Sermon: Theology & Combat Trauma

*The following sermon was preached March 4th, 2014 at Duke Divinity School, upon the invitation of Dr. Warren Kinghorn, for his graduate course on Theology & Trauma. Page references are to Bill Mahedy’s Out of the Night; The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Veterans, which seminarians were to have read prior to meeting. Rather than my habit of following the Revised Common Lectionary, I began with a line God had on my heart that evoked combat trauma; “those in darkness have seen a great light.” The sermon unfolded from there.

I hope I am a Christian. I happen to also be a veteran. At times I wish I could disinherit the latter as easily as we can the former, but that’s a matter for another time. Being a gathering of two or more, I’d like to recognize the Jesus is amongst us. I will not give a presentation or a lecture, at least not to begin with. I will instead offer to you the word God has given me for this time and place. Like any doxological expression of the church, we’ll begin with a reading of God’s word as revealed in scripture, a short prayer and the sermon, followed by a brief moment of silent reflection.

Please respond to God’s word in accordance with your tradition.

[Read Isaiah 9:1-7, followed by Matthew 4:1-17]

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…

The first day I stepped foot on Duke’s campus as a student, God’s heart broke. And no, it wasn’t because this egotistical asshole had arrived. It was the long, labored sigh of a collective transgression by his church, the body of his son Jesus Christ.

I spent many years in darkness, and I may yet dwell in its region. But dwelling isn’t the right word for those of us who carry this particular darkness about us, for we are drifters and wanderers. Bereft of any anchor, those who’ve served, fought, and killed in war drift violently about the moral tempest left of the world after we’ve seen what it can be in all its ugliness. We tread dark water and suck down big gulps of bitter brine in the sea between what should be and what could have been. At startling rates, we slip beneath the surface, our strength gone, our bodies and spirits failing. Once victimizers, we are victim to the very violence we wrought to lands whose dreams we defaulted in favor of yours. We kill ourselves at such swift speed that it is one of the leading causes of death in the martial fraternity. Beginning in 2009, there were more soldier suicides than there were combat fatalities, which carries with it subtle hints of such double evil as boiling a calf in its mothers milk, don’t you think?

As I’ve said, the day I became a student at Duke I could hear God’s heart break.

I was sitting in the very first day of orientation, only vaguely listening to the lectures as I planned out my first semester with the help of an old student bulletin online. When the representative from CAPS began, I almost felt sorry for him, the crowd was so out of it. In trying to explain the importance of taking advantage of free counseling and the protections of doctor patient confidentiality, I could tell he was trying to make light and recapture my cohorts seditious attention. Listing endlessly the things one could tell a therapist securely, he followed a noticeable and loosely humorous pattern;

“You can tell us anything,” he stressed, “you can tell us that you’ve cheated on your tests, cheated on your spouse, that you kick dogs or steal candy from babies,” he continued, the crowd finally taking notice. “YOU CAN EVEN TELL US YOU’VE KILLED SOMEONE!” he exclaimed, enlivening hand gestures and all.

…God’s heart didn’t break when the ignorant and callous joke was told, mind you, it broke when nearly 200 seminarians burst out laughing.

I learned that day that there is a reason that the LGBT community uses the metaphor of a closet, and it must surely have something to do with darkness. Exilic communities, those banished to the vesper light of the margins of society, are where we will find evidence of God’s presence in the world. Whether the marginalized gay community, African Americans, draft dodgers, the outcast, weak, & traumatized; Blessed are they, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, those dwelling or treading in darkness, according to Isaiah, have seen a great light. Upon those who are banished to the region and the shadow of death shines a bright light. The prophet implies a contrast; it is not upon those you would expect that the light shines, but ON THEM, on those who carry this terrible wisdom home from dark places.

Therefore “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

The author of Matthew’s gospel first places these ominous words upon the lips of the prophetically gifted John, who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. Our pericope today follows immediately upon the heels of this momentous event, with Matthew moving only slightly faster than Luke through the temptation by Satan in the desert. But pausing for a brief textual reflection might be in order before losing sight of Matthew’s deep respect for the Hebrew scriptures and the prophet whose name means “God is salvation.” After all, our passage concludes with Jesus beginning his earthly ministry, with this potent portent leveraged as his inaugural address; “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Many scholars have noticed the similarities between Jesus’ 40-day temptation and Israel’s 40-year test in the wildernesses. But a keen and creative (perhaps martial) reader might notice there is in Isaiah’s call story a metropolitan vision not unlike the one Satan shows Jesus in the third and final temptation. The accuser brings Jesus to the top of a hill and puts on display all the kingdoms and municipalities upon the earth, in all their obvious splendor and proceeds to beg God to be worshipped. Similarly, when Isaiah was called in the sixth chapter of the book that bears his name, God showed him the kingdom of Israel and all its self-declared splendor. But in Isaiah, the towns were not like the ones you’d find in a real estate brochure. For “The Lord sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.” (v.12) Isaiah’s accursed call was to harden the hearts of the people he loved, to cause them to ‘be ever hearing, but never understanding; to be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

