Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are They Heroes?

It was a hard twenty-four hours. I’m talking about the 22½ hours at Windermere last Friday and Saturday and the first hour and a half driving the church van back through the snow and icy roads. The good news is we made it back to Liberty safely. But the conflicted feelings remain.
I don’t get many invitations to speak about Japan anymore, so I was pleased to be asked to be one of the “faculty” members at the Girls on Mission annual meeting on March 19-20 at Windermere, the beleaguered Baptist retreat center on the Lake of the Ozarks in Camden County (MO). I enjoyed the four sessions with the girls and their leaders, totaling nearly 100 people.
Girls on Mission (GoM) is for girls in grades one through six, but some of what happened in the general sessions seemed inappropriate for a Christian conference, and especially so for elementary school girls.
I knew before going that the “mission project” was collecting and sending items for “our active military personnel.” But I didn’t expect there to be in the entrance to the assembly hall a large cutout poster of a soldier in full uniform with the words “Gifts 4 Heroes.”
I knew before going that the GoM conference theme was “Dressed for Service” (based on Luke 12:35), but I didn’t expect the young women who were the worship leaders in the opening session to be dressed in military camouflage clothing. (They seemed dressed for military service.)
And I certainly did not expect there to be a video shown at the general session on Saturday morning that seemed very much like a recruitment film for the U.S. Marines. And the only “missionary” who spoke (briefly) at that service was a young man who spent a year in Iraq as an MP.
Those who planned the program were no doubt sincere in their linking of Christianity and patriotism, and the young man just mentioned was a dedicated Christian. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the military emphasis at a meeting of Girls on Missions was appropriate or that those who serve in the military are heroes (or sheroes, as some women are now being called).
The preemptive war in Iraq was highly questionable from the beginning and continues to fail the tests for a just war. There is no proof whatsoever that the U.S. military presence there has protected American freedom and kept us safe from terrorists. To the contrary, it has likely increased animosity toward the U.S. and made us less safe.
Moreover, and most significantly, there have been around 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the onset of the Iraq War. (This figure comes from the Iraq Body Count project.) How can Christians possibly countenance such wanton destruction of human life?
While I do not wish to question people’s motives or to criticize individuals, I think there is ample reason to insist that a military emphasis at a GoM conference is not appropriate. And I want to be sensitive to the feelings of those (or those who have loved ones) in military service, but are they, especially those who serve in Iraq, really heroes?


  1. Leroy, thanks again for your direct message. i agree and it worries a lot of us, the right wing of everything is a scary bunch right is even effecting things like boards of not for profits as we struggle with the economic and sources for the future. Happy Easter to June and You and Yours. Am in Portland right now with our daughter and her crew, home Monday and a week later leave to spend a week with Adia and her two in Nashville.
    I am going to share your email with her. we talk often of you when we talk about Japan. Jean as you know married Hank Sasaki the country singer, they live in Nashville. Hank has cancer, hope things go well. Peace Bob

  2. As a patriotic American who believes in just wars, and also as a Christian who believes in the spiritual wars in the heavenly realms which encompasses the Church and its role in the world and the big Story, it is sad to hear of the mixture of the two into cultural Christianity. It is also sad that the definition of soldier is now synonymous with hero.
    Sadly this almost gives deja vu of the National Socialist party of Germany and its manipulation of a cultural church.

    Christ never repudiated the soldiers and officers he met, including those of the foreign army who maintained martial law in the land (many of whom apparently became his disciples).
    But his kingdom was never of this world.

    A clarification of cultural vs contextual Christianity would probably be beneficial (with an inclusion of Bonhoeffer's response to the Church of his day).

  3. Couldn't agree with you more and I would have felt just as distraught if I had been there.

  4. Thank you Leroy for this posting. Allow me to also express my concern and deep sense of consternation about having a US soldier as missionary of crusading Christianity, instead of missionaries of the resurrected Christ.

    Along the lines of crusading nationalist versions of Christianity, a couple of years ago I received a few e-mails that have made their way to me from very right wing family members that depict American soldiers in Iraq as living examples of Jesus..."he died so that you might live." Naturally, I stared slack-jawed at the screen for a few sections.

