Veterans Day creates a ministry dilemma. As a pastor and religious leader, how can I be faithful in teaching what I believe to be central to following Christ and yet not unduly offend others?
More specifically, how can I teach and preach that Christ calls us to be peacemakers and reconcilers, to love our enemies and pray for them, and to resist evil not with violence but with active nonviolence? How can I do this and not risk hurting and offending the many veterans of the church whom I know, respect and love?
And respect them I do. It is often motives of duty, obedience to government and willingness to endure self-denial and self-sacrifice to prevent the suffering of loved ones that cause many to make the difficult decision to enter the military. Often this decision has been held up not only as patriotic, but also as a religious duty.
The church has not spoken consistently about pacifism. It has been divided in its understanding of Christian involvement in war. It has not provided clear guidance that would encourage other ways of engaging international conflicts. It has more often aligned itself with nationalistic goals than attempted to provide Christian alternatives.
As a pastor and pastoral counselor, I am distressed by the tremendous suffering endured by so many of our veterans. While working on an inpatient psychiatric unit, I have spoken with Vietnam and Persian Gulf War veterans who were admitted for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I have seen firsthand how deeply body, mind and spirit can be injured by war, sometimes for a lifetime.
I am distressed that it is often our youngest adults who endure so much of this suffering. Much of my opposition to war and my commitment to Christ’s way of peace emerge out of my pastoral knowledge and concern for the suffering war causes those who engage in it.
Unlike, perhaps, the peace movement of the Vietnam era, those who are seeking an end to U.S. involvement in the current war are very concerned that our troops and veterans are supported and cared for. The Christian Peace Witness for Iraq is one group that has expressed this. Among their commitments to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq is also the call to support our troops. This is what they write:
“Like the prophet Jeremiah we lament, ‘For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. Is there no balm in Gilead? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?’ Therefore we commit to a ministry of healing and justice for those who served in our armed forces and their families and loved ones. We will pray for soldiers and their families; work diligently to bring them home safely; welcome them into our communities with respect and love; honor their lives and protest putting them in harm’s way. We call our government to provide generous support for veterans to heal their physical, mental, and spiritual wounds and to rebuild their lives.”
I would not be faithful to my pastoral calling to continue to remain silent about Christ’s teaching on peace during a time such as this. But I pray that what I say never injures those who have experienced first hand the horrors of war, nor their families who have often endured great hardship and suffering. I would never intend that.
Rather, my hope is that we as a church can speak together about these issues with respect, both for our own deep faith convictions and our differences, and together find ways to engage in caring practices for our veterans that bring greater healing to them and hope to our world.
Ruth Rosell is pastor of care and counseling at Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, Kan., and assistant professor of pastoral theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.