In Iraq, soldiers like myself saw ancient capitals, biblical towns, desolate and abandoned, mirroring Isaiah’s apocalyptic epiphany. In Babylon of old, with the ancient prophet, we saw ‘The cities lay ruined and without inhabitant, the houses deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged.” For war “sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.’ (Is.6:11b-12) We don’t have to imagine the scene from Isaiah, for the Lord has shown us with our own eyes. Reading the bible with a soldier’s sense is both a blessing and a curse… if you don’t believe me, let’s return to the text.

Knowing it spelled danger for himself when his cousin suffered arrest, Jesus withdraws from the Jerusalem hills and heads toward Galilee in the north, the land of the ancient tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon. According to the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 (v.14), Zebulon was the tribe responsible for carrying the martial staff who, along with Naphtali, was named explicitly as the ones who stood prepared to give their lives bravely upon the field of battle against Sisera. (v.18) Yet Zebulon and Naphtali are referred to in Isaiah as those who “dwell in darkness… in the region and shadow of death.” It is to the land of these brave warrior clans that the son of God goes “so that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled.”

The region and shadow of death evokes the 23rd psalm, one of the most popular to modern combatants. Penned by an ancient warrior, King David’s own dark, crimson stained hands prevented him from building a temple for the Lord. This psalm of his insists, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

A psalm of relief for perpetrators of violence, gangsters and soldiers alike, it is often used as a reassurance of God’s protection and benevolence despite one’s captivity in the dark valley of the shadow of death. Were you to meander through any given unit in Afghanistan, a war that has surpassed every other war before it in our history for it’s length, you would find Psalm 23 scribbled on Kevlar dust covers, improved body armor vests, or stuck in a safe place close to a soldiers vulnerable flesh. A place only the closest battle buddy would be told about, so that when necessary, it could be delivered to a close family member. Those of us who know war have absorbed a terrible wisdom, for war is a terrible darkness, as some of you might only be able to suspect. In fact the prophet Isaiah refers to Zebulon and Naphtali in twilight terms because, as two of the northern most tribes, they were the first to be utterly destroyed and carried off by the Assyrians in 723 BC.

But darkness is not all that war and military service is, as some of us well know.

War is a dark night, as you have read in Mahedy’s book. And those who walk in the martial valley of the shadow of battlefield death acquire a terrible wisdom, borne of the dark night of a soul. But darkness is not all that war is, and darkness only exists as a shadow of the light. Soldiers are not just perpetrators, they are also victims.

In our day, their moral agency is often compromised by the nature of the economic draft, for example, in which the poorest neighborhoods in need of social mobility often give their young up to the fight, as Zebulon and Naphtali before them. In over six years’ active service, the vast majority of enlistment stories I heard could only be classified as tragedy. A financial crisis here, a relational emergency there; one way or another, the young men I served with often joined out of less than ideal circumstances. Even after 9/11, it was surprisingly rare to hear of patriotism as a motivating force for enlistment. My own cousin enlisted to avoid jail time and has bounced between all but one branch of the armed forces before finally being discharged. Social circumstances often necessitate service that can provide a steady paycheck and much-needed direction and discipline. Not everyone goes willing and ready for the fight, sometimes it is a decision that comes at great expense, and the costs are often counted only after the dust settles.

But pigeon-holing soldiers as ‘damaged goods’ does them a disservice, for they have many gifts to offer the church. The virtues of military service must not be overlooked, and both the church and society would do well to value of the kind of selflessness, sacrifice, respect, courage, and obedience that military training and service cultivates, which is pounded into recruits during basic training. In the Matthean passage, the temptation account focuses on obedience as a cardinal virtue. Jesus could have ‘pulled rank’ on Satan and called down angels to feed him, protect him, and ward off the devil. Even as God the Son was tested, he remained obedient to the will of God the Father. Jesus forfeits his moral agency with the phrase “your will be done” not just in instructing us, his followers to pray, but in Gethsemane, as he doubted the cup from which he was to drink. “Roger, wilco,” the margins of a soldier’s Bible might read.

