Reevaluating how Christianity views the poor

For the upcoming generation-we are going to have to re-examine what it means to be a person of faith, especially in light of the fact that many of us our turning our backs on the institutional; church. For those of us who chose to leave the church, but still hold onto our Christian identify, we will have to examine and redefine for ourselves the essentials of our faith. What does it mean to be Christian? In a perfect world, how would we reshape the common and often negative perception of Christianity?  Even for those of us who want to stay within the confines of the institution, one must be willing to admit that in order for the Church to survive it will need to change. Those who stay within the church will have to ask themselves, “What do we want the mission of the church to be? To be a tool of oppression that seeks to recast everyone in a singular image, or one that seeks to embrace and seek out diversity, no matter how challenging? Do we want the Church to focus on converting and ‘winning souls to Christ,’ which often means trying to get them to accept our worldview, or do we want the Church to be a place where justice and mercy take center stage?

One central component of Christianity, is advocating for the poor. Not just giving “charity” that might provide temporary relief but do nothing to actually change the structurally inequalities, and one must be careful not to embrace a condescending view of advocacy that portrays the poor as simply needing help and as victims of life circumstances. Christianity needs to advocate and empower those who are poor and who are struggling, while not disempowering and infantilizing them. In my personal experience the churches I went to tended to deal with poverty in three ways 1) ignore the issue and deal more with spiritual concerns 2) provide money or food without trying to understand the root causes of poverty 3) embrace the view that those in poverty are weak and defenseless and cannot be held accountable for their own actions.  In this view, the voices of the poor tended to be silenced, as members of the congregation attempted to act like messiah figures.

All three are demeaning in their own particular way. In the first view, the realities and struggles of real life are often ignored or reduced to secondary importance as the most vital aspect of Christianity is to win souls to Christ. If people accept Christ as their savior, then God will help them in other aspects of their lives. Or if they accept Christ, they would stop doing whatever it is that is making them poor and their lot in life would improve. Or, if they accept Christ, what they go through on earth is secondary to the promises and wonders of heaven.  The second view, does provide much needed short term assistance for those who need immediate help. The lucky few who are helped are able to receive the aid that they cannot receive through the government or their own means. Nevertheless, the congregation doing the help may not be interested in educating themselves on the root causes of poverty. Meaning that while they help a few, the vast majority are ignored and the congregation and pastor, themselves might support policies that adversely affect the poor. And out of their own ignorance and disinterest in investigating the causes of poverty they are actually contributing to the structurally inequalities of the ones they are trying to help. 3) The last view seems to be the least harmful. You have a congregation that educates itself on poverty, that tries to advocate for the least of these so that long lasting change can happen. Nevertheless, the voices of the poor are themselves ignored. They are reduced to victims and while poverty many times has institutional structures, individuals can also help contribute to their dire situation. Those who are in poverty, need to be empowered to fight for change and to also look within themselves and eradicate any thoughts process or actions that help make a bad situation worse. For example, in addition to advocating against cuts in Medicaid and food stamps, some individuals may need education on how to keep a proper budget or on the varying birth control methods.  They need to be exposed to opportunities to help them get out of poverty, but they also need to take advantage of said opportunities and not let them pass them by. Furthermore, the messiah figure on the part of some advocates of the poor, mean that some people who need help are ignored because they are not “downtrodden enough” or in a more straightforward matter, they are not the type of poor that will get the church attention for helping then. They might struggle with additional factors that make them not sympathetic enough (the so called non-deserving poor) or conversely they are managing to rise themselves out of poverty, but they need just a bit of help. But they are often dismissed for not needing “enough help.”

As someone who grew up in poverty, and even after graduating from college stayed with my mom in public housing, I can see how the differing responses to poverty on the part of the institutional church have failed.  For those who want to continue to work within the church, the above responses need to be addressed and chucked out. Churches should advocate for and with the poor. Listen to them, treat them has human beings-not as selfish horrible people nor as simple victims of a horrible system, (which often leads to actions that continue to disempower the poor). Instead churches need to empower those struggling with poverty. However, many churches are dying and do not have the resources to help members of their own congregation, let alone the least of these.

