Grace to you and peace from your brothers and sisters in Durham, where I join you from Saint Josephs Episcopal Church, and greetings from your humble servants in Centurions Guild, an ecumenical community of soldiers, veterans, and civilians wrestling between Christian faith, armed service, and national identity, for whom I speak as Executive Officer.
I have come to this beautiful house of worship at the invitation of Pastor Mark, who has invited me here as part of your fourth Peace Affirmation, that I might help you to “count the costs of war… cultivate moral imagination and discern God’s redemptive work in history.” Mine won’t be an Eastertide message, unfortuneatly. We’re gonna wander back to Holy Saturday for a bit…
Nine years ago this month, I rocked back and forth in the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral, tears tumbling awkwardly down my cheeks, my stomach in knots, hands wringing what was left of a speech I was to give before the New York Avenue Presbyterian church. My heart lay in pieces at the foot of a mosaic that spoke to me from beyond time and space.
Two roman soldiers were reclining at an open tomb, Jesus hovering above them with arms out-stretched. Before the mosaic was a small candelabra, a few flames flicking soft light upon Christ’s gentle features, playing devilish tricks with the faces of the two figures with whom I would most identify. You see, I spent the good part of a decade wearing another imperial uniform. From February 2000 to November 2006, I served on active duty as a forward observer for the artillery. I knew not what I did until after a 2004 deployment to Iraq. Were it not for those six years serving alongside other soldiers, what I heard from that mosaic would have been a far easier pill to swallow.
I found myself in in the belly of the beast for the same reasons I find myself here today – I was invited to share the living story of Christian soldiers to a listening Church. Earlier in the day I had read the haunting words of a friend who has since died as a result of his own service. Joshua Casteel had deployed at the very same time as I did; I as part of a quick reaction force deployable all over Iraq and he as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. His words were bitter upon my lips, for he had recognized evil for more quickly than I had. I read an excerpt of his writings before over three thousand Christians in our nations capital, describing how it took just one mission outside the wire, after he realized he had involuntarily pointed a loaded rifle at three young boys, to see sin crouching at his door. He mastered the devil that day.
I was in Iraq for 389 days. As a member of an infantry platoon, I went on exponentially more missions than Joshua did as an interrogator. Wandering the Mesopotamian wilderness like Cain before me, my heart hardened in the desert heat like the mud bricks I watched cure in the Iraqi sun.
After reading Joshua’s confession from the pulpit of the National Cathedral, with my own hidden behind unspoken words that congregation would never hear, I fled the spotlight and quickly found myself buried in the crypt beside that martial mosaic. Kneeling to pray, tears began to flow freely, fixating as I was on the resurrected Christ. The saline spheres were not born in sadness, but anger. I raged at the soldiers I saw, the soldier I saw in myself, the hammer that saw nothing but nails.
Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me
I couldn’t tell whether the words sprang from my heart or my head, or if they were even mine. The least of us are certainly widows and orphans, the victims of war, not its perpetrators. Before I could make sense of what I’d heard, another voice, nearer my own, took shape…
“Even these, who struck his face and cast lots for his clothes?”
All the breath in my lungs rushed out, fleeing the wickedness holding my heart hostage. Every day in war, I added a mud brick to the wall I built around my heart to protect it from the crushing weight of the guilt it was accumulating in the wilderness. Once more, words took form somewhere in my soul;
“Even these, who flogged him?
Safe there in its cage, my soul was protected, pure, right. A third time, the Word forced his way in;
“Even these, who pierced Your very heart?”
Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
The cost of war is hard to calculate, much less quantify, as though, like commerce, everything has a price. Some things cannot be measured. We can’t count the costs of war any more than we can count bodies, as though we can know the worth of even a single human life. I learned that the hard way. That night in DC, I was called by God. I didn’t know it at the time; I didn’t even know it when I wrote my first book, Reborn on the Fourth of July, and you wont find any reference to vocation in the pages that I describe that event, but that night I was commissioned by God.
I read the words of another soldier, a friend whose death taught me the importance of taking a long view of Church history and redemption. Joshua died while I was on my book tour actually; just under a year after he was supposed to come to Duke for the 2011 After the Yellow Ribbon Conference. We dedicated that conference to him, a conference he would be proud of because we managed to get a lot of people in the room who otherwise would not make for polite company. To the institution where pacifism rules, we managed to get the ranking ethicist from West Point to give our keynote, a presentation that would make pacifists blush. His title captures his point well; The Beauty and Tragedy of a Combat Deployment.” He recently brushed the dust off his talk as an entry for “Ponder Christian Soldiers,” the Guild’s blog series with Christianity Today. With a more restrictive word count, he distilled his point even further; “War is Hell, But it Can Be Heaven.”
Do I sense an elevated collective heart rate…?
I mention this important point, that war is far more complex than most civilians fathom, because it is necessary if we are to actually draw upon not just pacifism and just peace, but just war and patriotism as well. The fourth affirmation is of utmost importance, but it is my experience that most pacifists do not do the critical work of engaging with their adversaries as they should. Too often, we retreat to our comfort zone, we group up with like minded people and start lobbing stones over the wall we build around the hearts of our ideological campgrounds.
