Bro (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

I have silently allowed myself to be written out of the tribe which calls itself ‘nonviolent activist,’ passively acquiescing to the false idea that what I do is not nonviolent enough or is not activist-y enough. When I found out, I kept it inside, maybe because I had doubts myself about whether I was ‘enough’ to hang with Christian celebrities I had once looked up to. After all, if combat taught me one thing, it was to doubt myself…

In 2014, I was in Scotland for the centennial of the outbreak of WWI. I also went there to get an M.Litt, but that’s another story. From the feast of All Saints on November 1st to Veterans Day ten days later, I blogged #TenSaintsTenDays. I messaged a number of folks involved in discussions about armed service and Christian faith, to see if they’d be willing to help generate buzz on social media and hopefully elevate the conversation about God and country.

One Christian celebrity, who had made a name for himself talking about peacemaking, revealed his distrust of the canon of soldier saints from which I was drawing. In particular, he was worried his Tweeple would “push back” if he challenged their (his?) “black and white” notions about the military. Here is what he had to say;

As our exchange advanced, I noticed that he took the effort of going back in my blog archive to locate a soldier saint, Maximilian of Tebessa, who easily validated his brand of absolute pacifism. As wonderful as Max is, he wasn’t in my #TenSaintsTenDays series, meaning the self-styled peacemaker went out of his way to instrumentalize the story of Christian soldiers so that it said something that didn’t bother him or his bros (and preserved their preconceived notions about soldiers and veterans). The selectivity displayed makes clear that it wasn’t soldier saints per se that bothered this person, but only those which “challenged” him or left open the possibility of there being “merit” to the just war tradition.

I didn’t read too closely into all this until the last nugget of awesomeness in the above image, when he makes a hard and fast distinction between myself and all the “nonviolent activists” like him. When I called him out for his use of an “us” that was exclusive of me, he sent me string of declarative commands, concluded by “forgive me.” He made sure to throw in a few more “bro” references in there for good measure.

This was just the first time I realized I was getting written out of ‘nonviolent activist’ progressive Christian circles. In other ways, my work had already been erased or exploited by far more powerful institutions and people, like when another Christian celebrity went on all the major news shows during the 2012 election season with his conservative counterpart telling American Christians what issues should shape their vote. Nowhere in numerous appearances did the words “war” or “veterans” leave his mouth.

When I voiced my frustration privately to this person’s employees, citing a face to face conversation with him just six months prior, I was rebuffed. In the exchange, I submitted a blog, which was later published on another website, which was rejected “because of its criticism, which was not felt to be just given his track record and personal, quite public commitment to veterans’ welfare.” When asked for evidence of this commitment, the web editor offered none. I wrote dozens of blogs on veterans for their website, without pay, but I never saw one written by the man in charge.

One of the same editors I had worked with/for was prominently featured in a recent conference in Rome that sought to write out any reference to the just war tradition, a conference that notably lacked any contrasting voices. Cuz, you know, who wants to have engage in intellectually rigorous debate about the merits of just war? When I confronted her by email about “silencing or glossing over the reality of war, in which those who fight are written out of any discussions of peace,” she never responded.

Screenshot 2017-03-13 00.09.14My silence has allowed this kind of treatment to go without substantial challenge because the only person who sees it is me and those who may be indicted by their complicity in bias, discrimination, and other injustices. I am repenting of silently letting these hurtful words and actions remain behind a veil of ignorance, one which protects Christians harming people to whom I am called by God as an advocate.

Best (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

I have been silent about what I see when I see this face, the face of 2001’s “best theologian,” according to TIME Magazine. This is a face of anti-military bias in the church, maybe THE face, being perhaps the most influential. The same shot was used for a 2015 book about his retirement, and I used it for a Twitter account that I curated for several years. In the picture, he is laughing at the expense of veterans. I know because it was me behind the camera, interviewing him.

The interview was filmed for an event I helped organize, and his was one of six we did. His laughter came more readily the longer the interview went, and it went so long that most lines didn’t make the cut. You can read an unedited transcript here, the line in question being

The people that most need to lament are usually the people that think they can celebrate Veterans Day without sadness… My hunch is, if you do a study of the people who are so gung-ho from having been in the military to wanting to show how important it is at Veterans Day, that they put on their little hats and all that, I’ll bet you that so many of them never killed anyone!

I remember laughing with him, but in the video footage I don’t hear myself, I only hear him; he was not laughing with veterans, or even a veteran, but at them, at me. I didn’t recognize it until much later. I feel I owe other Christian soldiers and veterans an apology for laughter I remember, but for which no evidence exists… or perhaps for being compliant with his belligerent methodology for half a decade or so.

