Category Archives: Culture & Social Issues/Ethics

How 9/11/2001 impacts us today…..17 years later.

Did you take time to remember today?

17 years ago, people’s memories were emblazoned by two planes flying directly into the World Trade Center towers in New York City.  Additional planes crashed into the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania, both part of the attack.

I’m not going to recount where I was that day, or the fact that for nearly two decades the country has been at war, or that the event has faded from our national consciousness.  What I want to raise, for your reflection today, is how 9/11/2001 impacts us today.  I want you to consider this:

Since 9/11/2001, the country and all of us have been living in a constant state of fear.

I would argue the United States has fractured along just about every possible social, economic, ethnic, political, and ideological line possible.  We have let fear in every way imaginable rule our hearts and minds, gripping us in a primal state of survival that frankly, isn’t warranted in a civilized society like ours today.  I would challenge everyone: what in the world is out there that you should constantly fear for your life every single day?

Fear is an important emotion.  When our primal ancestors saw a saber tooth tiger or watched half of the population get wiped out by a plague, there was certainly a reason to fear.  Today, however, most fears are steeped in conspiracy, lies, and neurotic extremes that have little chance of occurring.  Fear has manifest itself in our democracy to the point it our government can’t seem to do anything substantial for this country.  Fear has ignited a fire inside people, motivating them to violence that seeks to strike and shoot first, and ask questions later.  Fear has motivated us to spend countless resources on personal and national security, all the while neglecting the needs of those who suffer needlessly.  Fear has raised the number of suicides, mental and emotional health issues in people of all ages.

Fear has made us less vulnerable, loving, open, compassionate….the list is endless.

My biggest fear is that “never forget” has come to mean “never stop fearing.”  I wish, and I hope beyond all hope, that remembering 9/11/2001 would be about recalling stories how we bonded together, how we forgave, and how we were compelled to vocations and callings of service.  I wish never forgetting was about remembering how we overcame fear, and how we continue to overcome personal and collective fear in our lives each and every day.  

For me, the work of overcoming that fear, and helping others overcome their as well, is what drives what I do today.  And so, I never forget.



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“This is America”: Why you should watch it, but won’t.

By now, Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover) video “This is America” has millions of views….63.6 million and counting, to be exact.  I’ve watched it at least 10 times.  It’s complex, smart, thought-provoking, and powerful.

You can watch the full video here.

The commentaries on the video are just as numerous as the views.  I’m not going to offer that here, because I think if you watch it, you’ll probably one, watch it as many times as I have and two, come to your own conclusions and interpretations.  What I want to point out is, there’s a good number of you who simply won’t watch the video.

Glover pushes the race conversation further in a provocative way; some may say disturbing.  I wouldn’t use those descriptors, however.  The word I would use would be uncomfortable.  The bottom line is that the video will make you uncomfortable on some level, no matter what side of the race conversation you fancy yourself on.  Glover’s video makes an even more powerful statement given the fact the song is simply catchy.  If you watched and listened to him debut it on Saturday Night Live, you were probably even more alarmed when you watched the video, which was released shortly after his SNL performance.

It will make you uncomfortable.  That’s a good thing.

If you want to call anything disturbing in our society today, it’s how we deal with discomfort around realities such as race.  One side simply insists it doesn’t exist and does everything it can to explain it away.  The other side insists you not just acknowledge its existence, but you should be painfully shamed as well.  Then there’s the third group: those who simply don’t know what to do, and therefore, just avoid discomfort altogether.  I am probably disturbed most by the third way.  I’m disturbed by how easy we’re willing to avoid anything uncomfortable in this life.  What does that say about us?

Go watch the video.  Look it directly in the face, but don’t feel ashamed for whatever you feel.  I just ask you move past your initial reactions, those initial thoughts and feelings.  Watch the video.  Then watch it again.  And again. Let the words and images get stuck in your head.  Talk about it with others.  Just don’t stick your head in the sand and go about your life.

Go watch the video.  Our very humanity is at stake.

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Reflections on the Sailor’s Creed

I wrote this for my Command’s Plan of the Month and Individual Augmentee Newsletter.  I offered this as a reflection on events in Charlottesville and as a reminder of what our Force is about from the “Chaplain’s perspective.”

“I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”

Most of you likely recognize the words above; it’s the final line of the Sailor’s Creed. Interestingly, the Sailor’s Creed is a relatively new tradition in the long and rich tradition of the U.S. Navy. The Creed we know today was the product of a series of Blue Ribbon Recruit Training panels in 1993, led by the Chief of Naval Operations at the time. A few other minor changes were made to make it as inclusive of the whole Naval Force, and its final revision coming in 1997.

