This June, CT drew attention to veterans’ experiences in the cover story “Formed by War.” To continue the discourse sparked by that story, alongside the Centurions Guild, CT is hosting an online series called Ponder Christian Soldiers. (Read the introduction to the series here, and the following installments on how a PTSD diagnosis can help and harm, the soldiers of church history, what Jesus said to a chaplain after a suicide bombing, why soldiers crave the extremes of active duty, why we need a better framework for ministering to military members, and why one member of the military is not a conscientious objector.)
In what seemed like a fever dream, I found myself peddling hot dogs at a local rodeo one hot September night. I guess that’s what you get when you work as a pastoral intern for a rural congregation in eastern North Carolina. Townsfolk crowded into the bleachers as cowboys and cowgirls tested their strength and dexterity against mighty beasts of burden. After hours of competition, the lights suddenly lowered, and a spotlight shone in the middle of the arena. The announcer proclaimed the heroic deeds of faithful American soldiers. A hush came over the crowd.
The announcer directed the crowd’s attention to a cowboy dressed in dazzling white entering the arena. The announcer told the crowd that this was the "Christian cowboy" who "rides for the American way of life." While "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" played in the background, the Christian cowboy rode around the arena, with each circuit carrying the flag of a different military branch. The fervor of the crowd grew until the final lap, when the cowboy carried the American flag in one hand and the Christian flag in the other. As the rider came to a halt in the center of the arena, the crowd was invited to pray. Even the horse bowed his head on cue.
One need not attend a rural rodeo to be confronted with this confluence of American civil religion, Christian virtue, and military idealism. We see similar confluences in Christian worship, particularly around patriotic holidays. During these services, a mythic story of American superiority and patriotic self-sacrifice is proclaimed, superseding the individual, highly complex, and sometimes painful experiences of actual military servicemen and women. Too often we equate Christ’s sacrifice for our freedom from sin and death with the sacrifice of servicemen and women for the freedoms of a western liberal democracy. We sing anthems that reverence God and country, but speak little of the lived experiences of veterans.
We ask veterans to stand and receive our praise and appreciation for their service without any real effort to hear and understand their stories. These types of actions leave veterans no option but to receive our indiscriminate praise, regardless of how they might actually feel about their own service. They are given the title "war hero" and are expected to shrug off their combat experiences like John Wayne in The Longest Day. In the narrative of America, they must act no other way, for if they regret their actions or lament their service, we—as citizens of these United States—are to blame. So instead we offer veterans our praise and appreciation, and in so doing reflect a poor understanding of the morally complex reality of military service.
This is especially troubling when we consider that the foundational imperative of Christian worship is to remember God’s story of salvation rightly. We are to truthfully recount both our own waywardness and God’s steadfast faithfulness. Thus, we must always be mindful of whose story we are telling and whether we are remembering it rightly. Unfortunately, the American mythic story has no room for waywardness, regret, or lament. It can only proclaim American rectitude and is therefore insufficient for the task of Christian worship.
I remember one particular patriotic worship service I experienced as a young boy. During the service, an older Vietnam veteran, weighed down by the many medals on his chest, marched the American flag down the aisle as the congregation sang "God Bless America." While we sang, a single tear rolled down his cheek. I remember wondering, “Why is he crying? Is he honored and overwhelmed by deeply patriotic feelings? Did he lose someone close to him in combat? Does he regret something he did or perhaps failed to do in Vietnam?” I never had the chance to ask these questions and hear his story in his own terms. It mattered little whether he was filled with pride or regret, because his story was not the one being remembered. Instead, the narrative was about American glory and triumph, not loss, regret, or trauma.
Other churches take a different approach to worship during patriotic holidays or military events. I remember attending one such church in March 2003, on the Sunday after the United States had invaded Iraq. The invasion had begun on Thursday, and it was all everyone was talking about. However, as we worshiped together, the events of the previous week—and the fact that many church members’ lives were about to change drastically— were not acknowledged. Perhaps church leaders wanted to avoid all appearance of condoning the war. Or perhaps they believed the invasion to be a moral failure on the part of the government. No matter the reason, the silence was its own message. My spirit wanted to call out to God in prayer for those who were being deployed and for a swift end to the violent conflict, but the worship service offered no opportunity to do so.
Both of these approaches are deficient in the confessional truth-telling that is required for Christian worship. As the people of God, we are called to remember our own stories rightly and tell those stories faithfully in light of God’s story of salvation. It matters how we tell our stories and the story of our country, because as the people of God, our stories have been grafted into his all-encompassing salvation epic.
And veterans are vital to telling the American story rightly in Christian worship. Asking veterans to stand and receive our praise and appreciation without first listening to their personal experience fails to give a complete account of God's faithfulness in times of trouble. As we cultivate relationships with veterans in our congregation, we can invite them to share their stories of triumph and of failure, of strength and of struggle, and we can pray for them accordingly. This can happen in the privacy of a pastor’s office, in the confines of a trusted small group, or—for those veterans who are prepared to share their testimonies publicly—during Sunday worship.
During these patriotic worship services, pastors can craft moments that honor the service and sacrifice of veterans, while also creating opportunities to acknowledge the tragic reality of war and to grieve the destruction and loss it brings. They can lead all of us, veterans and civilians alike, in remembering God’s story of salvation rightly and praying for peace in our war-torn world.
We want to invite conversation about the experiences of veterans. If you have a story to share, or a question to ask, direct those to Centurions Guild founder Logan Isaac at logan[at]centurionsguild.org.