I have a few confessions to make. Bear with me, I hope it makes sense in the end. The first being that I am not, nor have I ever been, officially recognized as a Conscientious Objector. My formal request was simply a manifestation of an irrevocable conviction I felt to the core of my being. To me, my ‘request’ was a declaration, not an application. I was stating who I am, not who I wished to be; I do not, nor have I ever, had any interest in whether the US or any other entity recognized me formally as such. In the process of applying, after being found mentally and medically unfit to remain in service, my packet was dismissed; I was never granted the status I asked for. To this day, I continue to refer to myself as a conscientious objector because, whether anyone recognizes it or not, I object to the practice of utilizing coercion or violence to advance God’s Kingdom. I deeply apologize if this is a surprise to anyone; it is only a testament to my own failure to adequately communicate this.
The practice of nonviolent, yet somehow neither passive nor merely re-active love is what I think He has called me to. He came to me at a time when I was in the midst of an institution whose tools include those which I feel are detrimental to His purposes. However, I should not be surprised by this; He entered the very world that had continually turned their back on His Father, that was broken and irredeemable by any measure. Jesus came to us in a sin filled, hateful and despicable place that He knew needed redemption. There is also a prevalent belief that He even entered the pits of hell itself before rising triumphantly over death.
My next confession might startle some friends and make others mistakenly relieved. To some it might make sense, to others I might sound like a heretic. However, I feel it needs to be discussed and digested as people wrestle with what it means to ‘fight the good fight’ that Paul describes to Timothy. I feel there truly is a spiritual battle waging fiercely every day. We can see it in the pain worn on the face of our neighbor, the loneliness that tears at our brothers and sisters’ heart, or the sorrow falling from the eyes of countless families of dead soldiers and jihadists alike. This ‘good’ fight must be fought, to offer redemption from the emotional and spiritual turmoil that threatens to seal their hearts from being filled with the Truth. John uses this term side by side with righteous love, even going so far to say that God Himself is love (1 John 4:8b). He also testifies in his Gospel that our Master told us “you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. (John 8:32).” I confess that I am not a pacifist, because I do not believe our Father is passive.
The danger I face in stating this is that I give my brothers and sisters absorbed in the military a reason to think temporal war is justified. Additionally, I risk estranging myself from my nonviolent friends because this statement seems to contradict my firm belief that Jesus was, and will always be, nonviolent and unarmed. Let me try to share why I believe the two (God as warrior and God as nonviolent) can and should coexist. Before I embark on this endeavor let me remind everyone that I am not a theologian or scholar. I am just another hypocrite crawling along the floor toward the altar; too busy beating my chest in repentance, too consumed with trying to figure out the Cross, and too certain of my own fallibility to ever claim I have everything figured out. All I have to offer is the experiences that have shaped these beliefs and the modern day parables that I have witnessed that have convinced me of this belief. However, I hope you might read this and trust our Father will guide you into where He wishes you to be in regards to the matter, even if it is to disregard it. My prayer is that you will trust God above either of our own beliefs about God.
In studying all the arguments on both sides of the discussion, I faced many difficult passages. Much of what challenged me to embrace temporal warfare was an essential part of the Bible. When God is described as our strength and our shield (Psalms 18:2 & 28:7), or when He fights our battles for us and sends out the Israelites to slaughter men, women, and children, all drew heavily on my heart. Why the heck did He command this? I checked and double checked passages like this, sure enough they were there. God seemed to use temporal means to achieve a spiritual end; He had them killed to protect His people from the influence of false gods, but just as much to keep Israel from thinking that by gaining spoils from war that they had ‘earned’ their victory, that it was by their superior weapons or bravery that they had won. Continually, throughout the Hebrew Tanach (our “Old” Testament), YHWH is trying to show His people that they have reason to trust an unseen God.
I think He is trying to illustrate that it is only by faith in Him that they win their battles. The battle of Jericho? Won essentially by wandering in a circle around the city walls and blowing trumpets, God is trying to tell them something! It is not by superior firepower, advanced weaponry, or horrific shock and awe that His battles are won. Even when He does call them to war, He has the commanders reduce their number by telling people to go home and enjoy their homes, gardens, and wives (Deuteronomy 20). So yes, God has used war, I could not excuse this from my discernment in finding my place as a soldier confessing faith in Him above allegiance to an empire. BUT, the question rests precariously upon this; does He now call us to violence and bloodshed, as He sporadically did the Israelites?
In Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 16:60-63, and scattered throughout Isaiah, I found something very peculiar. God has His prophets insert a dream of what is to come, even after His people continue to reject Him and turn from His ways. They tell the people of a new covenant, not like the stone tablets Moses had given them, but a covenant written on their very hearts, which would save them from the legalistic and condemning nature they developed as they broke their covenant with God. Furthermore, they tell us that in those days, no more will we teach His ways to one another because everyone will know the Lord, His laws will be in their mind and upon their hearts. Violence will be obsolete; Isaiah 4:3, Joel 3:10, and Micah 4:3 tell us that we will beat weapons into gardening tools; the study of war will be abandoned. So to my friends I say; of course God’s Kingdom is nonviolent!
Next logical question – do we now enjoy that Kingdom he speaks of; can the Kingdom be experienced on earth as it is in Heaven? My answer to that question is a singular yes. In each of the three synoptic Gospels (Matt. 16:28, Mark 9:1, & Luke 9:27), Jesus tells His disciples “some people standing here will not experience death until they see the Kingdom of God (Matthews version, ISV).” He excludes Judas, who would hang himself before Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven. We can, if we listen, hear the whisper of this new world order. If we open our eyes to miracles, we can see her. If we allow our hearts to be broken by the things that break God’s heart, we can see this Kingdom, which is a taste of the redeemed world He promises. Not everyone enjoys these glimpses and hints though. Some people are trapped by false prophets who preach hatred and contempt for other men and women whom God created “very good (Genesis 1:31)”. Others are simply under the impression that they could never “fit the mold of that christianity,” convinced that they “don’t make the cut.” These comments happened to come from two men living on the streets in St. Louis, who saw the 22,000 evangelical Christians walk by them for four days over this past New Year without a single person approaching them with so much as a nod or a smile. They had gotten quite a clear message from the silence of the local church that was reinforced by the visiting college students.
When I was speaking to one man, a christian came up to us (after taking a picture to remember the moment, patronizing my friend so that he would have a token to remember the experience by) completely fitting into the evangelical stereotype of ferociously preaching the Gospel until our ears bled. Our oppressor left once his schedule demanded that he return to worship with more desirable (and warmer) company. If this is evangelization, consider me a heretic. I cried myself to sleep that night, thinking about the dehumanizing objectification my brother experienced at the hands of a fellow christian. This is not the Kingdom of Heaven.
How do we take the Kingdom where it is needed most, to the places that do not know His name? First, I think we need to free ourselves from the belief that we have answers that we are obligated to convince others of to believe exactly what we believe. If we truly trust in God, and that the Bible is His word, why do we not trust that His word is self evident, since it will match up to what the Spirit has written on our hearts? Why do we obsess over ‘saving’ souls? Isn’t that is His work, salvation? I believe our greatest commission is not ‘convince everyone else that we are right and they are wrong (remember Matthew 23?),’ but instead ‘I love you no matter what everyone says about you, because God loved me when I was an enemy to Him (remember the whole Bible?).’
Our charge is crazy, indiscriminate, unconditional love. It is up to God to be the righteous judge; mere human justice seems too caught up in vengeance and spite: ‘your killing enables my own, since you and your morals are below my own; you are detestable, I am redeemed.’ These are lies perpetuated by a tormentor who uses deceit and inspires pride in otherwise ‘very good’ created men and women. I believe in the power the Enemy has because I hold it as self evident from any reading of the Bible. Through true agape (translated from Greek to imply intentional, self-sacrificing, or divine love), the works of this father of lies will be destroyed, if we only pick up our cross; a lovingly sacrificial (and undeniably nonviolent) weapon with the power to destroy fear and hatred and contempt. So to my friends I say; of course God’s Kingdom needs to be fought for!
My final confession. Perhaps I can tie the two seemingly dichotomous images of God together. Perhaps I can communicate how I felt justified both as a soldier and a disciple of Jesus.
On March 16th, 2007, two years, one month and four days after my return from fourteen months in combat, I spoke at a peace witness for Iraq. For that period of time, I nearly convinced myself that I had escaped my demons. My past had thankfully slipped into inconsequentiality. The images and memories from that period had ceased to find their way into my subconscious. I was glad to be able to offer the organizers my support in a gathering I felt in line with, asking not necessarily for the complete and immediate withdrawal, but a scaled de-escalation of forces in Iraq. It never occurred to me how difficult it would be to be face to face with my participation in violence and evil.