Those of us who want Christianity to continue-regardless of whether or not the institutional church survives, need to grapple with what we want to be the central component of our faith. What do we want Christianity to be known for? How do we want Christianity to inspire its adherents to treat the least of these? Do we want Christianity to empower the poor? Or do we just want Christianity to be used as a tool of oppression by the powerful? Do we want it to fade into irrelevance ? Once we ask ourselves those questions, individually and as a community, we will be able to figure out how to turn our hopes, and dreams for Christianity into reality. Even for those who want to work outside the church, it is important we question why we continue to hold onto Christianity and how we want it to change and grow in the future. We can start by elevating how we want Christianity to treat the poor.

DOMA, the LGBT Community, and Compassion

On Wednesday June 26, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) as unconstitutional. While that does not mean that same sex-marriage is legal in all 50 states, it does mean that the federal government has to recognize the marriages and rights of those married in the 12 states (and the District of Colombia) that do allow same-sex marriage.  The Supreme Court also dismissed the Proposition 8 case in California, although the Supreme Court has avoided ruling on whether same sex marriage is a “constitutional equal protection right” that should be applied to all states.

On the one hand, this is great news. Married same-sex couples can no longer be denied federal benefits that their opposite sex counterparts enjoy. Nevertheless, a lot of work still needs to be done. Same sex marriage is not legal in the majority of states, meaning that same-sex couples will continue to face discrimination, hostility and barriers from marrying the one they love. People of faith (regardless of their religious affiliation) need to stand with atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious to ensure that people are not discriminated based on who they love.  Furthermore, we need to ensure that our voices are heard above the anti-gay rhetoric spewed by others who identify as people of faith. The loudest voices against marriage equality (at least in the United States) have been Christians. We need to ensure that all those who are oppressed and denied equality are welcomed and cherished in the church, but also outside of it, especially outside of the church. More and more people are leaving the church, (undeniable at least some of that has to do, at least partly, with the stances of Fundamentalist churches and some Mainline churches who are against same sex marriages, ordination of LGBT clergy, etc) but are not necessarily leaving Christianity behind. How can those of us who are no longer attending church, (whether permanently or temporally) demonstrate our faith and compassion to oppressed groups, in this case, the LGBT community and other sexual minorities?

1)      Education -we need to educate ourselves on the issues that the LGBT community and other sexual minorities face. Even for those of us who identify as a sexual minority, we might still have to learn about how others are being harassed and discriminated against. For example, those who identify as gay and lesbian might want to learn about the specific trials and suffering that bisexual and transgender people experience both within the LGBT community and outside of it. Others such as those who identify as pansexual and asexual are often rendered completely invisible. Let’s educate ourselves and widen our focus to include those “sexual minorities” that are not even given lipservice.  Not to mention that racial minorities who also happen to be part of the LGBT community are not always heard and they often have their own unique struggles and experiences that should be listened to and affirmed.

2)      Gather. We need to join other like minded individuals who are advocates for equality regardless of their religious affiliation, (or lack thereof) their race, their social economic status, their sexual orientation, etc. For many of us, the Church is ineffectual and monolithic. How many of us have been “forced” out of a congregation whether intentionally or not because of our race, our social economic status, our orientation, or our health struggles? While there are plenty of churches who are doing things extremely right and who are at least trying to provide a nurturing environment and advocacy for the oppressed, there are also many others that are causing harm by their inability and perhaps refusal to take seriously the gospel’s command to love one another. (And this includes both “Conservative” churches and “Progressive” churches) Nevertheless, despite our bad experiences in some churches we need to find ways to meet with others and advocate for the issues we are passionate about. Joining cyber communities that mix online interaction with real world advocacy is an option, as well as joining rallies that seek to bring discrimination into the public’s views.  Or simply meeting with a small group of friends who share the same interests as you can provide nurturing and encouragement as we continue to fight for equality. Furthermore, we should not let our bad experiences with some congregations shut us off completely from possibly working with congregations that are seeking to be the type of community Christ advocated for.

3)      Theologically sharp-It is not enough for us to say that our faith propels us to advocate for those suffering, but to be able to explain how and why. Why do we believe “God” (however, we may define “God”) is calling us to be accepting and welcoming while others claim that same God wants to “cure” people of their homosexuality? How can we counteract the claim that God ordains marriage is between a man and woman? In order to do so, we need to do research on the history of the Bible (or whatever sacred texts we adhere too) and understand its historical and cultural roots.

The rulings on DOMA and proposition 8 are encouraging, but our work is far from over. Let us continue to develop a “theology of compassion” by advocating for equality and ensuring that members of the LGBT community (and other sexual minorities such as those who identify pansexual, and asexual) are not discriminated against because they do not adhere to the culture norm of being white and heterosexual.

