Yesterday, the last US troops left Iraq after a bloody war that lasted nearly nine years. After losing almost 4500 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives—the gap between those numbers is staggering—I hope it was worth it.
Reflecting on yesterday’s news brought me back to 2003 and 2004, when I was a young pastor finding my voice in the pulpit and classroom. There were occasions when I let my idealism and frustration with the war get the best of me and I spoke against it in public. Not everyone was pleased with what I said or how I said it. Those were learning experiences for me and the congregation I served, and I’d like to think that we all grew together in our capacities to think about current events through the lens of faith.
Several years later, I suppose I’m still a relatively young pastor finding my voice. But the rather black and white way in which I viewed the world nine years ago has been blurred into various shades of gray. I’m still cynical and suspicious about the merits of the war in Iraq, but I hope that history will prove that we’ve done more good than harm.
I continue to struggle with formulating and articulating clear theological reflections on matters of war. Most recently, I was one of many pastors—and people of faith in general—wondering how to process the killing of Osama bin Laden. It seemed to me that some justice had been carried out, but my uneasiness with the myth of redemptive violence and my rejection of the distasteful celebrations in the street left me perplexed.
It occurred to me then, and I have continued to think about it since, that most of us pastors involved in conversations about the ethical and theological significance of military actions have no military experience of our own. This realization has brought into sharper focus a thesis I have been considering for some time: there are not nearly as many pastors in my generation that have direct experience with war as there were in previous generations.
There is a parish associate at our church named John Boyle. He is 85 years old and served in World War II. In fact, he was part of the force that liberated Dachau. When he speaks of war, he speaks as one with the authority of experience. He brings the intimate knowledge of a soldier to his theological and pastoral reflections of war. He has insight into things I will never know. And I bet that he had more colleagues in ministry with this kind of experience than I do.
As I reflect on how my peers think and talk about war, I fear that we are missing the benefits of such insight and experience. I’m not glorifying or romanticizing war. But I do long for three things:
- I wish I had done some kind of military service, like ROTC. I wish I had served in some capacity, perhaps as a reservist chaplain, during the wars of the past decade. I suppose I still could, though I honestly wonder if I’m willing to sacrifice time with my family in order to do so. The sacrifices of those who serve convict me.
- I wonder if there are programs in existence that give pastors like me the opportunity to visit, even for short tours, active theaters of war in order to see firsthand what our troops are facing. If not, I wonder what it would take to bring something like this into existence.
- There are pastors out there, and women and men training to become pastors, who do in fact have military experience. To the extent that they can, we need them to speak from their experiences. This is a unique ministry opportunity in which pastors like me cannot fully engage.
As more and more soldiers return home, and as international conflicts continue to rage, we need pastors with the experience of war to help the rest of us discern and proclaim some good news for these gray times.