Obedience, even to the point of death, is one virtue of many that soldiers can teach Christians. When I stood tall in formation every weekday at 0630 for first formation, I knew the men beside me were prepared, like Zebulon and Naphtali before them, to give their lives for me in battle, and I for them. The martial bond may be shadowy and tormented at times, but ON THEM a great light has shone! For I fail to have that same trust in those who sit beside me in the pews for weekly worship, or in blue swivel chairs for lectures and precepts.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

After all, soldiers do not go to war alone, and the spiritual stowaways of PTSD and moral injury are not theirs alone to wrestle with. TRAUMA IS SOCIAL; pain does not emerge from a vacuum. Soldiers have the unique burden of feeling both like victim and perpetrator. In the military, we forfeit much of our moral agency and too often fail to recognize morally reprehensible acts until it is far too late. Victims of circumstances like operational tempo, it becomes all too easy to pervert a virtue into a vice. We are conditioned to obey, obey, obey, until we forget what it is like to think morally, to participate conscientiously within the moral framework that war requires. Satan helps us along either by pacifists declaring war amoral, wringing their hands like Pilate until the skin peels, or by patriots spouting platitudinous gratitude through salivating chops with a taste for war.

No shortage of veterans have recounted in their writings that the operational tempo and moral ambiguity allowed for, if not encouraged, a rapid decline of moral judgment. Combat trauma, like any trauma, is possible only in a social context. In numerous accounts of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, testimony of the participating soldiers suggested that they did it in order to act in accordance with the soldiers on their left and their right. What begins as a small trickle of sin grows imperceptibly until it is a torrent of evil. War casts a moral shadow upon those who dwell in its valley of death, but those who navigate its spurs and draws must not be forced to do so in isolation.

Which brings us to today’s academic readings.

Bill Mahedy recounts that “Many of America’s vets inhabit a world of spiritual bleakness – a dark night of the soul… But their journey is [ours], their darkness is ours and so too is the path” that they must travel. (p.16) The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel prophetically reminded the church of the prior generation that “In a democracy, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The church must walk with soldiers and veterans in their spiritual torment, for when two or three are gathered joy is multiplied and grief divided. After all, they sit beside us in the pews, wait behind us in line at the grocery store, and stand before us in the pulpit or at a podium. Invisible to all but the keenest observers, they walk amongst us, wandering a moral wilderness marked by sanctimonious trivialities, platitudinous gratitude, or deafening silence. Simultaneously the centerpiece of American rhetoric and the epitome of tokenizing appreciation, the military community is everything to everyone. At once “scapegoat” (p.60) and golden child, is it any wonder soldiers have forgotten who and whose they are?

In the face of such duplicitous depictions, sometimes we implode and destroy our own lives by drugs, alcohol, speeding, or other suicidally reckless behavior. Jeffrey Lucey wrote home to his family about becoming a monster, about feeling no longer human in the midst of the invasion of Iraq. After returning home and being discharged, his father found him in the family basement the day after being denied admission to a VA psych ward, hanging by a garden hose wrapped twice around his 23 year old neck. Other times, we explode and our misery exacts company by violent force, like when Timothy McVeigh laid waste to 168 lives in Oklahoma and then politely asked for the death penalty.

The identity of soldiers exists only in caricature for a large majority of the population. If not monsters, we are typecast as heroes. But if you listen closely, even the most heroic of us refuse the title, insisting we were “just following orders.” Not reducible to either “hero” or “monster,” soldiers make manifest the very reality of our beautifully tragic humanity, capable of both audacious acts of charity as well as the most horrific acts of hatred. With Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, you will hear the Nuremburg war criminals likewise insist, “I was just doing my job.” Always defying the rampant stereotypes placed upon them as well as the constantly shifting categories for combat trauma, soldiers and veterans make manifest in America God’s call to be a morally integral people; to mean what we say and practice what we preach. The erratic treatment we suffer by society hints not at our own disorder, but that of the community that sends us to dark and bloody battlefields while maintaining a charade of serenity back home.

