Those Treading in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light: A Lenten Sermon

 

Delivered April 5, 2014 at the Keep Making Peace conference, put on by the Michigan State University Wesley Foundation. This sermon is a blood relative of one I gave at Duke Divinity for a graduate course on Theology & Trauma

This morning, I sought to stretch your minds. We engaged academically with moral injury; its popular usage, origins, and assumptions. I suggested that moral selves are formed in community, and that diagnosing any such injury without first comprehending the body upon which its inflicted, is ill-advised. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then we must look to the moral communities in which prospective soldiers are formed, especially churches. It is to that body which I now turn my attention and yours. With our intellectual discussion behind us, I now seek to stretch your hearts. As with before, you might feel a slight sting, a little discomfort, a reminder that stretching involves pain. I hope you bear with that pain, a pain I’ve felt for so long and need, for all our sakes, to share.

I will offer to us gathered here a word God has given me in my heart, a heart that’s seen it’s fair share of stretching and tearing. As a worshipful expression of the church, we’ll begin with a reading of God’s word as revealed in scripture, followed by a prayerful sermon, and concluded with a brief moment of silent reflection before we enter into a time of discerning conversation.

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

– Read Isaiah 9:1a-7

– Read Matthew 4:1-17 

~ ~ ~

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

In 2011, I was invited to speak at the national Mennonite Church’s bi-annual convention in Pittsburgh, PA. Mennonites are one of a few denominations known in the US as “Historic Peace Churches,” whose members and congregations are largely pacifist, and I had by then gained a named for myself as an outspoken Christian veteran against war. The national director of youth peace education for the Mennonite Church had invited me to speak to nearly 1000 youth group students and leaders about peacemaking and pacifism. As is usually the case with these things, I was also given free reign around the convention during the sessions for which I was not booked to speak. A seminar on masculinity and spirituality looked particularly intriguing, so I went.

During the session, participants were broken into groups and given a handful of picture cards. On the first set of cards were images of famous and infamous men, which we were instructed to rate on a scale of masculinity. The cards depicted men as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Napoleon Dynamite. In this first exercise, groups were told to determine our own rating criteria, and my group decided that “stands up for what he thinks is right” was primary of a few distinctively “manly” traits we thought up.

Then we were handed a second set of picture cards. This set had images of different jobs, including things like farmer, preacher, professor, and artisan. We were told not to worry too much about specifics, but to take the depictions are generic; it didn’t matter if it was a dairy farmer or a corn grower, for example. Our task this time was rate these vocations in terms of our stated criteria, which for our group was “stands up for what he thinks is right.”

After my group spread out all the cards on our table, my eyes settled on a drawing of a crusader knight in armor, a generic soldier. Apparently, I was not the only one who noticed. Another man in the group placed his hands decisively on the card saying, almost inaudibly, “Well, we know where this one goes,” as he proceeded to push the soldier as far from himself as his arm could reach. Were he able, I have no doubt he would politely, but firmly, remove the card from the deck altogether; ‘No value in soldiering,’ he might have been thinking, ‘no light in that dark world of war.’

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 our own. 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 deaths due to combat, which carries with it subtle hints of such double evil as boiling a calf in its mothers milk, don’t you think?

The sentiment of the Mennonite men I witnessed was not unlike another I heard at another peacemaking conference. Just months before I was to begin seminary at Duke Divinity School, I attended the Peace Among the Peoples conference in Elkhart, IN, a precursor to an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation held in Kingston, Jamaica. There, listening to an Orthodox priest give one of many papers on pacifism, I was one of only two military community members present. Speaking about peace without those who know and conduct war seemed ironic to me, but apparently not to many of the speakers. I remember the Orthodox priest because of a brief remark he made in reference to people like me, people who had visited the dark wilderness of war. “We know,” he insisted confidently, “that the reason soldiers go to war is bloodlust.”

At its uttering, I swore I heard God’s heart break with my own. Later that evening, I remember raging at God that the burden of my vocation was too great! My calling of treading between this world of war and the promise of peace, with those who’ve seen with their own eyes such a hell and await such an audacious hope, was too painful! It cut too deep, hit too close to home! I wanted to study something safely abstracted from my own personal experience.

