Part II – Jeremiah, Why Do You Weep?

The following is the second half of an invited presentation I gave at University UMC in Chapel Hill for “Table Talk; Pastor-Led Conversations for Youth and Adults.” I was invited to speak on Jeremiah by Mitzi Johnson, Pastor of Spiritual Formation, for the 2016 series “Scandal, Politics, Thrills, and Love in the Prophets.” I halved it for length; be sure to read Part I here


Now that we know a little bit more about who Jeremiah is, let’s talk about his vocation and consider if what “the weeping prophet” wrote thousands of years ago is relevant for us today.

The prophetic vocation, it seems, is often one of agony, of soul piercing grief. Nothing makes this clearer than Jeremiah’s most neglected scriptural contribution; the book of Lamentations. Its five “chapters” are actually poems, each bubbling up from Jeremiah’s broken heart in response to witnessing the destruction of his beloved city;  My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in griefhe cries. The reason for Jeremiah’s grief must surely have to do with the love he had for his own idolatrous, unfaithful friends but also the realization that not even God’s own dwelling place was safe from divine wrath.

The city and its temple was leveled in 587 BCE by the Babylonians, an event which also marked the end of what Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel calls “the classical era in the history of prophecy.” (The Prophets, xxiii) This single event would have been the end of all hope for the people Israel, the final undoing of all that God had accomplished for them in rescuing them from bondage in Egypt, sustaining them in the Sinai wilderness, and bringing them finally into the promised land of abundance. On that fateful day 26 centuries ago, all meaning and purpose would have been utterly destroyed. The very universe shook as the walls of Solomon’s Temple tumbled to the ground. Contrary to Walter Brueggeman’s claim that all prophetic activity balances cynicism with hope, Lamentations concludes with unrestrained despair;

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lam 5:21-22)

I wondered why I was asked to speak on this particular day, on this particular prophet. After some thought, I realized Jeremiah is the first Major Prophet to be discussed at Table Talk and prophesy ends with him, so… this ends the series, have a great rest of your Sunday!

It may have been coincidence to have me speak the day before we remember our own nation’s birth. It may have been coincidence that the youth director’s partner is also a veteran of the war in Iraq, who has witnessed, no, carried out what Clausewitz calls “the continuation of policy by other means.” But I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe in God, no matter how self-indicting that belief may be for me as one who dutifully eviscerated our enemies when I was called to embrace them.

For fourteen months I wandered the wilderness as an artilleryman attached to 1st-14th Infantry Regiment. I left for Iraq in January 2004 thinking I was a good person. But one night ten months later, my faith in myself was destroyed as everything I thought I knew about myself, about the moral universe, was up-ended.

His name was Daniel McConnell, and I learned later that he had two daughters back home in Duluth, Minnesota.  I went to war thinking my death might mean something, that dying for my country was somehow inherently virtuous. Like British poet and WWI casualty Wilfred Owen, I believed “the old lie: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori,” that it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.(Owen, Dulce et decorum est, line 27-28) The words were penned by the Roman poet Horace in 23 BCE, and were affixed to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery just two years after Owen exposed them as a fraud. One of the problems that Jeremiah sees as contributing to the destruction of his people is that their “prophets have seen false and deceptive visions… [they] have seen for [the people] oracles false and misleading.”

UUMC slide3.001The popular and accepted oracles were of peace and prosperity; prophets and priests alike “treated the wound of [God’s] people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there [was] no peace.” (vv. 8.11 & 6.14) Preaching truthfully when a people is under judgment, according to the second poem of Lament by Jeremiah, has the purpose of “exposing iniquity [in order] to restore fortunes.” It is a message that is almost universally rejected, for he was threatened with death (Jer 11.21-23) and put in the stocks after being publicly beaten by a temple official. (Jer 20.1-2)

SPC McConnell’s death was anything but meaningful. In fact, through his death, God showed me how far from ‘good’ I had fallen. As I surveyed the gory scene of his slow demise, my mind wandered to innumerable others from the prior eleven months, and I wondered why I hadn’t wept over so many broken and bleeding brown bodies I encountered in eleven months of combat. In 2008, I compared that moment of realization to having discovered a membership card for the KKK in my wallet, upon which I could make out the clear outlines of my own signature.

Heschel insists “the prophets are scandalized,” (Prophets, 3) they are people “sleepless and grave” (11) who have been “shattered by some cataclysmic experience.” (14) Something in them has snapped, whether it is the soothing serpentine coils of consumer satisfaction or the insulated isolationism of bomb-dropping drones thousands of miles away. I no longer wonder why I was invited here to speak today, because I believe combat veterans have something to share with our nation, something they carry back with them from the sands of Abraham’s sons and daughters, a land watered with the tears of prophets like Jeremiah and the blood of patriots like Daniel. Veterans and prophets alike are sleepless and grave. The grave is where 20 people like me will find solace today; every 72 minutes a veteran will take their own life, crushed under the unbearable weight of a story our nation often refuses hear; a story born so long ago that an entire generation has simply inherited, without challenge, targeted extrajudicial strikes in lands they’ve never known; peace prizes to our history’s most lethal president; college education hung like a carrot at the end of a rifle’s long and undiscriminating scope.

Suicide Frequency

Most, if not all, of the nearly 150 Christian veterans I have counseled in eight years, have lamented the fundamental break in the civilian populace from wars which have broken records for length, lethality, and expense. Against all reason, America continues to talk about anything but the true costs of war. Ignorance, to veterans I know, is measured in human lives, and not just red, white and blue ones. If they could change one thing, they tell me, it would be the willful ignorance of what they refer to as “the other 99%” because when less than one percent of Americans serve during the two longest wars in our nation’s history, nobody talks about it because, well, majority rules.

