Last week I interviewed Dr. Anathea Portier-Young about the hidden wounds of war and how the Church might be a good Samaritan to those suffering silently in our midst. Her specialty is Old Testament and she wove into our conversation scriptural allusions that provide a backdrop for the Christian to understand injury and healing.
In her intro class last year, I remember her saying that the word we translate to “sin” does not occur during what Christians call “the Fall,” when Adam and Eve transgressed the simple decree by God to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge. No, the first time “sin” occurs is when Cain slays his brother Abel. Cain, the first murderer, is someone we love to hate. He is clearly indicted in a capital crime. Maybe his folks could be excused, they just ate something they weren’t supposed to, but MURDER?
God sentences Cain to a life of wandering, but Cain’s greatest fear is vengeance. He knows all to well the retributive nature of human kind, he knows he will be met with stones and cold stares if he wanders the earth with nowhere to lay his head, nowhere in which others “have his back.”
Like Cain, many combat veterans feel condemned to a life of wandering; morally, socially, physically. The rate of homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide are each exponentially higher for veterans than they are for their civilian counterparts. I have talked to many who have been to war who, on some level, fear God’s wrath for what they have done or failed to do. Their family and friends sense this estrangement and don’t have the tools to overcome this socially-imposed isolation.
Thiers is often a life of exile. They wander, ceaselessly sometimes, morally fragmented, unsure of their standing before God and humanity; “I have done evil, I have shed blood that now cries out from the earth” they seem to think. Much of the Old Testament wrestles through what life means in exile. The exiled Israelites were permitted to return under the Persian King Cyrus, but not all came home. Some stayed in the foreign land, the same land in which they had been oppressed and separated from the land of promise. Why on Earth would they not come home to the “land flowing with milk and honey?”
If indeed combat veterans are like Cain, who glanced a life without rest, a life without settlement, the Church needs to show them the way home. We need to be that land of milk and honey, a social space in which their fears are overcome with love. The imperative for action is not on them, it is on the Church. We must create the spaces in which they know it is safe to reveal their sin, to expose it to the light and the Truth in order to be healed and begin walking down the road to recovery.
Right now, the churches are rife with discord and disunity. They are “pacifist” or they are “patriotic,” with seemingly no room in the middle. We protect and defend our beliefs and stereotypes more so than we love our brothers and sisters. We are convinced we are right and we want to make sure everyone knows. Our self-certitude, in the mean time, translates into a deafening silence for those in need of a Word of healing, of proactive care and concern.
Churches that think veterans need to identify themselves, to come to them for care, are wrong. Helmut Thielike, a German theologian, in his The Waiting Father, reminds us that the parable of the Good Samaritan shows that “our neighbor chooses us as they lie broken and beaten.” Our churches are chosen for service simply by being a place in which broken and beaten human beings congregate. To believe service members bear the burden of first contact, of initiating the spiritual transaction, is not reflective of Christ. Christ went out repeatedly to where he was needed, he was chosen time and again by the broken people he surrounded himself with. Jesus came to those in need and showed them the way Home.
Churches need to wake up to the reality of ministry within a nation at war. Part of that reality is that the death that war expects harms even those who conduct combat. The Church is here to help all of us broken and beaten people find our way home.
We need to lay our stones down and recognize that, despite Cain’s clear guilt, God protected him from harm. Even though his sentence was to wander, it was not a life sentence, for Cain went on to sire Enoch, the first city. Despite his own history, Cain finally made his home. May we, the Church, be The Way home for all those who suffer from war, even the perpetrators. The mark of Cain may in fact indict our own complacency and failure to be the Church for those marked by combat in ways we cannot see.