If we as society fail to recognize the social reality of combat trauma, if we fail to accept the responsibility of sending soldiers to war, they and their stowaways will come back to haunt us. And I do not mean merely the violent acts that war-weary wounded warriors carry out, at the literal and figurative end of their rope, though there are many. Like the prophet Isaiah, soldiers embody both beauty and tragedy at once, blessings and curses alike. For it was the prophet who announced God’s judgment or favor upon Israel. Is it any coincidence that Mahedy makes at least one conspicuous reference in his frenetic manuscript to veterans representing a prophetic presence in America? (p.163)

Who and what are the prophets, then?

Abraham Heschel describes the prophets as those who feel fiercely, hate the approximate, and are sleepless and grave. They curse their own people and disdain those for whom God’s presence is a comfort and security. He says their consciences BURN; they have seen the truth and cannot remain silent, even if it means screaming incoherently in the face of injustice. Their ears hear the silent sigh of God, they are lonely watchmen and watchwomen who are strange, one-sided, and unbearably extremist. Prophets are assaulters of the mind who have been shattered by some cataclysmic experience. They are bitter with anguish, and Martin Luther King calls their vocation one of agony, whose torment can only possibly be made more severe by the proposal that they remain silent. The prophets must speak, Martin insists, but they are not words the community often welcomes.

The unabridged passage in Isaiah from which Matthew draws alludes to the prophet’s bipolar nature, swinging from manic blessing to depressive curse at the drop of a hat. In fact the reference to the martial tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali is about the twin tribes being “brought into contempt.” As prophesied, and perhaps as deserved, soldiers are looked at with scorn. Perhaps deservedly because soldiers must commit what normally would be unthinkable acts while in service to their nation. Beauty and tragedy kiss, blessing and curse are one. The same young man that one day might jump on a grenade for you, will on another day cut the ear off a dead body as a war trophy.

Soldiers know the anguish of being “brought into contempt,” for good reason or for bad. We know what it is like to be looked down upon; overtly as in Vietnam and covertly as we know today. But we also have a word to speak back to society. Mahedy states that, “the nation that believes itself to be morally correct in all that it does would do well to learn from the bitter anguish of those who fell from grace while doing their bidding.” Trauma is social; while some might be guilty, we are all responsible

The Hebrew word for prophets is nevilim, which means “those called,” for their role is especially involved in recognizing and passing on words from God. Each of the major prophets hear a call and answer, and very rarely is their vocation of speaking blessings and curses an enviable one.

If the three fold office of Christ, the munus triplex of prophet, priest, and king, is to have anything to say to a church that ordains priests and blesses presidents and politicians, we must affirm the presence, persistence, and problem of the prophetic vocation. Indeed, Mahedy speculates about how veterans might fulfill the prophetic place in society, how they might embody perhaps the most overlooked office of the munus triplex, including the commitment to share their bitter anguish. Their gifts are not merely in carrying the rhetorical blessings of prosperity that their sacrifice supposedly makes possible, but in the curses they make manifest in a nation claiming “We Will Never Forget;” the very “sanctimonious trivialities” that funded a world war on terror.

It is an unpleasant and inconvenient thought, but it is one we as a church within this nation must reckon with. It certainly is not uncommon to shuffle such troubling thoughts away from the center of public discourse and theology. Perhaps disturbed by the eclectic prophetic voice, Matthew omits the first line from the ninth chapter of Isaiah, “there will be no gloom for those in anguish.” In fact, verses 2-7 are the only ones in the chapter that speak comfort and good tidings. Verse 6 is a popular advent verse, reminding us at the start of every liturgical year that a human child, God incarnate, is given us. It might beautifully evoke humanity’s capacity to embody a holy spirit, but verses 8 onward swing heavily toward the tragic; not a child given for us, but a word AGAINST the people of God, which will “fall on” us…

[Read Isaiah 9.8-17]

To sprint full speed away from the consequences of two wars fought in our name and with our tax dollars will only catapult us into a brick wall. To dress up the crumbling façade of our national foreign policy and the silent complicity of the church with “dressed stones” spells our destruction.

If God takes on human flesh, if God indeed dwells within us, and we experience something of God in one another, then the question that Mahedy rightly asks, “Where was God in Vietnam (or Iraq & Afghanistan)?” is as rhetorical a question as Cain’s was of his being his brother’s keeper. The real question is not “where was God,” but “Where were YOU?