The prophets were also always minority reports, dispatched noisily and relentlessly from what seemed to many like the far, far away reaches of the moral galaxy. “Their breathless impatience with injustice,” Heschel reminds us, “strike us as hysteria.”

Jeremiah often performed what we might call “prophetic theater,” some of which is hard to explain. Confronting the false prophet Hannaniah, he placed a “yoke of straps and bars” over his shoulders to signify the Babylonian yoke that God would place upon the shoulders of the Israelites. They were to take the yoke willingly and serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, who was going to be God’s servant, rather than king Zedekiah of Judah. Hananiah one-upped Jeremiah by breaking the brittle wood on the ground, making him the laughingstock once more (even if the wood yoke was replaced by one of iron and God would smite Hananiah before the end of the year).

Can we imagine being told by some wack-job, wearing the burdensome mantle of livestock, telling America to serve another nation on national television? How dare the Lord shift divine favor to a nation that doesn’t even know God’s name. Wouldn’t we side with the “prophet” promising prosperity and peace who is able to handily undermine the loaded symbolism? Or what if the White House were to be levelled by foreign powers, and you were to watch? I know some Christians who might rejoice, feeling justified in their smug dismissal of every abstract noun American propaganda could throw at them. But if you love our country like I do, despite all the wretchedness and duplicity I have witnessed firsthand, what is there to do but weep?

Jeremiah RuinsWere we to have the audacity to ask Jeremiah why he weeps, sitting there on the rubble of his nation’s capital, he might glare back at us, returning the question to its rightful place; “Don’t you?”

Do YOU weep, for every black life that matters to everyone except those in uniform, those in power, and those with privilege? Do you weep, your eyes spent, your soul in tumult?

Do YOU weep, for every technicolor LGBTQ body laid low by hailstorms of hate because the living document securing our independence is being suffocated by special interests? Do you weep, your heart poured out in grief?

Do YOU weep, for every brown body felled by remotely-detonated bombs purchased with your sales tax? Do you weep at the idea that God may be utterly rejecting us, and is angry with us beyond measure?

Ignorance, by chance or by design, is one of those “oracles false and misleading” that keep from our country the healing power of “exposing iniquity.” It might seem like our country is back on the right track after eight years of falling astray following 9/11. I know it does at times for me, that the political party currently in the White House lacks a certain belligerence so prominently on display by the other. We might sympathize with Jeremiah’s predicament, of conviction in the face of what seems like progress, but, with other prophets before and since, he calls us out of ignorant bliss, out of a self-imposed moral myopia that misses the forest for the trees by cherry picking from otherwise challenging texts. Here is the continuation of that bacon grease-infused proof text with which I began our session; “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart

Toward the end of his life, Abraham Heschel reflected on marching to Selma with Martin Luther King. He remarked that, in the struggle for civil rights and for an end to all war, he was “praying with [his] feet.” With each step, he felt one heartbeat closer to God. This was no small feat for a German Jew who narrowly escaped the furnaces of Auschwitz, whose entire family was consumed by the unholy fire of patriotism. He never returned to the land of his birth, but nobody knew him as anything but the most hospitable and happy man anyone ever met. I suspect it is not that he never wept, but that his emotional scale was wider than most, that his deep sense of right and wrong helped propel him through tears to faithful action.

UUMC slide2.001 

If these two posts have felt a bit all over the emotional map, then I have succeeded in sharing with you a bit of myself. Riding war’s wake, I often stir up people who (and ideas which) otherwise may wish to remain still. In the last interview before his death, Heschel wanted to remind people that words have incredible power, power to either create or destroy. In the aftermath of 9/11, our president stood on the rubble of 3,000 lives and marched us into at least one unlawful war. “We will never forget,” our nation cried out. “United we stand,” the world responded. Did you know that, 240 years ago, the first complaint against King George III in our declaration was that he “refused to assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

Which words and lives matter to us, and which do we forget?

In the sands of Iraq, I learned that some stuff matters and other stuff doesn’t. When I came home, I would often be told to calm down, let things go, and move on. Who was Daniel McConnell to me? Who did those Iraqis that I displaced, disenfranchised, or destroyed think they were? Those questions came back to haunt me, and I thank God that they did.

Done well, prayer will break your hardened heart, one slow step at a time. When it does, give thanks to God, because lukewarm indifference is more dangerous than cold hatred. If people tell you that you feel too much, then you have taken one pace closer to the God who takes all suffering upon themselves. Heschel leave us with the most pressing question Jeremiah holds before us;

“If such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?”

Part I – Jeremiah, Why Do You Weep?

The following is the first half of an invited presentation I gave at University UMC in Chapel Hill for “Table Talk; Pastor-Led Conversations for Youth and Adults.” I was invited to speak on Jeremiah by Mitzi Johnson, Pastor of Spiritual Formation, for the 2016 series “Scandal, Politics, Thrills, and Love in the Prophets.” I halved it for length, and Part II can be read next week at this time. 


Dining at a well-known burger joint in Durham, I barely noticed an inconspicuous reference to scripture tucked away in a corner of the take away box. Tiny tokens of Christian convictions, contained in coded verse, must surely be intended for only the most Biblically literate among our number. Californians like Laura and I may be accustomed to seeing these three scripture citations adorning various In-N-Out tableware;

Inout scripture

  • John 3.16; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
  • Revelation 3.20; “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
  • Proverbs 24.16; “for though they fall seven times, they will rise again, but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.”

