bridesmaid dress. All was well and wonderful.The rehearsal dinner, wedding, and post-wedding brunch were all swanky and chic. We were well-fed and cared for by the Long family and it was such…

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Death by Statistics

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I wrote that last blog in the midst of a very unproductive afternoon reading for coursework here at St Andrews. Earlier, as has happened now three times, I was skimming facebook and fell across a statistically significant number of posts about a friend of mine. The great algorithm in the sky discerned that I was supposed to hear about this particularly news feed worthy tidbit. The last two times were similarly anxiety-inducing and ominous; people posting vaguely nostalgically about someone, but never quite coming out and saying what happened.

Someone I know died.

Jacob David George and I were not “facebook friends” because he was not very active (it didn’t seem), and I rarely go around giving the internet access to my contacts list so zuckerburg can tell me when my third grade crush has joined his advertising database. Jacob and I met in Austin, Texas at the IVAW national convention where I was elected to the board of directors for a year. He played a mean banjo, which helped me appreciate appalachian music while I studied in Durham, NC for a few years. Since then, he had travelled to Afghanistan to visit peace workers there and continued to be active in anti-war organizations and communities. We only ever interacted by email as a result of our mutual confusion over the fact there there are Fayettevilles in both Arkansas and North Carolina.

But his death struck me at a very deep level. When I found out, I could not keep reading for my courses. My mind wandered and I got restless physically. I blogged because it made me feel like I was doing something, but in reality I was avoiding. Jacob killed himself and I found out about it digitally. It is so tragic, that I didn’t get to hear it from the voice of a friend, or with a soft hand on my shoulder. His death has rippled through many circles of friends, as I remain very invested in the community Iraq Veterans Against the War was to me and for me. I consider my academic work an expression of the work I was introduced to in Philadelphia when I was given a job by the national office in 2007, months after getting off active duty.

Jacob was a poet, the latest in a long genealogy of martial wordsmiths that include Tim O’Brien, Shel Silverstein, Ernie Pyle, and Wilfred Owen. In a bard he composed and titled “Support the Troops,” he writes;

RIP Jacob David George


what we Need are teachers who understand the history of this country
what we Need is a decent living wage, so people ain’t cold and hungry
what we Need is bicycle infrastructure spanning this beauteous nation
what we Need are more trees and less play stations
what we Need is a justice system that seeks the truth
what we Need are more books and less boots


The first and last lines ripped me out of my stupor the last few days. I want to be that teacher and read those books that Jacob reminds us we need. But I can never be that teacher or pick up those books by forgetting that I am irrevocably a part of this martial community that suffers a suicide rate of 22 every day. The other day, the sterility of that statistic came crashing down once more, a painful reminder that knowledge is nothing without blood, sweat, and tears. Theology or religion without mouths to cry for the oppressed, feet to walk humbly for justice, and hearts to beat (and cease) for one’s fellow, is nothing but clashing symbols and clanging gongs.

In IVAW I felt vestigial at times, as the guy who obsessed about those very things, theology and religion. I never felt left out or overlooked, but I knew I was different in how overtly religious I was (and remain). But every person there made me feel welcome and helped shape who I am today and how I think about war and the people it makes and breaks. In a recent interview, Jacob sounded very ‘spiritual but not religious,’ a sentiment some theologians and religious Christians look down on. But there is a deep honesty in his words and the sentiment itself is a judgment on the church; in a world ripped apart by war, Christians and their institutions have failed to speak, walk, and cry for peace in holistic and theologically credible ways. We have failed to be the salve of the souls for so many hurt by this world of war.

Jacob lamented the inability of the Department of Veterans Affairs “to address the depths of the wounds we have” or understand “how the soul has been injured in war.” But in what world is this the responsibility of a secular government? The church was created for this task, and we have failed. For two thousand years we have obsessed over proportionality or just cause or right intent. We have not loved God with our whole hearts because we have failed to love people like Jacob as we have loved ourselves. Jacob reminds us that there are “rituals and healing ceremonies [that] an entire generation of people needs in order to heal their soul.”

Instead, I wonder if the church gazes at its navel, passing the centuries wondering precisely what the relationship is between the Son and the Spirit, whether the latter passes from the former or from the Father. As though God wants us to spend our time with questions like that. At a recent social event, wife asked a number of New Testament students what Paul would think of the church studying his letters with the critical attention and literary and historical fervor we have. I blurted out “he’d probably ask what’s wrong with you and tell you to study God instead.” We get caught up in the abstract and lose sight of what is right before us. It is convenient, our selective attention, but it is not good.

Abraham Heschel reminds us that the world is messy and our hands are not clean, that deaths like Jacob’s are on our heads and we will have to answer for them in this world of war we have made for ourselves. Heschel says over and over again in his essays and interviews “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” He goes on to speak especially to a church that has forgotten how to do theology, that has lost sight, sound, and motivation to follow our incarnate God;

There are no proofs of God. There are only witnesses.