The Church: Reform or Die

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations, your image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice-oceans of it. I want fairness-rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” Amos 5:21-24

Membership in Mainline Protestant churches on the decline, while many charismatic/fundamentalist churches are currently growing-they will eventually hit their peak and then they too will begin to eventually decline.  Especially with the rise of the “nones” those who consider themselves unaffiliated with any particular religion. Many denominations and churches are trying to do damage control-they are desperately trying to remain relevant, yet how can one expect to grow when one insists on the same old, same old? More and more people are getting tired of religious institutions.

While some argue that the declining interest in church attendance is because young people want a “buffet” spirituality where they can adhere to the parts they like and discard the tough, difficult parts, I argue, how many churches are truly theologically relevant? Socially relevant? How many churches preach Sunday school theology-where most of the congregation are Biblical illiterate or simply resort to Biblical literalism, since that is the default option in American Christianity? How many pastors have gone to seminary, learned about the historical critical method of studying the Bible and about the various authors/editors throughout the centuries that have changed/added/subtracted from the Biblical text yet have members in their congregations that still thinks the Bible was literally written by God, is error-free, and that every member of the clergy believes as they do? Many pastors maintain that their congregations are not interested in the “academic” side of Biblical studies or they feel that what they learn academically is irrelevant to the lives of their parishioners. An interesting concept if one thinks about it-so the text-considered to be sacred by many in your tradition- is not important enough to be studied, to be examined? If the congregation-many of whom consist of those who had been attending the same church for years-are not interested in learning about the Bible, then how can you expect someone who is younger and has no such commitment to the church to even want to stop by for a service? Of course academics needs to be tied in with practical experience-such as helping and advocating for the poor-but being interested in what you claim to hold dear is vitally important.

As someone who received her BA in Religious Studies and plans on going to Divinity School in the fall, I find it disheartening how little basic knowledge many members have about the Bible. (This is a problem that affects churches regardless of their theological leanings).  And the worst part is they don’t really seem to care. Even in denominations and churches where the Bible is elevated to divine status, they have a serious lack of historical background in regards to the formation of the Bible. They don’t want to know because it might cause them to question their interpretation; they don’t want to know because they don’t truly care about what the Bible says, but only about being able to prove to others that they are right.  More and more young people are getting tired of attending churches where the Bible seems to evoke nothing more than a yawn or where it is wielded like a weapon to cut down all those with differing opinions.

Others argue that this generation is too independent or selfish to want to get involved in the messy work of congregational life. Perhaps that true for some, but I argue that many young people don’t see the point in getting involved in an institutional whose main purpose seems to be to reinforce the status quo. In many mainline churches, (not all) the emphasis is on tradition-which is not necessarily a bad thing-but whose tradition are they trying to preserve? Read through many of the hymns, find out the information of the authors. How many owned slaves? How many were upper class? How many were in favor of the subjection of women? How many people in the congregation can even answer these questions or even care enough to ask? I am not suggesting we discard tradition, but to be aware of whose tradition we are preserving. As a Hispanic female, I am not necessarily interested in hymns written by slave owners.

As for the conservative/fundamentalist churches, many tend to uphold the status quo of men as head of household and in positions of power, and heterosexual identity. Sorry to disappoint you but women are earning advanced degrees at a higher level than men and more and more women are gaining positions of power outside of the home and are becoming the primary bread winners for their family. Furthermore, the LGBT community is vocal. Even in conservative educational institutions such as Wheaton College, the LGBT community is making their voices heard. More and more people—including young evangelicals are in favor of same-sex marriage. Why would people want to attend a church that wants to set back society and nullify human rights?

Even mainline churches, which are often viewed as more “open” are still struggling with ordaining an open member of the LGBT community, and even though mainline churches have been ordaining women since at least the 70s’, many female clergy members continue to be underpaid and shuttled to congregations that cannot afford a male clergy member.

There have been exceptions-there are always exceptions. One cannot forget the vital role that the church played in the civil rights movement, one cannot forget the individual churches and pastors that have stood up for LGBT rights, comprehensive immigration reform, healthcare reform, veterans support, and who are questioning the nation’s pathological need for violence and war. However, unlike many who find comfort in the church, I find myself identifying more and more with those who have left. Those who are have decided that enough is enough. There are those who have been called to reform the church, to act as a prophetic voice, but more and more are deciding that the Church has had more than enough time to change, more than enough time to heed the prophetic voices calling out to them but have by and large chosen to ignore them.

