Why There Must be a Difference: Social Justice, Activism, & the Church

I’ve struggled with this question ever since I became a pastor:

“What makes the church different from social justice activism?”

Social justice is important to me.  I’ve been drawn to it ever since I entered seminary in 2009 and began to think more deeply about the deeper meaning behind the Christian concern and care for those who are pushed to the margins, ignored, exploited, and discriminated against.  Yet, there has always been a deep hesitation that has accompanied me along this journey into social justice work and conversation.

I recently came across the following article, “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.”  I resonate with much that the author, a social justice activist herself, has to say.  A couple great excerpts:

On moral purity:

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles…..I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.”

On dangers of colonization:

“The experiences of oppression do not grant supremacy, in the same way that being a powerful colonizer does not. Justice will never look like supremacy. I wish for a new societal order that does not revolve around relations of power and domination.”

On preachiness:

“Discipline and punishment has been used for all of history to control and destroy people. Why is it being used in movements meant to liberate all of us? We all have made serious mistakes and hurt other people, intentionally or not. We get a chance to learn from them when those around us respond with kindness and patience. Where is our humility when examining the mistakes of others? Why do we position ourselves as morally superior to the un-woke? Who of us came into the world fully awake?”

The last paragraph of the article is so good, I’m going to let you read the rest of the article for yourself.

I’ve often been asked why, despite my hesitation, my reservations, and my suspicions, I care so much about issues of justice, diversity, and inclusion and why I think the Church should care and participate in such things.  The easy answer is just to point you to Micah 6:8 and call it a day, but the answer for me is deeper than that. 

So what makes the Church different? Church can never exclude or leave people behind in the effort of a more just, inclusive, and diverse world. Church continues to be prophetic, courageous, and bold in its longing for a more just world, and it’s desire to work along side God in making that a reality in the present.  Yet, Church never has the luxury of casting aside those who might differ, who resist, who avoid, or those who are indifferent. Even if it means the movement is slower or doesn’t happen in the manner we’d like. It’s sometimes really inefficient and messy, and relationships are complex, but the invitation is always open. 

The distinguishing line, of course, is that there is a difference between those mentioned above and those who intentionally disqualify themselves or become subversive because of their opposition. Whether they leave or try to sabotage efforts, neither can lead to the Church  suspending its participation in justice work. Like Jesus, as the rich young man went away unable to bear the personal cost of discipleship, as Judas made the choice to betray him, we let them go freely and without a word of condemnation or shame. Although it is with great sadness that we allow them to go. 

Just as Christ does in the gospels, we as Christ’s Church can be both prophetic and gracious. We can be insistent about justice and empathetic to those who resist. We may not always move together but we can still be Church together. We can push and challenge each other and still maintain respect and preserve their dignity. As hard as it may seem, we must still embrace each other’s humanity, just as God in Christ has embraced our humanity.  Like Christ, we can still love. For the sake of Christ’s Church, we must still love

That is the real difference, and one that crucial in our striving towards God’s justice today. 

 

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I am Tired.

I am tired.

I’m tired of being thrust into the race and diversity conversation simply because I’m a person of color.

I’m tired of being excluded from the race and diversity conversation because people don’t think I’m a person of color.

I’m tired of being excluded because I don’t push hard enough, but at the same time others think I push too hard.

I’m tired of whites – religious and non-religious; liberal or conservative; young and old; male and female – explaining to me what is proper, correct, and important in the race and diversity conversation.

It is well-known that Asian-Americans are pushed into what is known as the “model minority myth“.  The idea that Asians don’t struggle with discrimination and assimilation to an “American” way of life as other “problematic” minorities is a lie.  Here’s the thing though: sadly – and this is primarily something that’s been perpetuated within the church more than any other place – “model minority” status has allowed those in places of power and privilege to define what my role is any conversation about diversity and racial justice.  Add to this that I am a transracial Asian adoptee whose parents were of Scandinavian decent, it compounds the myth….and the control over me.