For a long time I endorsed and tacitly approved of the Best theologian, for much of his work is indeed very good, maybe even “best.” But words always accompany action, and his actions have spoken against his words on many occasions. I’ll get to his actions shortly, but his words here are significant.

However pacifistic he may be, he still sees killing as meritocratic – to wear the “little hat,” you are supposed to have killed, which earns you the right to be “gung-ho,” which also means you are most in need of lamenting, for you celebrate without sadness. More importantly, to my point at least, is that “little” here is pejorative; it is meant to condescend, to assert a (moral) superiority over those who “put on their little hats and all that.”

I should have recognized the signs of self-righteousness when I saw them, but I continued to work within the systems of power and privilege in which I was embedded. It was in large part because of his work that I allowed the Christian tradition to make moral claims on my life. For refusing to carry a weapon as a Christian, I faced 1) the brig if the process failed and I was forced to witness to Christian convictions, 2) profound vulnerability on the battlefield if I succeeded, and 3) excommunication from the most meaningful moral community I’d known no matter how it all turned out. His work has had a significant effect not just on many veterans, but on the church in America as a whole. Awe sometimes blinds you to otherwise obvious blemishes…

For years, I took his claims and writings more seriously than he did, for he seems to allow no moral claims to be made upon his life by our shared tradition. This will be shown in other posts, later. Suffice it to say that he consistently acted in ways that contradicted his theology and basic Christian convictions about truthfulness. In one instance, I sat in on a lunchtime gathering in which he said aging scholars should gracefully retire in order to make room for emerging talent, but Aberdeen’s announcement that they would be bringing him to Scotland for two weeks each semester had all the rhetorical trappings of a modern day meat market; “The appointment confirms the world-class stature of our Divinity department and the strength of our ambitions.”

When I was organizing the conference mentioned above, he declined an opportunity to appear in person at his own institution, on a topic about which he had profited from writing, organized for a (federally protected) population that his work affected. Confronting him about the immunity from criticism his convenient absence reinforced, I gullibly listened to his defense, that as proof of his efforts to stimulate conversation, he had ‘gotten the Society [of Christian Ethics] to talk about war’ for the first time since 9/11. It turned out that, as president, he simply chose the theme for the year, which implies only the work of getting elected by his peers.

Because a prerequisite for membership in the society is being a PhD student, I thought he was doing me a favor by advocating for me to be allowed to attend the annual conference to society administrators. But it turns out anyone can attend if they pay the registration fee. What they cannot do, unless they are members, is submit papers or write for the journal, where innumerable conversations about war and military service occur, but from which I was barred in participating unless and until I too became a doctoral student. These scholarly debates shape ministers but they are dangerously abstracted from lived reality, though they are par for the course in academic theology. I watched for years as debates raged in the pages of publications from which I was effectively barred admission.

Give even cursory attention to the marginalization of soldiers and veterans in Church intelligentsia and you’ll notice that men and women who “put on their little hats and all that” are conspicuously absent from the tenured professorships at seminaries and Christian colleges. I know from my experience and that of others that a contributing factor is the shame that abstract, morally derogatory assumptions impart upon Christian soldiers, which has made higher education a hostile environment for the last three generations of veterans. Those who do take up the mantle of intellectual Christian service are expected to adhere to typically homogenous ideological preconceptions; conservatives mustn’t speak of the morally transgressive elements of military service while progressives are expected to self-flagellate ad infinitum in penance for the same. Both camps flatten the military to one monolithic, homogenous moral substance; the military is itself entirely good or entirely bad; there is no middle ground.

Screenshot 2017-03-12 12.33.51

TIME Magazine article for “America’s Best” series, six days after 9/11

It will require a separate post to unpack the context around a 2014 panel in which I finally lost hope that the Best might finally represent the assessment of an article written by a woman and former friend he would go on to alienate using the same rhetorical belligerence to which so many of his disciples are attracted. There is no excuse for a bull in the china shop when it is already littered with potshards, fragments of lives scattered along a moral landscape that reduces soldiers to caricatures and their human value to mere referent objects.

As long as stories like mine are kept in the dark, the more likely it is that others like me will be shamed for refusing to be stereotyped. I am giving up my silent complicity in anti-military bias and discrimination because I cannot ask other Chrisian soldiers and veterans to confront injustice or bad theology if I’m not willing to do so myself. The military is a moral community and I’d be lying if I affirmed the simplistic reductionism inherent in ecclesiastical discourse.

As for the veteran organization known for the “little hats” I suspect he referenced, I’m neither a member, nor a big fan. But when a veteran with the same time in service as me was left to rot in the local VA medical center parking garage for FIVE FUCKING DAYS after succumbing to military related shame and alienation, it was those same “gung ho” veterans that hosted his funeral. They probably wore those little hats, too.