Prominent pacifists, some of whom I would go on to study with at Duke, seemed so blinded to the beautiful tragedy that is modern combat. Their minds made up, their hearts hardened, I felt banished far from the presence and conversations of such purportedly peacemaking people.

I would go on later to earn a Certificate in Gender, Theology, and Ministry at Duke University and spend a year working as co-coordinator of the Divinity School Women’s Center as the third male to hold the position in 40 years. It was in those minority communities that I would come to learn that there is a reason the LGBT community uses the metaphor of a closet, and it has everything to do with darkness and isolation. 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 and persecuted, those weak and traumatized; Blessed are they, Jesus says in Matthew 5, 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 the proud, the popular, and the prominent of society, those who 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. The passage we’ve read follows immediately upon the heels of this momentous event and Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert, a central text for Ash Wednesday services and the rest of Lent, the season in which we currently find ourselves. 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 Isaiah, whose name means “God is salvation.” After all, our passage concludes with Jesus beginning his earthly ministry with this potent portent that he uses as his presidential inaugural address; “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Many scholars have noticed 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, three chapters prior to today’s reading, a metropolitan vision very similar to the one Satan shows Jesus in the third and final temptation in Matthew’s gospel. The devil brings Jesus to the top of a hill and puts on display all the kingdoms and municipalities upon the earth, in all their obvious majesty, before inviting Jesus to worship him. Likewise, when Isaiah is called to be a prophet, he is shown the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and all of their self-declared splendor. But in Isaiah, the towns were not very majestic, for verse 12 recalls that, “The Lord sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.” Nothing like the contemporary worship songs that borrow Isaiah’s words “Here am I,”[1] his actual 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.”[2]

In Iraq, soldiers like myself saw ancient capitals, biblical villages, 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.”[3] For war “sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.”[4] 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 Matthew.

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,[5] Zebulon was the tribe responsible for carrying the martial staff who, along with Naphtali, was named explicitly as those who stood prepared to give their lives bravely upon the field of battle against the enemy commander Sisera.[6] Yet, for some reason, Zebulon and Naphtali are referred to in Isaiah as those who “dwell in darkness… in the region and shadow of death.”[7] It is nonetheless 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.”[8]

A psalm of relief for perpetrators of violence, 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 its length, you would find Psalm 23 scribbled on Kevlar dust covers, scrawled upon improved body armor vests, or penned on papers 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, “just in case,” 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. 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 BCE.

But darkness is not all that war and military service is.

War transpires within great darkness, 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, for darkness only exists as a shadow of the light. Though borne in deep darkness, we see in veterans like J.D. Salinger deep moral conflict that violates our usual impulses about war. Salinger created the character of Holden Caulfield, who compulsively obsesses about phonies and fakes, and a recent biography of the hermetic writer and wounded WWII warrior portrays the author of Catcher in the Rye as simultaneously perpetrator and victim.[9] In its pages, one reads of Salinger’s remark to his young daughter, his participation in liberating Nazi concentration camps in mind, that “you never get the smell of death out of your nostrils.” Peacemakers must reckon with the fact that 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, in which the poorest neighborhoods in need of social mobility often give their young up to the fight, as Zebulon and Naphtali before them. 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. 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’ or as being driven by “bloodlust” 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. 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 was 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…

“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 like victim and perpetrator at once. 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 devoid of morality, 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 can easily grow 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.

Bill Mahedy, a Roman Catholic chaplain during Vietnam, recounts in his 1986 book Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Veterans, 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.[10] The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel prophetically reminded the church of the so-called ‘greatest generation,’ “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, veterans 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”[11] 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. Marine Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey wrote home to his family about becoming a monster, about feeling no longer human in the midst of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After returning home and being discharged, his father found him in the family basement a 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, veterans explode and our misery exacts company by violent force, like when Army Sergeant 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, they are typecast as heroes. But if you listen closely, even the most heroic of them refuse the title, insisting they were “just following orders.” Not reducible to either “hero” or “monster,” soldiers represent the 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 and constantly shifting categories for combat trauma placed upon them, 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 they suffer by society hints not at their own disorder, but that of the community that sends them to dark and bloody battlefields while maintaining a charade of serenity back home.

