**This is the first draft of a testimony that I was to share for the Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream event in Philly on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the towers falling. I made such significant changes, that the final draft is basically new, so I felt posting this was appropriate.
For many in the military on 9/11, the deafening drum beat for war drown out the sacred heart beat of Jesus in his most distressing disguises. The thunder clap of shock and awe captivated our imagination, while the soft, still whisper of God was dismissed as mere radio static amidst a culture bracing for war.
The first time I traveled overseas, it was in an Army combat uniform. Around my neck I wore a dogtag adorned with 1 Timothy 4, reminding me that, on the tail end of my deployment, upon completing the good fight of the faith, there would be reserved for me a crown of righteousness. I should have been a doubting Thomas, I should have recognized that the wounds the empire inflicts are never fleeting, never merely skin deep flesh wounds.
We who are all that we can be, we few and proud, the ones who flogged him, pierced his side, and mistreated him as a detainee, find ourselves the objects of Jesus’ prayer on the cross – “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Time does not heal all the hidden wounds of war, and the victims of our bombs are not the only ones who suffer. To this day, the sights and smells of war haunt me in my dreams. My compatriots and I have the highest rate of suicide of any demographic in our nation’s entire history. Post-traumatic stress is our penance, traumatic brain injury, our torment. We cry out with Cain, our fratricidal forebear, “Our punishment is too great to bear!”
Too many of us remain in exile even upon our return from war, everything we thought we could trust in the world, shattered. We wander restlessly through a moral wasteland, our character fragmented and fragile. Some of us remain trapped by our martial experience, exiled to live vicariously through our last deployment, the last fix of adrenaline and camaraderie seldom matched outside combat.
If we darken the halls of a church, we do so with our shadows, we sit in the back, beating our chest with the publican in Luke’s Gospel, “God have mercy on us, sinners!” With the centurion of Matthew’s Gospel before us, we know too well the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman Catholic Mass; “Lord I am not worthy to receive you.” We require the rest of the Church to remind us of the conclusion; “…but only say the Word and I shall be healed.”
Like Cornelius in Acts, the Church has a number of martial exemplars. She has her own army of soldier saints and patriot pacifists to instruct contemporary centurions in the life of faith and service, guides along the narrow threshold between God and country.
One such patriot pacifist, nicknamed “The Prayin’ Adventist” by platoon mates who cursed him and threatened his life, Desmond Doss refused to carry a weapon into “The Good War.” Doss insisted he was a Conscientious Participant, not an objector, and good thing, since he saved the lives of 75 of his comrades, the same who ridiculed and threatened him, being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the process.
We participate in war by bringing hostilities to an end, through prayer that relies not only on our words, but our hands & our hearts – our entire bodies. Sometimes it means putting our bodies in the way of violence, getting in the way of the world by being the stick we throw into the spokes and gears of the war machine.
When the bright light of Christ burst upon my own conscience in 2006, after 14 months with an infantry platoon in Iraq in 2004, Christ beckoned me to follow the path of St. George in leaving all “for to serve the God of Heaven.” Luckily, I escaped the fate of the patron of England, who was martyred by his own commander-in-chief for casting down the dragons and false gods of Empire.
Facing a 2nd deployment to Iraq, I packed my bags and prepared for war, but with one condition – I would do so as a soldier of Christ, a vocation that forbade violence. God’s Holy Orders would trump the military’s lawful orders. As a living sacrifice of Christ getting in the way of the human sacrifice of war, I would be leaving my weapon behind, laying down the sword in order to pick up my Cross. To the best I could, I was willing to honor Caesar, but I had to obey Christ.
As I learned to march to the beat of this different drummer, I fell in step with innumerable soldiers of Christ before me. The trajectory of my life took a whole new direction, what the Church calls metanoia, repentance, as I underwent a kind of Change of Command. My new Drill Sergeants were Saints Maximilian of Tebessa, Sebastian, and Marcellus the Centurion; martyred military personnel, killed for refusing to kill. My new officers were Saints George, Victor the Moor, and Theodor the General; officers in Caesar’s court who traded patriotism and prestige for piety.
The Church’s peculiar army of conscientious participants is already that mighty league of conscientious combatants that sister Dorothy Day urged. Like Maurice and his Theban comrades, we are soldiers of Christ, and we are legion. Our fight is not with flesh and blood but against false authorities, oppressive powers, and the spiritual forces of evil. Our highest allegiance, our ultimate obedience, is to our suffering savior. The Lamb of God has conquered war, let us follow him.