How to Treat Veterans in Your Church
How to Treat Veterans in Your Church
This Sunday was only the eighth time, in the 54 years that it has been celebrated, that Veterans Day fell on a Sunday. It was also the first Sunday after a long and vitriolic campaign, so the observance probably passed unnoticed in many pulpits and congregations. But Veterans Day often passes unnoticed in non-election years, too—just as veterans' needs and experiences are often overlooked in churches throughout the year.
Veterans are everywhere; we stand behind you in the grocery store line, sit next to you in class, and worship beside you in church every week. What we have in common with one another is not always the easiest bond to understand. Some say the martial fraternity is made up of courage, tenacity, and strength. To be sure, what I saw in my own combat deployment in 2004 reflected heights of human charity I've failed to witness before or since; soldiers standing in the line of fire for one another, risking their lives for civilians and comrades alike.
But there is another trait we veterans hold tragically in common. In 2009, CBS conducted a study that found over 17 veterans killed themselves every day (they also explain the numbers), a rate higher than any other recorded in our nation's history. More recently, it was found that current members of the United States military were taking their own lives at a rate of one every day, itself another tragic statistical record of epic proportions. Suicide is currently the leading cause of death among our troops, those men and women we ask God to bless.
It is a partial truth to say that the martial fraternity is held together by common virtues. As evidenced by those startling statistics, the other half of that truth is that we hold in common feelings of mental and spiritual despair that can lead to suicidal ideation and self-harm. Just this past Election Day, when we exercised the gift of democratic process that military members of the past helped ensure, 17 veterans and one service member took their own lives. It happened yesterday, the day on which we are called to express our gratitude for their service, a service less than 1 percent of the American population is willing to shoulder. And it will happen again today, as banks and other offices continue to observe Veterans Day.
As Christians, we have a dual call; not just to recognize people for their good deeds but to help reconcile people to their loving Creator. Pastors, priests, and other religious leaders who have been called to ministry have veterans in their midst and must minister to their unique needs. Here are some ideas, from a veteran who has seen both successes and failures. Some all of them might not translate directly to your own congregation, but I hope they germinate and sprout more ideas.
1.Do not "out" veterans in your congregation.To honor the veterans in your congregation, think twice before asking veterans to stand during the service. To be sure, military service is to be celebrated. But much of it also needs to be mourned; doing the things that must be done in war takes a heavy emotional and spiritual toll. By asking veterans to identify themselves, you risk exposing wounds that need tending, not just heroes who deserve to be celebrated. Listen carefully to your congregation and discern care individually; what works for one veteran (like being recognized for their service) can be harmful for another (who might have had to commit necessary evil and whose conscience has not yet been reconciled). And find ways to both celebrate and mourn the realities of military duty in corporate worship.
2. Say something. After over a decade at war, veterans are being met with deafening and ambiguous silence. Months go by in the news without mention of the fact that men and women are still dying in Afghanistan. For those who are recently returned, the silence makes clear that for America, war is not a subject to be talked about, not to be shared with the community that ultimately sent you in their name and with their blessing. I've heard the silence described in military terms my compatriots hear on duty; "Shut up and drive on." But church is not supposed to be silent, solitary, and stoic. Silence is not an option, it is a betrayal that forces us to shoulder the burden of moral discernment alone, perpetuating the very isolation Christ breaks by being the Word. Rather than demand identification by asking that they stand, evoke participation by making clear the relevancy of military service to the life of faith. Several military personnel appear in the New Testament. Soldiers are whispering to you from the pages of the Gospels and, at the same time, looking up to you from the pews. Listen to the former and you will certainly have the attention of the latter.
3. Let veterans self-define. During and after Vietnam, many veterans were met with condemnation and scorn, and early on in the Global War on Terror, we were met with platitudinous gratitude. People should not be either villainized or venerated simply for being veterans; we must not focus exclusively on either their failures or successes, since every veteran has a bit of both. Monsters or heroes, veterans are still human beings capable of doing ill or good. Within a worship service, or one-on-one in pastoral relationships, be sure not to assume anything about a veteran's service, good or bad. It is almost certain that he or she (and warriors across time) did things they are proud of, things for which they feel shame, and many things they simply cannot easily label. Neither should you, at least not without their guidance. Instead, see the moral upheaval as a gift to the church, a reminder that nobody is merely as evil or charitable as his or her best or worst actions suggest. We all fall short of the glory of God and yet are redeemed by the work of his son, Jesus Christ. Do not feed our ego or our bad consciences; feed our souls.
Notice a similarity between those we would call monsters and those we would call hero; the men tried at Nuremburg said they were "just following orders," while numerous Congressional Medal of Honor winners have said they were "just doing [their] jobs." It is a thin line between sinner and saint, between the violence we condone and the violence we condemn. The silence of the church forces that distinction upon the shoulders of an increasingly young fighting force. The average age of WWII soldiers was 29, and 12 percent of Americans served; for Vietnam it was 23, and about 9 percent of the population served. For the Global War on Terror, the average age of a soldier being deployed for the first time is only 19, and less than 1 percent have served.
Ours is a generation insulated from war. Those who have served, like me, are facing a return home to communities increasingly ill-prepared for the unique traumas GWOT veterans faced. As Christians, we too often fall into partisan camps equally isolated from the lived experience of combat. We have lost touch not only with our own veterans, but with traditions that might otherwise heal them. For example, did you know that Veterans Day is also the feast day for a 4th century bishop by the name of Martin? After being assigned to a unit that protected Caesar, he told Julian at the Battle of Worms that as a Christian he could not fight (though he protected the emperor for 25 years prior, before being sent to the battlefield). He left his career in the army to wander the countryside healing the sick, eventually being cajoled into becoming Bishop of Tours.
Martin is not the only soldier who changed church history Francis of Assisi was a soldier and prisoner of war who turned his back on war to adopt extreme poverty in obedience to God's command to rebuild the church. Ignatius laid down his sword and armor at the foot of a statue of Mary in 1522 and devoted himself to education (without the benefit of a GI Bill). He went on to found the Jesuits, God's own Marines known for devoted service.
If church history isn't your denomination's cup of tea, the New Testament has a number of passages to reflect upon: the soldiers at Jesus' baptism in Luke 3:14 (which might not say what you think); the soldiers overseeing Jesus' passion who mocked him only to repent and confess him Son of God (days before any apostle mustered the same courage); Cornelius the "devout and God-fearing" centurion from Acts 10; or the sea-borne Julius (a participant in Paul's nearly Eucharistic meal) of Acts 27. Since my conversion in 2006, I have not once heard a sermon preached on a Sunday that dealt directly with any of these figures. If I had, I imagine it would have saved me (or any devout and God-fearing veteran) months or years of searching for where our particular story, our experience in the military, had relevant and meaningful things to say to and hear from this life of faith we call Christianity.
Tragically, I've rarely (if ever) heard of a pastor taking the initiative to teach that the martial story has an integral place in the Bible and in our shared Christian identity. When it has been attempted, most of what I've heard has been little more than partisanship. Military service does not guarantee our place in either hell or in heaven, but it does teach us that the greatest love that we can have for one another is to lay down our lives for our friends. Warriors across Christian history have loved the church, would die for the church. There is not a single veteran I've spoken to in six years in whom the holy fire of loyal service has been extinguished. Do not overlook them.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is the author of Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience.