Tag Archives: war

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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Observing Veteran’s Day in Worship: Yes or No?

Earlier this week, Text this Week.com posed this question on their Facebook page: “I’m also thinking about “Veterans Day”/”Remembrance Day” this coming Sunday, and the many, sometimes strong and sometimes dismissive, thoughts and experiences people bring to this particular day in different countries and cultures. Any thoughts about what we do as communities of faith?”

The answers varied, and rightly so, on such a tricky subject – Do we or don’t we honor men and women who ultimately, participated in wars?  Wars….with violence and innocent deaths, started and carried on with political/religious powers and agendas behind them, highlighting the ugly side of humanity.  To recognize these people ultimately leads to a recognition of what they did, what they were participating in. 

Two choices are either don’t recognize them at all, or find some way to recognize them in a “love the sinner, but hate the sin” sort of way.  Both ways fall short, and honestly, avoid really addressing the issues at hand.

I think talking about Veteran’s Day, and talking about war and military service is a chance to be honest – honest about the world and how we live life in it.

I think vocation is the place we start.  Not vocation in the “calling” sense, but rather from the sense of participating in something, carrying out a role or job because at the time, you think it is the right thing to do, but, in a messy and unclear world.  We do so in less than ideal situations and environments.  But yet, we act, we act in faith and by faith.  We get it wrong at times, but the call of the person of faith is a call to vocation – to do something because at the time, you think it is the right thing to do and so you enter into it with good faith that it is. 

When I think about the military service, we are people who are serving and sacrificing because we believe what we are doing what is right – defending an ideal of freedom for all, and protecting and defending those who cannot stand for themselves. Those who choose military service do this even if the action they are called to has political agendas or questionable ethical undertones that are less than honorable.  We do the best we can despite how messy, unclear, or violent serving in that vocation may be.

So here’s the honesty: That is what all of us who serve in our vocations do – we do the best we can, trusting that God is calling us and we are listening faithfully.  We are called to live in this world, not separate ourselves from it.  That means engaging in its messiness, yet not accepting it.  We as people of God serve through vocation in this world of sin and brokenness, but do so even when it’s unclear what we’re doing is God’s Will.  We do so because we’re people acting confidently out of faith, but also crying, “Kyrie elision; Lord, have mercy.”

And another bit of honesty: If we who serve in ministry, or as Christians think our vocation more noble, more righteous, and more Christlike than other vocations – especially the more messy and complex ones like military service – than we all deceive ourselves. 

I hope for those of you in the pulpit or leading worship this weekend, you’ll find a way to be honest – honest about both the gift of service amid tragic realities in our world. Engage in it, just as God engages deeply in our world through the cross.

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