I wonder if cherry picking scripture like this and slapping it onto any flat surface we can find is done in the hopes that God will bless our businesses or our bottom lines. It certainly seemed like an attempt to bless our BOMBS when, in 2010, military grade optics manufacturer Trijicon was exposed for similarly inscribing any number of scriptural references onto rifle sights they were selling to the Army and Marines. As it turned out, the company affixed different verses of the bible to each product in their catalogue, most of which zeroed in on themes of light (and, by extension, darkness).

We are accustomed in America to the marriage of Church and state, we are used to seeing the confluence of God and country. So when I saw a reference to Jeremiah wrapped around my juicy burger, the only noteworthy detail was that it didn’t draw from the typical canon we’ve seen thus far. Rather than Wisdom, like Proverbs, Apocalypse, like Revelation, or some mixture of the Gospels and Epistles, my ground chuck was wrapped round with Prophetic literature. The verse in question was Jeremiah 29.11, which some of us know by heart;

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Some of us may breathe a sigh of relief at the seemingly benign adoption of a major prophet by an equally benign, and growing, foodie culture amongst our neighbors to the north. What makes me nervous is the context we lose by cherry picking scripture in order to proof text our eating habits, or our military culture, for that matter. The problem with stamping our goods and services with biblical references is that it takes the teeth out of our holy texts. What happens when fire and brimstone is drowned out with high fructose corn syrup and bacon grease? What if the assurance we take from Jeremiah’s isolated utterance is dangerously removed from the wider context within which welfare and hope is offered? Let’s look more closely at the Weeping Prophet, who he was and what mournful message inspired his tears.

jeremiah sistine chapel

As we open the book that bears his name, we learn that Jeremiah is “the Son of Hilkiah,” from Anathoth, a Levitical city in the lands belonging to the southern tribe of Benjamin. His father was High Priest during the Reign of King Josiah, one of only two kings referred to in glowing terms by the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. Josiah inherited a tumultuous political and religious landscape from his father Amon and grandfather Manasseh, both of whom had turned away from God and even retrofitted the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for worship of idols. The last time the tribes of the south had been faithful to their covenant was under the rule of Manasseh’s father Hezekiah, the only other good king of Judah. Hezekiah had watched firsthand as Sargon II of Assyria had utterly destroyed the ten tribes of the northern lands in 722 BCE. The miraculous survival of the tribes of the South (including Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon), may have contributed to Hezikiah’s contrition.

Hezekiah is venerated in scripture for resuming the practice of Passover amongst the remaining tribes, restoring the Jerusalem Temple to its former glory, destroying sites of idol worship, reforming a corrupt priesthood, and successfully resisting the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 BCE after refusing to pay tribute to the Assyrian king. His memory and successes died with him, however, as his son Manasseh and grandson Amon largely contributed to the decline of pious worship in the lands.

King Josiah’s reforms mirrored that of his great grandfather Hezekiah. In the twelfth year of his reign, Jeremiah’s father Hilkiah discovered a “Book of the Law” during renovations in the Temple. Scholars dispute exactly what this book was, but there is some consensus that its contents eventually became the book of Deuteronomy. For those without theological training, Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch (AKA the first five books of the Bible), and it retells much of what is contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Deuteronomy, then, emerged as an alternative telling of events and rules already recorded in earlier versions of what were already becoming holy texts. Reintroducing the importance of Israel’s divinely ordained history likely helped Josiah’s cause by refocusing attention on his people’s narrative trajectory.

The additional perspective this Book of the Law provided may have been something like the first three episodes of Star Wars; by reintroducing material and providing additional context for interpreting cultural history, interest in the whole storyline increased. Despite her protest earlier this year, I refused to watch Episode VII until Laura agreed to see Episodes I through VI, in that order. Even though some may complain that nothing can be as good as the original, others may question if the latest addition is ‘canon’ or not, and some may insist the developments make the whole storyline worthlessly relative, in truth the context of the story does not change so much as it expands. One way or another, the additional material draws us back in to a story we thought we knew inside and out. If Jeremiah’s generation is like our own, being given a new and unique lens on an aging storyline generates renewed brand loyalty or at least market share. After all, how many of you or your kids have Episode VII merchandise?

Context is important any time we read a text written “a long time ago in a (setting) far, far away.” The more degrees of separation between us and an original document, the more difficult it will be to interpret it reliably. Knowing a bit about the historical setting helps us appreciate how what Jeremiah said to his own audience may have something to say to us. So let’s keep digging.

heb. navi

Heb. navi

When he is called, Jeremiah shares Moses’ vocational reluctance, insisting “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” This presents a problem, since prophets are known for their words. The Hebrew word for “prophet” is a passive masculine pronoun; navi, from the root word nava; to speak. A prophet is one spoken to by God, and the word implies emptiness, or openness, a void filled by God’s word. Prophets are nothing if not spokespersons for God; the words they share do not belong to them.

Do not be afraid,” the Lord says to Jeremiah, touching him on the mouth; “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me.” The timing of his call must have been confusing, for Josiah had just begun his reforms and the people seemed in the midst of repentance. Nonetheless, through the Lord’s reluctant mouthpiece the people are asked;

What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. (Jer 2.5-7, excerpts)

Jeremiah hates his call, and, like Job, even curses the day he was born. (Jer 20:14–18, cf. Job 3:3–10) His inner struggle is palpable, and we see him vacillate between obedience to God and sympathy to people he surely knows and loves with his whole heart. Not even his own hometown is spared; when the people of Anathoth threaten to kill Jeremiah unless he stops “prophesying in the name of the Lord,” God reveals to him that “the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine; and not even a remnant shall be left of them.” True justice knows no favoritism. Prophets know that God can and does judge, no matter how innocent we might think we are.