The Church has done good and will continue to do good, but the Church has also done incredible harm. In fact for some people, a relationship with the Church can be termed abusive. When the Church demeans you because of your race, your sexual orientation, or even your mental health status then I firmly believe people have the right to decide they would rather disengage then try to reform it. In my opinion the Christian Church in America has two options reform or die. And quite frankly, it is those who are in love with the concept of the church’s responsibility to ensure it survives. As for me, I find it much more exciting to wonder if Christianity can exist outside of the traditional Institutional church, and if so how? It does excite me to see organizations and churches who are doing their own thing, who are stepping outside of the institutional status quo and who are embracing change. I can imagine myself working with such congregations and organizations, but with the majority of churches that seem to be intention preserving the status quo? Quite frankly, I am not interested and neither are most of my peers. And I don’t really think that’s a bad thing.

Shake off our apathy and hypocrisy

The Body of War is a 2007 documentary chronicling the frustrations of then 25 year old Iraq war Veteran Tomas Young who was injured shortly after deployment when he was shot through the spine and paralyzed. The movie chronicles the physical, mental and emotional challenges he faces as well as the disintegration of his first marriage and the awakening of his political activism as he speaks out against the Iraq war and the reasons for going to war. Fast forward a few years and things have gone from bad to worse. A few months after the film came out, he developed a blood clot in his lugs which damaged his brain, hands, and impaired his speech. His mother, Cindy Smith told NPR: “To be a paraplegic, deal with that, and then wake up and you’re a quadriplegic and you can’t use your voice, which is what you were learning to use. So many people wanted him to speak, and he couldn’t speak anymore.”

About the film Young says: “I’m glad that it came out and people saw the reality of war. But now I can’t even watch it, because it serves as a reminder of what I used to be able to do.” A tragic statement considering that the documentary records his struggles with his physical injuries from being unable to get and maintain erection, to needing help to insert a catheter so he can urinate, to his struggles with PTSD.

As a result of his deteriorating health and despite having gotten married about a year ago, Young has decided to end his life. He has decided to remove his feeding tube and stop taking his medicine which according to NPR, amount to almost 100 pills a day.

Young has written a last letter to former president George W Bush and Vice-president Dick Cheney. He says in part,

I write this letter, my letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power.  I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes of plunder and finally of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans-my fellow veterans, whose future you stole.

While Young places the blame squarely on the former president-and vice-president if we were to be honest with ourselves- as a society and as a nation-we need to admit that we are also partly responsible for the devastation of war.

Our apathy, our blind acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence, our unwillingness to think critically  and hold our politicians accountable, all lay the ground work for unjust wars and untold violence and devastation. Those who claim to follow Christ, should know better but unfortunately more often not we prefer to remain silent on issues of justice, because it is easier and less risky. Christians are often parodied as people who think uncritically, who take an ancient book written thousands of years ago with various errors and contradictions, at face value and literally. Of course that is a blanket statement, Christianity is varied and different ways of interpreting  the Bible abound, but too often Christians have simply checked out from the world-even those who claim to have social justice as their main tenant.

Christians who consider themselves to be “progressive” often ridicule conservative Christians for being close-minded, and uncritical yet many “progressive” Christians fall into the same trap. They align themselves uncritically with a political party-they use the gospel-just as conservative Christians do to push certain agendas while ignore the atrocities committed by their favorite party.  They, just as conservative Christians confuse the gospel with political affiliation.  Some progressive Christians also demonstrate a shocking disregard for those of other nations. For example, they will advocate for equal rights in the United States while refusing to hold their party accountable for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of innocent children in another country. They quote bible verses to discuss God’s love for the poor, and members of the LGBT community in the United States but ironically ignore the poor and oppressed in the Biblical lands. Christians regardless of their political affiliation need to decide who their true allegiance lies, with political thugs or with the gospel which advocates social justice and compassion?  Christians need to stop trying to hide their allegiance to the powers that be with pithy biblical verses and be honest with themselves. If they truly want to follow Christ they need to be willing to advocate for accountability from those in power and be willing to push for justice for all people-not just those they deem to be worthy. I find it disgusting that Christians are willing to advocate for a certain group of people while ignoring the deaths and cries of another group of people in another country. Last time I checked the gospel knows no boundaries on compassion based on a person’s nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation-however, political allegiance tends to set strict boundaries on those considered to be worthy of compassion.

