Better (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

I have been silent about my interactions with 2001’s “best theologian,” according to TIME Magazine. In an earlier post, I described interviewing him for a conference I organized in 2011 and the problems inherent therein, which I didn’t even realize at the time. Over the following three years, I remained silent as his words and actions declined in quality and consideration. As the years passed, he refused to adjust his rhetorical belligerence, which is unmatched in the mainstream church (‘pastor Mark‘ might exceed him in language, but even the disgraced neo-calvinist had the dignity to apologize…).

In 2014, I was out of the country studying historical theology in Scotland. Student veteran friends back at my alma mater told me about a panel “on war” organized by another tenured faculty member which was to take place one week before Veterans Day. You can read a transcript of the panel here. One question from a student veteran was especially poignant;

What does it mean to be [a pacifist] here, at the divinity school, where there’s no bullets, no bodies flying, there’s no air raid sirens going on, what does it mean to hold that position when you don’t get—where you have the privilege not to experience it?

In his reply, the best acknowledged that being a pacifist was easy, “But simply because it’s too easy doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” His choice of words is significant – he defends himself (morally, as in right and wrong) because he acknowledges the privilege of ideology detached from embodied experience, whether that experience is of civilian “collateral damage” or combatants suffering from combat stress, the latter of whom are killing themselves at a rate never before witnessed in human history.

The illustration he chose to prove his point was beyond the pale;

During Vietnam, when my son was six, and Richard Nixon bombed Cambodia, I told my son, when Richard Nixon’s name was mentioned in elementary school to raise his hand and say, “Oh, you mean the murderer?” [laughter] I knew that that would not make his life easy. But I didn’t want to make his life easy, I wanted to make it difficult. I would like, I mean, you know, it’s too easy to be a pacifist, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Without any context, christian soldiers and veterans hearing this anecdote may have taken exceeding offense. If, they may wonder, a president’s thousand-mile mechanical distance from that war, or any war, qualified them as the “murderer” in the eyes of a “best” theologian, then were they not something exponentially worse than “murderer”?

The problem the Best fails to see is that he was making his son’s life difficult not for being a pacifist, but for being an asshole; such crude and heartless anecdotes only make it obvious that to be a pacifist is more important to some Christians than the call to be discipled by Christ, who threw neither physical nor rhetorical stones. The danger here is that this theologian has groomed an entire generation of church people to put the pacifist cart before the discipleship horse. I hesitate to use the identifier “christian” because that title is determined by love, not callousness.

The Waco Tribune-Herald, a local paper, reported on a visit “The Best” made to Baylor on the thirteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. While visiting a student group off campus, he made the same comment about presidential murder. What he didn’t seem to realize is that Baylor has an even more active and organized student veteran group than his own home institution of Duke Divinity. Both the Waco and Duke students laughed at his remarks, not unlike the way nearly 200 of my own peers laughed at the moral significance of my service before I started seminary in 2010.

Christians, theologically trained or not, can do better. If it is by our love for one another that we are properly identified as followers of Christ, then we must do better than cheap anecdotes based of fucked up caricatures that demean, belittle, and shame a federally protected population.

After reading the Waco story, I wrote to him and demanded, in no uncertain terms, that he cease using the anecdote because

It does not reflect the high standard expected of serious scholars and it demeans the morally complex perspective of Christians struggling with what it means to serve. Furthermore, it creates an atmosphere hostile to a community that has already been subjected to demoralizing caricatures of itself by tribalists in pacifist and patriot camps alike. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to reduce Christian soldiers to one word abstractions by a general populace or an academic guild already insulated from the nuanced and painful reality of military service.

Christians can do better, we must do better, and we must expect better from those in service to the Church within academia. I will no longer be silent when I see or hear destructive and inaccurate shit like this, because it hurts people, it hurts me. I hope it hurts all Christians, for what we do to “the least of these” is felt by the whole Body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Better (Lent 2017)

  1. I believe I was in the room with you when our seminary peers laughed at a comment that demeaned those serving in the military, particularly those who have seen combat. I was appalled at the event, and I felt more than ever that I needed to figure out how to understand and support my neighbors serving in the military, despite knowing very little about the military and how how military service corresponds to Christian discipleship. As a student of “The Best” and someone who appreciates his work, I think what you’ve said here is very fair and reasonable. I hope I can learn more. Thanks.

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