Dogfood (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

For a long time I kept quiet about my experiences as a veteran because I thought I had something to loose. I was afraid of burning bridges, but the fact is that you don’t fall as fast or as far as I do unless there was never a bridge in the first place. As an ambitious and career-minded person, I was afraid that standing up too much meant I’d loose what little social clout I had, which I needed to ‘succeed.’ In a dog eat dog world, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you or you’ll get slapped down.

That was the sentiment of another veteran when he heard I filed a formal complaint against Duke, who shared my concern about “hurt[ing] the veteran community” but who seemed more concerned about “tarnishing the university’s perception of veterans.” Here is his Facebook post to Duke veterans, which was later deleted by a group moderator;

Screenshot 2017-03-11 21.28.32This veteran’s privation from the difficulties of other veterans (“I have never experienced discrimination, nor have any veterans I personally know experienced discrimination”) causes him to doubt, and even attempt to discredit, the claims of another veteran who has not had as good an experience.

What if we applied this same standard to other protected populations; what if claims of mistreatment were only legitimate if every other person of said population could attest thereto? Rather it seems that this veteran has the privilege of not having had to face hardships in the way others like him have, and we might wonder what about this veteran’s social location has afforded him the luxury of a morally spotless experience.

Screenshot 2017-03-11 22.20.43But what troubles me most is inherent in the social equation he references, that veterans must maintain a high “perception” of themselves by powerful institutions like Duke. It is not clear to me that students owe anything to Duke other than the tuition they pay, or how veterans owe any more service than that which they’ve already given. What seems more reasonable is that Duke owes students something, and/or veterans something, not the other way around.

The whole “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” line is not a morally neutral metaphor. It makes of the subject being fed a starving animal; only starvation so overwhelms a creature that it might hurt another. I know because we had to euthanize the starving dogs at our Forward Operating Base in Tuz Kharmatu, just north of Tikrit, after one of them bit an infantryman on their way to chow.

The metaphor also falsely valorizes the hand, a hand which accepts no moral criticisms, for clearly it must be benevolent if it is filled with food. But the hand that slaps is not benevolent. Any hand feared, so much that even the mere appearance of flawed perception is a whispered warning among a federally protected population, is no hand of friendship. It is the hand of a master, the hand of a status quo with everything to lose, so it slaps. Or it recedes, taking with it the promise of easy sustenance.

I am giving up silence for lent because I can’t ask other veterans to speak up and risk being ostracized if I won’t take the risk myself. As a noncommissioned officer, I lived by a code, a code which insisted that I never leave anyone behind more hurt than me and that I never ask others to do what I haven’t already done myself.

Until Easter, I will continue to break the silence I’ve held, and the silence that is kept by others, a silence that protects unjust power systems. If one suicide a day is too many, then one veteran being harmed is too many. If just one veteran is suffering because of injustice, then the tide needs to rise and float all boats; it won’t be enough that some veterans take for granted the privilege of a dignified and unremarkable transition to civilian life, not when each and every one of us deserves that same privilege.

Lent 1, Year A (2017)

Lent is a season that marks time as the church processes toward Good Friday. Christians give up luxuries and fast for forty days as a means of mourning and repentance. Historically, Lent has been a period of painful reflection for me, and it was in this season that I wrote “Holy Fuck: Homily Left Without Deliverance” as well as a sermon focusing on the military significance of Naphtali and Zebulun; “Those Treading in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light.”

One year, as an undergrad taking Arabic, I gave up speaking during the daylight hours in order to better appreciate the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, a month-long fast that begins at sunrise and ends at sundown. Being silent, especially as a white, heteronormative cis-male, was instructive. Sometimes people like me need to be quiet.

But sometimes silence is a luxury. Sometimes, silence is a betrayal.

In the past couple of years, my advocacy for veterans, as a veteran, has exposed me to a troubling underbelly of culture, both American and Christian; I have been vilified by pacifists and venerated by patriots, but in each instance I am made anything but human. So this year for lent, I am giving up silence. I will be sharing the painful experiences I have had as a veteran speaking up for veterans. I won’t be silent anymore, because I can’t ask other veterans to speak up if I am not willing to take that risk myself. I am not willing to protect harmful institutions or passively participate in unjust power structures.

I’ll start lent by sharing my experience as a Duke veteran, which I’ve disclosed some of here, here, and here. But the PDF linked is the undiluted version, which I’ve shared with the individuals named therein, and who have denied ecclesiastical recourse. I may blog about the context in the future, namely the federal investigation that is currently underway, but for the moment, I need to repent of my own silent complicity.

May the kingdom of God be ever nearer.