Friday, July 29, 2011

Soldiers: God’s masks in fatigues

Lecture at Annual Conference of the Augsburg Lutheran Churches in El Paso, TX, July 25, 2011


By Uwe Siemon-Netto



We journalists have a tendency to talk with great authority about other people’s craft. This has become so bad that by now talk show hosts tell statesmen and other professionals how to do their jobs.


Think of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. He won’t ever allow his interview partners to finish a sentence. He always knows better. His favorite line is, “I have always said…” And he is not alone in this. He just does this more shamelessly than his lesser peers.


I am not much of a Paul Tillich fan. But this state of affairs confirms Tillich’s insight that hubris is a structural element of original sin. Thus hubris should be added to Article Two of the Augsburg Confession as a constituent part of Original Sin alongside man’s inability to believe and trust in God and concupiscence. On this point I agree with Tillich. Hubris is an innate human condition that foolishly presumes to trump God.


That said, I am brazen enough to talk about a vocation that is not mine: I mean soldiering. I have never served in the military. I have never fired a shot in anger. But I have spent a lot of time with soldiers in combat. I have been shot down in a helicopter in Vietnam. And I have held the hands of dying GIs screaming first for his mother and then for God, always in this order. I have been attached to a large platoon of Marines, which lost 40 men in 12 hours.


I am also the son of a German officer cadet who was blinded in action in World War I. I have heard his harrowing tales since my childhood and watched shrapnel protrude from his skin about once a month literally until the day he died more than 50 years ago.


During my CPE I worked as a chaplain intern with Vietnam veterans in the VA in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Some of you might have read my short book, The Acquittal of God, a Theology for Vietnam Veterans. It was based on the MA thesis I wrote at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.


So come to think of if, I actually can speak with some authority about soldiering. When I claim that soldiers are God’s Masks in Fatigues, I know what I am talking about. And I also know what I am talking about when I call those self-righteous pacifists of the 1960s and 1970s who vilified returning warriors as baby killers of being the devil’s masks. I can call upon Luther as my witness.


Luther described Christians serving their neighbors out of love the masks behind which God hides as he is accomplishing his concealed purposes in the world.


By this logic, warriors are divine masks doing God’s work. “God honors the sword so highly that he says that he Himself has instituted it (Romans 13:1),” Luther wrote in his brilliant treatise, “Whether soldiers, too, can be saved.”


“For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand but God’s; and it is not man, but God who… kills and fights.”


Luther compared the soldier’s craft with that of a surgeon who amputates so that the whole body may not perish.


This means that soldiers come under the rubric for which Luther coined the Latin term, “larvae Dei,” masks of God. He also said that people who are not larvae Dei are by definition larvae Diaboli, the Devil’s masks. There exists no neutral position between these two extremes.


Often the Devil’s Masks are perceived to be divine because they sound so nicely. My favorite Devil’s mask banner is the bumper sticker reading: “War is not the answer.” The Devil stops you from asking the obvious: “What’s the question?” Leave a dopey statement in a limbo and you instantly grow wings in the perception of a naïve public that has never read Luther’s statement that the devil is the great imitator: “Where God builds his Church, the devil brings his imitators along and builds a chapel, nay many chapels, right beside it.”


There exists a species of copiers of the divine called “Lutheran pacifists,” although this very expression seems an oxymoron. Let me focus on one person who has become a paradigm for this contradiction in terms.


Her name is Margot Kässmann. Until last year she was the Lutheran bishop of Hanover and chairwoman of the EKD, Germany’s state-related Protestant churches.


Then the police caught her careening around town blind drunk at midnight in her luxurious office car, a Volkswagen Phaeton, allegedly with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder by her side; admittedly, she is quite an attractive woman.

I am not holding her DUI against her. We are all sinners. We screw up. She paid the price and resigned from her high office; kudos to her for that.

But what I do hold against her are her utterly un-Lutheran homilies on war. Shortly before she gave up the highest office in German Protestantism, she stepped into Germany’s most coveted Lutheran pulpit – the pulpit of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) in Dresden – and opined in a New Year’s Day sermon: “Nothing is good in Afghanistan.”


The only way out was to negotiate with the Taliban. This year she followed this up by making this idiotic pronouncement: “It would be better to pray with the Taliban than to bomb them.”


Let this sink in for a moment. After the United States and Britain, Germany maintains the strongest military contingent in Afghanistan. German soldiers are dying or getting maimed in the Hindukush as are their American comrades-in-arms.


Many soldiers fighting in Afghanistan hail from the former East Germany where they were brought up in an agnostic or atheist environment. In many cases, the first time they have ever heard the Gospel was in their camps or forward positions where both Catholic and Protestant chaplains are doing a valiant job of evangelizing. For German clergymen, Afghanistan has become fertile mission field. Nowhere else have they found a more receptive young audience.


And along comes the nation’s most revered church leader and tells the soldiers and their families that their work is no good, their sacrifice in vain. What’s even worse is that Mrs Kässmann has just been named her Church’s “ambassador” to the world with the task of promoting Lutheranism as we prepare for the Reformation’s Quincentenary in 2017. Talk about setting the cat among the pigeons.


Luther called pastors poaching in the political realm “false clerics and schismatic priests,” and warned that “cooking and brewing” together the spiritual and secular realities of life was the devil’s work. He was right.


There are three interlocking arguments against Mrs. Kässmann’s behavior, which reminds me so much of American clerics agitating from the pulpit against the Vietnam War and even forbidding returning soldiers to attend services in uniform or wearing crew cuts. I am not kidding you: I organized pastoral care groups of Vietnam veterans in the VA in St. Cloud; many told me that they had actually been banished from their home congregations, Lutheran congregations included.


My first argument is doctrinal. The “sword,” meaning all governmental power including military might, is from God. Like all other vocations, a soldier’s labor is a work of love designed to protect good order, maintain peace, defend the nation and punish evildoers. Where a soldier kills in the service of an unjust ruler, it is that ruler who bears the guilt. If the soldier arrives at the conviction that he is definitely fighting an unjust war, then he must offer passive resistance but suffer the consequences, which can mean execution.

The second argument is about human care. A pastor telling soldiers that their sacrifice is futile is committing callous malpractice. I can’t think of a more mindless and unloving pursuit of ministry than this. We know from the treatment of soldiers by antiwar activists in the Vietnam era that such comportment is self-serving, making pastors feel good about themselves.


I am not saying that the church should endorse any policies; this too would amount to cooking and brewing the kingdoms together. Chaplains have more than enough work to do when they bring word and sacrament to the suffering soldiers and tell them that God is suffering with them in a godless world, to paraphrase a famous statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


All they have to do is to assure them that a soldier’s vocation is also divinely ordained. All they have to do is to feed them the means of grace. There is no more compelling account of perfect pastoring than the story of a Lutheran chaplain in the besieged Marine base of Khe Sanh in Vietnam in 1968.


As the stacks of body bags were piling up all over the place, he ran, with a stole over his flack jacket, from gun emplacement to gun emplacement to commune the fighting men, saying: “The body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.” The impact of this statement was overwhelming: in the sight of all those broken bodies he brought the marines the one broken body that gives life. I have been told that several of the surviving men later went to seminary.


Finally, let me posit a third argument against. Kässmann’s rhetoric, and this argument has to do with service. God calls us to serve others, not ourselves. If we serve others lovingly we render the highest possible service to God. The chaplain in Khe Sanh did precisely that, making no pronouncements on whether the war in Vietnam was just or unjust because to do so would not have been his Amt, as Luther would say; it was not his office.


Let’s look at this more closely. Mrs. Kässmann clearly affirms women’s rights; without feminist instincts she would probably not have striven to become a bishop and the first female head of the Protestant church in Germany.


Now she says: Let’s negotiate with the Taliban, clearly ignoring that when these folks were in power in Afghanistan ten years ago, women were not allowed to drive; forbidden to read and write; to show their faces in public, to exercise any kind of profession. We have seen on television secretly filmed documentaries of women being flogged and stoned to death in the Kabul sports stadium on Friday after church.


So what concessions does Mrs. Kässmann expect from the Taliban if they are ever allowed back to power? That they flog and stone women only on every other Friday? That they are allowed to learn half the Arabic alphabet, either from “Alif” to “Sad” or from “Dad to Ya”? And that they drive cars with small slits in their otherwise blacked-out windshields and only between 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning, not during the rest of the day?


Ah, and then she proposed praying with the Taliban rather than bombing them. Goods. Let her, a clergywoman, be the first to pray with these men – in the name of Christ, as is her obligation as a Lutheran minister. And then see what happens to her on Fridays after church.


