Last weekend my partner Piper and I drove up to visit family in Maine. As we drove along the rural back roads the wind was picking up and a fine drizzle was starting to fall. Up ahead an older gentleman was in his yard, pulling his American Flag down from the tall flagpole. With one hand he tugged the rope that reeled the flag in, with the other he caught the flag, gathering it up in his arms so that it wouldn’t touch the ground. Watching his movements it was clear that this was a daily ritual, as practiced as brushing one’s teeth or drying a dish. His movements were those of someone who had been lovingly caring for this flag, day after day, year after year. Piper and I were both watching him as we slowly drove past, and as he receded in our rear view mirror our conversation turned to this man and his flag. You see, while I did the requisite flag-duty a couple of times in elementary school, the flag is not something I think about that often. Maybe it is because I was raised by parents from two different countries and born in a third, but I have never strongly identified with any one flag. Or maybe it’s a generational difference. For those of us growing up in a global economy, perhaps borders don’t seem as firm as they once did—and so national identity isn’t as strong. Or maybe it is I am just the child of baby boomers who called all tradition into question. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t stop wondering about that man… wondering what it would feel like to invest in a symbol of something you believe in so deeply that you are willing to make it a central part of your daily ritual.
Now I don’t come from a military family…at least not in any traditional sense of the term. My father is a Spaniard and was raised under a military dictator. He served his brief time in the army, like every other young man at that time, but didn’t strongly identify with the experience. On my mom’s side no one in the last couple of generations has served. Because of this, I did not have any personal relationship with holidays like Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day… they were mostly just a day off from school…that is, until my mom remarried.
My step-father Bob was a fun guy, the life of any party. By day he worked as an architect, but he was also an avid skydiver (with over 800 jumps), a comedic radio guest personality, a raging Jimmy Buffet fan, and a master BBQ-er (which came in handy with our mostly-vegetarian family— poor guy!) But every year, on these particular holidays, Bob would go silent, and sometimes he would even disappear to his office, only to come our with red rimmed eyes. You see, Bob had served in Vietnam, somewhat late in the conflict, and it was not something that he liked to talk about. He was only in Vietnam for six months, and yet those months would, in large part, come to define the rest of his life.
You might be wondering why, on this Memorial Day weekend—a time to remember soldiers who DIED in war, I am telling you about my step-father, a man who in order to have been in my life clearly survived the war. But, having lived with him for many years, I have come to believe that death, for a soldier, can happen on multiple different levels. Yes, there are those who experience bodily death in a war zone… AND there are many, many more who come back alive in body but having experienced other deaths: the deaths of friends and comrades… and also the death of part of themselves.
For Bob, something in him died one particularly terrible day in Vietnam. He and a close friend were out on an assignment together. His friend’s wife had just given birth weeks earlier, and he was excited to be a new dad. They were out in the field together and his friend was up ahead of him a ways. He heard that ominous click, and then watched the explosive device detonate, taking his friend with it. Bob survived the blast, but lost most of his hearing in one ear. But more damaging than that physical trauma, was witnessing someone he loved violently dying in front of him, and then having to go back—and be the one to break the news to his buddy’s wife that she was a widow and that their child would grow up without knowing her father. Bob’s hearing loss sent him home from the war. But the part of him that died that day with his friend, that part never came home.
It is now 2014, and we ARE getting better, as a society, at talking about the Post Traumatic Stress that soldiers face. But I, for one, have always hated the term. Somehow it sounds too sterile and benign. Post Traumatic Stress… stress… I mean sure stress is unpleasant but we all have experienced stress. “I am so stressed about finals” or “my in-laws are coming over for the holiday and I am stressed trying to make everything perfect” or even “I have this intense job that is 80 hours a week and I am feeling a lot of stress.” Now I am not trying to say that those things are not stressful—but how can we use the same word “stress” for those experiences, and the mental-spiritual ruptures that a solider has undergone? What Bob experienced wasn’t “stress.” It wasn’t something that a nice massage or weekend in away might cure. I wasn’t stress and it certainly wasn’t a disorder. It was a normal response to the tearing of the fabric of his universe. He experienced something that I wouldn’t willingly ask of anybody. And yet THIS is what we ask of our service men and women.
When a bomb explodes it creates highly compressed air particles. This causes fragmentation of the outer shell to occur as those particles expand. There are shockwaves that then continue to radiate that energy and debris outward. The explosion also creates fire and heat, which in turn set off secondary and tertiary explosions and fires. Military neurosurgeons report that the massive change in pressure that occurs when a bomb detonates can result in lasting neurological damage, but this damage can be difficult to diagnose because victims may appear physically unharmed.
And I guess this is how I understand war. Some socio-political situation unfolds in which two sides become polarized and unable to find peaceful, middle ground. The conflict escalates, building energy, creating a highly compressed chamber. Then something sets this bomb off and violence ensues. Those in at the heart of the conflict are most impacted, BUT there are also shockwaves that radiate out from the conflict zone. You have the people fighting on either side and then you have their loved ones. You also have the civilians caught in the cross fire—and their loved ones. Add to that the refugees fleeing the conflict and spilling across borders into other countries—bring their wounds from war with them etc.
