Sermon for 8-30-2015

August 30, 2015
An Unnecessary Subject
Isaiah 2:1-5; Revelation 22:1-5
I’m going to share something you probably never would have thought about me. I first started seeing my trainer, Natalie, in the hopes of getting in shape for the Army’s entrance physical. When Cody was here the last time, having just enlisted in the Army but not yet having gone for basic training, he and I talked quite a lot about military chaplaincy, and I seriously investigated the possibility. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t, even then, physically able to do it—and now I’m too old. But it was something I looked into.

At that point I had not yet heard about the work of Rita Nakashima Brock and the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, the Disciples seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. But as soon as I did, I understood that this was sort of the reason I wanted to investigate the question of becoming an Army or Army Reserve or National Guard chaplain. Dr. Brock and her colleagues at Brite are studying moral injury and the challenges it presents to veterans returning to everyday life from combat situations, and teaching pastors and others how to minister to people with moral injury.

Even if you’ve never heard the term moral injury before, you may understand pretty easily what it is—and how it’s separate and distinct from post-traumatic stress disorder, something else returning veterans often deal with.

We’re all taught from a young age not to hurt other people—and especially not to kill other people. But in a combat situation, that’s oftentimes exactly what must be done—either you hurt or kill the enemy, or they hurt or kill you. Does that make it okay, because it’s necessary? If killing someone is a sin and a crime here in Sac City, then what about when we’re in the midst of a firefight in a combat zone?

The reason moral injury needs to be addressed is that in combat, things we were taught were wrong become necessary, and even celebrated. There isn’t any way around that, as long as there is a need for wars to be fought; but it can leave deep wounds on a veteran’s heart and soul, and those wounds need to be tended and healed as surely as the wounds caused by IEDs and bullets and shrapnel need to be tended and healed.

In college I took a women’s studies class in which we looked at some advertising from American magazines after the end of the second World War. One really stands out to me, although I can’t remember what product it was advertising. It gave advice to the wife whose husband was returning from the war. One thing it said was, “He probably won’t want to talk about what happened over there,” and urged her not to press him.

While the advice was addressed to women with returning husbands, I wonder if there wasn’t also a message in that for those husbands, too: “Put it behind you. Don’t talk about it. Get on with your life.” But was it that easy?

There’s a movie that shows up on TV now and then; it’s a good movie—won 7 Oscars, if I remember correctly—but I think it’s hard to watch. I’m not sure how well The Best Years of Our Lives did when it was first released back in 1946, as our boys[1] returned from World War II. We celebrated victory—and rightly so—against the monstrous evil of Nazi Germany and the brutal imperialism of Hirohito and Tojo’s Japan. But not everyone who came home was able simply to put the war behind them and go on with normal, happy lives. The movie follows three veterans who return with physical and spiritual injuries that mean they can’t just walk right back into normal life like nothing ever happened.

Like I said, I don’t know how well it may have done in 1946; the story it told didn’t really fit the dominant narrative. Maybe some of you saw it then, or heard or read reviews, and you know. All I can do is guess.

Phyllis Tickle told a story that illustrates the difficulty a veteran with PTSD and probably also moral injury had coming back even from a necessary, and by all standards of measurement, just war like the Second World War.

She spoke of “Joe” and “Rosie,” a couple who were married and had a child before Pearl Harbor; but when that catastrophic event happened, they both stepped up and did their duty—Joe marching off to fight, and Rosie taking her place in a wartime factory. Then victory was declared, and Joe came marching home to Rosie, who left behind her factory job and resumed the work of tending their home and family. And the parades, ads, movies and such all said, “Joe is a hero,” and he was.

But Joe woke screaming at night, and he often drank too much to keep the memories at bay. Rosie was taught that divorce was a sin, and so she never once considered it, even when she was bruised and battered as Joe lashed out from his pain. She changed her mind when Joe threw their daughter against a wall one night and broke her arm.[2]

Sometimes war is necessary. There are some who say we Christians ought not participate in it—but I don’t think we can always do that. Hitler and Tojo had to be stopped, and there were a great many Christians who believed they needed to be part of stopping them. Who am I to say they were wrong? I will not say it—and I won’t say it about folks who have signed on to fight in the war on terror, played out on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

But even when the cause is noble and just, those fighting for it may come home wounded, often in ways we cannot see—damaged brains, broken minds, spirits, and hearts. And I think that’s why Isaiah, and many who came before and after him, have longed for the day when we can lay down our swords and shields, when they can be placed back in the forge and remade into plowshares and pruning hooks, implements that give rather than take life.

