Romans 12:1-2; John 8:32 & 14:6; 2 Corinthians 5:17
I love the Mennonite church and joined it almost 30 years ago because of its strong commitment to peace, justice and following Jesus. But, I have been a professor at a Catholic University for the last 12 years where our motto is “Contemplate Truth & share with others the fruits of your contemplation.” I am puzzled that this focus on Truth is not emphasized much in the Mennonite Church. Many Catholics talk about Truth as internally written on our hearts, as a piece of God planted in all of us at birth as offspring of God. I wish the Mennonite church could have helped me understand this aspect of Truth more fully. Gratefully, this emphasis on an internal truth at my Catholic university has led me to understand myself and my research with veterans in a deeper way. I call this Truth our moral identity- our innate sense of right and wrong.
Following ten years of research interviewing 114 pro war veterans who over time transformed into passionate antiwar activists, I realized that the bible, from the prophets to Jesus & Paul and later theologians like Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis and Richard Rohr were describing this same spiritual transformation but focusing on the Truth within, written on our hearts.
Consider Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 about the renewing of our minds so we might discern God’s will or truth for us. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to God. This offering is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed- within- by the renewing of your mind. Then you will know what God wants for you; what is good, true and pleasing to God.
In John 14:6 John quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God but through me.” This popular scripture is used by many Christians to claim that the only way to being saved is to declare the words “Jesus Christ is Lord & Savior.” But Catholic theologian Richard Rohr interprets this as the Christ planted in each of us at birth. That paying close attention to our inner Christ consciousness is the way to be in touch with God’s truth, God’s way and God’s intended life for each of us. Again in John 8:32, Jesus says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This is what I found happening in the transformation of many of the veterans I interviewed- whether they were Christian or not.
The great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas also emphasizes truth, concluding that we discern what is good and bad, true and not, through the divine light within each of us. He calls this a natural law because it is within all of us whether we choose to listen to it or not. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, also spoke of the light of Christ within our hearts where God speaks directly to us. Jesuits tell us that when we listen to this light, we feel hope, courage and at peace, even in hard times. When we are listening to other voices, they call false spirits, we feel alone, fearful and anxious.
Then CS Lewis spends the first four chapters of his best-selling book Mere Christianity arguing that the best evidence that there is a God is that all great religions and even atheists share common moral truths. He includes the ancient Egyptians & Babylonians, Buddhism & Hinduism and Judaism & Christianity. He asserts that everyone agrees that we should not lie, steal or be selfish because this natural law is planted within each of us at birth and we know it as our conscience. We can choose to listen to this voice of conscience or not. When we listen, we grow in faith, hope and love and when we learn to ignore this voice of conscience, it becomes easier to lie, steal and harm others without guilt.
With this theological background, I began to examine and categorize my 114 interviews with antiwar veterans from WWII to VN to Iraq. I sought to understand what would cause such a significant change in their attitude from pro war to antiwar. I soon realized that this was not just a simple pro war to antiwar attitude change because along with their new perspective on war, they described major transformations in many areas of their lives. This included their careers, their politics, their faith, their perspectives on the LGBT community and even their environmental concerns. In addition, they described finally feeling at peace with themselves, having a clean conscience, feeling whole again, truly free, even healed. Many of them had become healers for others as pastors & counselors. Many of the became, over time, truly new creations with this renewing of their minds as they attempted to follow the truth written on their hearts.
This evidence of wholeness and serenity for the vets often followed years of emotional turmoil, addiction, divorce, suicide attempts, living with PTSD and for some, tremendous guilt and shame for what they had done during their military careers. To add to this significant transformation in beliefs over time, I found that many veterans had sacrificed tremendously to becomes this new creation and follow their new antiwar truth and life. A few were disowned by their fathers or divorced by their wives. Many were abandoned by their old military buddies, felt rejected by their traditional political parties or churches, and ridiculed when they expressed their opposition to the Iraq War or all wars.
Then I discovered Identity Theory and specifically Moral Identity and this holistic transformation of the vets began to make more sense. I began to see moral identity as the same thing that the bible and theologians had been focusing on for thousands of years. Identity Theory asserts that we all hold identities that guide our behavior. For our veterans, common identities at age 18 were soldier, Christian, Republican, and protector. We are then motivated to act in ways that confirm those identities. This need to verify our identities is so strong that when we do something that contradicts an identity, we are driven to either change our behavior or to change our identities in order to live at peace with ourselves. This is exactly what happened to the veterans in my study.
