When I told a friend of mine I saw my work as being a bridge between pacifists and patriots, and between civilians and soldiers, he remarked that he was sorry to hear that.
As a bridge, everybody just walks all over you.
Being an advocate is like being a bridge; you connect two places, two perspectives. It can be wearying work, traversing what can be great rifts between disparate positions or people. “Advocate” is related to vocation, from the Latin vocare (to call), it is to be called to another’s aide. This other to whom we are called may not be a friend, and may in fact be an enemy, even the devil himself. The devil’s advocate, however, is not just an Al Pacino movie, it was a specific office in the church responsible for promoting the faith by insisting on intellectual rigor. He was a type of lawyer (in French, avocat) who made the case against canonizing people and making them saints. However, this person did not serve as the prosecution in these trials, but as the defense. “Advocatus diaboli” was the popular title for the position formally referred to as promotor fidei, the defender of the faith, because our faith withers if it faces no challenges. These ancient hearings help the Church remember that every saint had a checkered past, that every sinner therefore might also have a bright future.
Advocates do not only stand up for somebody else, but sometimes they need to stand up for himself or herself. It is not easy to self-advocate, and it is often quite painful and tiring. This was never clearer to me than as a student veteran in formal theological training. Draft exemption for clergy in training during the Korean and Vietnam wars has produced a lack of veteran faculty in current tenure positions in seminaries and Christian colleges. The number of veteran-professors I trained under or interacted with as a student at two of the world’s most prestigious divinity schools was exactly zero. This is problematic for two reasons;
- An influx of students taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill means many student veterans need, but do not have, people they can relate to in positions of institutional power in higher education, people who can advocate for their particular needs, concerns, and relevance.
- People writing theologies of war (in the midst of several ongoing conflicts, one of which is our nation’s longest), are not writing with the kind of expertise expected of academics, which insists upon as few degrees of separation/interpretation as possible
As a student veteran, I learned that the answers theologians are giving about war do not arise from the questions soldiers are asking before, during, or after war. As an advocate, I try to be a bridge between alienating abstractions about war that shape our Christian imaginations and the lived experience that weighs so heavily on the thousands of Christian soldiers for whom war is irreducibly personal. Doing so has made me appear to both patriots and pacifists as advocating against each, even while defending certain elements of both. As my friend declared, it has sometimes felt as though I am being walked on by people on both sides of the divide. But the space between God and country, between faith and service, is littered with many others like me, trying to hold on to one another in hopes we don’t fall. It is a space worth holding, a bridge worth defending.