Jeremiah might have taken solace in the fact that he was not alone. He came of age around the time Isaiah’s prophetic ministry concluded, and it’s possible they interacted. The prophets Nahum, Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah were also active at the same time as Jeremiah. The prophetess Huldah was as well, though she leaves us no known writings. She confirmed for Jeremiah’s father Hilkiah that the Book of the Law was from the Lord. According to Huldah, the Lord declared judgment; “disaster on this place and on its inhabitants.” The king would be spared from seeing God’s wrath because he had torn his clothes in grief at hearing the solemn news. This put Jeremiah in an odd place; his call was to preach destruction to the very generation that was in the process of repenting. This may have something to do with those words we may be more familiar with, of God telling Jeremiah

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1.5)

Before the king tore his clothes, before his people turned briefly from their idolatrous ways, God anticipated the need for Jeremiah’s menacing ministry. The significant context here is not culture, but God’s call, rumbling up from a covenant that the people ignored and debased under two prior administrations.

Josiah’s reforms would not be enough to spare the people from eventual desolation.  Rather than getting it over with, God had Jeremiah prophesy through the reigns of five kings until 587 BCE, when the Babylonians finally accomplished in Judah what the Assyrians could not; complete and utter destruction of Solomon’s temple and the relocation of the remaining Israelite tribes. Throughout the time of his ministry, God forbade him those things that normally bring people joy, like attending weddings or feasts, having children,or even being “in the company of merrymakers.” The tragic climax of his ministry, if we must call it that, is of witnessing the destruction of Jerusalem, the holy city and the supposed dwelling place of God.

We get some of this historical and political context in the book of Kings, which is so long it took up two scrolls. Authorship of Kings is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, and scholars generally agree that it was first composed the same time Jeremiah was alive and active, even if it was not the prophet himself who put quill to papyrus. It is the length of Kings and Jeremiah that make Jeremiah a “major prophet.” But to answer the question of why he weeps, we will turn in a moment to his most heart breaking contribution to scripture; the book of Lamentations.

UUMC slide.001

Notre Dame Summer Scholars 2013

**The below is the transcript for a talk I gave on the subject of critical thinking for Notre Dame’s Pre-College programing, called “Summer Scholars,” before 250+ (predominantly Catholic) high school aged men and women considering higher education, given July 4th, 2013. 

I was eight months into being 18 years old in 2000, and had just stepped off the bus at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, ready to start nine weeks of grueling training to prepare me for military service. I was the last buzz-headed enlistee to step off the vehicle, so I turned to shut the door. A drill sergeant yelled at me from the tarmac to get moving, so I instinctively turned to reply, timidly, “Drill Sergeant, I just thought…”

“Y’aint paid to think, private!” he screamed. The drill sergeant seemed to know what he was talking about, so I took him at his word. Or so I thought.

Shoot, there I went again, thinking. I’d have to work on that.

It was my first week of basic combat training, better known as Boot Camp to civilians, so named for the footwear to which you are required to quickly acclimate. Failing, you’d have to learn quick how moleskin worked.

No, not the notebook you see people in Starbucks with, but rather the adhesive-backed felt pads that you buy at drugstores to treat or prevent blisters on your feet. I thought ahead though, and brought several packs of it, in case… crap! There I went again, thinking.

I thought I’d had practice in not-thinking. I hadn’t thought much about enlisting seven months before, not long before my high school graduation. Sensing, like you, that college was my next step in life, I had attended a weapons system exhibition at the casual invitation of my best friend, Ryan. He had signed up for the Army Reserves, and the exhibition was being held at the place where his monthly drill occurred. His older brother, a guy we looked up to, had matriculated at Tulane University in New Orleans on a full ROTC scholarship, and would later go on to fly helicopters.

It was peacetime, so I didn’t have to think too deeply about military service. Do two years, get out, and use my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. It was simple. Or so I thought.

At the processing station in Los Angeles, I was asked if I wanted to attend airborne training and jump out of airplanes as a paratrooper with the 82nd Division out of Ft. Bragg, NC. I shrugged my approval. The $150 extra per month was a no-brainer. I was young, dumb, and full of… ambition.


Five and a half short years later, I had a combat deployment to Iraq under my belt and the whole not-thinking thing wasn’t doing me any favors. Reflection forced itself upon me, sometimes in the middle of the night. I’d awake in a cold sweat, heart racing, images of battle buddies’ mangled limbs and severed body parts seared into my brain. All the money in the world couldn’t keep me from thinking then.

All the training the American taxpayers had funded on my behalf did little to prepare me for the stark and brutal reality of modern warfare. Little did I know that after WWII, combat training had begun focusing on desensitizing soldiers’ moral conscience. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the official military historian of the second world war, had found that the rate of fire among frontline soldiers in WWII was less than one in every four infantrymen. That meant that only one trooper in a four-man team actually shot at the enemy. The rest fired over their heads or had to be commanded, in person, by their superior officer. General Marshall saw this as a problem and sold it to the military that way. Never did he stop to ask why our firing rate had to increase after a war that we had overwhelmingly won… But I don’t want to slip and start thinking again…

So starting in the 50’s, the military moved away from simple marksmanship drills toward realistic combat scenarios in which trainees were taught, basically, to shoot first and ask questions later. The name that the effect of this training took was “reflexive fire,” for it encouraged not reflecting upon the unique situation in which an infantryman might find him (and now her)self, but on pure instinct. Targets that presented themselves on the firing range were ALL supposed to be “put down.” Psychologists have a name for this kind of goal-oriented training; they call it “operant conditioning.” Personal reflexes are trained to shoot as quickly and as accurately as possible, without engaging one’s moral conscience. This “reflexive fire” is rewarded by things like expert marksmanship awards.