One Veterans Day not too long ago, I was messaging friends on Twitter about sharing the #TenSaintsTenDays blog series. In the ten days between All Saints and Veterans Day, I was profiling a soldier-saint who blurs the categorization we sometimes overlay onto Christian soldiers; too often, Christian soldiers’ stories get co-opted to make a point for or against war, as though that sums up the meaning of their lives and service.
One friend, an activist whose work included nonviolent struggles, told me privately that reading their lives was “challenging,” and that he was concerned about receiving “a LOT of pushback” for discussing the merits of just-war traditions.
I reminded him that a theologian he and I both admire attracted numerous ROTC cadets to his classes on pacifism and nonviolence. This theologian managed to communicate effectively across political divides to cultivate conversation despite entrenched disagreements, setting what I thought was an important example to follow. In response, my friend suggested that I had been disqualified from the pacifist community and that I needed to connect ROTC types with nonviolent activists like him.
In Rome this very weekend, a conference is being convened by Catholic pacifists, one of the stated goals of which is “the explicit rejection of just war.” I would be more sympathetic had they invited contrasting voices or considered ways in which they had misrepresented the tradition by assuming the worst about war. It’s easy to be wrong when we surround ourselves with people who vehemently disagree with us. It’s harder to learn the habits of of our faith, of intellectual enemy love and long suffering. Can you imagine how hard it must be to sit down with someone who has 30 good reasons to betray you? Would we really make breakfast for the people who left us hanging to die?
“Follow me” the Word returns.
Cultivating moral imagination requires some stretching, it demands we depart our moral comfort zone. We may find that the things we once thought were repulsive actually have profound value. Insofar as nonviolent struggles, war, and pacifism involve the question of killing, addressing these important topics is a fools errand if it does not involve the voices of those doing the killing. When we are willing, able, and ready to sit down in the presence of our enemies, we may find that we are breathing as much threats and murder as they are, that the walls we’ve built around our own hearts need to fall first. It’s always hardest to be the first to drop the stones in your hand. Saul’s story reminds me that it’s even harder to hand back all the coats to those who don’t.
I was a pacifist for a long time, but I don’t know what to call myself lately. Nonviolent activists have called me a baby-killer, an orthodox priest suggested that I only went to war out of bloodlust, a prestigious theologian has suggested I be referred to as a murderer. Rarely ever are these accusations made about me directly, but I cannot escape being an member of the martial fraternity. There is no such thing as a “former veteran.” I thought I was dropping the stone from my hand when I refused to carry my weapon, I thought I was doing the right thing. But then I learned that I had merely changed sides, that fellow pacifists were just on the other side aiming their rhetorical weapons right back across a line drawn in the sand.
Maybe, that time when Jesus drew in the sand to protect a sinner, he wasn’t fashioning a line to determine sides, but an arrow pointing at the messiah, the only one who could save us from all this binary thinking.
Discerning God’s redemptive work in history forces us to think much more deeply about war and peace, and I pray that this church is up to the task. It will require that we wrestle with God and with those people whose faith does not look exactly like our own. Reading the story of salvation of history, we will encounter soldier saints and patriot pacifists who force us to expand the way we think about the question of killing. When the saints come marching in, we’ll find in their number not just the military martyrs whose camouflage uniform was washed white by their selfless sacrifice, but also pious patriots who found ways to subvert the profession of arms nonviolently.
We will also hear the blood of Christian soldiers crying out from the ground, whose ‘sacrifice’ was mental health and moral integrity. Certainly you have heard of the 20 veterans who kill themselves every day. If the wider American religious landscape is reflected in the military, if 70 percent of service members are Christian, then fourteen of the daily twenty are Christian soldiers. Suicide can often result from internalizing the kinds of comments I’ve heard in my decade of working at the intersection of Christian faith and military service. I am lucky, and I thank God for the mission he has given me, to witness with and for Christian soldiers like me, like Joshua Casteel. Centurions Guild is the vessel through which I hope the story of Christian soldiers will continue to grow and breath life into the harrowing silence that so often follows in wars wake.
Worse than those things I heard about myself was the deafening silence from so many congregations unwilling to take the risk of saying the wrong thing. These affirmations give me hope that the Presbyterian church is willing to step out and Risk Peace. I thank you for your innovative witness and also for your attention today, and I hope you’ll stay for the lunch hour to hear more about Centurions Guild. Pray for us, that we may be partners in this important work of discernment today and as you prepare for the 2016 General Assembly.
Hear now the prayer of the patron of soldiers and chaplains, saint Martin of Tours;
Lord, if your people still have need of my services, I will not avoid the toil. Your will be done. I have fought the good fight long enough. Yet if you bid me continue the work you entrust to me, I will never beg to be excused from failing strength. While you alone command, I will fight beneath your banner. Grant us your peace, that we may pass it to our neighbors as well as our enemies.