As a nation-comprised of Christians, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Judaism, and a variety of other religious and belief systems we need to confront the myth of redemptive violence. Violence is seeped into our culture-from the gun control debates, to the bloated Department of Defense budget to how common place violence is in our media. While I am not one to say that violent video games or movies cause one to act violently, it does serve to reinforce the military-industrial complex and the false notion of redemptive violence. In fact many people, especially those who do not fight it, view war as a movie where our side (the good guys) defeat the bad guys (whoever we are fighting against) and we win. The problem with buying into the myth of redemptive violence is that it enables us to be lazy and refuse to find other solutions for our difficult complex problems. It asserts that violence and will solve any problem and will save us. Tomas Young’s story is just one example of thousands (or hundreds thousands if one counts the civilian causality of war) of how redemptive violence has failed us, individually, as a society and as a nation.

It is time that we each decide who want to be- a nation of apathetic and uncaring “Christians” or a nation of citizens embolden by compassion and the thirst for justice.

My time at Brite Divinity School

The institutional church has failed in many ways.  More and more people are finding the message of the Church to be irrelevant. It’s not just the stereotypical theologically conservative or fundamentalist churches that have caused pain and suffering, but mainline churches and more theologically progressive churches have done their damage. In fact just as dying animals can become more vicious the closer they approach death, mainline and progressive churches have lashed out, forcing out anyone who thinks or acts differently or who might pose a threat.

However, my trip to Brite Divinity School reminded me about all the reasons why I have not yet completely abandoned the idea of the institutional church.  During my time at Brite I was able to talk with professors, deans, and faculty who both view the institutional church and theology in a critical light yet who have not given up on the institutional church. They may be angry, they may be frustrated, they may have been hurt yet instead of simply walking away from a broken institution they have chosen to continue the hard work of trying to bring about reform.  I had the opportunity to talk about how certain theological notions contribute to violence and to the militarization of society.  I was able to talk with two of the people responsible for launching the soul repair center-a think tank focused on bringing awareness to the public and to congregations about moral injury and how it affects veterans.  I enjoyed talking about how theology is in fact relevant to popular culture and how certain tv shows or movies often espouse a certain type of theology-even if no deity figure is explicitly mentioned.

I met LGBT students who had never thought they would discover a welcoming school like Brite which is in of all places Texas.  I attended a service where an African American gay Pentecostal pastor preached. He proudly affirmed his Pentecostal roots as well as his love for his partner. As someone who grew up Pentecostal, he would not have been accepted at my childhood Pentecostal church. He would have been allowed to attend church, yet for him to be considered “saved” he would have had to change his sexual orientation or at least not act on it. He would have had to deny himself the ability to love.  Those churches who are more progressive or liberal would have proudly affirmed his love, yet they would have looked with disdain upon his Pentecostal roots. Yet here he was, studying at Brite and still holding onto the institutional church. While I disagree with his theology, I found the fact he enjoyed his time at Brite to be comforting. Conservatives, liberals, and progressives (theologically and politically) tend to get caught up in a box. They want to establish clear boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out.” Brite seems to not be afraid of tension and paradoxes.  I do not want to waste my time attending a church or institution where everyone is “encouraged” to have the same views on theology, politics, and social justice. I want to be able to meet others who have a passion for social justice but whose theology will challenge my own assumptions and stereotypes.

Additionally I sat in on a class. I enjoyed listening to the Professor discuss his experiences with various forms of churches-including the regimented form of worship available on the various bases he lived in as a military child and the experimental Christian community he lived in briefly while in college. He also discussed how he found his home in an Episcopal church.  Other students chimed in with their experiences and talked briefly about their church internships and their struggles.

I enjoyed my time at Brite, and while I am still a bit apprehensive about living in Texas, (not just the political environment, but also the extreme heat in the summer) I do feel as if Brite is the right place for me. I inquired about public transportation which seems to be decent (better than in southern California), so I will be able to get around. (I hope to earn my license either before starting school there or sometime during my studies. Though being able to buy a car is a long way off…)

Every institution has its challenges, and I know that a day is not enough to get the full character of a school. I am also aware that an institution always places its best foot forward while courting perspective students. However, Brite feels authentic; it feels right in my gut. Brite feels like home.