I’ve always found the last line of the Sailor’s Creed a bit odd. While the other stanzas are very Navy-centric, tied to our Oaths of Office and Core Values, the last line almost reads more like something you’d hear from civilian life. It seems like redundant language, and really, not very relevant to the Navy context. Aren’t excellence and the fair treatment of all sort of a “no-brainer?”

Some of you might be aware of recent events surrounding rallies and protests in our nation. I know this is a potentially polarizing topic that many of us would rather avoid. Yet, I don’t think that we can. When attitudes of hatred, bias, and prejudice rise up in our society, we need a reminder that such things have no place in the same, and certainly not in our Navy and Marine Corps team. It is the belief that every person has the fundamental right to be treated with respect and fairness, regardless of race, creed, upbringing, or lifestyle. The person to our left and right are our brother and sister, volunteering to take an Oath to defend what we hold most dear.

This is why, I believe, the drafters of the Sailor’s Creed added this final line. It serves as a reminder of this fundamental right, and of our fundamental responsibility to preserve this right for all people. Let us support one another as we each make sense of these events individually. More than this, let us be committed to the fundamental respect and care that makes our Navy and Marine Corps team the greatest in the world.

Let us daily affirm our commitment to excellence and the fair treatment of all.

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I type this from the other side of the world right now.  As I follow the events of this weekend in Charlottesville, VA, about 3 hours from where I live, it's interesting how the physical distance has given me critical distance to reflect and fashion a response to all that's happening.   The time difference means I literally get to "sleep on it" and wake up in the morning a bit removed from the raw emotion.

A word about that: there is a difference between reacting and responding.  Reactions are the words and actions that come immediately out of an emotional, psychological, physical stimulus.  It's instinctual and it just happens without any thought.  Habitual reaction to life around us is potential dangerous, as Charlottesville is showing us.

Responding is different.  It examines the thoughts and feelings we're having, and fashions words and actions that consider the whole context.  Responses often get a point across; they seem rational.  Reactions are the exact opposite.

One isn't necessarily better over the other.  It really boils down to what's in the human heart: what one values.  Jesus said as much in the gospels: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  Values and one's heart are found intertwined.  Your reactions and responses will be just as twisted if your values and your heart are as well.

The other thing about reactions is that once the thought or emotion has passed, so does the action. Responses tend to lead to committed, sustained action.

But I think the benefit of responding is that it disciplines just to reflection, and that reflection is to challenge the assumptions we do hold in our heart that create convenient little blind spots for us.  You know, things like "racists are bad, but you have to consider the liberal communists are just as bad too."  Or deftly trying to separate oneself from white supremacists upon the argument "that's not what conservative politics are about." The rally, by the way, was called, "Unite the Right", so I find that kind of hard to do.

However, my challenge to respond goes out to my liberal, white – yes white – colleagues.  There are a lot of ad hoc rallies and prayer vigils being held, and that is great.  But that is reacting.   My fear is people will stop their action at that, and maybe commit a few conversations months from now.  Within my own spheres, it's great that clergy and others got involved, marching, attending prayer and worship rallies in conjunction with "Unite the Right."  It's great my social media is blowing up with all sorts of pictures from the event and posts about sermons preached, follow on rallies and vigils attended, scripture passages and inspirational quotes.  I'm glad you felt compelled to react.  But I can't help but think, "What took you so long?" because it's not like this hasn't been happening elsewhere, and for quite awhile.

Think about how you will respond: you need to get off the sidelines and into the game, long-term.

I say this because as an Asian-American, transracial adoptee, I've had to walk that journey.  It was hard, I resisted, but in the end I'm thankful I when though the process of responding.  For too long, like many Asian-Americans, I've pretended there isn't a problem with racism, nationalism, and hatred in this country.  Life and a vocation change forced me to think, and to get off the sidelines myself.  Let me say this: not only did that journey lead to a better response in the face of injustice, hatred, and prejudice, but it also made my reactions much healthier and more rational.

Charlottesville showed us that hatred and violence associated with racial superiority has no boundary – it can and will touch all of us.  Ironically, it took white on white violence to get a large amount of people into the game.

Will it do the same for you?  How will you respond?