If we as a 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. It was the prophet who announced God’s judgment or favor upon Israel. It should not be seen as a coincidence that Mahedy makes repeated reference in his manuscript to veterans representing a prophetic presence in America.[12]

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 full passage in Isaiah from which Matthew draws alludes to the prophet’s bipolar nature, swinging from happy blessing to angry 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 in war, blessing and curse are one. The same young man that one day might jump on a grenade for you, will 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; obvious and outright as in Vietnam and hidden in platitudes as we know today. But we 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 means “those called,” for their role is especially involved with 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.

The Church must affirm the presence, persistence, and problem of the prophetic vocation. Indeed, Mahedy speculates about how veterans might fulfill a prophetic place in church and society, how they might embody prophetic witness before the peacemaking community, including a commitment to share their bitter anguish. The gifts soldiers bring 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.

If veterans represent a prophetic presence amongst us, the reading from Luke 13 this morning that Bishop Kiesey referenced should be as a thorn in our sides! Jesus weeps for a people who kills their own prophets. Our complicity is an unpleasant and inconvenient thought, but it is one we as a church within this nation must reckon with. This city upon a hill, this land our founders called a New Jerusalem, is still killing her prophets! They are no longer put to death by stones or by the sword, but by silence, disregard, and constantly shifting categories to explain away the cataclysmic experience that shattered any semblance of normalcy they once had. It certainly is not uncommon to shuffle such troubling people and 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 entire 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…

[a veteran reads vv.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 vulnerable human flesh, if God indeed dwells within us, and we experience something of God in one another, then the question that Mahedy asks in his book, “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, I looked for the stories of just warriors taking refuge in churches or ­­­­­of religious leaders working against easy assumptions and binary thinking. I found none, so I marched, uniformed and uninformed, off to war.

Where were you during the surge; Shopping? Studying?

Where were you for the drone war in Pakistan; Protesting?

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 red.

“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. And those who commit it in our names are neither monster nor hero, for they are made in the image of a God who gives life and takes it away but who does not share our human pettiness and partisanship.

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 WE ALL DID.

In Genesis, 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.”[13]

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 may be 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, that “forgotten war” that brought us our current 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.”

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 alienated an entire generation.

America today seems persistently 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. Its credibility compromised, America is no longer “the light of the world,” a city upon a hill. The trauma that veterans express 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. Isaiah agrees, 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, if you believe it ever did. Isaiah was called to make the heart of his beloved 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.”[14] God seems to have no compassion for Gold Star families, for their cries for peace go unanswered. The, “pride of our nation,”[15] “idols of our hearts,”[16] 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 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 are not cursed themselves, for “there will be no gloom for they who were in anguish.” Rather their suffering makes evident God’s anguish over a superficial church, God’s grieved departure from our hallowed naves of silence and complacency. The dark and terrible wisdom gained by veterans of war is not unlike that which we all inherit from Eden. 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, well 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 clergy present likely feel the pressure to “grow” congregations in which you serve. 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 or politically responsible. 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”[17] that they must travel.

Healthy conversation has eroded in our congress as well as 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 Colbert”; another, “I follow Stewart”; and another, “I follow Maddow”; still another, “Well, I follow Olberman.” I ask you: is Christ divided? Was Pelosi crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Obama?

…there is something wrong with us, 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 Mennonite convention years ago, was it the church that acted so dismissively? I think it was. Saint Augustine wrote that the church he saw in the 4th century was a whore, but it was his mother. I too found a whore that day in 2011; I saw and heard a monster, and it took years before I could make out the faint outline of a wounded lamb. I could see in those peacemakers a reflection of my own brokenness, not quite sure how to respond, they pushed people like me away, they insisted I was motivated by bloodlust, for the only soldiers they knew were figments of their imagination, caricatures, tired stereotypes kept alive as ideological straw men. Likewise, I had no idea that there were real examples of Christians who responded differently to war, 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 peacemakers, who are called children of God, what is a distinctively theological response to trauma of killing, to the last 12 years or more of war in our names and with our money? What does it look like to turn from our ways if our nation is subject to Martin’s prophecy?