Mennonite Peace Retreat 2013

The Mennonite peace retreat was held at Spruce Lake retreat from Friday Feb 8-Sunday February 10th.  While one might wonder what can be accomplished during that short time, Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug did an excellent job in presenting to us the dangers and consequences of war culture and it’s religious underpinnings. During the retreat Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug presented us with examples of how war-culture is deeply intertwined into our everyday life. For example she played clips from various military recruitment commercials which demonstrated not only the link between the entertainment industry and the military, but also how notions of sacrifice are extolled. For example in the national guard’s “warrior” music video Kid Rock enthusiastically praises the courageous warrior while clips of national guardsman performing heroic feats are shown. Kid Rock sings:

So don’t tell me who’s wrong and right
When liberty starts slipping away
And if you ain’t gonna fight
Get out of the way

‘Cause freedom ain’t so free
When you breathe red, white and blue
I’m giving all of myself
How ’bout you?

The song is simultaneously a challenge for american citizens to give their all by joining the national guard and a command tfor those who might question the validity of the military’s actions to shut up and get out of the way.

Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug also played excerpts from Twila Paris song, “What Did He Die For?”which explicitly links Christian understandings of sacrifice with the deaths of american service members in war. Twila Paris’ uses the same refrain to depict the death of a service member in World War II with the death of Jesus:

What did he die for?
When he died for you and me
Made the sacrifice
So that we could all be free
I believe we will answer each to heaven
For the way we spend a priceless liberty
Look inside and ask the question

Dr. Denton-Borhaug also discussed the various redemption images available in Christianity,and how penal substitution is not only one of the later images to have developed but is currently the image most frequently used in Christianity in the United States. Penal substitution maintains that Jesus needed to sacrifice himself for our sins. In the same way military personnel need to sacrifice their lives in order for the rest of us to enjoy freedom.
Dr. Denton-Borhaug explicated that such intertwining of religious understandings of sacrifice with the military makes criticizing war and the military extremely difficult. Even those who are against a particular war or wars in general still sue the notion of sacrifice to describe the deaths and physical and mental injuries of military service members. Such framing of their deaths leaves the idea of war-culture and the myth of redemptive violence intact.

In a future blog post I will go into further details and examples about the dangers of sacrificial constructs and provide an alternative framework for understanding the deaths and injuries of service members.

In addition to describing how religion undergirds war culture, Dr. Denton-Borhaug also talked about how to avoid getting overwhelmed. While the damage of war obviously  causes those who participate it, their families, and “enemy” civilians the most and the pain and suffering; for those of us who are passionate about advocating for peace and for supporting our veterans it can be extremely disheartening to encounter the general apathy of american society. It is also frustrating to understand the full scope of war culture and it’s consequences. We as a society are beginning to realize how damaging war is as we become more aware of the staggering mental and physical costs of war. Yet even then, many are not questioning war culture or the redemptive myth of violence. Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug and the other participants discussed various ways in which to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Some of the suggestions include:

  • Use commonsense; increase our own awareness; find allies
  • —Tell the truth about war-culture
  • —Counter dominant messages and practices (i.e. war video games)
  • —Talk with people across differences: interfaith, rural/urban, civilian/veteran
  • —Seek ways to avoid paying war taxes
  • —Question and resist war-culture’s norms (i.e. requisite patriotic gestures)
  • —Study and question images of Christian salvation; resist and challenge religious images/language used to glorify or mystify war
  • —Study, and develop creative means to counteract recruitment strategies
  • —“Follow the money!” Engage in economic analysis of war-culture
  • —Emphasize forgiveness, not retribution; starting afresh, not wallowing in the past

Not only did Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug do a great job in lecturing and facilitating discussion but the other participants were fantastic. They were deeply engaged and wrested with the new information they were given. Their commitment to veterans and peace was evident.

To understand Dr. Denton-Borhaug’s perspective on the retreat please read her blog


I am the one with the blue camera case and Dr. Denton-Borhaug is the one with the purple sweatshirt.