Accuracy is not measured on the range, at least not precisely. If the one foot by 3 foot cardboard silhouette goes down, it counts. When a human-shaped silhouette appeared, you fired, regardless of their status. The more I killed, or, as I was trained to say, “engaged,” the more likely I was to earn my expert marksman badge and therefore more likely get promoted above my peers. After all, the targets were silhouettes, who knew if they were civilians or enemy? Who had time to ask, my stomach is growling and I just heard the chow truck pull up.

So it went with my fellow soldiers and me. Uniformed and uninformed we proceeded, like wind-up toys, on to war.


It sometimes happens similarly in the Church in reference to war. We read the Catechism and swallow theology hook, line, and sinker. Elaborate and thoughtful theology is the job of people either trained or ordained, like priests or seminary professors, right? The place of the laity, isn’t to think, we might ironically think. We learn that at some time long ago, someone smarter (and probably holier or higher paid) than us already thought about war and violence as it relates to theology and determined that a “just” war is one in which

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain,
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective,
  • There must be serious prospects of success, AND
  • The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition[1]

The moral consciences of Roman Catholics in regards to war are formed around these four principles. One of my subordinate soldiers knew them almost verbatim. This young, devout catholic who had considered the priesthood before enlisting, would eventually lament to me that he did not feel prepared theologically or mentally, to go to combat. Just war doctrine, for all its moral authority, did not, and could not prepare him or me to go to the hell that is modern war. He knew by proactively reflecting on the demands of our faith (by thinking critically), I on the other hand, knew only by experience. Before I had deployed, I don’t recall having any idea what the rich tradition that is just war was about. My faith was not as deeply rooted as his, not nearly as identity-constituting. After all, I was not catholic.

Moral formation for war must be something that seeps down to our deepest sense of self. We must truly believe that we are capable of war in order to conduct them justly. But to know what we are capable of, we need trusted guides, just men and women who have journeyed ahead and can reflect with authority upon the ultimate demands of war on the human soul and psyche. What we have in their stead is The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan,  Band of Brothers, Battleship, or Pearl Harbor, and I for one do not trust these guides. Movies like these treat their viewers like children, as though war is something to be admired. But to go to war requires men and women, not boys and girls. If war is something like hell, the image of Jesus harrowing hell could not be adapted into a children’s book… Taking war and warriors seriously requires solemnity, true strength of character, and a firm resolve to come all the way home from the battlefield – not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.

Coming all the way home is never easy and rarely accomplished without staggering complications. The best of my number, of war-wearied veterans, always bring a bit of hell back with them. Their stories make us wince in their striking obscenity and visceral honesty. They cannot sugar coat their experiences without tarnishing the integrity of their friends who did not make it home.

I trust those who have been there, like Medal of Honor recipients Alvin York or Audie Murphy, each of whom wrote first hand accounts of their service. York initially applied to be a conscientious objector and went on to effect the surrender of over 130 German soldiers in France in WWI. When he came home, he shunned public attention and on his deathbed many years later, asked his son if God would forgive him for having to kill the 28 Germans who refused to come peacefully.

Murphy, who saved his unit from being overrun by jumping on a burning tank in order to use its large caliber machine gun, described his service in his autobiography, To Hell and Back, as a “brand.” …like one he would have given his cattle as a boy on his Texas ranch …or one that God left with our forefather Cain. Murphy writes “When I was a child, I was told men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency?”

Now hear Cain, who cries out in Genesis 4, “My punishment is too great! I have been driven away, and from God’s face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”[2]

Do you hear them call out in one voice? Men separated by millennia but who share the common bond of having taken lives that God had created. Lest you think these are isolated or strictly historical accounts, a Vietnam Veteran I’ve worked with, Camilo Bica, crafted the following poem, based on his tour as a Marine Captain;

I fear I am no longer alien to this horror
I am, I am, I am the horror!
I have lost my humanity
And have embraced the insanity of war
The monster and I are one
The blood of innocents forever stains my soul!
The transformation is complete,
And I can never return.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

Moral conscience, which the catechism explores in Paragraphs 1776-1802, requires deliberate and at times intense formation in order to withstand the moral beating it receives in combat. Your will is tested to its limits, and if all you have to rely on is operant conditioning and reflexive training, if you shoot first and ask questions later, the thinking will catch up to you, as it did me. But temptation is a universal fact for Christians, perhaps you too have been tested. Maybe you gave in because you temporarily forgot who and whose you truly are; you took that drink, you puffed that smoke, you told that little lie. You and I are alike in our mistakes, but we are also alike in our baptism. For in war, or under any temptation, if you do not have a strong sense of self in place already, if you do not know how Christians, or even people of goodwill, respond in times of crisis, you will be lost. Your identity will fragment.

