How are we to respond as people of faith to the recent revelation that more than 66,000 civilians have died in our two wars? Proper 29 is an initiative that seeks to give people of faith a voice in this debate by calling sisters and brothers to address civilian deaths and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan from the pulpit, now until November 21, which is Reign of Christ Sunday (Proper 29). Recently, I had a phone conversation about this project with one of the team leaders Amy Laura Hall, associate professor of theological ethics at Duke University and author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love and Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Biotechnological Reproduction.
What was the genesis for Proper 29?
Some of the best conversations at a seminary occur in the hallways, right? Students sit in class, then they go peruse the web on their laptops, looking for the day's news, and then they argue in the cafeteria over how to connect Saint Augustine to the news coming out about civilian deaths, multiple deployments, suicide rates among soldiers and veterans. The recent WikiLeaks event was a catalyst for students to try to name what many clergy already knew. Priests and pastors across the U.S. and U.K. knew that military members were suffering from moral trauma in these two wars. But we usually respond individually, pastorally, rather than naming what is going on as part of a larger tragedy in the body of Jesus Christ. Some of our students drew on the best in "Duke theology" to call pastors and preachers to pay attention and to risk speaking about the atrocities of war.
What is Proper 29's mission?
Matthew Elia is one of the students working on this project, and his answer on this is so clear and helpful. He said that what we are doing is really very simple. We are asking people "to turn their eyes in this direction -- just to look over this way at something that they don't want to look at." We are not dictating how preachers speak about these wars, only asking them to look over here, to look at the news that veterans of these wars can't ignore. Many veterans wake up every night with these memories, and civilians can ignore the news coming out about what these women and men have lived through. So, the mission is fairly simple, really. Choose to look this direction, and risk speaking from the pulpit about what has been happening for the last decade in this country. We don't expect pastors to get all of this "right." I have been counseling pastors with questions about the project with a fairly simple answer. Talk to the vets in your congregation. Tell them that you are going to try to talk about these wars from the pulpit. Ask them what you should make sure not to miss and what would be a disaster for you to say. They will tell you plenty, if you give them time to trust you. Then, read the biblical text for this coming Sunday, pray like a true warrior who believes Jesus can save even us and even this bloody age, and get up and risk getting it wrong. Tell the congregation about how scared you are, and then preach.
How does your Sunday School class tie into Proper 29?
I teach a small Sunday School class with veterans who fought in World War II. My grandfather was a vet, having been in the last round of the draft. He had two small children. I lean on these people at my church as adopted kin, truly, and I ask them for stories to help me to sort out the past and the work of the Holy Spirit in the present. When I told them about this project and about how scared pastors are to preach on these stories coming out about the horrors of war, one of the vets said, clear as day, "War is horrible and it solves nothing." I asked him if I could quote him, and he told me that I had to quote him. This is a man who loves his country and fought in a war that my generation perceives through a kind of glorifying haze. The World War II generation doesn't see those times through the lens of a fascinating History Channel depiction. The spouses remember those times as times of true terror -- and the vets remember it as a call to "kill or be killed."
If these people can name the horror of their war, it seems perhaps civilian pastors may risk talking about the horror of our own wars. A more recent vet involved in this project keeps saying that we need to remember that the divide between civilians and veterans is just plain false in the body of Jesus Christ. We are somehow in this body together, even as civilians have no clue what it is like to be called to kill. The "knowing" one another in grace must manage even the rifts we struggle through as we talk about war together.
Who do you see enrolling in the ROTC on college campuses?
Although I wasn't able to hear Secretary Gates when he came to Duke recently, students have been talking about his comments with deep concern. Apparently, he suggested at one point that ROTC is an honorable way for students who come from less-affluent families to attend college. This is a tricky question, right? We lived in a freshman dorm here at Duke for three years, as faculty-in-residence, and the ROTC students were some of the most amazing people we met. They weren't here just to "work hard" and "play hard," as too many of our affluent kiddos at Duke seem to be. The blessing of students who are working in ROTC is huge, and they serve their country with courage and conviction. But for Christians, military service should be a calling, a vocation -- not a default way to attend college if your family doesn't have enough money to send you.
I am part of the peace-church strand of Methodism (a small strand, granted), but I have heard the witness of Christians who believe themselves truly to serve in the military. The calling to serve in the United States military is tragically compromised by recruitment strategies that tell young people, during a time of economic scarcity, that their best way out of a life of poverty is to serve in war. We do not currently have a draft, as in the Vietnam era. But for young men and women facing high unemployment rates and diminishing federal and state dollars for education, there is a good deal of social pressure to join the "adventure" that is the military. Some of them see this as their only route to a truly worthwhile life and a meaningful death. I believe this is a social tragedy, and I don't see things getting better under our new regime in the House. "Supporting the troops" should include making sure that we aren't functioning with a default draft of the most economically vulnerable members of the social body and Jesus' body
How can people of faith connect with Proper 29?
We have a website set up with links to relevant articles, prayers, and sample sermons at proper29.wordpress.com. Some of these sermons will be from peace-church traditions and others from Just War traditions. The site doesn't dictate exactly how preachers should preach, of course. We mean to be a catalyst for witness, conversation, lament, confession, and prayer. People who don't like the site can write to us, and we will read your comments and concerns. But the most important conversations will occur in the toenails and fingernails of Jesus' body -- that is, in local Sunday School classes and during coffee hour and during prayer meetings. Preachers don't have to bring the definitive WORD, for goodness sake. They need to risk asking their congregations to struggle together with what this news means for our collective and individual memory and for our witness in the years to come.
Follow Becky Garrison's travels on twitter @JesusDied4This.