The National Tragedy and Shame of Military Suicides

No matter how often William Busbee washed his hands, the blood would not come off.  In his article, US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic among war veterans Ed Pilkington chronicles the tale of William Busbee’s pain and suffering, which ultimately culminated in his suicide..  Busbee was deployed to Afghanistan three times and each time he returned, his mother Linda noticed a difference. He became a recluse and was uncomfortable among civilians. Pilkington quotes Linda as saying: “I reckon he felt he no longer belonged here.”  He was haunted by what he saw and did during his deployment, telling his mother that she would hate him if she knew what he had done. He also told her “The son you loved died over there.”Busbee felt abandoned by the army when after a suicide attempt he was presented with the ultimatum to leave or face a medical discharge. Busbee chose to leave and in despair he told his mother, “I’m nothing now. I’ve been thrown away by the army.” Shortly before he died he stated: “I don’t want to be buried in my uniform – why would I want that when they threw me away when I was alive.”

Sadly, stories such as Busbee’s have become an all too common occurrence within the last few years.  According to an extensive study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs which investigated suicides from 1999-2010, a veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, a much starker figure than the popular and often cited estimate that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. 2012 saw a record high of 349 service members commit suicide. According to Pilkington “For the first time, the majority of  those who killed themselves had been deployed. That’s a watershed that is causing deep concern within the services.” Before, the majority of those who committed suicide were from those who had never deployed, but the trend seems to be reversing itself.

The situation is alarming. In a 2011 study published by the Center for a New American Security entitled Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide stated that: “although only
1 percent of Americans have served during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States.”

The suicides of service members and veterans, especially of those who have served in a war zone, represent not only a tragedy and devastation for their loved ones but a moral failure on our nation. While suicide is often presented as an individual choice, the reluctance on the part of political and military leaders to adequately address the issue and the apathy of the general american public is immoral. A service members or veteran’s suicide might become media fodder for a few days, but deep substantive change are slow to come by. A part of which can be traced to the continuing reluctance to let go of the myth of war as a glorious adventure and a simple case of good vs. evil.

It is always easier to hold on to our mythical constructions of war than ask the difficult questions and listen to the uncensored stories of veterans and military personnel. We as citizens either ignore completely their experience and remain uninterested in listening, or we ask insensitive questions such as, “did you kill someone” and “how did it feel.” We ask those questions not because we are interested in hearing the truth but we want to satisfy our fetish and appetite for violence.

The issues related to the suicides of female veterans and service members often, but not always, contain the added layer of addressing military sexual assault. Anuradha K. Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) explicates in a March 20, 2012 opinion piece for the New York Times that:

Over 19,000 sexual assaults were committed against service women and men last year alone. Military sexual assault does not elicit the same outpouring of support as the narrative of men and women returning from war, and many sexual trauma survivors suffer in silence. Getting a V.A. claim based on sexual trauma is an enormous hurdle. In our experience, when these claims are rejected, veterans are at additional risk for suicidal thoughts. In fact, only 32 percent of post-traumatic stress disorder claims based on sexual trauma are accepted, while 53 percent of claims based on combat trauma get accepted. Not being compensated in any way for the military’s betrayal can lead many veterans on a tragic downward spiral.- Challenges for  Service Women

Suicide often occurs when one feels as if there is  no other way to end his or her pain. The pain that results from depression, PTSD, and trauma can be extremely isolating and for the small number of Americans who deploy to a war zone, their experiences can isolate and separate them from the rest of american society. Military sexual assault and an apathetic nation can further foster a sense of isolation.

It is time that we listen deeply to those who are suffering, and ask difficult questions regarding war, and our treatment of veterans and service members.

How do people of faith address such a complex issue? Here are two simple suggestions.

1) Acknowledge there is a problem and seek to address it.  We need to be willing to take the time to do the research and to pay attention to the devastating suicides plaguing the military and veteran population. Simply glancing at a news article, and shaking one’s head is not enough. Allow the stories you read to touch you deeply. Yes life is complicated and we are all struggling with various issues, but take the time as you go about your day to remember those service members and military personnel who ended their lives. Let their stories cause you to question how we as a nation view war and what types of services and support we provide for those who have gone to war. The facebook page Stop Soldier Suicide is a good place to be find articles and personal blogs detailing the agony some service members and veterans experience when they return from war.

2) Work to end the stigma. The way people who struggle with suicidal thoughts are treated by various institutions is horrendous. If you are part of a church or other religious institution, examine how your church leaders and fellow congregates treat those they know who struggle with such thoughts. Unfortunately some congregations and religious institutions prefer to ignore the reality of suicide or they expel those who openly struggle with such thoughts. Such congregations care more about maintaining the status quo than truly effecting change.

Such steps will not immediately put a stop to the number of preventable deaths, but it will begin the process of turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26)