Those who know me well know that I typically don’t do well with those trying to control my role and place in the world.  I typically rage against such action the moment I feel I’m being manipulated or exploited.  On one hand, I hate being thrust in front of folks as part of the celebration of racial diversity within the church.  On the other, I hate being told I have nothing to offer (and this actually happened) because I am not an actual person of color.  

I’m exhausted by it.  I am tired.

A big part of my wants to completely withdraw and let the talking heads (read: liberal and conservative white people) fight their little war of ideology as they always have.  I’m not African-American, and their history isn’t mine either, so why should I care? But then I find that I do care, because I’m tired.

I’m tired of people dying.

I”m tired of hearing and seeing the Philandos, the Trayvons, the Michael Browns, and countless others who have died.  I’m tired of people turning them into a simple hashtag to perpetuate their argument, all the while keeping themselves at a distance from the reality of tragic and senseless death.  I’m tired of people not caring enough about people that pulling a law enforcement officer off the line who is a risk to others and himself isn’t an option for an institution that prides itself on “taking care of its own.”

I’m tired of people dying….

….needlessly,

….due to the carelessness of others,

….and because people don’t really seem to care people are indeed dying, suffering. 

And I’m tired of wondering when I’m next. 

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Sermon 2 July 2017: Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

This story bothers me.  Maybe it bothers you too.

This story, known as the “near sacrifice of Isaac” is troubling.  It raises so many questions: Why would God demand Abraham offer his only son Isaac to be sacrificed?  What kind of God tests people’s faith in that way?  Why would Abraham just go along with the plan blindly, without questioning God?  Or was Abraham simply delusional…was the voice not God’s but just in his head?  And why would God allow the test to go as far as it did?  How traumatic must that have been to Isaac, to be bound and tied, seeing the blade of a knife so close, and on the other end of it his father ready to plunge it into his flesh?

Considering all these questions, I’m not so sure reducing the story to a lesson of exemplary obedience to God or connecting it as some pre-story to Jesus as a sacrifice on the cross makes the story any less troubling.  But perhaps this morning, and like most days, we’d prefer a simple explanation…..we can avoid being uncomfortable, sing the closing hymn and go merrily on our way.

Pastor Aaron asked me to preach on mental and physical disabilities this morning, and to be honest, I’d love to give you a nice answer about how God wants us to embrace those who bear marks on the inside and outside that don’t resemble what most of us consider as bearing the image of God.  I’d love to simply tell you that faithfulness is simply embracing these people, enduring their imperfections, and that we’ll find immeasurable joy in doing so…..one big happy ending to the story of being church to those less fortunate than us.

Yet that sermon wouldn’t take away the nagging, troubling questions that I think persist with us when we see those who bear mental and physical scars – whether born with or caused by living in this world.  You know, the questions that live in the back of our minds, and cover up with statements like “they’re God’s little angels” or “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

Such a sermon wouldn’t help me make sense of my week:

A couple sailors returning from year-long deployments in combat zones this week, finding their way to my office because a wave of irrational anger swept over them to the point they were about to grow a chair at the nice lady giving the insurance benefits brief. They’re not sure why, but they then tell me stories of what happened on their deployments, and I know why. 

Walking into a store and watching a weary mom try to calm their mentally handicapped child, because they simply do not have the ability to comprehend why they can’t have a certain box of cereal that caught their eye.

A man, head bent, half-burnt swisher sweet in hand, slowly walking through the cross-walk where I was stopped, oblivious to the rapid countdown of the crosswalk timer and chaos of traffic impatiently waiting for the signal to turn green.

Mid-way through seminary, ELCA wannabe pastors have to go through something called Clinical Pastoral Experience, or CPE.  For most of us, this is done in a hospital setting, and the goal is to teach us practical things like bedside manner and to hone pastoral care skills.  The hospital I did my CPE at asked us at the beginning what units we wanted to be assigned to.  Me, not really knowing but being open to anything said, “I’d like to be challenged.”

So they placed me in the two inpatient mental health units for the summer.

