Veterans have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This oath places orders from the President and military officers under that constitution and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
In my case, as a former Marine, and for many others, it is an oath sworn by a follower of Jesus. How can that be? The Bible sits above the Constitution, and even scripture, the written Word of God, is subject to interpretation by the Holy Spirit.
The Prince of Peace outranks the President, and the Holy Spirit hovers over “Esprit de Corps.”
Christ-following military personnel and veterans live in a constant tension between their oath and the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” There is some solace in the fact that we are to love God supremely, but not solely. Therein, we find room to love our country, even to serve it. But the solace does not eliminate the tension.
We remain “In the world, but not of it.”
God help us.
And with that cry, Christ-following military veterans join all other Christians in this life.
God help us.
Many Christ-following American citizens, veterans included, feel a strange churning in their “gut” as American democracy seems to be very much at risk. How much should the “Citizens of Heaven” concern themselves with the preservation of any earthly form of government?
Those who have taken the oath of military enlistment have a moral, perhaps even spiritual, obligation to care.
American democracy is not the system of heaven. But then, the Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. American democracy, even with its inconsistencies and history of marginalization, is the best that we can hope to achieve in this world.
God and the teachings of Christ are to be lived, but they cannot be “defended” in the military definition of that word. Living is stronger than arguing, stronger than legislating, stronger than winning. Living is stronger than those alternatives, but also more difficult.
The military does not defend God. Active-duty personnel and veterans need not carry that burden, nor should they harbor that pride, however exemplary their courage and noble their motivation might be.
The scriptural approach and the military approach are often in conflict when it comes to the noble work of preserving justice and mercy and countering oppression. At this point, we must begin to consider the possibility of a heavenly tempering of earthly terror.
Can there be such a thing? Can a Christ-follower even ask for such a grace? Is that not the same as asking God to be on our side?
God help us.
Military personnel, no matter their status, and monks join professional theologians and applied theologians (“regular” people) in the wrestling match that is this dilemma.
God’s grace makes it possible for us to step back and consider such things, to live with such difficult questions. In fact, God calls us to sabbath, to stop and take a deep breath. Even though we stop, God continues.
While we wonder, God knows. While our allegiances waver, God’s forgiveness is constant.
And then, still, God the Son whispers to us, “Follow me.” The command is heard in Sunday School and Boot Camp. The call is voiced by Christ and commanders: “Follow me.” The curious crossing of these paths, in their intent, moves toward the same destination: peace.
God help us.
And God does help us. When two words, “Follow me,” overwhelm us, one word, “Emmanuel,” comforts us.
Emmanuel, God With Us.
“Listen up,” veteran. His name is “Emmanuel.” He knows your fear. He knows your inner conflict. He was with you in combat and in boredom. He is with you in your sleepless nights. He is with you now as you experience honest gratitude, well-meaning praise, undeserved glory, or undeserved ridicule. His name is “Emmanuel.” He is with you.
Veterans are worthy of a national day of recognition. We should recognize them but not use them.
Yes. Veterans are individuals whose experiences were real and personal. They are not “one-size-fits-all” action figures to make us feel more patriotic or powerful.
Look them in the eye as you thank them for their service. Then give them space and quiet respect for what they must, again, deal with, having heard your expression of gratitude.
Thank them with humility, but not hero-worship. Hero-worship does not honor the veteran. It only makes the one voicing the praise feel bigger.
Veterans, I salute you. Return the salute as you will, and only if you will. You are no longer obligated to do so. You have been “properly relieved.”
Retired professor of Christian Ministry and Church Music at Baylor University and Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Former Marine from a family of Marines.