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Towards a Theology of the Armed Forces

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Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 12:20 am
My brother is a Marine. Today is Veteran’s Day, and in considering him, two things have dawned on me for the first time.
Tags: forms of prayer to be used at sea, theodicy, redemption, just war, veteran's day, war

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“O ETERNAL Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who has compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end: Be pleased to receive into thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy…”
- The Book of Common Prayer (1662), ‘Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea’, 490

My brother is a Marine. I have, at best, nothing but the dull recognition that I will never understand the things that he has seen and experienced in war. But, today is Veteran’s Day, and in considering him, two things have dawned on me for the first time. On the one hand, that it is wrong of me, as a civilian, to resist reflecting upon the weight and meaning of this day; on the other hand, and again as a civilian, that it is my responsibility to be made emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually vulnerable by listening to the experiences of those who have served and who continue to serve in the armed forces. The purpose of this essay is to offer a brief theological reflection on Christianity and the military. It is not my intent, however, to write a piece on the justness of war, or any particular war or wars. Rather, I want to quickly sketch the groundwork of a theological appreciation of the armed forces – a groundwork that points, through the reality of military service, towards a redemption that is yet to come.

This may sound strange to some; it will sound deeply problematic to others. It seems to me that there are two major hurdles that need to be identified before the viability of my project can be broached. The first hurdle exists along a cultural axis. In the wake of 9/11, particularly for Christians who believe that the Second Gulf War is unjust, it has become popular to advocate pacifism, and to refuse the possibility of constructive reflection on topics such as war, violence, and coercion. Such a refusal, of course, is neither uniquely nor primarily Christian. One need only recall the various protest marches in 2003 that took place across the United States as our government prepared to go to war. For myself, these marches point to something rather dismal – namely, the subsumption of my generation’s political imagination to that of my parent’s generation. There is something uncomfortable about listening to Baby Boomers again singing the songs of their youth as a form of political protest. I have sometimes wondered if these protesters entertained fantasies of the Second Gulf War as a cultural watershed patterned upon the Vietnam War, for few can seriously deny that the 1960s, as a cultural artifact, has become a commodified body of history, apocrypha, and myth.

Thus, I ask, how much of contemporary Christian political theology is determined by the cultural aspirations of an aging generation? We do well to ask such a question; our ability to reflect theologically upon the armed forces does not occur in a historical vacuum. To borrow from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, we are “always already” conditioned by the historical and material circumstances that define us. If the 1960s constitute, to a greater or lesser degree, the horizon against which we here ponder the armed forces, then we need to critically engage the ways that the 1960s may both inspire and impoverish our current aspirations. Youthful idealism is no sure guide to theological wisdom.

The second hurdle exists along an ethical axis. Here, however, we must think differently than with the prior point; we cannot think of ethics as a context with justly varying degrees of influence. Ethics strives to ford the river of historical change. Even more importantly, Christian ethics aspires to a universal way of life for all people. A litany of Biblical passages could be faithfully deployed here – the prophecies of Isaiah come to mind, as does St. Paul’s baptismal theology – but the most important Scriptural text is undoubtedly Christ’s own command: “To you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you […] Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:27 – 28, 31). If, in this earliest form of Christian moral guidance, we witness a divine interruption of the human propensity for violent self-justification, how can there be any theological consideration of – let alone theological appreciation for – a profession that sometimes uses violence to accomplish its ends?

As a preliminary step in answering this question, I wish to reiterate my introductory point that a theology of the armed forces is not identical with, but is instead tangential to, a theology of just war. More specifically, the need for military protection points to something other than questions about the ethical uses of violence. Simply put, the armed forces points to the need for redemption. As a theological concept, redemption surely evokes and invites related considerations – oppression, liberation, forgiveness, and restoration come most immediately to mind. These may be seen, within the Christian narrative, in diverse but overlapping terms; they can be discussed in terms of personal or communal salvation, and they can be seen as this-worldly ideals whose pursuit is demanded by Christ himself. Such approaches are all fair. Yet, the armed forces may point to something still greater when they are seen in the light of an otherworldly redemption that is yet to come.

Human existence is often worked out with tremendous uncertainty, whether with or in spite of the unforeseen changes that pitilessly impose themselves upon us. There is

a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecc. 3:3 – 4)

Military acts are among the painful events that sometimes dictate the rhythms according to which we live, move, and have our being. The very existence of militaries in the nations of the world witnesses, even in the most corrupt regimes, that as human beings we are forced to recognize that safety and well-being must sometimes be fought for. These wars become the stuff of history books; they are the warp and the woof of local, national, and international memories, identities, and ideals. The loss of wars, the destruction that remains in their aftermath, and the trauma that sometimes continues unabated in what remains life, shape these same memories, identities, and ideals. The inarticulate cry of the suffering is pain’s temporal mockery of God – specifically the Logos, the uncreated Word which ordered all things in harmony at the beginning of creation (John 1:1 – 14). Sorrow punctuates even the victories inscribed upon the pages of history, because war has no victors, only losers of greater or lesser degree.

For some it may be tempting to try and explain topics such as sin in light of these sorts of claims. For others, they may be tempted to give a theological or existential meaning to pain. I cannot, in good conscience, engage in either of these speculative ventures. God alone is capable of justifying His acts, and God alone can justify the extent and duration of His seeming absences. We are, however, given the apocalyptic proclamation that Christ

will wipe every tear
from every eye.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain
will be no more.

These promises are oriented toward an oncoming historical event, when “the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). I propose that St. John’s words be understood as pointing not to a rejection of the past, but to the redemption of it. This passage indicates that God does not forget; only that which is old can be made new, as Christ promises (Rev. 21:5). The promise of resurrection, which animates John’s vision, means that the remains of bodies shall be gathered out of the dust, and that names remembered by God alone shall be restored to those upon whom they were originally bestowed. Then, the tears of mothers and fathers, of loved ones and friends will not be abandoned, but restored to those who wept them, and they will be comforted by God in their pain. To some, this Biblical message may give hope. That is a good thing. To others, these same words may inspire profound frustration, and even resentment. In this, there should be no shame. God is not afraid of these. Neither should we be.

In an ideal world, there would be no militaries. To borrow from John Lennon’s rather bland utopian hymn, in such a place we would all live as one. Insofar as militaries do what is noble and just, good and true, they may and should be praised. Insofar as militaries pursue victories in causes whose moral justification is ambiguous or unclear, and whose results seem trapped in a messianic future, we should tarry with and support the armed forces’ many members. In the unimaginable intensity of combat, none of us can begin to fathom the loyalties and sacrifices that are both exacted and given. And, amidst militaries at peace or at war, the promise of redemption may be heard, even if it is left unfulfilled. Perhaps this is enough. Even if it is not, the Church’s approach to the toil and service that defines military life should occur within a framework that recognizes, even if secular nations do not, that military service points to what military service cannot ultimately provide: an eternal peace. For this, we can and should be continually grateful.

This essay is dedicated to my brother, Matthew Guyer.
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