I can tell you as hard as that summer was, it was also rewarding, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect.  In caring for those suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and a whole host of other things, I found out this rather troubling truth: the line that defined why they were there and why I wasn’t was much thinner, and not as clear as I assumed.  A few life circumstances, a few poor decisions, the random chance associated with what qualities we’re given at birth…and I just as easily could have been locked up on the units.

Here’s the thing: as much as we might want to convince ourselves that we can distance ourselves from the troubling and disturbing things of this life, the truth is that our lives are bound much more closely to them…perhaps too close for comfort.  But in that discovery, that my story was somehow closely bound to their troubling story, I learned something about my own humanity as well as theirs.

In the Jewish tradition, this story from Genesis is known as the “binding of Isaac.”  To bind here means in the sense of binding up a sacrifice, an offering.  Yet I wonder if we can’t also think of binding in the way that no matter how we slice this story, the characters – Abraham and Isaac – can’t seem to escape the troubling events of it.  Escaping what is troubling, disturbing, what makes us uncomfortable is an unescapable part of life.  

Yet God is also one of the characters right alongside Abraham and Isaac.  God is just as bound up in the troubling and disturbing story as Abraham and Isaac are.

Such troubling stories, such disturbing things…..they are caught up in the life of God.  God doesn’t avoid them.  God is an active part in them.  We don’t face them alone.  God speaks, protects, and provides.

But to be caught up in the life of God isn’t just to have faith that God delivers and wipes such things from our lives, but to trust that God sees such things.  God doesn’t avoid them.  We don’t have to avoid such things, we don’t have to look away in discomfort or even shame because we know that God is right there with us looking at them because God binds God’s life to ours – even the most troubling parts of it.

Perhaps what we learn – as I learned during my summer of CPE – that binding ourselves closer to people who so publicly bear the disturbing things in life actually draws us into a deeper understanding of ourselves….and into a deeper relationship with God.

And perhaps this little, inescapable truth makes our prayers, our singing, our eating and drinking  around the Table this morning mean just a little bit more.

And it makes us a bit more hopeful in the inescapable things we see, the inescapable things we must face each and every day….because God has bound godself to our story, to our lives, to us.  Amen.

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Sermon 11 June 2017: St. Timothy Lutheran, Norfolk

Text: Matthew 28:16-23

As some of you know, I’ve been away from parish ministry this past year, serving as a Navy Chaplain.  And it’s always interesting who frequents my office.  About a month after I started, a Navy doctor, young guy, Lieutenant, stopped by.  He asked, “do you have a second Chaplain?”

As we sat down to talk he shared with me that he had volunteered to do this individual deployment to Afghanistan because “I knew it would be good for my career. To serve in a combat zone, practice good medicine, maybe even save a couple lives, would be more than what I was doing in my current assignment at the Naval Clinic.  I could do all this good stuff over the course of the year, get a good fitness report and likely a couple medals for serving in a combat area and for personal commendation, and I’d be set.”

“But that’s not what happened.  I got along well with the Head Surgeon, and my Commanding Officer.  I did good work and they told me I did good work.  But I didn’t get a great fitness report at the end of the tour.  It was pretty average.  I didn’t even get a single award either.  The goal was that this tour would help me promote faster, and now I head back to my home command and probably have fallen behind there too.  So what am I supposed to do now Chaplain?”

You have probably heard today’s text before…..known as the Great Commission.  Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples, baptize, and teach them.”  And for most Christians and churches, the Great Commission gets treated like a set of marching orders…..making disciples, baptizing, and Christian education become the “mission” of the church.

I wonder if we don’t all do the same thing ourselves – individually and as a community of faith.  We treat the Great Commission like a set of marching orders with distinct goals in mind.  And if we achieve the goal, then we’ve achieved mission success.  Grow and increase membership.  Baptize more babies for the report to the Synod.  Group the youth group, Sunday School, adult education, and get more kids confirmed. But, what does it mean when we fall short; what happens when we fail?

Falling short and failing to achieve goals never feels good, and it’s certainly not good news.  It’s not gospel.

So what then to make of the Great Commission?

Recently, because of the wear and tear I’ve put on my body as an athlete, I’ve taken up swimming.  One of the sober things I’ve learned about swimming is you just can’t “power through” it; it takes patience and relaxing in the pool.  I’ll just be honest: I’m not very patient by nature, and I’m definitely not very good at swimming. I am slow.  I am inefficient.  I’m sure that the high school lifeguards at the Rec Center pool get a kick out of me thrashing around in the water, plodding along in my sad attempt to propel myself from one end of the pool to the other.  Even when I think I’m getting better, along comes a person well into their 60s and 70s who jumps into my lane and literally swims circles around me…..and I am reminded once again just how bad at swimming I am and that no matter how hard I try, I’m probably not going to be winning any Olympic medals any time soon.

But here’s the thing: I’m finding I love it.  I love the challenge, the sense of trying something new, and of course that my joints don’t hurt when I’m done.  I’m finding that as bad as I am now, and the while I may never be good at swimming, I simply find joy in getting into pool, feeling my muscles work, losing myself in the rhythm of my own pace and breathing.  I just find joy in the task of swimming itself.

And perhaps that is what the Great Commission is for us: not a set of marching orders, not a list of goals to achieve.  The Great Commission is a gift; it is a vision of life for the church that brings an immeasurable sense of joy.  To walk alongside others together in our faith journeys, to celebrate baptism and the mystery of God’s grace bestowed on the baptized and to celebrate their joining to Christ and the church, to teach others, or perhaps more witnessing to others about the grace and love of God made known in Jesus Christ – that life is our joy.  To simply live out the Great Commission is our joy.

And on this Sunday, we celebrate the Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a solution to a theological equation.  The Trinity, three in one and one in three, is a divine mystery.  It doesn’t make sense.  Yet it’s beauty and wondering comes in the idea of a sort of divine dancing where there is no defined beginning or end, but that God in the Trinty gives us a vision of a life where we are so caught up in the life of God, and we are also so deeply caught up in the life of one another.  Faith is living out this divine relationship, so connected to God and so connected to each other.  That is our joy.

The Great Commission and the doctrine of the Trinity are given to us so that we might have great joy in living the life of faith itself, not its outcomes.

And even then, the Great Commission and the Trinity aren’t good news.

The good news comes in Jesus’ last words: “And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

No matter if we live or die, rise or fall; if we succeed or fail as a church.  We belong to God, we belong to Christ, and we belong to each other.  God is with us, and that is truly good news!  Amen.

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The Single Most Important Theological Doctrine Today…..(Talking to Lutherans & anyone else who would listen)

….and it isn’t the Doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith.

It’s the Theology of the Cross.

I’m participating in a year-long Continuing Education program on mental health and chaplaincy.  We are learning about Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a recent shift towards “third wave psychotherapies” that are aimed at becoming more open to other possibilities by reflecting on their experience.  ACT seeks to address the reality of pain and suffering, and how it creates what psychologists call “psychological rigidity and inflexibility.”  This phenomena arises when our internal thoughts and feelings create a narrative that’s disconnected from our external experience.  When our thoughts and feelings create a reality that doesn’t match what we’re actually experiencing, it creates anxiety, stress, but even more so, a false reality that we simply can’t budge from.

A simpler term for this is what psychologists call “comparative suffering.”  It’s pretty straightforward: we compare our suffering – or the suffering we care about – to other suffering.  We categorize, prioritize, and quantify suffering.  Interestingly enough, studies have shown that when it comes to comparative suffering, people will always tend to place their own suffering, or the suffering that matters to them, above the suffering of strangers and adversaries.  What I’ve found in this life, comparative suffering is a false reality…suffering simply just is.

A theology of Glory calls good evil and evil good.  A theologian of the Cross calls a thing that it actually is.