The question is, when will that day come?

Our men and women are still in harm’s way, even though the fighting is supposed to be over in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan. Now horrific violence has erupted again in Iraq and also in Syria, and people are fleeing that violence—sometimes to meet death in other, no less awful, ways, as we heard from Austria in the last few days. Treasured historical and archaeological sites are being destroyed by this fighting, and between this huge cultural cost and the equally horrible human cost, people are wondering if the United States should intervene. There are civil wars in progress in various places, and so many kinds of violence and mistreatment being visited on people all over the world even if they are not technically fighting a war.

When will we be able to lay down our weapons? When will we lay down the burdens of physical, spiritual, mental and moral injury suffered even in just wars? When will we be able to cancel the classes and training sessions where young men and women continue to study the terrible, but still terribly necessary, subject of how to wage war?

The Bible doesn’t really give us an answer. Isaiah says it’s “in days to come.” Some translations render that as “in the last days”—in other words, when the world as we know it comes to an end and the Reign of God is ushered in on earth as it already is in heaven. And I think that’s why the spiritual has us anticipating the day when we lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside

Perhaps more than any other body of religious music, African-American spirituals, born as they were out of the experience of the brutality of slavery, are keenly aware of the brokenness of this world and the need for total redemption—not just individual forgiveness of individual sins, but the healing and rebuilding of the whole creation[3] into the kingdom of God. Spirituals often speak of the last days, of the end of this age of violence and injustice—because no one who has lived through slavery and its aftermath, still very much a dark stain at the heart of American society, can deny that we’re not very likely to be able to heal the sin and woundedness of the world through our own efforts. So the spirituals speak of “that great gettin’-up morning,” and of a “sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home,” and of a day when we will “walk in Jerusalem, just like John”—John the Revelator, of course, the one whose vision is presented in the last book of the Bible.

On the one hand, when a people is treated cruelly by this world, it’s natural to long for the world to come. On the other hand, though, the vision of that world to come can help us endure the troubles of this one.

And on the other hand, that vision is an assignment for us, for the here-and-now. We don’t need to resign ourselves to the difficulties of this world, to the widespread evil and violence here, and to the necessity of learning how to wage war. In fact, we must not resign ourselves to those difficulties.

The day when all of humanity can finally lay down our weapons and our burdens by the riverside—and surely the river the spiritual describes is that crystal river that flows from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem—may not come until the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. But as Eugene Boring said in the closing pages of his commentary on Revelation, “If this is where the world, under the sovereign grace of God, is finally going, then every thought, move, deed in some other direction is out of step with reality and is finally wasted.”

Our home may be “over Jordan,” and we have not yet reached that “promised land, where all is peace”; but what if, as far as it depends on us, we go ahead and start doing our best to live in peace with all? It probably won’t remove the necessity for some of us to enter military service and possibly fight and risk injury or death in that service—because “as far as it depends on us” doesn’t entirely remove the reality that some others have no intention of doing their best to live in peace with us. Not right away, at least; but if we continue to seek peace at every opportunity, isn’t there at least the possibility that one day we will reach a time when our young men and women don’t have to study war any more? And isn’t that worth trying?

Notes

[1] So often we speak of the returnees from World War II as “our boys,” forgetting that some of “our boys” were women—like my mother-in-law, Lt. Ann Meloy White of the Navy Nurse Corps.

[2] The rest of Phyllis’ story has to do with the way the church—steeped in the sola scriptura notion that divorce was a sin—treated Rosie and her daughter. To make a long story short, they were as battered by the church as they had been by the wounded Joe.

[3] This is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase tikkun ‘olam—healing of the universe. It’s not just Christians who long for God’s kingdom of justice, righteousness and peace.

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