I was to read the words of a fellow soldier and recognized Conscientious Objector who had been an interrogator at a detention center in the country. The weight and significance of the event (to me) was hidden from me until it came time to rehearse what I would have to read on stage before what was expected to be nearly three thousand fellow followers of Jesus. Even now, it begins to make me tremble as I dig up the emotions that coursed through me that night. After the rest of the presenters rehearsed, I was asked to stay and practice my part some more (I talk really fast when I am nervous). When the priest asked me whether I had spoken before an audience before, I avoided telling him why this time it was different.
Joshua Casteel, who I was reading for, was an interrogator. With all due respect, which he deserves undeniably, an interrogator does not do what I did in Iraq. I was responsible for so much more than mere information gathering. I found it difficult to read his reflection because he was able to find the horror in pointing a loaded weapon so much more quickly than I was. He describes leaving the compound once (I often had two or even three patrols a day), and finding that he found great moral upheaval at pointing a weapon at three young boys. How could I read this? His words were simple and struck me at my core. I wished to be as sensitive to those boys’ humanity after one experience. It took me a trip across the world to Hebron, Palestine, to understand how dirty my hands were!
My voice shook as I deftly avoided the truth behind why I found it difficult to even read mere words on paper. I told the Priest that I needed to eat something and that I would be fine; a half-truth at best. I escaped to revise my speech for the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, trying to fill my time with busy work. It took no time to throw the finishing touches to it and again I was left with horrifically idle hands. I had to find something to keep me busy, to keep the figure pounding at the door to my heart at bay. I wandered the cathedral until I found an out-of-the way chapel, nobody inside. I plugged into my iPod, trying to listen to anything to soothe my mind.
Entering the semi-secluded chapel, I passed a fresco by the doorway. Curious, I let my eyes meander over it as Psalters music filled my ears. The image was of Christ, newly emerged from His grave, two Roman guards reclining against a nearby set of steps. Eyes rested upon the soldiers. Earlier, my mind felt intruded by a dialogue I had had over and over again as to whether soldiers such as these were redeemed. The conversation has been repeated time and again, with both sides of the argument offering different perspectives. My breath left me as my heart broke, rent in two by the image before me. Clear voices ran through my head;
“Even these, who flogged Him?”
I nearly stumbled to the floor with immediate grief and pain. Images of Iraq flooded my mind again. Platoon sergeant with his hand locked around a man’s throat demanding information. Squad leader shooting a woman from a rooftop, no weapon in her hand. Infantryman punching a man in the stomach, his hands cuffed behind his back. That man’s expression as he doubled over. A set of cross hairs settling on a mud hut outside Najaf, fodder for the howitzers behind me.
“Even these, who struck His face and cast lots for His clothes?”
I shuffled to a chair further into the chapel. Tears threatened to swell and redden my face. The chair sat before a stand filled with candles, an altar of sorts. Slumping in my chair, pulling my hood low. “Come all you weary,” the Psalters sang to me, God using them to speak tenderly to me.
“Even these, who pierced His very heart?”
Yes. They know not what they do.
My responses had not been my own. Jesus spoke to the accuser in my place, even as I felt so bombarded by this desire to hate those who hated Him. I was reminded that I too had once been an enemy of God, piercing His very heart. I remembered that He came to me even then, that I too needed that light. I remembered that it was also a soldier who displayed greater faith than anyone in Israel, and a soldier who looked upon Him and said “Surely this was a righteous man. (Luke 23:47, Mark 15:39, Matthew 27:54)”
Joshua’s words took a new meaning. No longer would they be, to me at least, mere reflections. I saw them now as a confession from one soldier, perhaps on behalf of many. So many have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan deeply conflicted about what they have done. 81 have committed suicide since the beginning of the war, a practice that has occurred 81 times too many. Torn between allegiances and oaths and empty promises, this generation of combat veterans groans.
On both sides of the Just War/Pacifism argument are stuck virtuous and unassuming individuals trying to figure it out on their own; tired of being preached at or accused of generalizations and made victims of stereotypes. With an economic draft in place under the noses of middle class America, few service members truly grasp the demands placed on them when they sign a DoD contract exchanging a proverbial thirty silver coins for their blissful simplicity. For many months, I have been misunderstood by not just pious and patriotic Americans insisting that God is a warrior, but also by members of Peace Churches who insist Christians have no place in the military. A generation groans against the pressures of patriotism and pacifism combined.
Eventually, quaking from grief and repentance, I approached the altar slowly, a single parable coursing through my head. In Luke alone, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector has always been a reminder for me to remain humble and self-critical. That night, however, the theme of penance took centrality. I knew I had to approach the altar of lights and pray on my knees. Wiping the snot from my beard, choking out sobs and coming to my feet, I took three steps and fell before the stand of lights. Remembering my time in Hebron and what God showed me there, I begged again for forgiveness but also for the strength to say what I came to say.
