I am always thinking about the distinctiveness of the Church and how people who have served in combat especially may be reconciled to the Body of Christ that is to not shed blood or coerce people. Furthermore, I refuse to toe an ideological line, instead opting to attempt honesty in the things I think about. Sometimes I can be disappointing to people who want easy, binary answers. Oh well. Here is how I think my being a combat veteran has helped me be a better Christian;
Soldiers know well the demands that society places on them, and they respond almost single-mindedly (though this can be a weakness in morally nuanced situations, but that is for another blog). Dorothy Day, in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, coined a term I had never heard before, which is the “blessed sacrament of duty.” Duty is a concept hammered into the minds of our service men and women, they realize the full force of and call to submission to something greater than themselves. In our “me first” culture, our men and women in uniform walk to the beat of a different drummer. Their sole interest is to fulfill their obligations, to dutifully and obediently consider others greater than themselves.
Secondly, and relatedly, they stand ready and willing to sacrifice even their very lives for that ‘something greater.’ If only the Church so readily could say that about itself. Certainly some churches and individual christians do, but the majority that I have experienced shy from the demands of costly grace, of the expectation that ones life is worthy to be laid down for something greater. Of course, that “something greater” is very different for the Church than it is for the state, but that personal commitment to the extent that one is ready to die for ones convictions (either conscience or freedom or witness) is something I have found severely lacking in contemporary churches.
Finally, and most difficult to put to words, is the combat veteran’s necessary struggle with themselves. When one goes to combat and sees the horror and sacrilege that is war, especially when the degrees of complicity are high (if acts of commission or omission have occurred), they return with a deep sense of duality, of being at once a good person and yet being a sinner. We cannot escape the knowledge of this person residing within us, who is us, and yet is not us. Nobody knows as well as a warrior the reality of being or doing evil and wrestling with oneself in retrospect. Their inability to do so effectively often results in suicide or madness. As much as we speak in the Church about how we are sinners, no people on Earth know this more so than our veterans.
I have kept my thoughts short deliberately. I struggle with the incredible moral depth of being (or rather having been) the same thing that I hope to describe, a Christian soldier. To some this title is an oxymoron, being self-contradictory. I think it more fair to call it simply a paradox, an apparent contradiction that actually expresses a non-dual truth. However, lives hang on our ability, as the Church, to satisfy the tension that exists in that seeming contradiction. I hope we can do a better job than we seem to have been doing, which has appeared to be next to nothing.