Where were you when our servant the president, stood proudly upon the rubble of 3,000 lives and shouted, “I can hear you… and the people who knocked these towers down will hear all of us soon.” Tears of grief were used as cries for war, and the church failed to take responsibility for its own teachings. Being on active duty as a professing Christian, But if combat and other traumas are social, then soldiers do not go to war alone, which means the church and the state are not innocent. “In a representative democracy, some are guilty but all are responsible.” If they are anything like mine, your hands, however young and innocent they once were, have been stained a deep crimson.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

It was violence that kept King David from being given the opportunity to build a permanent dwelling place for the Lord, for there was too much blood on his hands. It was violence for which Zebulon and Naphtali were so esteemed, for good reasons and for bad, and it was they who were carried off first into exile to be forever lost. It was violence that characterized the world of Noah, violence and corruption that grieved God so that he decided wash it all away in a torrent of water. When God raised his keshet, his archers bow, up to the sky, it symbolized that he is a God who suffers with us. Violence is far more complex than either good or evil allow for, as the ancient deluge attests.

In a midrash on Exodus 14, where YHWH is first called a warrior, the medieval rabbis imagine the angels joining in the Song of the Sea, Moses’ and Miriam’s ballad in Exodus 15. But God, they say, blessed be he, rebuked the angels, saying, “The work of my hands is drowned at sea, and you wish to sing?” Far from being an absentee landlord, this God born as a vulnerable child for us, Emmanuel, suffers with his conflicted creation.

You know what haunts me most of all about my 14 months in the combat? Unlike other infantrymen in my unit, I have no concrete number that plagues me late at night, no faces that intrude my dreams. But the nature of my job as an artilleryman left me with very good reason to think that I killed people in Iraq. I think I killed people in Iraq, and it tortures me not knowing, knowing paradoxically that I’ll never know. I can only THINK that I killed people in Iraq.

But you know what else – I think you did too

In Genesis, when our warrior God pointed his archer’s bow toward the sky and promised to never again destroy the world by water. The promise, however, was not that destruction would never come again, just not in the same manner. On April 30, 1967, at his home parish of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin heard God saying to America

You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.

Our worldly engagements have not gone unnoticed by the almighty. Wars without reason and without end have earned us God’s ire. Indeed, the church is under judgment once again. America has failed to be humble but confident in her power, so that what was spoken by the prophet Martin might be fulfilled.

Since Korea and Vietnam, those wars that brought us our epidemic of soldier suicides, God has been departing from the church in America. In 1974, theologian James McClendon wrote in the introduction to his landmark book Biography as Theology; Vietnam… “forced many young Americans to question or even discard the pieties their parents had held secure… the credibility of [church and state] declined together: religion as well as nationalism, God as well as country.” Mahedy asks, “Have the churches ever come to grips with the reason so many vets lost their religious faith during their time in Vietnam? I believe the answer is ‘no.’” (p.15).

My mom was in the generation that lost their faith. In the midst of pedestrian debates about God’s sovereignty and power wrapped up in questions like “Can God create a rock so large God is unable to move it?,” she and thousands of others left. My dad, and other veterans of the American War in Vietnam, could not flee the sinking church quickly enough. The ironic gap between preaching and practice grew like the federal defense budget; too fast for its own good. Invested in maintaining a status quo requiring the blanket justification of violence and corruption, the church focused too heavily on what McClendon referred to as “propositional theology,” and what his fellow narrative theologian Stanley Hauerwas prefers to call simply “systematics.”

Obsessed with epistemological abstraction and alienating esoteric theology, few with any sway in the church stopped to think about God in incarnate terms. I heard from the lips of my seemingly heterodox mother, in the midst of the best religious education our government’s money can buy, a more profoundly theological observation than any I heard from our professors. Believing in a female God who “suffers compassionately with creation,” she made me wonder if God’s power is less a question of mere physical strength, and more one of incarnate relationality. A distinctively theological question of divine exousia is not “Is there a rock God unable to move,” but…

Is there a trauma God is unable to endure?

America today seems obsessed with exporting any morally or emotionally ambiguous experiences. We lose in Vietnam? Blame it on the veterans! Another unjust war or two for our children? Send the poor!

God is with those condemned to the dark places beyond our happy sunshine shores, on them a great light has shone. The hollow halls of prejudice that used represent the hope of the world are have lost all their credibility. America is no longer “the light of the world,” a city upon a hill. The trauma that veterans suffer in vicariously killing and destroying is a more realistic appraisal of American life than those spouted incessantly on television, radio, newspapers, and other centers of influence. Mahedy agrees, saying on p.43 that “the vets moral insights in this regard are superior to those of most other commentators, political leaders, and pundits…” Isaiah concurs, prophesying “For those who guide this people have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up.”