Through my whispered prayers, a command subtly made its way through my head. I would not give the speech I had prepared for the New York Ave. Church. Instead, I would speak candidly and openly, about what I did not know yet.
“Yes, I will. Tell me what to say Lord.”
I did not get my answer right away, but I was given the strength that I asked for. Joshua’s words were given without a hint of stumbling or stuttering. In front of the crowd in the National Cathedral, I spoke clearly and slowly. After the other readers shared their pieces, we took our seats. The first speaker was Mrs. Celeste Zappala. Her story absolutely shattered what was left of my heart.
During the rehearsals hours before, I had not known what her part was in the Peace Witness. I was too focused on getting through my own part. As she shared about her son, who was killed in Iraq, and how the news reached her, I fell into an uncontrollable fit of tears. My face contorted and twisted in grief as she poured her heart out onto the floor of the Cathedral. I remembered my deepest fear I held while in Iraq. Not sure of what might actually happen when I died, more than anything else I was afraid of being forced to watch my mother get news of my own death. The images my minds eye would create haunted my worst nightmares, of which I had plenty. There is nothing I wanted more in Iraq than to save my mom from that news. Screw the money, forget the heroism, take all the life lessons back if it meant my mom would not have to get the news of her youngest son’s death in combat.
Mrs. Zappala also shared a story I had heard only weeks ago, about a young man tragically lost in the throws of his own conscience, sure of his wretchedness for what he had done in Iraq. Returning home in one piece physically, his mental anguish proved too much. His parents found him hanging from their garden hose in their back yard one day. This image has also stuck with me, a testament to those who had no knowledge of what they were doing in service to country; a country unconcerned with the toll its wars take on young men and women whose voice of reason they are told to silence in order to fall in line and obey, obey, obey.
As she continued, I remembered the faces of friends lost, known and unknown. Friends who joined with good intentions, trusting in the broken promises clothed in chivalry and honor by wolves meeting a quota. It is these friends who pay for our freedom with their innocence, often with their very lives. I have lived that life. I know its ways intimately. I have seen the anxiety and distress followers of the way of the sword carry upon their shoulders. I have carried that burden, I know its full weight.
I know of men who believe wholeheartedly in their country, their people. This is not wrong or evil any more than it is wrong or evil to love one’s family. Our American tribe is a family, we share an unshakeable identity. However, if that identity blinds us to the humanity and interdependency we must share with other tribes and people around us, we are guilty of national egotism. We must free ourselves from the lie that tells us that we are morally or spiritually superior to any of our neighbors. Our pride will destroy us, the willful ignorance of our neighbors will be our undoing.
If, after careful consideration of what will be asked of an individual should they deserve to enlist in or seek a commission from the Armed Forces, a man or woman enters into service for our country, I have no qualms with them. If my love for them is conditional upon their employment outside an institution that I feel works against the Kingdom, I am a hypocrite, for God came to me even in my service to a country that stands under Him and often contradicts His will. It had never been, nor will it ever be, my intent to convince Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, or Sailors to leave the military. My intent is merely to find ways to display the love Jesus showed me when I was in their shoes.
I never sought discharge from the service because I saw no need. If the Army would not allow me to practice my religion, which my conscience and the Bible shows me is nonviolent, then it would be there own efforts that would put me out, and it was. My only commission is to offer my experiences to others, that they might come to a conclusion independent of my own, but ultimately dependent on the Word of God. The more people preached at me, by way of letters telling me they ‘knew’ about what I went through or pamphlets claiming I was in an ‘evil’ institution, the more I dismissed them and read my Bible alone at night, tired of their conclusions being thrown at me. I groaned under the combined pressure of pacifism and patriotism, being told one or the other.
I believe you can have love of country while maintaining love for God. One allegiance will obviously outweigh the other, and that is where my service came into conflict. I would not pretend to be something I was not; I would not train for war or make concessions to sin and death by carrying a temporal weapon. I was called crazy and eventually discharged. I didn’t last long, but I was willing to serve one under the other, and I unashamedly told other soldiers that I loved God more than America. That to me was, and is, the bottom line. As I shared in the New York Presbyterian Church, our battle is not against people, ever. It is against spiritual forces that seek to cloud the judgment and impair the discernment of virtuous individuals tempted by the love of money to sacrifice their love for God. Can you have both? That is up to them to decide, my prayer is that they seek God’s will for their life without the coercion or manipulations of man.