Pardon my sardonic sense of irony, but what we have here is so self-serving it makes me gag. I am scandalized that nobody out there seems to takes people like this one to task, and people like Kässmann exist on this side of the Atlantic just as much as in Berlin. Where are the women’s groups when the future of Afghan or Iraqi or other Muslim women is in question? Are human rights only reserved for Westerners, not for Orientals? Or have women’s groups reduced their agenda to abortion rights?


When do we start countering such smarmy “peace-loving” pronouncements that disregard the safety of fellow members of the human race?


Let me tell you why this makes me so angry. I have seen what soldiers went through in Vietnam. I have been with them when the received Dear John Letters from their wives and girlfriends who had been sucked up by the self-serving peace movement back home. There was a veritable epidemic of such letters back in the late Sixties. In one case I am familiar with a GI found a video in a parcel from his fiancé. It showed her in bed with a bearded peacenik. The GI went apoplectic, grabbed his M-16 and proceeded to randomly shoot down Vietnamese civilians.


In Vietnam I have learned the stories of soldiers who dementedly walked into enemy fire and got killed after reading farewell letters from home. And when I returned to New York after covering this war over a period of five years, the fashionable thing to say on the cocktail party circuit was: “Ugh, Vietnam Veterans, my most unfavorable minority!”


Doing ministry among Vietnam veterans in Minnesota, I found many had retreated into the forest to live in isolation from the rest of society, which they though had rejected them. Most of the vets I dealt with had “flipped off” God, as they called it, not because they didn’t believe in Him but because they thought that God had already abandoned them in Vietnam and that they were now doomed. They were victims of lousy catechesis, bad pastoral care and a self-righteous society that didn’t want to be bothered by them.


Now that I am living in southern California, I am closely connected with the huge Vietnamese community there. And you know what I have found? That there are thousands and thousands of former South Vietnamese soldiers among them still traumatized by the aftereffects of head injuries they received when tortured in Communist re-education camps after the Vietcong victory in 1975 – thirty-six years ago.


There actually exists a stark study of this phenomenon. One of my doctors, a Vietnamese woman, gave it to me. This study was conducted by a group of scholars led by Harvard psychiatrist Richard Mollica. I published it in an Internet newspaper edited by a journalism class I taught at Concordia University Irvine last year.


Do you think I could interest any mainstream media outlet in these astonishing findings? No! Not even conservative papers wanted to know about this. You see, it makes people feel too uncomfortable? And do you want to know, why? Because even in our current climate, which is much friendlier toward the military than was the case back in the Sixties and Seventies it is not commodious to think of soldiers as Masks of God, especially as veterans often act strangely – not in line with generally accepted societal standards – and will probably do so for the rest of their lives, as I learned from observing my blind father who became a prominent lawyer but was never “quite right.”


Please pardon my bluntness, but in my ranting I am actually pursuing an agenda. And this agenda comes out of a conviction based on personal experience that made me interrupt my very successful career as a journalist in order to study theology – Lutheran theology – when I was fifty.


I found that neither the ditsy liberal nor the boneheaded right-wing theologoumena dominating religious discourse provide an answer to the quintessentially Lutheran question I raised yesterday: now that we know that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, what are going to do with the rest of our lives right here in the hidden God’s left-hand kingdom.


And the answer is this: We serve. We serve with guns and pens, in operating theatres and in schools. We serve by giving love and by lovingly receiving love. And it is this message that so often eludes those of us for whom soldiers have risked their lives, and those soldiers who have never been told that their sacrifice is a divinely ordained service; that when they shoot God shoots; that when they suffer they are suffering with God because this is their cross, and God never lays a cross on us that is heavier than we can bear.


This is why the League of Faithful Masks would welcome a network of local chapters in military units around the world. I believe that recognizing each other as divine masks not just in military barracks but also in their relationship with chapters in the civilian world would make a soldier’s life much more rewarding, for it would bring clarity to his vocation.


Mentoring each other to fulfill their function as priests in the left-hand kingdom is more than an exercise of soldierly camaraderie. It also differs from the brotherly love between combatants. It is different in that it is, - well -- priestly. Priests perform sacred rites, and according to Luther the most sacred rite in the secular realm is the service of love.

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