This series written by Logan Mehl-Laituri for God's Politics focuses on selective conscientious objection. Read more posts in this series here.
Just over a week ago, I participated in an interfaith service in the National City Christian Church in Washington D.C. The gathering -- held on Veteran's Day -- was part of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War (TCCW). Thursday also marked Martinmas in the church, a day to honor the conscience of and heal moral injury against our nation's service men and women. That day, the TCCW released their report to address the moral dilemmas created for members of the U.S. Armed Services by current regulations governing conscientious objection. This report was based on the public hearing held last March at The Riverside Church of New York City.
It was my responsibility to lead those gathered in prayer before Rev. James Forbes would preach on conscience in war. I shared the prayer of Martin of Tours, which is a prayer for perseverance. It is the prayer of all veterans who groan under the immense pressure to be heroes despite service they have grave moral doubts about, like having to kill children holding grenades, shooting families in cars because they do not stop at military checkpoints, or simply engaging in a war that many of their denominations declared unjust.
Studies show that there are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. These veterans struggle with the expectations of heroism while wrestling with the demons unleashed within them as a part their service. In the years of hearing from veterans and service members as a part of my work with Centurion's Guild, I have become convinced that the best way to combat the epidemic of soldier and veteran suicides is to create the space within churches for those who serve to meaningfully discern what it means to be Christians in a time of war. In the midst of this struggle, the churches have been complicit in that epidemic by their silence.
It was with great and overwhelming relief, therefore, that I got to hear my good friend, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, preach for Reign of Christ Sunday. I was not able to maintain my composure; my heart filled with gratitude for the courage it sometimes takes to preach on such difficult topics. Other friends of mine here at Duke Divinity School have also recognized the need for preachers to speak openly about American Christianity in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, they created the Proper 29 Project, a kind of clearinghouse for pastors and preachers of sermons and other resources from which to draw for Reign of Christ Sunday and beyond.
Jonathan's sermon would fit nicely with the spirit of Proper 29. He led the congregation in lamenting the numerous civilian deaths revealed by data in the recent War Logs documents. The reading for the morning was from Jeremiah 23, in which the shepherds have scattered the flock. The shepherds are the ones to whom God had trusted but who failed, who had been given authority to steward humbly but confident with power, but who instead rule by shock and awe, who confuse divine authority with worldly power.
Today we were reminded that Jeremiah's Lament was not just for the victims, but the victimizers; not just for Iraqis and Afghans, but for Americans as well. It is a hopeful indictment, one that invites the victimizers into new life in solidarity with, not dominion over, their global neighbors. But it is an indictment still, one that many in the church are troubled and offended by.
A man two rows in front of me shook his head stubbornly throughout the sermon, but especially as Jonathan spoke about the Good Samaritan story he was a part of in 2003, and which I got to witness in person last January. At the conclusion of the sermon, the man leaned over to his son, who twirled his finger around his left ear, chuckling with his father about how crazy such a gospel is, how out of place and laughable was the good news of liberation for victim and victimizer alike. I bit my tongue until I tasted blood. I didn't say what I wanted to say to him, what my own demons suggested, which had nothing to do with pacifism (or the reign of Christ for that matter). It was a good reminder to love (or at least not publicly humiliate) my enemies.
I share this story because I know that it is hard to talk in the pulpit about divisive issues. I know people will shake their heads, suck their teeth, and cross their arms defiantly. They don't know what they do. Your responsibility is to those veterans and service members in your congregation that need to know that war has a moral depth that requires deliberate discernment. Silence is betrayal. Don't think for a second those 950 veterans who end their lives each month do not belong to a church somewhere. Don't let the first time you think about this be the moment a veteran or service member in your congregation takes their own life.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Army veteran with combatant service in Iraq during OIF II and has experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and the West Bank. He blogs sporadically and is a co-founder of Centurion's Guild.