PS: I know this isn't easy.  Everyone has their own timeline and pace…trust me, so did I.  So know I certainly love you regardless of what pace you're at or if you care to give it a go at all….I just hope beyond my own cynicism and doubt you'll find the courage to respond.

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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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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.”


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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The Politics of the Pulpit: Preaching on Sunday, 9/11

September 11th, 2016 will be somewhat of a rarity for preachers: it is the 15th Anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11. For most of us, we can recall what happened and where we were on that morning in 2001. Some have called it our generation’s defining event, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War was for their respective generations.

However, it’s defined us in a completely different way. We’re not like the Pearl Harbor generation, who collectively rallied together as a nation in support of the nation’s involvement in WWII. Yet we’re also not like the Vietnam War generation, who collectively divided as a nation to its involvement overseas. I’d like to think today we’re somewhere in between. Instead, we have collectively rallied together as a nation – and caught a case of amnesia.

Perpetual war and violence has become our new normal. Two articles I read recently highlight this: one by a retired general suggesting that there is no endpoint to the post-9/11 war, and another explaining that the devastation in Louisiana has received little attention because ratings show we’re more captivated by who the next President will be, rather than another story about death. News about war and violence have become just another news article to post on social media, a footnote in our lives rather than a reality that shakes it and turns it upside down. However, I don’t think it’s because the majority of us have become indifferent and apathetic. Perhaps the reality is so painful that instead, we push it completely out of our consciousness. When someone does bring it to the center of our community, the result is conversation often turns into a fight over ideology where fingers are pointed, lines are drawn, and a war of words ensues where no one wins.

It’s no wonder that we then get political about the pulpit.

We get political about what we say because we’re always measuring the effect our words will have on our hearers. A good number of pastors and preachers do this as a means of good pastoral care. Yet it’s a completely different thing when one weighs the effect in terms of personal risk and cost. One only has so much social capital they can draw from, and one divisive comment or topic from the pulpit can bankrupt you in a moment’s notice. Having amnesia ourselves as preachers becomes an enticing alternative when faced with prospect of addressing 9/11, the following war, and violence on a Sunday morning. A colleague posted on social media: “Just like the Sunday near Veterans Day or Memorial Day or July 4th, ignoring it [9/11] is a missed opportunity. Yet over-doing it risks the idolatry of patriotism masked as religious faith.” It’s a delicate line and the stakes are high for one’s ministry. What’s a preacher to do?

I ask you indulge me in a bit of testimony: as I sit here and write this, I realize that I have 15 years of service in the United States Navy as a Submariner and Chaplain. My whole Naval career has been spent at war, and I recognize I have classmates, shipmates, and friends who have died in combat, died in training, and live, but do so bearing scars and wounds both on the outside and within. It is a sobering reality, but I at least know this: it’s real.

What’s not so real to me is when I take off my uniform and join society around me. To see the rest of the nation living as if war and its effects don’t exist creates a tension that’s difficult to live in. From time to time I receive a “thank you for your service” or someone buys me a cup of coffee, but overall life outside the Navy feels odd, disconnected, artificial, and lonely. I suppose that’s why I’ve stuck around as a chaplain; because I think the best part of my day is when the service men and women who frequent my path share with great honesty their stories, struggles, and experiences. They share why they chose to serve – those reasons often connected to the events of September 11th, 2001 – and things  feel a bit more real for me.

And when I sit in the pew on Sunday, I need to hear more than just a petition in the prayers. I need to hear something from the pulpit, but not a word that romanticizes my military service as some sort of sacrificial act of Jesus-love. Nor do I need to hear a word that condemns the motivations and forces behind my military service as some sort of message of prophetic justice.

I need to hear about a God who is incarnate in the sobering reality of the last 15 years and likely the next 15 and beyond. I need to hear about a God who still comes to seek the lost and somehow is still present long after the fantasy of Eden vanishes from our sight. What I need to hear is that there is a community outside of the uniform I wear that doesn’t have amnesia when it comes to the reality of these last 15 years of war. I need preachers to be honest: both about the fact war and violence is a reality we can’t turn away from, and that it is a reality that God in Christ is fully present with us in.

That’s no easy thing for a preacher to do for reasons beyond just the politics of the pulpit. It would be easier for you to have amnesia that day. However, if there ever is a time to eschew the politics of preaching and to snap people out of their collective amnesia, this might be the Sunday to do it – from the pulpit. It’s likely people will be really listening….I know I will be.

The thoughts expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or Navy Chaplain Corps in an official capacity. 



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