And then there are the secondary explosions and fires. For many veterans those secondary explosions are kicked off by coming home. As former US Marine Captain Tyler Boudreau says, “War is the foyer to Hell. Coming home is Hell.” And his sentiment is borne out by statistical evidence: Though veterans account for only 7% of the population, they account for 20% of all suicides in the United States. In other words, after surviving a warzone, these folks come home and are so tortured that they take their own lives. According to an article on CNN.com, in 2013 the average number of veteran suicides was 22…A DAY. That means every 65 minutes another veteran in the United States takes his or her own life.
And then there are the soldiers who come home and have a hard time connecting with their families, and navigating marital strife. Combat veterans are the perpetrators of 21% of reported domestic violence incidences in this country. That puts veterans families at a higher risk of experiencing domestic violence than virtually any other demographic in the nation.
And beyond suicide and domestic violence, veterans also experience high rates of homelessness. Officially the statistic is that 1 in 7 people experiencing homelessness is a veteran. However at the shelter where I worked in Maine, the number was closer to 35%. These people have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country—have offered to lay down their very lives—and now they are living on the streets. You see the shockwaves of war continue to fragment outward—creating wounds that are invisible to the naked eye, but leave many people impacted—even those who have never been to a warzone.
Now, I am not here today to debate the merit or necessity of various conflicts. I honestly don’t know where I stand regarding the notion of “Just War.” Of course I would prefer peaceful solutions—and yet I am torn when I hear about egregious human rights violations going unchecked—part of me wants us to swoop in as a country and “fix” it. I am not suggesting that I have the answer on whether or not war is a “necessary evil” or not. But, what I can say with confidence, having lived with and loved someone who experienced the horrors of war first hand, is that wounds are farther reaching than we know. And that what we ask of our soldiers when we sent them into war, is NEVER, EVER to be taken lightly.
Now I like a good BBQ as much as the next guy, but no amount of grilled meat, or cotton candy, or parade paraphernalia, or patriotic singing should turn our eyes from what it is we are memorializing on this holiday. We are honoring the people who died violently, because our country, and our society asked it of them. There is no sugar coating that fact.
Not to mention the fact that we are in a Christian Church as followers of Jesus. Perhaps you noticed the quote at the top of today’s bulletin by Rev. Greg Boyd. I know it is intense—even more intense than I am—and I certainly did not intend to offend anyone by highlighting his words. But they brought up some good questions for me about what it means to be the beneficiary of other people’s brave sacrifice on the one hand—and to be opposed to violence on the other. In that same article Rev. Boyd says:
On the one hand, I am very happy I live in a country where I’m free to engage in my own “pursuit of happiness” (as in “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”). I also appreciate the fact that I live in a country where the governed people get to choose (to some degree) who governs them. For all its flaws, I think democracy is better (though not more scriptural) than dictatorship. And I can’t help but appreciate the young men and women who have laid down their lives to protect this way of life. I benefit from their sacrifice, so it seems appropriate to remember them.
On the other hand, my Lord’s words and example have taught me that it’s better to love your enemy, do good to them, pray for them, and bless them than it is to ever kill them. I’ve been taught to never retaliate but to always return evil with good. I’ve been taught that violence is cyclical, and that if you live by the sword you’ll die by the sword. By submitting myself to this teaching, I’ve come to actually see its wisdom and beauty. I’ve come to see the taking of human life as demonically arrogant… because it expresses hopelessness in another, which is the opposite of love (I Cor. 13:7)… And I grieve for all who do participate in it, for any reason… Jesus is my Lord, not the American way of life. My allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. … Jesus’ way of life is SUPPOSED TO BE scandalous to the world. The earliest Christians refused to fight in wars to defend the Roman empire and refused to pledge allegiance to the Roman empire. And this was one of the reasons they were despised and martyred.
That is hard to digest. At least for me it is. I feel the weight of our Christian tradition, and what it demands of us regarding conflict. In today’s text we have a passage that says:
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.Keep your conscience clear… For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
And, if we continue to look through the New Testament we also have the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew when he says: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. And then, in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus is arrested, it says:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ Enough of this, stop it!
ENOUGH OF THIS. STOP IT! That is the message we as Christians are given regarding violence. Enough of this. Stop it. Enough of violence, enough of hate, enough of conflicts whose impact fragments outward like a bomb damaging countless people. I don’t know if war is a necessary evil—but I do know that WE as Christians are called to be peacemakers, change makers, healers and repairers.
So, let us pause for a moment on this Memorial Day Weekend. Here in this quiet sanctuary where we can remember what war is, and why, in the end—we would ALL prefer to live in a world where it was not necessary. Today I want to leave you with the words of Rev. Dr. Rita Brock professor of Theology at Brite Divinity School and the founding director of the Soul Repair Center, which works to equip church communities to support veterans who are struggling with moral injuries and wounds regarding what they have seen and been asked to participate in during combat. She says:
“The hidden wounds of war do not heal when left unattended; instead, they may fester for years in depression, homelessness, addiction, a half-lived existence, maybe even suicide, which doesn’t end the suffering for those who knew and loved the one who died. Unattended, moral injury will linger for generations. Understanding moral injury is a necessary first step in a much longer societal healing process…War and its aftermath belong to all of us and are our shared responsibility.”
Jesus calls us to walk in the way of peace, so I want to offer you an opportunity to do so today. There will be buckets at the door as you leave in which I ask you to give a second offering. It is better to suffer for doing good. So, let your money, your coins, your bills, your checks, be fragments of peace spreading outward to Soul Repair Center to help veterans like my step father—and so many others– heal from the wounds of war that have pierced their hearts and their spirits.
I wish each and every one of you a peace-filled Memorial Day. Amen.