Last Thursday afternoon, I read an article by Jim Wallis, the CEO of Sojourners, in which he described his conversation with Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The thrust of the discussion, held at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., was in articulating “what the religious and moral issues will and should be in the upcoming election year.” Central points they discussed included poverty & the economy, immigration, energy independence, world hunger, and disease. Wallis even recognized that abortion and gay marriage was conspicuously absent from the conversation.
What he and Land failed to recognize was the profound moral and social imperative upon the Church in America to purposefully engage with soldiers and veterans. Such a failure, in the midst of the most prolonged and wide-reaching conflicts our nation has ever witnessed, was salt in the innumerable physical and spiritual wounds of those directly affected by war. Being one of those so affected made the pain of omission visceral for me. I had even written previously about the betrayal of silence on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog.
When did a topic with such significance drop off the moral map of our nation’s religious leaders?
Don’t get me wrong; I know Wallis and Land care deeply about war. It appears, however, to not be on their radar. But it needs to be; in less than two months, we will have one less front on the Global War on Terror, and an influx of personnel to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Church must be prepared to welcome them home literally and figuratively; soldiers often spend years, sometimes their entire lives, processing their experiences. When society fails to assist in reintegration and cultivate their participation in our common life, you get a suicide rate like what we have now; on average, 17 veterans end their own lives every day and there have been more active duty suicides in the past two years than there have been combat fatalities.
No one intends to overlook those of us who have served, or continue to serve, in the military. Wallis and Land’s oversight, I think, reflects a broader societal incapacity to wrestle deeply with those who fight in a war that many Americans don’t see. No one is really all that callous, but what are we to do? How do we promote healing of the hidden wounds of war; what do we do after the yellow ribbons go up and our attention spans go down?
This is a question that many of us at Duke Divinity School have been wrestling with. We have learned that this isn’t just a matter for the Church to consider, it affects academic settings as well. A report surfaced in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year that claimed half of all student veterans contemplated taking their own lives, while 20 percent had actually planned their suicides while enrolled in school.
At Duke, we formed Milites Christi (“soldiers of Christ”) and began planning After the Yellow Ribbon in the hopes of equipping the martial, religious, and academic communities to engage more meaningfully with veterans and service members in their midst. After listening to a number of faculty and fellow students, Milites Christi found that conversation is frequently stifled by fears of saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question. Many times, we remain silent out of a perceived lack of options; silence feels safe.
So Milites Christi has a simple proposal – let’s cultivate conversation. Let’s step out in faith, trusting one another that our intentions are good but out experience is low – that if we want to dance, we need to be ready to step on a few toes (and be careful to recognize which toes have already been stepped on too much).
When religious leaders discuss social justice and war goes unmentioned, military personnel don’t even have a date to the dance. We should be actively invited to the conversation; our insight is valuable and enriching if it is evoked in ways that do not threaten our moral or mental health. Not every veteran is ready to contribute to the conversation just yet, but those that are should be valued and sought after dialogue partners.
In the military, we had a saying; “if you have an idea, you have your first volunteer.” So, to accomplish the task of conversation-cultivation, Milites Christi managed to convince some prominent Pacifists as well as Just Warriors to come together over their mutual concern for stemming the tide of social ills that assail our troops. Even though some war-weary troops might think they reflect more the mark of Cain, Milites Christi is united in our effort to remind them they are made in the image of God.
War should always be a “religious and moral issue” that informs and guides us, especially during an election year. Next year Veterans Day falls on the Sunday right after Election Day. Let’s remember to look past the immediacy of the election and think through what it means to make Veterans more than merely a cause, bigger than an election issue (though that is a start). Let’s really dig into ways we can walk along side our nation’s service members, putting one foot in front of the other, cautiously but compassionately.
In the meantime, this Veterans Day, Milites Christi invites practitioners of all disciplines (especially Wallis and Land), from music and the arts to theology and mental health, to After the Yellow Ribbon on November 11th and 12th. Be a part of responding to the challenge presented by the wounds of war that soldiers and veterans bear.
(ps. If you cannot join us in Durham, many of the sessions will be uploaded to our iTunesU channel)
Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Army veteran with combatant service in Iraq during OIF II and experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and the West Bank. He blogs sporadically and is a co-founder of Centurion’s Guild.