Veterans Day 2015: A Meditation Upon the Uneasy Relationship

By James Magness
Posted Nov 6, 2015

From the earliest days of America’s history, those of us who represent the country’s faith communities have had an uneasy relationship with our armed forces. All too often the political and social mission that has become such an important part of our faith communities has placed us at odds with the armed forces.

Going back to what was our first great war, the American Revolution, some Christians in the early days of the emerging federation of territories, that ultimately would become the United States of America, could not clearly decide how to express their loyalties. While many took sides with the revolutionary forces that fought for independence, still others, predominantly those connected to the Anglican missionary entities of the Church of England, supported the homeland. As a consequence, the Anglican disdain for the revolutionary soldiers, and vice versa, was quite much in evidence.

In ensuing years, while a citizen’s decision to join our armed forces changed from being based upon national loyalties to ethical decisions about whether or not people of faith could morally fight in a war, the man or woman usually on the receiving end of expressions of hostility was normally the uniformed service member.

During the armed conflicts and wars of the 20th and 21st Centuries, there have been no small amount of faith-based resistance to the political and military goals of war fighting. For example, in the post 9/11 era, we have seen relatively small and local opposition to our foreign military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast, during the 1960s and 1970s we saw large scale protests to the Vietnam War and military conscription. Many of these demonstrative protests were conducted through or in coordination with the organizing efforts of America’s faith communities.

During the Vietnam War some American citizens reasoned that it was unfortunate that there was no general distinction between the military members who fought the war and the political leadership of the country that was responsible for engaging in that very frustrating decade-long war. Because of our inability to discriminate between those two entities, many returning Vietnam veterans were singled out for scorn, some of which was very public, for what many war protesters believed were immoral acts that they had done during their time in that country.

Moving forward four decades to the current post 9/11 war fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, within our country the focus upon military service is quite a bit different than what we experienced during the Vietnam War. There is no military conscription or draft. No longer must young persons be concerned about whether their aspirational life-tracks and careers will be interrupted by what they may consider to be a side-tracking of their personal and professional pursuits, all the way to what others may consider to be an absolute, and perhaps immoral, waste of their time.

Today it is increasingly difficult to find men and women who have served in the armed forces. It is estimated that in the general population of our country less than 7% of our citizens have ever served in the armed forces.

Therefore, with so few active social and cultural connections with men and women in uniform, we are increasingly disconnected from them and from their experiences. The inclinations of our faith communities have changed considerably about whether or not we think our members should engage in military service.

It has been my experience that about the only time we engage in serious thought about the implications of military service is when a member of the armed forces who is in some way connected to one of our congregations is either seriously injured or killed. Even then it is such a strange and unusual occurrence that we do not know how to act toward the affected service members or members of their families.

Given the scarcity of both military members and veterans perhaps it is time for us to think about why anyone would volunteer to go into the armed forces. I believe that that there are three basic reasons. The first is for a sense of duty. For many of our fellow citizens the attacks of September 11, 2001 were for them what the December 7, 1941 attack upon Pearl Harbor Naval Base was for their predecessors. Within days after the 9/11 attacks near droves of young and capable American citizens came to the conclusion that their sense of duty levied upon them the requirement to volunteer to enter one of the branches of the armed forces as a way of doing their part to protect our country. Such responses to duty are virtues that form the basis of a person’s character.

A second reason that people volunteer is because they have a sense of service to the nation. Because they enjoy the goods of the nation’s freedoms, they reason that service is required. Many, if not most who volunteer because of this sense of service do so because they have been educated by parents and others that service is a civic responsibility. Like duty, service is a virtue that forms a person’s character.

I believe the third reason that people volunteer is because they envision becoming a member of the armed forces is their last resort; the only remaining life path that is open to them. Many of these are men and women who enter the armed forces as directionless adolescents and who depart three or four years later as responsible adults. In my opinion, they then become living virtues and treasures to our society.

The uneasy relationship between the faith communities and members of the armed forces has changed since the idea of compulsory military service was suspended.

Nonetheless, it is time for us to reconnect. On this Veterans Day 2015, unlike some of my friends in the faith community, I am not all that interested in what we can do for service members and veterans. I am, however, very interested in what these persons can do for the faith communities of America. Service members and veterans, if given the appropriate recognition, honor, welcome, and permission can teach us so very much about the spiritual value of personal and corporate sacrifice.

We live in an age dominated by the values of personal achievement and material acquisition. It will do us well to hear the encouraging word that service members and veterans can teach us about the spiritual value of sacrifice.

But where will we begin? Perhaps the next time you see a wounded warrior instead of thanking them for their service, commend them for their sacrifice. Then be still and watch what happens between the two of you.

— The Rt. Rev. James B. (Jay) Magness is The Episcopal Church’s bishop suffragan for Armed Forces & Federal Ministries.