In war, the intensity of moral challenges you face will leave you scarred. Decisions that will remain with you for a lifetime must be made in split seconds. When your training insists, over and over again, that in convoys any delay will increase the chance that an enemy will take the opportunity to exploit the situation to your disadvantage, you learn that you never stop, no matter what. Lives depend on it, and not just yours. Then, when a child chases a ball in front of your two thousand pound Humvee, you’ll have less time to react than it took for me to read that sentence to you… and a lifetime to reflect on it later.

Trust me, when that time comes, your body and mind will react on instinct, not intellect, on habit, not on heart. The habits you have formed, or that have formed you, will take over. If those habits have been “kill, kill kill!”, as any and every young enlisted private who endures boot camp likely are, you will fail your conscience. Military training will fail you because war is hell and it has no coordinates. Another Marine Captain, Tyler Boudreau, a veteran of Iraq like me, reflects

Hell aint got no coordinates. You cant find it on the charts because there are no charts. Hell is no place at all [he’s beginning to sound a bit like Augustine, the doctor of the Church, who insisted that evil is actually a non-thing], so when you’re there, you’re nowhere – you’re lost. The narrative, that’s your chart, your own story. There are guys who come home from war and live fifty years without a narrative, fifty years lost.

Cain echoes on the breath of his spiritual progeny, wondering and wandering, never certain what the future holds, or if it will hold at all. Their sails are limp and they’re taking on water, unsure if they will survive the dark night and the abyss.


The naves of early churches were deliberately shaped like capsized ships, sailing this upside down world together as a people of the right-side up Kingdom. Never quite at home in the nations of the world but never without our God, the cross is our mast and we wander wonderfully as one people, one Body of Christ. Soldiers’ moral pain is no different than the anguish we all feel when we fail to be the people we were made to be. If we are one, it means that soldiers are not alone, that they were never alone. In mass, when we re-member the Body of Christ, we witness to this very unity – many bodies come to the table and are made one Body. We remember those among us who are broken and in need of the unifying love of God. Church is the place we go to continually be put back together, and it is our duty as Christians to concern ourselves with the moral and social plight of soldiers and veterans.

The Latin word conscientias, from which we derive the word conscience, means “mutual awareness,” to be “with knowledge.” We learn to be who we are by modeling the behavior of those we trust. Our earliest moral authorities are our parents, and if we are baptized as infants and attend mass regularly, our parish forms another strong moral authority upon which to learn what it means to be a person of goodwill and to follow Christ. The habits we gain in Church are not for the purpose of just memorizing creeds, but to learn and internalize the church’s moral teachings.

Imagine for a moment that you grew up under less than ideal circumstances, or that you did not have strong parental figures in your life to teach you who and whose you are. It is disproportionately poor families and communities who contribute to the local recruitment quotas. Having to develop personally under such circumstances leaves many a good person with inadequate moral formation, with less than they need to face war and return in one moral or spiritual piece.

They may not have the knowledge of their goodness upon which to fall back when they choose the lives of their friends over the life of that child who stepped in front of their Humvee. They may believe the voices in the back of the minds that tell them they are horrible monsters and do not deserve to live. War leaves everyone who enters it with an indelible stamp. Every person who enters hell is changed, none return completely unscathed. Even Jesus brought his scars back with him…

It is no coincidence that Augustine never spoke of war in formulaic terms, as we do now. Instead, he received letters from military personnel like Boniface and Marcellus, who wrestled with what it meant that they were Christians who had blood on their hands. With Cain, they cried out to a trusted theologian, a pastor, “our burden is too great to bear!” The saint from Hippo responded by reasoning with them, by thinking alongside them how their actions might be justified. But he also knew to never call what they did “good.” The doctor of the church encouraged Christian soldiers to repent and seek reconciliation with and from the catholic church. For centuries following his early teaching, during even the most reprehensible crusades, parishes would require that warriors refrain from taking the Eucharist for various periods of time, determined by their moral proximity to death and destruction that war carries with it. After all, even Cain’s cry was heard, and God’s mark upon him was not for punishment or shame, but protection. His curse to wander lasts less then five verses, as he settles in Nod and takes a companion to help guide him on the journey all the way home from the death he had caused.

The Church needs to reconsider the centuries old debate about war that abstracts it from the lived experience of those we have sent thereto. War forces those who enter it to confront ultimate concerns of life and death and everything thereafter. If they have not already given critical thought to who they are and why they act the way they do (and don’t), war will make them decide in the heat of the moment. All the superficial concerns of the world come crashing down when you hear the zipper-sound of that first bullet racing by your eardrum.

I know because it happened to me. It was eleven months into my deployment, and we were assisting in a rescue effort at a crash site in northern Iraq, not far from the city to which Jonah fled the call of God. The temperature was a chilling 50 degrees when a Humvee full of soldiers flipped over a ravine, throwing men and equipment into a small reservoir. Over the course of many hours in the dead of night, we worked to free a small number of fellow soldiers from the wreckage. One soldier’s leg was twisted obscenely out of place, caught between the cold metal of the wreckage and the brittle concrete of the reservoir barrier. With the help of morphine, he was slipping past shock to disorientation, alternating between screaming agony and whispering sweet nothings to a wife thousands of miles away. Beside him, another young man lay unconscious and without a strong pulse, being ushered quickly to death, soon to make orphans of his two young daughters. Our efforts did not help him and he became one of the 4,804 American fatalities of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died, like so many others, in the land of our forefather Abraham of Ur, just East of Eden where Abel’s blood cried out from the land between the two rivers. His death was not like the ones I had watched in movies or on television; it was purposeless and unnecessary.