In Luke, Jesus cries out for his capitol city over its treatment of their prophets, lamenting that his peoples hearts are calloused, their ears dull and their eyes blind. They kill the prophets and stone those sent for their benefit. With Christ, soldiers and veterans weep over the communities that silently reject them and the painful anguish they bear. With Jeremiah, known as The Weeping Prophet, the soldier tells us the source of their deep and grievous lament. From the very first book of his Lamentations; “this is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit.”[18]

Restore the spirits of those who serve in your name. Be with them in their spiritual torment. If we don’t change our ways, if we don’t accept our responsibility for decades of war and rumors of war, we will continue toward the inevitable and irrevocable consequences of our military exploits. Every day, it seems, spiritual stowaways of war continue to bring hell to earth, dragging the sulfurous stench of carbon gunfire and brimstone to our shores, our homes, our …military bases. Despite Isaiah’s warning, we continue to insist “with pride and arrogance of heart,”[19] ‘we rely on drones and the multitude of our remote pilots, and in the great strength of our nuclear weapons.’[20] Continue in our ways, and we cannot expect these things to change either. With Rome, we will be overcome by the very violence we employ. Saint Augustine watched as his beloved city fell to repeated invasions by hordes of vandals and other barbarian tribes. The southern tribes of Judah and did not heed Isaiah’s warning either, and Jeremiah wrote Lamentations as he watched the temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. He wept as he watched it taken apart stone by stone, just as Jesus prophesied upon the 2nd temple centuries later. Luke recalls in his 21st chapter, “Not one stone was left on another, every one was thrown down”[21] as the early church looked on in 70 CE.

But it does not have to end like this. Another, more recent empire from whose rib we ourselves were fashioned, escaped the disastrous consequences of pride and arrogance. With the help of a frail Indian prophet who refused to capitulate with evil, England slowly released its death grip on increasing numbers of its former colonies and thereby spared God’s full wrath. Year by year, it incrementally receded from its former position of super power and was saved the devastating catastrophes of empires past. Gandhi may not have been a prophet, but he was a veteran whose visceral experience in the Zulu and Boer wars almost certainly affected him. The Indian people embraced his prophetic nonviolent direct action and refused to return evil for evil, interrupting the cycle of violence.

As for us, how do we treat the prophets sent to us that preach pending doom, like Jeremiah and Jesus each did over Jerusalem? Another prophet, Jonah, knew the gravelly grave he could have met with when God called him to Nineveh, the capital of the most powerful nation of his day, the Assyrians. Called to a city whose resting place is found in Mosul, Iraq, where American foreign policy has left a bloody footprint. Jonah’s story should make us wonder whether the flaming torch might be passed in that sandy wilderness to the next generation of prophets called by God to warn our own era’s most powerful nation… When they come, are we doomed as Jonah wished of his enemies, or do we repent as the Ninevites miraculously did? When the prophets speak, will we say to them “here is the number of a great therapist” or “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”[22]? Do we laugh, or do we mourn? Are we blessed, or are we cursed?

So, Church. If Isaiah’s accursed call is passed to us by the prophet Martin, that we have been made callous, blind, and deaf, then there is but one escape from the wrath of a mournful God;

See, but not with your eyes

Hear but not with your ears

Love, but not with your words

Preach, but not with your mouth

Seek first the kingdom of God.[23] Grow in grace, not in numbers.

 

Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Amen.”


 

[1] Isaiah 6:8

[2] Isaiah 6:9

[3] Isaiah 6:11

[4] Isaiah 6:12

[5] Judges 5:14

[6] Judges 5:18

[7] Isaiah 9:2

[8] Psalm 23:4

[9] In fact, the 7th chapter is titled simply “Victim and Perpetrator”

[10] Mahedy, 16

[11] Mahedy, 60

[12] Mahedy, 163

[13] Martin Luther King Jr. “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967. Retrieved from http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article16183.htm (February 25, 2014)

[14] Isaiah 6:10

[15] FDR, June 5, 1945, on the eve of D-Day; http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/fdr-prayer.htm

[16] Mark Twain, War Prayer

[17] Mahedy, 16

[18] Lamentations 1:16

[19] Isaiah 9:9b

[20] Adapted from Isaiah 31:1

[21] Luke 21:6

[22] Luke 13:35

[23] Matthew 6:33

One thought on “Those Treading in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light: A Lenten Sermon

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

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