Good (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

In other prior posts, I’ve mentioned my interactions with 2001’s “Best” theologian starting with belittling military tradition in an interview. The “Faculty Panel on War” wasn’t even the last straw, but repeatedly associating soldiers with murder was. His infamous bull-in-the-china-shop methodology was officially crossing a moral threshold from bad to inexcusable, so I called him on his piss poor public persona.

I asked to discuss the matter in person, in the spirit of Matthew 18, because the fact that he’d repeated a harmful anecdote at Baylor suggested he was using it regularly, and insofar as it was broadly imparting shame upon an already degraded population, it was sinful. In his reply, he insisted “I have never been sure exactly what I said you found so offensive, but I will be glad to talk with you.” To his credit, other local theologians have thrown around Matthew 18 in public discourse, (“confronting one’s offending brother or sister” is described as both “necessary” and “imperative,” p.193) only to push me off to “administrative leadership.”

We met at an on-campus gym, where I reiterated that I was approaching him as a Christian brother and explained that my hope was for reconciliation. I felt personally slighted by a number of actions he took, but more importantly, his rhetorical recklessness was negatively effecting Christian soldiers and veterans en masse. I told him specifically what I felt reconciliation involved, based on his own work; “Reconciliation is when my enemy tells me my story and I am able to say, yes that is my story.” (p.4)

The problem seemed to be that he had never listened to the story of Christian soldiers closely enough to recognize the harm his words and deeds caused a federally protected population. Maybe he didn’t know enough Christian soldiers whose experience challenged his own pre-determined absolute pacifism (or, worse, he did know them and was just unrepentant).

Rather than hear my story, he rationalized his “murderer” comment by saying he had referred specifically to Nixon, and not other presidents generically, therefore (in his mind), the words he chose were carefully selected and justified. True to character, of being “without apology,” pacifism’s poster theologian refused the requisite humility to hear the pain he’d caused me or any other Christian soldier, past or present. At least this explains the absurdly thin defense he makes of his celebrity (which he acknowledges “is a form of secular power”); he doesn’t try to be humble because he doesn’t “think you can try to be humble.” (p.ix, emphasis added)

Listening to him pontificate in the busy gym (staring at the same detached eyes you see in the featured image above), I cried rather openly, only the second time in my life. It was dawning on me that, whether the comment was intentionally derogatory or not, he didn’t give a shit. It was also setting in that this was the best American theology could do about the complex reality of armed service. I was fucked, and I was seeing the long, isolated road before me if I was going to pull my community out of the nose dive that theologians like him had propelled us into.

He was tonedeaf to the his rhetorical belligerence despite my suggestion that maybe God made him the “Stanley Hauerwas” he so abhors; that such a divine calling carried with it added liability to represent those values which Christians hold in common. Although he acknowledged the likelihood of providential bestowal of his notoriety, he characteristically made no apologies for his celebrity, disclaiming any responsibility such a calling might include.

When I pressed him to any kind of critical self-assessment, he deflected, insisting I “leave [him] alone” because he was old and tired. He didn’t want to be held to the typical scholarly standards. Hell, he didn’t even want to be held to Christian standards. In 2006, he wrote in his commentary on the gospel of Matthew (p.90, on chapter 7, the one about judging others);

The temptation to separate the truth of what we believe from our lives is the result of our fear of being held accountable.

His words seemed self-fulfilling; one of his tactics for avoiding mutual accountability was to ask me “Who are you to judge me?” I answered in the only way I knew how, influenced as I was by his own high ecclesiology; ‘I am a member by baptism of the same holy, catholic, and apostolic church to which you belong.’

What frustrated me the most was that he didn’t understand (or care) that I too was tired, but not old. I was tired of treatment by pacifists mimicking his harmful methodology, tired of having to do theology in an ideological vacuum,  and tired of having to correct his missteps. When another student veteran wrote a poem that seemed to address the very same rhetorical belligerence to which I was objecting (see my comments in that post), the Best passed the buck to me, another tuition-paying student. The student veteran and pastor had written to the Best to say he had “noticed that very few people at Duke, neither students nor faculty, know what to do with veterans.  I am approached often by students wondering how to minister to combat vets.”

Instead of hearing this as, say, an invitation to think more deeply about how his thirty years of contributing to the environment this veteran described, he passed the buck, CCing me and telling the guy to be in touch.

It wasn’t even clear the poem had been read at all closely; he assumed “the problem” was this veteran, but that makes no sense. “Problem” occurs twice in the poem, it is “you” (You theologian, You civilian Christian, You pastor) who looks at your difference from me (Me veteran) as a problem. A few lines later, it’s made explicit; “My difference is not a problem.” The problem is theologians; the problem is partisan ideology driving an absolutist theology that hurts people; the problem is Christians mistaking celebrity for credibility. The problem is that nobody wants to listen to veterans, we want to push them to the margins of our community, because what they have to say is often self-indicting, and we don’t want to be held accountable.

The problem is that we all want to separate our lives from the truth of what we believe.

I have been silently picking up the pot shards left by this bull-in-the-china-shop for half a decade after coming to North Carolina, as has this student veteran, who described to the Best the same peer support I find myself doing. Because I feel called by God to this marginalized community, I continue to catch veterans falling through cracks like these, created by centuries of shit theology and reinforced by self-professed assholes (p.9, fn20).

In Scotland, I was taught that theology has always been a communal activity, which means all Christians are indicted by the epidemic of soldier suicide, not just famous theologians. None of us can be silent, and none of us can slough off the moral responsibility we share toward one another as fellow members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

2 thoughts on “Good (Lent 2017)

  1. Just for clarification.. you are upset with him because he sees military service as something negative from a Christian perspective? The pacifism notion is something you disagree upon? Or is it more the terminology used and the effects of this on the military community? I’m just trying to understand better where you’re coming from.

    • “Upset” never dawned on me, I’m not sure that’s a moral category. I consider myself a pacifist, but not an absolutist; my pacifism is derivative, not determinative. My baptism makes me a Christian, it does not make me a pacifist. My concern is that being a pacifist has become more important to many Christians than being like Christ. Furthermore, I think taking virtue ethics is a means to many theologians, and they cannot or will not actually take it to its logical end. I think there are virtues that the military has preserved that the church has failed to, and I think those virtues have more to do with dying than killing. But maybe the most direct answer to your question, of what about his work is damaging is his disregard for the actual effect of his words. What he says creates shame for military communities (shame is not the same as guilt), shame which is unwarranted. He, like most civilian intellectuals, fail to see and moral distinction other than soldier/civilian, but this is incredibly simplistic and based on stereotypes and caricatures. It does not reflect the expectations of an accomplished scholar.

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