In our present day, I wonder if the problem itself is our process of classifying every thing as either wholly good or wholly evil.  We become theologians of Glory, but not as Luther meant it so long ago, perhaps.  In our time, it’s not so much identifying the outright contradictions to God’s notions of justice, love, and humility, but rather, the paranoid process of pointing out which injustice, unkindness, and arrogance the collective should care about.  In the end, we’re just theologians of Glory, caught up in the process of comparative suffering, the pursuit of validating our thoughts and feelings divorced from the reality of our collective experience: we all suffer.  As theologians of Glory, we become theologically rigid and inflexible, twisting notions of God and God’s Grace to fit our thoughts and feelings.  Comparative suffering becomes the altar we place things like Grace on, cut it into pieces, and hand it out conditionally.  As theologians of Glory, our rigidity and inflexibility creates a god that exists in our thoughts and feelings.  That god does not exist.  It is a false god.

That’s known as idolatry.

Idolatry is the elevation and glorification of ourselves, hence, a theology of Glory.

That’s why I think the theology of the Cross is the single most important theological concept for our world today.  A theologian of the Cross first and foremost accepts reality as it is – even the most troubling, disturbing, and sobering parts of it.  A theologian of the Cross makes no upfront judgments on that reality, but merely points to it and bids you not to look away in avoidance.  A theology of the Cross forces you to face reality on its own terms, not yours.  For a theologian of the Cross, there is no room for false realities like comparative suffering.  All suffering is suffering, not greater, not lesser; but one cannot avoid suffering – ours or others – at any level.

We live in a day and age where I think most of us see what is going on.  We feel the division, the disconnection, the victim-blaming, and the playing the victim that exists in our world.  The great question, at least for those of us that just simply don’t know what to do anymore and yet wish not avoid the collective pain that affects us all, is “how can we collectively look at all this and not say, “what the hell?” (My version of Kyrie Eleison)

By becoming theologians of the Cross, I wonder if God might loosen the rigidity and inflexibility of our hearts and minds and liberate us to a place of acceptance, accepting that things are not as they should be and that we need each other and need God.  I think most of us will accept that things are “not good” in our society right now.  Maybe you’re like me and really trying to not place one culture’s or one person’s suffering over another’s.  The true enemy is when we get caught up in the trap of comparative suffering. When we do that, a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion, and indifference to suffering and pain usually is the result. A good colleague and friend posted this quote the other day:

“As people we generally don’t change when we see the light; we change when we feel the heat.” – Hank Brooks

If there is a common theme among our collective society, it is the desire for change.  That change doesn’t come by making others “see the light” and the error of their ways.  That change doesn’t come by calling others evil while calling ourselves and our tribes good.  Change doesn’t come through the process of comparative suffering.

Change comes only when we choose to accept suffering as a collective and shared experience.  Change comes when we feel the pain of our collective poverty and helplessness.  Change comes when we realize that the poor slob or arrogant S.O.B. we can’t stand is actually in the same boat as we are.

For a theologian of the Cross, the change comes when we realize we don’t have to kick that person out of the boat.  We call suffering what it is – a reality we all share in, and all are affected by.  Funny thing is, when that happens for theologians of the Cross, we experience change: God’s change.  By calling a thing what it is, we – even for a brief moment – see beauty break in.  We see justice, love, and humility break through the rigidity and inflexibility of our hearts and minds.  The God of Grace breaks in and saves us all.

For a theologian of Glory, that’s a dangerous thing, because then they stand to lose all.  Their idols come crashing down.

For a theologian of the Cross, this is good news, because while they also stand to lose all, the collective liberation God brings is so much greater.

So let’s start being honest. Let’s call it like it is. Let’s be theologians of the Cross. 

 

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Churches & Leadership today: What we won’t talk about, but need to.

I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team.  Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries.  I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma.  Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice.  As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.

Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors.  I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards.  As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in.  The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery.  My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?”  The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.

My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?”  After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams.  What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain.  The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.

Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls.  There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities.  However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:

There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.  

The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations.  While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected.  The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this.  It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives.  Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on.  It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end. 

I digress.  My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations.  We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors.  However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not.  None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.

Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?

Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability?  Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?

I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state.  If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new.  The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.

As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are.  It is the same for congregations.  We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first.  We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.

 

 

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For the Church& Pastors:  “Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging”

“What if long-term PTSD is less about what happened out there (in combat), and more about the society they come back to?”