Another Christian soldier and Iraq veteran, Kevin Benderman, remembers his tour in similar terms;

My father, who fought in WWII, tried to tell me, “War is not as glamorous as they make it out to be.” But I was too stubborn and bull-headed to listen. When you’re young, you want to get all that experience for yourself… and boy, I asked for it.

I saw more than I ever wanted to see… you see how war affects civilians in the area. Every house you look at has bomb craters or bullet holes in it…

[I found out] we were in the area of Iraq that was supposed to be the Garden of Eden, the cradle of civilization where mankind began. I had to ask myself, “Why am I carrying around an M-16 in the Garden of Eden?”

In the days and weeks following our failed rescue attempt, I questioned who I was that I had watched and was affected by this young man’s death, but not by the countless others I witnessed in the ten months prior. Who had I become? I thought I was a Christian (or at least a good man), discriminate in my fire and compassionate in my demeanor. But I had wept only for those with whom I identified; the American military was my community, not the church universal. I had not loved my enemy as myself, I had cursed and not blessed those that had caused me harm. I had placed my country before my faith, and I had failed to see it until it was too late.  I wanted to believe I was a person of goodwill, I thought that I was a Christian, but war had proven me wrong, it had exposed my hypocrisy. It would take many years, innumerable tears, and immeasurable heartache, but I would eventually come to thank God for breaking my hardened heart that night so long ago in that bullet-riddled and holy land.


After coming home, I was left to reflect on my reflexive moral failure. By the grace of God, I found resources hidden in plain sight, finding that the church has a curious history of soldier saints and patriot pacifists that did not think simplistically about war. Their lives refused to be reduced to formulas and abstractions, forcing the church that canonized them to critically engage the issue of war and peace more deeply than it often does. By their witness and the strength of the Holy Spirit in interpreting our scriptures, the Church has the ability to correct its course on issues of war.

If we want to think about war, let the just war doctrine be just one of many resources to which we turn for guidance. Let us follow the examples of the saints who have come before, who rarely lead us where we expect to go. Francis, for one, whose prayer graces the offices of military chaplains often, turned his back to war in 1204 A.D., on his way to the 4th crusade. He had been a prisoner of war and suffered symptoms akin to modern post-traumatic stress disorder; he wandered the streets at night, battled nightmares and hallucinations, and attracted others with similar struggles – eight of the first ten Franciscans were veterans of the same war he fought against Perugia. It is Francis, after all, who undercut the crusades to regain the Holy Land by bringing holy land to local parishes – you know them as the Stations of the Cross.

Or consider Ignatius, who was wounded in battle and whose vanity made him undergo great pain to avoid having a limp (which our father Jacob himself was not so proud as to hide). Before he went off to seminary to found the Jesuits, he abandoned his sword and the vestments of a knight at the foot of the Virgin Mary at a monastery in Spain. To this day, his order is known especially for the obedience not to a flag or to a sovereign, but to the successor of the perhaps most fumbling apostle, Peter.

But a more poignant example for us here at Notre Dame cannot be found in anyone but Marcellus, a third century Roman centurion of the Trajan legion. He too had a crystallization of moral conscience, seemingly out of the blue, when during a national holiday, he openly declared that Rome worshipped “deaf and dumb idols.” His sedition could not be tolerated, so he was killed on October 30th, which is his feast day. The day he took his stand is just weeks away, though, on July 21st.

Martial influences abound not just in our traditions, but also in liturgy and scripture. Before every weekly mass, after the priest enters in persona Christi by uttering the words of institution, he does not consume the host until after he enters in persona Milites by quoting the centurion of great faith from Luke and Mathew; “Lord I am unworthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” In John’s gospel, tradition unites the soldier who pierces Jesus side with the centurion who confesses “surely this man was the Son of God.” He is given the name Longinus, from the Greek word longche, the long spear he carried for war and that insured Christ had died, pouring forth blood and water signifying that the sacred heart of Jesus had broken for us, sinners like these men. But Longinus is paradoxically counted as a saint, for he went on to become a monk (as converted soldiers frequently do) and was martyred for his faith.


These are the forefathers of Christian soldiers, and these are our most trusted guides through the valley of the shadow of death that is war. The true story behind Saving Private Ryan is based not on an Army Captain and his squad of elite Rangers, but one courageous chaplain who never touched a weapon in his entire career. Father Francis Sampson is our trusted guide, not PVT Jackson, the uber religious sniper that Spielberg inserted into the story for dramatic effect. He and other Christian soldiers, including Alvin York, Kevin Benderman, and Camilo Bica, who know the path because they’ve walked it, should be our guides in more fully grasping the reality of war.

It is by these examples and others that the Church can come to comprehend war more fully. Relying on things like movies to tell the tale of war can be very misleading. The Pharisees in Matthew 23 were called hypokrites, pretenders of the faith, and the Roman world would have heard it as an allusion to acting. Without strong moral formation before war, we risk being formed by collected habits, absorbed from public narratives that succeed in being the loudest or the most entertaining presentations about the moral life. Instead of simply internalizing Hollywood’s narrative, for example (though there are many others), Christians must form habits that can collect us into a unified and coherent moral person. Fragmented and incoherent moral persons have a name in scripture, they are called “hypocrites” and “a brood of vipers.” God’s work in the world is to collect us all into him, to make us integral people who mean what we say and do, who practice the humility, patience, and virtue that we preach.

