In the United States, Christian faith and war are entwined. War is often depicted as necessary and honorable-something that brings both God and country honor.
In more conservative Christian circles the connection between war and Christian faith is made explicit.
Bible verses depicting Jesus’ death are twisted to imply a connection between Jesus’ sacrificial death and military service. For instance, John 15:13 is a favorite verse often quoted against a backdrop of patriotic photos.
But even mainline and progressive Christian groups, though often more cautious about using their Christian faith to explicitly endorse specific wars, often struggle to honor individual service members and veterans while condemning the death and destruction caused by war.
Oftentimes, it is much easier for progressive and mainline congregations to ask veterans to stand up before the congregation on Veteran’s Day, offer a round of applause and a quick prayer, and then quickly move on with the rest of the service.
But neither response: blindly glorifying war nor ignoring its devastation and impact honor veterans or service members and neither are faithful responses to the Gospel.
If American Christians truly want to live out their faith and also honor veterans and service members, we need to unabashedly speak out against war and hold our political leaders responsible for sending our service members to kill and die in wars that ultimately cause more harm than good.
It’s not enough to nod our head in sadness when we hear that a service member has been killed in a war zone or another veteran/service member took their own life, but we need to be committed to ending the very wars that force them to kill or be killed.
It’s not enough to offer lip service and empty words of thanks, but we, as a nation need to listen to the stories of our veterans and service members and really grapple with what we ask them to do when we send them on our behalf to fight wars; wars that most of us only acknowledge on the rare occasion the make front page news.
Most Americans have at least a surface level understanding of the pain that war can cause service members and veterans. We are aware of the occasional news article that depicts service members with physical and mental wounds.
As Adam Dowd, a Lutheran Pastor and Veteran who enlisted to escape poverty writes,
“Veteran’s Day wasn’t always called that. This day was originally known as Armistice Day, a day established at the end of the First World War to work for peace. Instead, it has become a day where we put soldiers on pedestals in order to assuage our guilt about the ways that our country uses us up and spits us out, discards us once we are no longer useful in protecting the United States’ imperialistic economic interests abroad. Many of us feel conflicted when you say things to us like, “Thank you for your service.” Those empty words only serve to make the people who say them feel good while ignoring the underlying issues. Some of my comrades in Veterans for Peace will say in response, “What I did wasn’t service,” and point towards teachers and firefighters and social workers who truly serve communities. We feel horrible about the things we participated in. We weren’t serving anyone but white supremacist capitalistic greed. We were being used.
This Veteran’s Day I urge you, that if you truly want to support veterans, to stop putting us on pedestals as “heroes” and furthering a narrative that leads many of us into conflicts based on immoral premises, causing us to kill, be killed, or suffer irreparable moral injury. If you want to support soldiers, create pathways out of poverty and towards education that aren’t paid for by blood money.” (Adam Dowd’s Read full article here)
We are aware that some veterans suffer from PTSD. (Between 11-20% of veterans that served in Iraq and Afghanistan) . But oftentimes we shed a quick tear, offer a quick prayer, and then go on with our lives.
Less known is the deep spiritual wound that war can cause among service members. Moral injury is a term coined by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and it seeks to express the deep suffering and anguish that war causes to those sent to fight in it.
Syracuse University’s The Moral Injury Project defines moral injury as: “the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”
Journalist Diane Silver depicts it as, “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.”
When we as a society send our service members to war we are asking them to commit and witness acts that in any other circumstance would be viewed as unacceptable and morally wrong. By sending our service members to war we are asking them to bear witness to the deaths of their friends and of civilians.
We are asking them to make split second life and death choices: is this woman a terrorist or an innocent civilian?
If we stop that convoy for a child, will that place my friends in danger or should I run them over?
And if after that split second decision it turns out that the woman ends up not being a terrorist or a child does not move out of the way, our response as a society tends to be, “oh well. It wasn’t your fault. That woman shouldn’t have looked so threatening. Or that child should have gotten out of the way.”
And then we change the subject.
Yet by making such statements we downplay the very real moral quandary the service member was placed in and the devastation of killing someone. We also ignore our responsibility as a nation.
We send our service members to war and yet refuse to hear the reality of war. We refuse to hear the complexity of war: that it isn’t always easy to divide the world into “we are the good guys, they are the bad guys.”
We refuse to acknowledge that real people on all sides are killed and physically and spiritually wounded. Our service members who died are turned into martyrs whose full humanity is ignored.
What matters is that they died for the country: the hopes and dreams they had, the struggles they experienced are ignored. Service members who survive are treated as stock figures to be paraded and listened to only when they reinforce our views of the nation and of war.
And civilians killed in wars overseas are reduced to collateral damage. Both service members and civilians are dehumanized and turned into caricatures.
Dr. Kelly Denton Borhaug in her book And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War Culture not only talks about the individual wounds war causes to service members and veterans, but the ways in which every facet of United States society is geared towards furthering the US war machine: from the movies we watch which if not directly sponsored by the US military often depicts the glory of war while glossing over the devastation, to the billions of dollars spent on war and war related expenses, to how religious language justifies war.
Dr. Denton-Borhaug makes it clear that if we as a nation truly care about our service members and veterans, we need to shoulder our fair share of the responsibility for the wars that are waged and we need to recognize and dismantle the structural and cultural forces that lead to the idea that war should be glorified and that it is unavoidable.
She explains, “… moral injury is not like a lightning strike, or tsunami. Its violence and harm grow out of the structural and cultural violence of the social world humans have built. Thus we share collective moral responsibility. We cannot-should not-rest at ease with this destruction, this pain, this death.” (pg.196)
So what can we, especially those of us who identify as Christians in the US, do to truly honor our veterans and service members? We can start by refusing to glorify war. We can stop turning it into an object of sacred worship to be defended at all costs.
We can insist on rehumanizing war and seeing all sides of the conflict as actual human beings who are beloved Children of God. We can start by refusing to worship a God that views war as an unmitigated good or as part of “his” divine will. We can also listen with open hearts to the stories told by our veterans and service members.
We can advocate for an end to war.