The 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 about 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.