To acknowledge that military veterans can help us deepen our understanding of and commitment to peace.
Download Returning Veterans curriculum pdf.
From 2003 to early 2004, Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq were physically and sexually abused, humiliated, tortured, raped and killed. In the aftermath of this scandal, a young U.S. soldier and evangelical Christian, Joshua Casteel, was sent to the prison to work as an Arab language interrogator.
During his time in Iraq, Joshua reflected more deeply on his Christian faith, and became troubled by the growing contradictions he sensed between his role as an interrogator and his identity as a follower of Christ.
One day, during his interrogation of a self-described jihadist from Saudi Arabia, the contradictions became all too glaring. Eager to trip up this composed and confident young Saudi, Joshua asked him, "Why did you come to Iraq to kill?" The young Saudi quickly turned the question back on Joshua, asking, "Why did you come here to kill?" A lengthy discussion ensued in which both Joshua and the young Saudi talked about their duty to their people and their country, Joshua noting his Christian faith and the Saudi referencing his Muslim faith.
Finally, the young Saudi looked at Joshua and said,
"You claim to be a Christian, but you are not following the teachings of Christ to love your enemies, to pray for those that persecute you, and to turn the other cheek." Joshua immediately felt the irony of being schooled on the Sermon on the Mount by a self-declared jihadist.
Joshua soon realized that he had lost all objectivity in the interrogation and could no longer continue. In a 2007 interview with Mennonite Central Committee, he reflected: "We were both idealistic kids devoted to our people, and devoted to our religions, willing to kill and to sacrifice … wouldn't it be great if we were both able to put down our weapons and find a different path?"1
This experience became the energizing catalyst leading Joshua out of the military with a conscientious objector discharge. Joshua's vibrant voice for peace, sparked in the dark cauldron of war, blessed many until his death from cancer in 2012.
Isaiah 9:2-6 (NRSV)
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
"You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
"For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
"For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the
garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
"For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Micah 4:1-4 (NRSV)
"In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.
"Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.'
"For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
"He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken."
Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries of one another, living in Judah as the great empire of Assyria flexed its military power, conquering Samaria (northern kingdom, 2 Kings 15:29, 17:5-6) and marching southward into Judah. There was a climate of fear, anxiety and trauma in the land.
When word reached the king of Judah that the armies of Syria were already in the territory of Israel, he and all his people were so terrified that they trembled like trees shaking in the wind (Isaiah 7:2).
In addition to the terror of war, there was much violence and social oppression. Your rich people exploit the poor, and all of you are liars … there is not an honest person left in the land, no one loyal to God. Everyone is waiting for a chance to commit murder (Micah 6:12, 7:2). It is striking that out of this context of violence, fear and oppression, arises some of the most soaring poetry of hope, peace and security found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.
Isaiah's explicit reference to the gruesome reality of combat (the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood) is stunning, placed as it is just before his announcement of a child to be born who would usher in an era of peace. The boots and uniforms of war are burned to make way for a kingdom based on justice and peace, one that we see coming to fruition in Jesus (Luke 4:18). Likewise, Micah's poetry about turning swords into plowshares follows on the heels of his scathing indictment of Jerusalem, "You are building God's city, Jerusalem, on a foundation of murder and injustice" (Micah 3:10). Micah's vision is born out of a love for his people and a longing to see Jerusalem become a place of peace and security.
As is evidenced by the story of Joshua Casteel and the experiences of many soldiers/veterans, war and military service itself can become a catalyst for deepening our commitment to peace. Indeed, we might ask if such profound visions of a world at peace can ever spring from a people whose lives are untouched by war and its horrors. This is not an argument for war. Rather, it is to acknowledge that perhaps it is the voices of warriors and veterans among us who can awaken the gospel seeds of peace planted in our congregations, yet often found withering and unwatered.
Dick Davis, former Army chaplain who currently serves as conference minister in the Pacific Southwest Conference of Mennonite Church USA, is one of many such voices. His thoughts on allegiance, arising from his experience with allegiance to "the god of war," invite us to think critically with our youth about the lure of military enlistment in a time of endless war.
I realized that the type of allegiance that the military calls from … people is an idolatrous type of allegiance. It calls you to a different God … to the god of war … to the god of destruction … to the god of anything else than the gospel of peace and justice and nonviolence. Ultimately, I just had to say I have given my allegiance incorrectly to the United States of America. I need to retract that and pull that back and then give it back to Jesus Christ because he is the only one that has the right … to call from us this kind of allegiance.2
Evan Knappenberger, a former intelligence analyst in the Iraq War, describes the witness for peace offered by veterans in this way:
St. Paul is perhaps the greatest of all ex-intelligence professionals. Having spent years as "Saul" hunting down and eliminating Christians, he was called by Christ, quite literally, to quit his violence …
Through the conversion of Saul, Christ sends us a clear and relevant message: It is precisely those soldiers with dark and heavy hearts, whose consciences have turned, who will lay down their weapons and take up the cross. Christ is also telling us that the real moral authorities are not political or military leaders, but rather the formerly dejected and the radically transformed. Though nations wantonly continue to send their precious sons and daughters off to kill—then ignore, jail, and often destroy those sons and daughters who finally object to the violence—Christ's peace also rises in the hearts of these weary ones.3
Jesus' startling entreaty to love our enemies, his engagement with the hated Samaritans, and prayer for his crucifiers all call us to a way of living that contrasts sharply with the "shock and awe" of military intervention. As we engage with the veterans among us, together we will learn to read our gospel with new eyes.
1. Why do you think the bold and sweeping visions of peace present in Isaiah and Micah emerged from such desperate environments where the people were so terrified that they "trembled like trees shaking in the wind?" Where might such voices and visions be coming from today?
2. How might listening to the voices of veterans lead us into a deeper relationship with God's Spirit and Jesus' way of peace?
3. How might the voices of veterans be helpful to young people considering post-high school options and military enlistment? How do the voices of veterans contrast with those of military recruiters? How does your church help youth find alternatives to military enlistment?
4. Consider reciting the following "pledge of allegiance" each day: I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ and to God's kingdom for which he died, one spirit-filled people the world over, indivisible, with love and
justice for all.4 Recite this pledge together at the end of your lesson.
1 For the complete interview, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM8jjqxtSpY.
2 See Change of Command, video production by Mennonite Central Committee, 1998.
3 See Sojourners, July 2011; http://sojo.net/magazine/2011/07/stranger-strange-land.
4 See "The Pledge of Allegiance," by June Alliman Yoder and J. Nelson Kraybill, http://www.thirdway.com/peace/?Page=1843|Pledge+of+Allegiance.