 This past November, I heard author and journalist Sebastian Junger speak at a Navy SEAL Foundation conference on mental health issues within the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community. Junger, who covered wars on the ground in Sarajevo and Afghanistan, and who developed a case of short-term PTSD himself, posed this question out of his reflection and research on combat and combat veterans. 

It is a well-known statistic that less than one percent of our nation’s population serves in all the branches of our military combined. According to 2014 census data collected by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, about 7.3 percent of the U.S. population have prior military experience of any kind. As a nation that has been in a constant state of war over the last 16 years and in light of overly-dramatic movies and a nearly-cultish fascination with culture of special operations forces (Navy SEAL, MARSOC, Army Ranger & Delta Force, AFSOC, etc), does the general population – do we –  have a realistic awareness and understanding of what currently serving military service members, veterans, and their families experience?

In “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” (Hatchette Book Group: 2016) Junger paints a realistic view of not just the combat experience, but the current, constant operational state of our military, manifest in deployments that have increased in frequency and have become longer in duration. Junger also offers a challenging and compelling portrait of our modern society and the implications of our collective society’s value of absolute individualism and autonomy. The struggle, he argues, isn’t so much from the trauma experienced half a world away, fighting alongside and relying on others for survival. The struggle is that when ripped from that close-knit group on the return home, facing the reality of every day life is incredibly isolating. The struggle is while one experienced a strong sense of belonging and purpose on a battlefield, it cannot be so easily found in a society where no one seems to be able or willing to share life in a similar way.

This portrait in Junger’s “Tribe” offers a chance to reflect on what ministry to and for others in the context of the military might look like. Yet I think another unintended message in the book is that it draws us into a haunting and sobering truth about the nature of the society we live in today. Where individualism, progress, and seemingly unlimited access and choices reign, what does it mean when we no longer believe that we need each other for anything in this life? What is lost when the only solution for our struggles in this life is the offer of goods and services, and even care is narrowly relegated to the realm of professionals and programs? I’m not suggesting that these services aren’t important or needed, and neither is Junger. However, the argument that Junger is making – and I think he’s right – is that it is our responsibility to collectively take on the task of healing individuals from trauma, not to induce it on them by turning our backs away in fear, indifference, or in contempt.

One of my favorite roles as a pastor and Navy chaplain is what I learn through the outsider and the other. When I come across others, hear their story, and minister to them, I learn something about myself and about God. I learn what it means to share and bear suffering as Christ suffered on the cross, and I learn what it means to be community that longs in hope for reconciliation, grace, and new life in the reality of suffering. In the context of military service members and veterans, my ministry is shaped by offering pastoral care in times of emotional, spiritual, and relational crises caused by frequent and long deployments and what is experienced while on them.  It is creating a sense of connection and space so that they can heal through the process of making meaning of their past experience. 

 This shapes how I lead as a pastor for those who experience similar crises and trauma caused by a world of isolation that has the ability to crush people’s humanity and spirit. If anything, I’ve learned that for most people, the desire isn’t for more resources, services, and programs. It’s a desire for community in which they can belong to, for it’s in that sense of belonging one finds a community to bear their own weariness, and their sense of purpose and value as part of something greater than themselves.
For Junger, this is why people tended to thrive in tribal societies; problems such as PTSD were non-existent. What Junger calls “tribe” is really what we as Christians call community. While not a theological argument for community in the way of Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together,” it won’t be hard for the seminary trained person and layperson alike to hear the theological themes in “Tribe.” Convincing people in our congregations today to care for military service members, veterans, and their families is not too hard to do these days. Convincing the same that this community and the context of war and combat has something to teach us about ourselves and our own poverty, perhaps that is reason enough to read “Tribe.” As Junger concludes in the book’s introduction,

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

 Amen.

Rev. Aaron Fuller is a bi-vocational pastor in the ELCA and Chaplain in the Navy Reserve. He has served two parishes in the Virginia Synod and was recalled to active duty in June 2016 to serve as chaplain at Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center, Norfolk, VA. He and his wife Kelly reside in Virginia Beach, VA.

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