For lent this year, I am giving up silence.
I have been silent about what I see when I see this face, the face of 2001’s “best theologian,” according to TIME Magazine. This is a face of anti-military bias in the church, maybe THE face, being perhaps the most influential. The same shot was used for a 2015 book about his retirement, and I used it for a Twitter account that I curated for several years. In the picture, he is laughing at the expense of veterans. I know because it was me behind the camera, interviewing him.
The interview was filmed for an event I helped organize, and his was one of six we did. His laughter came more readily the longer the interview went, and it went so long that most lines didn’t make the cut. You can read an unedited transcript here, the line in question being
The people that most need to lament are usually the people that think they can celebrate Veterans Day without sadness… My hunch is, if you do a study of the people who are so gung-ho from having been in the military to wanting to show how important it is at Veterans Day, that they put on their little hats and all that, I’ll bet you that so many of them never killed anyone!
I remember laughing with him, but in the video footage I don’t hear myself, I only hear him; he was not laughing with veterans, or even a veteran, but at them, at me. I didn’t recognize it until much later. I feel I owe other Christian soldiers and veterans an apology for laughter I remember, but for which no evidence exists… or perhaps for being compliant with his belligerent methodology for half a decade or so.
For a long time I endorsed and tacitly approved of the Best theologian, for much of his work is indeed very good, maybe even “best.” But words always accompany action, and his actions have spoken against his words on many occasions. I’ll get to his actions shortly, but his words here are significant.
However pacifistic he may be, he still sees killing as meritocratic – to wear the “little hat,” you are supposed to have killed, which earns you the right to be “gung-ho,” which also means you are most in need of lamenting, for you celebrate without sadness. More importantly, to my point at least, is that “little” here is pejorative; it is meant to condescend, to assert a (moral) superiority over those who “put on their little hats and all that.”
I should have recognized the signs of self-righteousness when I saw them, but I continued to work within the systems of power and privilege in which I was embedded. It was in large part because of his work that I allowed the Christian tradition to make moral claims on my life. For refusing to carry a weapon as a Christian, I faced 1) the brig if the process failed and I was forced to witness to Christian convictions, 2) profound vulnerability on the battlefield if I succeeded, and 3) excommunication from the most meaningful moral community I’d known no matter how it all turned out. His work has had a significant effect not just on many veterans, but on the church in America as a whole. Awe sometimes blinds you to otherwise obvious blemishes…
For years, I took his claims and writings more seriously than he did, for he seems to allow no moral claims to be made upon his life by our shared tradition. This will be shown in other posts, later. Suffice it to say that he consistently acted in ways that contradicted his theology and basic Christian convictions about truthfulness. In one instance, I sat in on a lunchtime gathering in which he said aging scholars should gracefully retire in order to make room for emerging talent, but Aberdeen’s announcement that they would be bringing him to Scotland for two weeks each semester had all the rhetorical trappings of a modern day meat market; “The appointment confirms the world-class stature of our Divinity department and the strength of our ambitions.”
When I was organizing the conference mentioned above, he declined an opportunity to appear in person at his own institution, on a topic about which he had profited from writing, organized for a (federally protected) population that his work affected. Confronting him about the immunity from criticism his convenient absence reinforced, I gullibly listened to his defense, that as proof of his efforts to stimulate conversation, he had ‘gotten the Society [of Christian Ethics] to talk about war’ for the first time since 9/11. It turned out that, as president, he simply chose the theme for the year, which implies only the work of getting elected by his peers.
Because a prerequisite for membership in the society is being a PhD student, I thought he was doing me a favor by advocating for me to be allowed to attend the annual conference to society administrators. But it turns out anyone can attend if they pay the registration fee. What they cannot do, unless they are members, is submit papers or write for the journal, where innumerable conversations about war and military service occur, but from which I was barred in participating unless and until I too became a doctoral student. These scholarly debates shape ministers but they are dangerously abstracted from lived reality, though they are par for the course in academic theology. I watched for years as debates raged in the pages of publications from which I was effectively barred admission.
Give even cursory attention to the marginalization of soldiers and veterans in Church intelligentsia and you’ll notice that men and women who “put on their little hats and all that” are conspicuously absent from the tenured professorships at seminaries and Christian colleges. I know from my experience and that of others that a contributing factor is the shame that abstract, morally derogatory assumptions impart upon Christian soldiers, which has made higher education a hostile environment for the last three generations of veterans. Those who do take up the mantle of intellectual Christian service are expected to adhere to typically homogenous ideological preconceptions; conservatives mustn’t speak of the morally transgressive elements of military service while progressives are expected to self-flagellate ad infinitum in penance for the same. Both camps flatten the military to one monolithic, homogenous moral substance; the military is itself entirely good or entirely bad; there is no middle ground.
It will require a separate post to unpack the context around a 2014 panel in which I finally lost hope that the Best might finally represent the assessment of an article written by a woman and former friend he would go on to alienate using the same rhetorical belligerence to which so many of his disciples are attracted. There is no excuse for a bull in the china shop when it is already littered with potshards, fragments of lives scattered along a moral landscape that reduces soldiers to caricatures and their human value to mere referent objects.
As long as stories like mine are kept in the dark, the more likely it is that others like me will be shamed for refusing to be stereotyped. I am giving up my silent complicity in anti-military bias and discrimination because I cannot ask other Chrisian soldiers and veterans to confront injustice or bad theology if I’m not willing to do so myself. The military is a moral community and I’d be lying if I affirmed the simplistic reductionism inherent in ecclesiastical discourse.
As for the veteran organization known for the “little hats” I suspect he referenced, I’m neither a member, nor a big fan. But when a veteran with the same time in service as me was left to rot in the local VA medical center parking garage for FIVE FUCKING DAYS after succumbing to military related shame and alienation, it was those same “gung ho” veterans that hosted his funeral. They probably wore those little hats, too.