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.

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

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.14.31 PM

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.