Jacob witnessed more than his soul could take because a channel surfing public (including the church) was unwilling or unable to help carry the load of more than a decade at war. We are sent to war uniformed and uninformed, to the desert wilderness, and came home broken and wandering, not sure what to make of the manufactured moral landscape back in the states.

If you want to help, go to hell. You will find us there, ferrying our battle buddies back from the abyss, wings singed and charred as we hold back its gates, picking up the Petrine church’s slack.

Academic (in)Security

Well, now that I am back in school, it’s time to dust off the old profile. That is where I filed and published some undergraduate and MTS work so I could share it with others when the need arose. Re-reading it has made it clear I need to update a few things…

Thinking about my life in terms of academic history led me to the realization that I have always felt like a bit of an outsider. In the military I felt as though I was very “Christian,” but I could not stand going to chapel because it felt like I never left the drill pad, as though there was no departure from that set of behaviors to a setting defined by very different convictions. It felt like the same old thing, even though the Bible seemed to prescribe things very different from what I spent my days as an artilleryman doing.

In high school youth group I remember having a conversation with the pastor that arose from my impression that most there were there almost exclusively for social reasons. I remember telling him that I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there (read: I wasn’t cool enough for church). He was very reassuring, but I left feeling no different. I did kept attending though. In fact, I remember quite clearly as a young child wondering why so many verses were not often obeyed or followed, despite being clear they were imperatives upon individal readers (love your enemy, give to the poor, bless and do not curse). Was I the only one bothered by these things? Was everyone else privy to a set of rules that I had no access to? Was I cool enough to be in the know?

Just to be clear, this persists as a deep insecurity in my life and may very well inappropriately shape my read of what surrounds me. It touches my theology, my relationships, my entire perspective. I don’t mention this to discredit myself, but to be honest about my fallibility. One thing I learned from war is how fallible I am, and how fallible humans can be more generally. In fact, theology came alive to me when I realized I could disagree with established minds and voices that had been held on a pedestal in the days of my youth.

At Duke I learned one of those pedestalled voices was Augustine. A popular bishop in the 4th century, he wrote beautifully, even becoming the very first person in recorded history to write an autobiography (his Confessions). When I learned he was credited with being the earliest proponent of “just war” thinking, I wanted to learn more. I learned he got his ideas from a roman lawyer named Cicero. Problem was, there were several centuries of christian soldiers he could have learned from, the most noteworthy of whom being my patron saint, Martin of Tours.

Martin was a bishop when Augustine was still sorting out Manichaean heresies from orthodox Christianity and had spent a full term in the Roman army (25 years). He knew the Caeasars personally because his worldly career had been to protect their bodily lives. It was put to an end when Martin was forced to distinguish between protective service in the Praetorian Guard and destructive service on the battlefield in Worms in 356 AD. His Roman street cred suffered, but his Christian authority only increased exponentially as he studied under the most learned theologian of the time (Hilary of Poitiers) and participated in a number of ecumenical councils and debates, eventually becoming the Bishop of Tours in Gaul. So why didn’t Augustine turn to Martin’s life, the teachings he left his disciples (like Victricious, the Bishop of Roeun), or the stories of countless soldier saints that Martin drew upon for guidance (like the martyr Maximilian of Tebessa, or the first cenobitic monk who inspired Benedict’s later “rule” Pachomius of Thebes, just to name a couple)?

Questions like that plague my studies. I wonder why Augustine is given the primacy of place that he is in terms of martial theological traditions like “just war” or “responsibility to protect,” if he himself never performed military service. He advised generals, but he did so without the benefit of first hand knowledge. In its lack, he turned to the pagan world for resources already bodily extant in the church. As a former soldier myself, I am left to wonder why Martin, another soldier, got left out, overlooked, and under-utilized. My insecurity returns, but I think it may be more than that. It may be that in fact somehow I can turn that question, that doubt, into an academic project. With it, I hope, the constant reminder of my fallibility returns as well. I am only human, I am insecure and anxious. But in my commitment to honesty, which is inherently self-critical, I may also discover a bit of truth. Maybe we DO need to look again at how the Church has framed war and take stock of why and how those accounts have failed and whether they might need to be desperately reimagined. Maybe we need to see soldiers and soldiering as having theological resources that go much deeper than the dichotomy of war or peace, justice or mercy. I don’t know, but I want to learn more. It will provide decades of fulfilling research, I am sure, so I should have plenty of academic (and hopefully professional) security.

While at Duke, I did a directed study with Stanley Hauerwas and Warren Smith, but never finally wrote up my conclusions because I had overcommitted to other writing projects. Here at the University of St. Andrews, I can take up those questions once more in the company of scholars like John Perry, NT Wright, Mark Elliott, and others. I look forward to sharing my findings here and at my profile. Engage with the material I provide in the comments, or shoot me an email at lml7@st-andrews [dot] ac [dot] uk!