Centurions Guild Origin Story

*The following was written in fulfillment of a Foundations in Christian Leadership certificate program I took in 2015.

My mind was sprinting, and I couldn’t tell if I had woken up early or never quite gone to sleep. It was that hour of night when you can’t quite tell between yesterday and tomorrow. My fingers flew over my keyboard and across my smartphone screen, trying to connect the dots, as if lives depended on my manual and mental dexterity.

580087235_91f4defca3_dAcross the Delaware River, in Philadelphia, The Simple Way (TSW) was on fire. Many of my friends were caught between life and death, in the same way the day was caught between dusk and dawn. Shane Claiborne, the most prominent member of the intentional community, later recalled to those of us in Camden that he narrowly escaped death, as smoke had already filled his room by the time the heat woke him up. Nobody was seriously hurt, but TSW and many of their poverty stricken neighbors would lose most, if not all, of their possessions.

The lives I felt the weight of were not my friends across the river or their neighbors, but the thousands of fellow Christian soldiers and veterans like me who lost sleep, sometimes on the verge of death, the fires of hell and the heat of a thousand suns forcing them from restful slumber on otherwise mundane evenings. With little to prepare them for the wars waged for abstract nouns and discredited threats, the silence or sloganeering that met them upon their return home was disappointing at best and insulting at worst. For some, it paved the road back to hell, with 20 people like me taking their own lives every single day.  I had been searching for something, for a way to help bear the load that Christian soldiers bear, for something to say to the silence that follows the violence of combat. That night I caught a glimpse of it.

When God reigns, it pours. Sometime in the middle of the night, I had a far-reaching vision of a community or a structure that might be a start for how to help the Church think more deeply about the significance of her soldiers and veterans. The image of the centurion was a centralizing force, for it carried an explicitly scriptural connotation. But everything else I saw was scattered and hard to decipher. I scribbled down all the major thoughts that came to me that night, and you can almost make out the frantic incoherence that birthed Centurions Guild;

Since 2005, I had been trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian soldier because, well, that is what I was. A deployment to Iraq in 2004 had jolted me awake to life’s important questions in the same way God had startled me from sleep that June night in 2007. As an artilleryman preparing for a 2nd deployment, I needed to know not just for the sake of my life, but my eternal soul. To some, the phrase “Christian soldier” is redundant. Any fan of American sniper Chris Kyle can tell you that. But to others, the phrase is mutually exclusive, as the testimony of nuclear bomb chaplain George Zabelka will make clear. As a Christian soldier, was I a hero or a monster? Or somewhere in between?

The question was not mine alone. Before the fire struck the Simple Way, I had already had conversations with too many Christian service members and veterans to ignore that the church was facing a moral crisis it did not even have eyes to see. In the absence of properly trained clergy and theologians, Christian soldiers often have to chart the moral landscape on their own, or rely on the support of others like them.

  • Zach was an Air Force ROTC cadet who read the wrong books (or the rights ones) who decided to resign his commission six months before his graduation. His priest compared him to a particular part of the female reproductive system and he had to pay back much of his tuition because he no longer felt he could serve as a Christian.
  • Nate was an Army Ranger turned West Point cadet who could see the smoke from the Towers the day they fell. The academy was only slightly more professional than Zach’s priest.
  • Jason was just starting his job in Navy intelligence when he and I started talking about the theological questions our service evoked. We remain in touch, but we only talk when he is off duty, for he only feels protected speaking from his landline home telephone.

Co-founder Zach Cornelius

Zach, Nate, and Jason helped me understand what it might mean to be a Christian soldier, and they are the first ones I called when I had my vision for a community that could help Christians more meaningfully engage with the military. In under six months, we would start the journey together to form Centurions Guild in a small B&B outside Philly. Together, we’ve been learning that to be a Christian soldier is a complex thing. We have come to distrust absolutes on either side of the political spectrum. Polemics have dominated American discourse, and thoughtful dialogue is at times hardest to come by precisely when and where it is most needed, like when someone is preparing to commit violence under the auspices of popular sovereignty.

Being geographically diverse, however, has kept what we do as frenetic and scattered as those drawings that birthed the Guild. We have succeeded sporadically at the things we set out to do, but administering a budding ministry in the midst of growing families, constant studies, and shifting loyalties is difficult. For me, the fire still burns as hot as ever. The central question of being a Christian soldier has shaped two masters theses. The work it has inspired even influenced the circumstances through which I came to meet my wife. I have seen enough of the church to know that I have a lifetime of work ahead of me if I am to make a dent in the way the Church thinks, speaks, and acts about Christian soldiering. Regardless of the formal fate of the Guild, I will go on producing resources and provoking questions to challenge and enrich the Church’s witness to those who serve in the military.

But I have been learning that what I do must be a discipline, not a mere activity. I must carefully hone my craft if the little light I’ve shared with a few Christian soldiers is to become an actual vocation, a ministry through which the Church universal might see the value and significance of a martial hermeneutic. In the seven years I’ve been organizing the Guild, I’ve often felt near to burnout, which Henri Nouwen called “a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.”[1] So I am learning to pace myself for the long haul, if I am to take this ministry seriously, if the race is to be a life long marathon rather than a short lived sprint.

[1] Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 10-11.

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