A member of a nearby congregation enlisted in the army several years ago and was sent to Iraq. When he returned home others in church joyfully welcomed him back, pouring attention on him and proclaiming him a hero. He didn’t respond well. His minister said to me, “This young man hates the attention and praise. He knows they mean well but he doesn’t feel heroic. He is broken and guilt-ridden.”
Two religious right leaders, the televangelist Kenneth Copeland and the well-known academically undependable amateur historian David Barton have a message for him: GET OVER IT!
Don’t feel remorse. Don’t confess your sins. Don’t repent. Don’t get therapy. Push aside post-traumatic stress disorder and reject any sense of moral injury. All distraught veterans need to do is embrace Copeland and Barton’s slant on scripture. Citing Numbers 32:20-22, Copland said, “So this is a promise — if you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before the Lord for the war … you shall return, you’re coming back, and be guiltless before the Lord and before the nation.”
Barton declared to veterans, “You’re on an elevated platform up here. You’re a hero, you’re put in the faith hall of fame.… When you do it God’s way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you’re esteemed.” What’s next? Forty virgins awaiting them in heaven? Barton and Copeland’s pitch is as shameless as we find among radical Muslims. Soldiers just need to fight, maim, kill on command and not worry about any negative spiritual impact and not feel any regret. God is eager to pour out rewards. God is on our side.
Yes, God is abundant in grace and forgiveness. That message should be spread to soldiers who are burdened with guilt. They need to be embraced with compassion and care. But these two (mis)leaders discount the emotional distress and moral sensitivity of those who have experienced combat. Instead they offer them an extremely dubious view of the message of scripture and tell veterans that they won’t have any inner problems to deal with if they will just believe the message of the Bible. But the message Copeland and Barton promote isn’t really in the pages of scripture. It is in the annals of the nationalistic religious right.
The way Copeland and Barton handle scripture leads to an indefensible conclusion about America: it is divinely chosen. The fact is the United States is not God’s chosen nation. It is not a contemporary version of ancient Israel. Further, what was true of God’s role in war in Hebrew scripture is definitely not true of American military engagements. God is not the primary warrior (Exodus 14:13-14, 15:3; Deut. 1:30; 2 Kings 19:35-37). God does not declare the war. God does not lead the army (Judges 20:18; 1 Samuel 6:8-10; 14:6-10; 30:6-20; 2 Samuel 5:17-25) . Human strength and military equipment is not irrelevant to the outcome of battle (Isaiah 7:4, 7; Psalms 20:7-8). Preparation for war is not primarily spiritual, not military (Joshua 3:5; 1 Samuel 21:5; 2 Samuel 1:21) . America wars are utterly unlike what the Bible says about God’s relation to ancient Israel’s wars.
What the troubled veterans know that Copeland and Barton clearly don’t is that the U.S. military is not God’s army and never has been. God did not tell American soldiers to kill and destroy. Politicians and commanding officers took that role without the help of the immediate dictates of God. And the reasons behind the commands may have very little to do with the reasons given to win public support for the war efforts and may have nothing to do with justice.
Copeland and Barton’s gun-hoism has no room for either ethical discernment about war or introspection on the part of soldiers. Instead Barton sweeps all such things aside with the assurance that “God…took so many people out in battle.” Copeland announced that at times “the Prince of Peace becomes the God of war, ” the questionable assumption being that this has a lot to do with American wars. Barton fleetingly mentions there is a difference between a just war and unjust war. But he points this out only to bolster his assurance that if you fight in the U.S. military, “You are guiltless…you are esteemed.”
Apparently, these two stars of the religious right think there is no need for soldiers to determine whether a war to which they are called to fight is just. Soldiers are just to assume that it is just. And there is also no need for ministers to do what they can to discern whether a war is just by knowing anything substantial about the just war tradition. It seems Copeland and Barton think it unnecessary for ministers to offer caution and guidance to soldiers lest they engage in an unjust war, much less for ministers to call people to follow the nonviolent way of Jesus. Ministers are simply to assume that all American wars are just and join the war pep-squad. In fact the silence of ministers has been part of the problem. Their indiscriminant affirmation of all things military and their lack of guidance have made Christian young people who enter the armed forces more vulnerable to moral injury.
There are plenty of veterans who are troubled by those who indiscriminately extol soldiers as heroes or say to them, “Thank you for your service.” Most people who speak in such ways have no idea what they’re talking about and those who have seen combat know it. As one Marine veteran wrote: “If you truly want to demonstrate your good character, patriotism, and support for the troops and veterans, rather than merely mouth meaningless expressions of gratitude for something you don’t truly understand or care much about, do something meaningful and real. Do what is truly in the interest of this nation and of those victimized by war.”
The suicide rate among combat veterans is distressingly high. In a note left behind by Daniel Somers, a veteran who shot himself a few months ago, he wrote, “The simple truth is this. During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity.” The right response is not to quote misappropriated scriptures at troubled veterans and tell them to get over it.
Their inner pain, their regret, their sense of guilt needs to be taken seriously, not dismissed. They need loving support and a place where they can confess their brokenness to the extent they are able. They need to receive grace without either additional condemnation or over-eager whitewashing by those determined to bestow high esteem without ever hearing the painful stories of veterans of war. They don’t need religious cheer-leaders of war and warriors from people like Barton and Copeland.
Fortunately, there are people such as those at the Soul Repair Center in Fort Worth, Texas who are dedicated to working with morally injured veterans. We need to do all we can to “bear the burdens” and “restore with patience” (Galatians 6:1-2) those veterans who may doubt they can ever be restored. Our need for heroes must not over-ride their need for honest and compassionate support.