To be such a people, we must think critically about how our scriptures and traditions shape us, and be on our guard against the world shaping us by default. God invites us, in Isaiah 1, “Come, let us reason together.” Augustine heard and saw the image of God in Roman soldiers that he ministered to, and for this reason he is known as the father of the just war tradition. It is only by reflection that we can come to know and reason with God, to gaze upon him so that we may become more like his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Though we may not be paid to, it is our duty to think, our unique responsibility as moral people in immoral societies to make it a habit to think critically and act faithfully.

[1] Catechism, paragraph 2309

[2] paraphrase, Genesis 4:13-14

#Reborn4thJuly Reply Roundup

Here are some links to reviews of the book, good, bad, and ugly (ok, a review can’t really be ‘ugly’, but you get the reference, I’m sure);

  • From Independence to Interdependence; One of the Patheos book club entries, making some connections with Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms. I was pleasantly surprised to learn he was in ROTC, in fact. Good review that gives thoughtful reflection and also some additional resources for further reading/reflection.
  • Good Conscience; Another Patheos entry that piqued my interest in the “Truffaut was Right” trope, about how whatever you write about can be glamorized, even if you don’t intend it. The trope has some implications on a few papers I’m writing, so I was really grateful for an introduction to it. Also of interest were reflections on the theme of confession and the nuanced nature thereof.
  • Fighting To Die; A Christianity Today blog that came out as condescending and patronizing, made worse by the fact it was written by a Marine veteran. I was looking forward to engaging with some constructive criticism, but it was light on the former and heavy on the latter. I got the sense the author dragged the book through his own pre-conceived notions and expectations…
  • Religion News Service; Some wording flubs (“bomber” means a very specific thing to military folks, and it is not artillery), but otherwise a very optimistic review. Jana sat down with me at the Wild Goose Festival and had the luxury of asking about things that were left unanswered for her in the book, so that gives her review a little more depth.

Secondly, I wrote some zrticles myself that were published this week.

Also, there are a few different interviews up on the web, which I won’t really reflect on, since interviews are a bit more dynamic and interactive. Some, like the one I did with the Armed Services Radio Network, I don’t have any links for (tragically). Here are some to check out;



Moral Health #3

Conscience After War – Moral Reintegration

  •  Moral injury and pain are communal afflictions, not merely individual.
    • Don’t make vets casualties of war by letting them become trapped by the experience thereof. Silence is not an option; it is a betrayal.
      • Communities must transfer the moral weight from “me” to “us”
      • Affirm the experience (if they approve or disapprove) as must the vet: “I had this experience, and I accept it.” (Tick, p.255)
    • Communities must acknowledge their complicity, shared with those in whose name they acted
    • Moral isolation is the enemy; it robs the war experience of constructive value and meaning (or violation of meaning). Nihilism leads to suicide, not guilt (“It don’t mean nothing”)
      • Vets must be listened to actively. Social Media is a no-go: vet must be able to observe bodily and/or verbal response
  • Veterans must be able to distinguish the good they did from the temporary evil in which they partook.
    • Healing must include an acknowledgement of sin. Idea of “the good war” belies the experience of many vets, it leaves zero space for mourning and penance
    • Reconsider “Thanking” vets; we asked them to perform some level of evil in order to restrain or overcome a greater evil. We must mourn our resort to the “necessary evil” of war and allow them to as well
    • God has not abandoned them any more than he did Christ on the cross. With God’s help you can take them back from hell
  • Mahedy:   Avoidance techniques are mastered in war, now they must be unlearned. You can prevent memories from dominating the minds of those who suffer; “you learn to live with the ghosts of war”
    • Remember, Recount, Confront, & Reinterpret (p.106). NOT re-live
  • Tick: ‘What was once a wound becomes instead a story.’ (p.198) Stories can heal, inform, and rebuild. Wounds can fester and infect. Rituals must reshape identity in a way that affirms the tragedy alongside the beauty (p.273)
    • All rituals need to be: Safe, Communal, & Sacred
    • Tick suggests the following paradigm;
      • Purification & Cleansing (penance?): ch.12
      • Story Telling (confession?) ch.13
      • Restitution to the Family: ch.14
      • Initiation as a Warrior: ch.15 (like Marlantes’ ‘The Club’)
  • Marlantes: “The war has to be integrated, the horror absorbed, the psyche stretched, to accommodate the trauma.” (p,205)
    • Require counseling, maybe it’ll remove the stigma
    • Ceremonies of significance;
      • Ritualize discharge as much as we do enlistment
      • Parades are ok, but must be solemn, not celebratory (i.e. rifles faced down, the sword symbolically returned to its sheath)
    • “Grief itself is a healthy response.” (p.47) What we do with guilt can be unhealthy: Absolution? Or alcohol? Guilt provokes us to act, nihilism suggests that the chaos of war is the inescapable chaos of life itself.
  • Biblical models
    • Job – post-trauma spiritual quest w/in a community (Mahedy, p.165)
      • friends tried to negate Job’s interpretation, could not tolerate responding to God (and society) with indignation. Friends must not attempt to overwrite vets’ diagnosis, even their cynicism. Sit shiva, listen, suffer with vets (“compassion”)
    • Jubilee (Lev. 25; Heb. deror, Gr. aphesis – “salvation”) model for release from vows/oaths made. Vets must release themselves, & communities must foster this release. Let go and move on with life. Another world waits for them, and Church waits within that world
      • Three functions of Jubilee: release from debt, freeing of slaves, return to homeland
      • Religious establishment feared the implementation of Jubilee, as it would disrupt the entire system. Today, the civil-religious establishment fears what might happen for vets to be released from their own kind of slavery, to return home, to “obey God rather than [the officers appointed above them]” (Acts 5:29)