I led a service of thanksgiving for the life of one of my church members this past Sunday afternoon. It was, as many remembrance services are, arranged quickly and in the wake of a sudden tragedy. The deceased was a veteran of the United States Marines Corps. Although we weren’t holding a church service or graveside memorial, an honor guard was present to render military honors, a gun salute, and present the flag to his widow. This is a ceremony I’ve witnessed on many occasions. Regardless of how many times I hear “Taps” played and observe the precision with which the honor guard folds the flag, I am regularly moved to tears. These are moments of incredible sadness. How can they not be? As with many of the funerals I’ve officiated each are tinged with a unique sense of grief. Despite a common liturgy, no two services or moments of death are the same.
As the flag was unfolded and then refolded, I wondered, “How many times have they done this for their friends?” Each of the young Marines wore two or three ribbons. The Lance Corporals had Good Conduct Medals and Marksmanship awards. The Staff Sergeant wore the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, a distinctive myrtle green ribbon bordered by two bright orange stripes. Those are hard to miss. Despite these differences, the men and the one woman had at least one ribbon or ribbons in common; campaign ribbons. All of the Marines wore ribbons indicating they had served in Afghanistan or Iraq. I returned, in my mind, to my first question; “How many times have they done this for their friends?” It pained me to watch these rituals play out. For in this precise order and displayed this way they become some of the most powerful symbols of death in American culture. Unlike the pretend fear and spectacle of Halloween, this brightly colored flag and the well-groomed men and women in uniform remind me that death is real.
I wanted to say two things. Were it appropriate, before I proceeded, I would thank them for the difficult work they do. Secondly, I wanted to tell them I was sorry they and their friends were sent to die not for the United States but something much less honorable. Our way of life, our ability to buy cheap mass produced junk from Chinese Communists to be sold in Wal-Mart, your ability to buy semi-automatic rifles in the same Wal-Mart, watch bad movies on Netflix, or pray to Jesus on Christmas Day at the County Courthouse while holding a copy of the 10 commandments wasn’t threatened by anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. The people who told us those things were under threat after 9/11 weren’t telling the truth.
Lies were told to advance political, religious, and social agendas and these bore no impact on those most directly responsible for the events of September 11th, 2001. These lies brought and took America into perpetual state of war we remain today. We made a violent place more violent. What sense did that make? Land wars in southwest Asia, which Alexander the Great and Queen Victoria couldn’t win, America is now losing. What does blood and treasure look like? It looks like a folded flag on a Sunday afternoon.
There’s something about killing other people which seems antithetical to being a Christian. As I waited for the gun party to fire the salute, this idea ran back and forth through my mind. Call me old fashioned, I think the idea of violence runs counter to what Jesus and Paul teach about Christian living. Paul was a man intimately acquainted with violence. He either employed violence personally or engaged thugs to kill Christians. Many tactics we associate with ISIS using against Christian communities were the core of Paul’s “to-do” list prior to his experience on the road to Damascus. He was a brutal fundamentalist. Paul arrested, imprisoned, attacked, beat and killed his way through Christian communities prior to his conversion experience. Here is a man, much like these young men before me, acquainted with images of Middle Eastern violence. Paul knows the sights, smells, and sounds of the human body when it’s covered in blood, sand, and bruises. I believe some of these Marines probably do too. These are not pretty scenes or ones that quickly fade from mind.
Paul tells the Galatians, “You have heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it.” He “severely” harassed and tried to “destroy” the church. Those are violent words. This was a violent man. He goes on to say, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because of was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul is militant. What changed this violent, militant man?
Paul comes to understand, as he notes in Romans 8, “there isn’t any condemnation” for those in Christ Jesus. What does Paul mean? Here’s a new reading: does it mean that for those who follow Christ, condemnation, confrontation, and violence aren’t options for your way of life? I think so. When you’ve lived a life of killing and condemnation, why continue in any path offering only more of the same, except with the veneer of religious justification? As Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, “There is not a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.” Hays explains that even in cases where Paul uses military imagery in his rhetoric, they “actually have the opposite effect: the warfare imagery is drafted into the service of the gospel, rather than the reverse.”
I closed my eyes before the first of the three volleys. This was the part I thought Paul would help me understand; my fear in anticipating the next gunshot. I couldn’t help but imagine those same weapons being fired in combat. I felt that death and the weapons of death had come full circle. As we approached Halloween, the ghosts of Fallujah, Baghdad, Kabul, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Mosul had silently appeared on the shores of this tiny island. Where death, can we hide from your sting?
In 2nd Corinthians 5, Paul writes, “If we’re crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we’re rational, it’s for God’s sake.” I think Paul would say, in the midst of this crazy, death obsessed irrationality, God is here. Paul wants us to recognize God’s presence. In recognizing God’s presence, we realize we are trusted with a message of reconciliation. You cannot reconcile with those whom you are going to kill. Paul realizes what this means. This is why he tells the Corinthians to expect problems, riots, verbal abuse, disasters, beatings, torture, and imprisonment. It will get worse before it gets better. We will not inflict any more blows or beatings. Instead, because Christ became sin for us; we will absorb violence on behalf of others. This is the way of the Cross. Reconciliation isn’t popular or easy. Violence gets more applause and pats on the back.
As the last note of taps sounded, the Marines marched away and my part of the service began. These thoughts receded into the background only to be shared now with you, dear reader. I pray for those who fight and die and the violence thrust upon them in this never ending war. I pray for nonviolence. I pray, despite the political and social inertia to accept killing as a way of life, we might do otherwise.