If King is among the prophets, and I think he is, then despite his warning, we have “in pride and in arrogance of heart” remained in our martial ways, so God’s power no longer alights upon our amber waves of grain or our purple mountain majesties. Isaiah was called to make the heart of [his] people calloused; their ears dull and their eyes blind. Lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. God seems to have no compassion for Gold Star families, for their cries for peace go unanswered. The, “pride of our nation,” “idols of our hearts,” fall upon their own swords faster than our enemies swords fall upon them. Every 65 minutes, we are reminded of the double evil we’ve spawned in our modern wars.

The backbone of our power has been broken and the ruined church is a people of unclean lips and dark hearts hidden behind a façade of fabricated faith.

The prophet Jonah was called to Mosul, Iraq, the capitol of his enemies, the Assyrians. Hoping to see them destroyed in a shower of fire and brimstone in return for their transgressions. The flaming torch has been passed, and I wonder who will come from Nineveh to preach destruction to the most powerful nation of our own day, “who say with pride and arrogance of heart, ‘we rely on drones and the multitude of our remote pilots, and in the great strength of our nuclear weapons.’

The people that perform our violence for us are turning it on themselves because America cannot or will not accept its collective complicity. America is boiling its young men and women in the milk of their ancestors’ unrequited violence.

The plight of veterans is punishment enough and they themselves are not cursed, for “there will be no gloom for they who were in anguish.” Rather their suffering makes evident judgment upon a superficial church, God’s grieved departure from our hallowed naves of injustice and hypocrisy. The dark and terrible wisdom gained is not unlike that which we all inherit from the Edenic garden. As before, we’ve consumed the fruit and acquired profound knowledge of good and evil, but not without great cost. Forcing the poison upon soldiers by ignoring the social nature of their trauma will not spare the rest of us from its effect. And when, as Martin similarly prophesied, America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy will read “War.”

In our day, God manifests his judgment not by deluge but by disenfranchisement. Starting in 1977, Gallop began a poll to measure the American public’s trust in various professions. Initiated two years after the final withdrawal of American troops from war ravaged Vietnam, just over 60% of Americans trusted clergy. As McClendon predicted, that clerical trust declined steadily, and last year it hit its all time low. Church membership has declined in tandem, and many of you likely feel the pressure to “grow” congregations to which you will be sent. But if we fail to see and comprehend the heart of God, from whence might such “growth” possibly come?

Violence is not the problem per se, but what we do with the violence we propose is necessary. For pacifists and patriots alike, binary thinking and exportation of responsibility has been the norm. But those dwelling and treading in darkness are not the problem, for trauma is social. We should be dividing this terrible wisdom amongst all responsible parties, we should be carrying this great burden with them, for “their journey is [ours], their darkness is ours and so too is the path” that they must travel. (p.16)

Healthy conversation has eroded in our congress as well within congregations. We have failed to deal with who and whose we are in the midst of wars and rumors of wars. One of you says, “I follow Yoder”; another, “I follow Neibuhr”; another, “I follow Hauerwas”; still another, “I follow Jesus.” Is Christ divided? Was Obama crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Romney?

I am reminded of all that I have learned during my classes here, of which I am grateful. But there is something wrong with us, Church.

Every year I was a student, I heard Dean Hays insist during opening convocation, “We are not the church.” He might have meant that at DDS, we don’t baptize, marry, ordain priests or perform other sacramental functions of a conventional church. But church is not expressed in the sacraments, Christ is. What Dean Hays said is as close to the truth as a lie can get – for we ARE the church.

If Mahedy is right, and veterans occupy a prophetic place in the ekklesia, how we treat them says less about them than it does about the church. In that CAPS presentation years ago, was it the church that responded? I think it was. But I can be shown a whore and see a beautiful woman, my mother in fact. That day I was shown a monster, but it took years before I could make out the faint outline of a wounded lamb. I could see in them a reflection of my own brokenness, not quite sure how to respond, they laughed, for that was what was expected of them. In war, I had no idea how Christians responded, so I did what was expected of me. But the gospels challenge us to see things upside down, to refuse to capitulate with even the subtlest of evils.

If we are to be children of God, what is a distinctively theological response to trauma of killing? Do we laugh, or do we mourn? Are we blessed, or are we cursed?

So, Church;

See, but not with your eyes

Hear but not with your ears

Love, but not with your words

BE the church, don’t just study it.

Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.


One thought on “Sermon: Theology & Combat Trauma

  1. Pingback: Those Treading in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light: A Lenten Sermon | Logan M. Isaac

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