For example, when Jake was sent to Iraq, he was a career platoon sergeant in charge of infantry and snipers. He said, I witnessed numerous violations of the Geneva Convention- which is our military bible. I personally took part in the killing of innocent civilians- including older men, women, and children. It was easy due to the US firepower. It wasn’t anything to worry about. We could have leveled the whole country with our firepower… I was the second in charge of 45 Marines and when I began to vice my opposition, I was quickly labeled a rogue. At that point, I didn’t care, because I knew that what they were doing was wrong. I knew the Geneva Convention was right and the Marines were wrong…
For other veterans, many of whom did not experience combat, the disrupter of their pro war moral identity came from betrayal. This betrayal arose from either discovering a US president or the military lied about a war or treated people unjustly. This betrayal of the veterans trust so interfered with their conscience, many claimed they would never trust easily again. Here is a quote from Sam:
I enlisted in the Army from 1963 to 66 and served in Alaska. I was a damn good soldier but wanted out after three years… I worked and then went to college. In 1967, the spark came from a letter from an old friend who went to Vietnam. The letter said that the Vietnamese hated us. I began to study the situation in the library. I read the historical information about the French in Vietnam and then the US occupation. I trusted the sources because it jived with my buddies from Vietnam… I was shocked, angry and confused to learn about the US oppression. I felt like I was psychologically raped. It shook me to my bones.
Yet another group of veterans returned from their military experience still supportive of war. This group often attended college and through a history book, a class or just the nightly news, they learned an entirely new perspective on history or a political situation. Rather than feeling betrayed, they simply decided, I can’t always believe what I hear from my parents, our leaders or the military. I need to read more critically to discern what is true or not. Adam’s story post service in Puerto Rico with the Navy illustrates this role of education in transformation. He recounts…
There was an event in Puerto Rico where a Marine pilot was dropping training rounds and killed a civilian contractor. This was the reason why the locals protested the US Naval base there. I was stationed there on a boat. I watched the situation closely…I lived in town and was hearing lots of racist attitudes against the Puerto Ricans from the Navy. The locals didn’t want the Navy there. In 2004, I moved back home and my time at the community college liberalized me. I began to see another perspective on US foreign policy. My professor of deaf studies introduced me to systemic oppressions. She changed my life. I was a fundamentalist Christian and a conservative Republican. Today I think very differently.
Finally, the religious conviction group held strong Christian identities at age 18, often conservative Baptist or Catholic. One veteran described being sent off by his church to “kill commies for Christ.” Others described feeling called, post 9/11, by their faith to defend the US against terrorists. These young men and women often discovered that the war was not so black and white, that the US military sometimes treated innocent civilians horribly. When they studied the bible more deeply from the peace tradition, many felt God was calling them to love their enemies NOT kill them. They discovered nonviolent ways of resisting those who would harm others. A new understanding of Jesus altered their moral identity and required them to abandon their soldier identity. Many of these became conscientious objectors to war and found their way to the Mennonite Church- in fact 15 of them in our study. Richard’s story as a born again Baptist is a good example. As a career chaplain in the Army, Richard had many opportunities for continuing education.
He explains, they sent me to Duke University for a year to study pastoral psychology and the professor introduced me to The Politics of Jesus by Yoder. I read it and said, Oh my God, I’m not a weirdo-other people believe in nonviolence. It opened me up to the Mennonite world. I began to say, what am I doing in the Army even as a non-combatant? I could no longer bear to wear the cross on one collar and my rank on the other because in so doing, I was validating the militaries violence. It was a real struggle to get there- for my mind- but finally my wife and I worked it through. I got out and gave up my retirement benefits. It was a real conversion experience.
I want to conclude these amazing stories of moral identity disruption and transformation with three recommendations for the church that come straight from the veterans themselves.
First, we can start with our kids by reminding them to listen to and trust their inner voice of God, their heart, their conscience. We can expand this focus to our congregations by calling on the inner light of Christ- in worship and prayer- to guide all of our decisions. This requires more built in time for silent centering and reflection within the service and even congregational meetings.
Second, we must continue to educate our youth about the reality of war and the alternatives to military service. We should study and teach our youth not just pacifism but Just War Theory as well. One Catholic veteran wrote:
I dream of a day when any Christian who thinks of enlisting sits down with church members, elders, a pastor perhaps, and discusses how Christ and church teachings impact their decisions about enlisting, about participating in war and about wars in which they would participate. Imagine young Christians of enlistment age making covenant or other agreement in which they state what conditions must be met for them to participate in war, and what behaviors they would and would not engage in- even during war. Such discussions and statements would be a huge step in preventing and ending war.
Finally, churches should partner with antiwar veterans groups such as Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War to promote alternatives to war and military spending. Combining the resources of faith communities and antiwar veterans groups would result in a powerful movement. Veterans groups hold tremendous credibility with the public and lawmakers that Christian Pacifists lack in discussion of war and peace. Churches might also become sanctuaries of healing for veterans with PTSD and moral injury as they struggle with depression, flashbacks, and suicide.
This brings us full circle. I urge you all to continue opening to God’s transformative power through God’s indwelling spirit of truth, your conscience, the natural law written on your heart, your inner light of Christ. This inner openness versus using your own will power to follow the religious rules of the church, transforms us internally to holiness. This internal transformation is accelerated through regular disciplines of prayer, contemplation, meditation, study and music. God’s inside job allows us to become a new creation and this is when God’s healing and hope can truly flow through each of us to the world.