To explore the barrier-crossing impulse of the gospel, and reflect on its implications for followers of Jesus in a nation at war.
Many members of the traditional peace churches have had little to no contact with military personnel or military veterans. For some congregations, the place to begin is to name and reflect on the perceived barriers between pacifists and veterans.
Download Returning Veterans curriculum pdf.
Learning about veterans and myself
For a little over a year, I have … co-facilitated a spirituality group for veterans. My partner is a chaplain from the VA hospital. The group meets monthly at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin.
Our intention is to provide a safe space for veterans to explore their spirituality. For many veterans, military experience damages their most important relationships, including their relationship with God. That damage can leave some veterans feeling disoriented and alone. Our primary agenda is to think together about what it might look like to repair whatever connection is broken.
I often wonder what I am doing in that circle. As a good Mennonite, I am comfortable remaining behind the walls that separate me from those participating in the military. And, frankly, it's easier that way, neatly dividing the world into us and them. On my side of the wall are pacifists and the innocent victims of military violence. On the other side are those who contribute to that violence, soldiers included.
But, here I am, sitting in a circle of veterans. They say things that affirm every negative feeling I have about the military. They say things that challenge those feelings. And I am surprised as one stereotype after another is broken open, allowing me to see past my carefully tended walls to the humanity we share. I hear a longing for love, for safety, for communion, for salvation.
It's safe to say that the Pharisees considered Jesus to be a royal pain. They worked hard to maintain the law and the tradition. They believed the future of their people depended upon it.
Then along came this upstart rabbi who blithely crossed every traditional and legal boundary. Jesus ate with anybody. He touched everybody. He turned no one away.
And when his disciples tried to draw some boundaries of their own, Jesus took a child on his lap and revealed something about the kingdom of God. It is, as Jesus
described it, a very untidy place. The disciples were
constantly surprised by who they met there.
It turns out that God loves all people. We knew that, right? It turns out that Jesus calls us to love all people. And that's where the argument starts.
What do we mean by "love?" By "all people?" Don't people have to change their ways before entering into God's reign? Look at how they live and what they've done.
And off we go. Brick by brick, building another wall. Protecting ourselves, or the tradition or the community, by naming someone as beyond the call to love.
I am still a convinced Mennonite pacifist. I remain
opposed to violence, whether committed by individuals or blessed by the state. I still believe that war is sin. My convictions are intact.
But none of that excuses me from loving others, including military veterans. Neither the strength of my convictions nor the rightness of my theology can overcome the call to love everyone Jesus loves. Weird as it may be, I now hear Jesus calling me to step over the line and love veterans.
When you look over the borderline, who do you see? Only you can say. But I can tell you this: Jesus is right there with them. And he's calling you to come on across.
Ron Adams is pastor of Madison (Wisconsin) Mennonite Church. The article originally ran in the July issue of The Mennonite (themennonite.org/opinion/learning-veterans/).1
John 4:5-9 (NRSV)
"So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son, Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
"A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink.' (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?' (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)"
Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)
"When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, 'Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.' And he said to him,
'I will come and cure him.' The centurion answered, 'Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go," and he goes, and to another, "Come," and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this," and the slave does it.' When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, 'Truly, I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' And to the centurion Jesus said, 'Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.' And the servant was healed in that hour."
Who are you? At the core of your identity how do you define yourself and the communities to which you belong? How have you experienced relating to communities whose identities are very different from your own?
Human identities are rich and meaningful. We celebrate family stories and the creative expressions of culture found in language, music, food and art. And so we should. However, when identity markers such as race, ethnicity, gender, politics and religion become closely linked to social and political power, they have often become the basis for exclusion, oppression, and immense human suffering. As noted by Iraq War veteran Michael Yandell, "The moment one group of people can be labeled evil and another good, is the moment people start dying."2
And so it was in first-century Palestine, where Jesus lived amidst revolutionary movements under the harsh boot of Roman oppression. Yet Jesus refused to dehumanize those caught in the web of power and exclusion. Indeed, part of the prophetic mission of Jesus Christ, the prophets, and the Christian church is to restore an identity of wholeness to all the people of the earth (Genesis 22:18; Psalm 117; Romans 9; Galatians 3), to those who have forgotten what it means to be humble children of God, and to those who have been told they cannot be God's children.
On a warm day in Samaria, Jesus approached a Samaritan woman by a well. With a simple request for water, he ignored all the social conventions that would have kept them in separate spaces, and a profound theological conversation ensued. And one day in Capernaum, this Jesus who taught us to love our enemies encountered a Roman military officer who represented an oppressive occupation army. We don't know what stirrings of resentment or mistrust may have been clanging in Jesus' spirit. Yet he responded to the officer's need, reminding his hearers that the boundaries we create may exclude people with great faith, and include those with little faith.
These barrier-crossing encounters involved risk for Jesus, the Samaritan woman, and the centurion. What would become of their reputations? Becoming the "whole people" that God calls us to be is a life-long barrier-crossing, risk-taking journey. This is not merely an exercise in ethnic, social, or ideological pluralism. It's about opening ourselves to the movement of God's Spirit so that our faith communities reflect the wideness of God's mercy and the breadth of the human family.
The biblical story calls us to cast off our old identities and to become "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:16-18), so that we no longer judge one another by "human standards." Peace, reconciliation and nonviolence are important identity markers for this new community of faith, rooted in Jesus' life and teaching. This will stretch us. Can we hold in our embrace soldiers, veterans, and all who struggle to survive in lands tormented by the searing cauldron of war? Surely, as we "cross barriers" to engage with others, we, too, are transformed.
1. Has following Jesus ever led you to cross barriers in the name of love and mercy? How did it feel? What fears or anxieties did it create? How were your own faith and identity impacted?
2. What are the natural ways that members of your congregation might interact with soldiers and veterans? What common values do you share?
3. What would it look like in your community for pacifists and soldiers/veterans to cross the barriers that exist between them? How would you define these barriers? What does each group have to offer the other? What does each group need from the other?
4. In what ways has your church community created barriers that are difficult for people to cross?
5. What are your favorite stories of Jesus crossing barriers? Your favorite stories of the church crossing barriers?
1"Learning about veterans and myself," by Ron Adams, The Mennonite, July 1, 2014.
2 See video interview with Michael Yandell at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-NdZ6p7oIs.