    As one who lives in Japan and who has studied the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire, I find such a mixture of popular faith and nationalism in the US to be highly disturbing. Not only was the invasion of Iraq simply that -- an invasion under false pretenses, like Japan, it seems fairly obvious that fear of the outside world mixed with a need for natural resources motivated the cynical move of the Bush Administration (and due to their lack of a majority protest, the American nation) to invade Iraq. Equally tragic is the fact that, much in the manner of Japan and other past empires, the vast majority of the soldiers fighting abroad are from poor, disadvantaged families. They risk their lives just as much to try and enter the Middle Class as they do for any nationalist/tribalist beliefs. One extreme example that I saw last year during my visit to the US was of a man who had lost his job just as his wife's cancer came out of remission. Naturally, he could not get any private health insurance to help extend his wife's life, so he joined the Army and was shipped to Afghanistan. The irony was that he went abroad where he had the potential of killing others in an effort to gain health care for his wife.

    My posting contains a number of mixed themes, I know, but these thoughts all sprang to mind as I read your blog posting this morning, Leroy.

  5. I was pleased to received the following comments from Thinking Friends who are also fellow members of Second Baptist Church"

    "You are right on target. I am hoping that our president will be successful in implementing the process of getting us out of Iraq very soon!"

    And from another,

    "I lived through WWII and the several wars since. Never before Iraq and Afghanistan have I heard servicemen and women called heroes, unless they did something heroic. I appreciate their service, but the designation--heroes--is overblown and leaves us without an adjective to use for a person who does something really heroic."

  6. And then one of my esteemed Thinking Friends in south Missouri sent an e-mail with this brief comment:

    "Leroy, I read it and I agree with you. But then, I am a crazy liberal too."

  7. Another point readers may consider is that organizers of the retreat were trying to have the girls think that soldiers are the same as missionaries. That to me is more concerning.

  8. David, thanks for your comments. That was a concern of mine, also, which I should have made more explicit.

  9. And how many civilians did Hussein kill, Seat?

    And how many more would he have killed?

    It am astounded that you have the gall to be "pro choice" and yet pretend to be upset about getting rid of a mass murdering dictator.

    I think that says something you don't intend to let on about.

  10. There are many military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan passing out school supplies and food to the children and families. They do not ask for anything for themselves and tell their family and friends what the people of said countries are short on...they are good Christians and soldiers. Everyone that shares Christ is not someone the church sent there. I do not support the wars. I do however support our young men and women in the military...which is what it seemed Windermere was all about to me.

  11. I love America; and there are many things I love about it, but religious freedom is one of the big things, and that means it cannot be by definition a Christian country (you're not free if you must be Christian). It further means that the government cannot make any law privileging Christianity over any other religion or the lack of any religion. Many of my Jewish and Muslim friends celebrate this ideal, too.

    I also understand the conflict of interests when one must submit to wear a military uniform and serve the military interests of the state while also holding allegiance to Christ and his service. Obviously, they necessarily stand in conflict. While there may be many soldiers who do good, and even do good in the name of Christ, Christians especially must remember that soldiers are by definition servants of another master. They must submit to causes that are ultimately unjust (e.g., the Iraq war...) and to forget this out of a sentimental belief that soldiers who are Christian are somehow immune from this conflict is to risk serious moral double-vision. I wonder if Christian moral instruction has not already been weakened by even allowing the category of "Christian soldier"?

  12. Unfortunately, I don't have many women on my Thinking Friends mailing list, but the following comments were from one of the women on the list, and I was happy to receive her comments:

    "Had to think long and hard about this one. I opposed this preemptive war and fear that it has increased hostility toward the USA. I have heard well presented arguments that it has protected our freedom and kept us safe from terrorism. We may never know which side is correct on this issue. As to the death toll of Iraqi civilians, it is indeed appalling, but to what extent are those deaths the result of our presence?

    "'Dressed for Service'" sounds military. I can understand collecting items to send to active military personnel. Please consider this choice might have been made because some of the girls have fathers, brothers, uncles, even grandfathers who have served or are currently serving in the mideast. However, a video that appears to be a recruitment vehicle is pointless for this age group.

    "Are our soldiers 'heroes'? This is the most difficult question. We have a voluntary military. These are people who have joined out of patriotism, for advantages the military offers, maybe because they were out of other opportunities for their future. They have learned discipline and put their lives on the line for a greater cause. They have earned my highest respect. Remember our last unpopular war. Veterans returning from that war did not receive the respect and thanks they deserved. The blame lies not with the soldiers, but with those who make the decisions to go to war."

  13. And then a couple who were college friends when we were all students at William Jewell wrote the following, which is quite different from what "Anonymous" wrote above. (I don't like anonymous postings; I think people ought to be responsible for what they say instead of hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.)

    "War does not solve problems and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wrong from the beginning! No, young people who are trained to kill maim and torture other young people who subscribe to a different political or religious philosophy, to kill innocent civilians who happen to be in the path of destruction, and to destroy cultural artifacts, are not heroes; they are criminals. Our government is wrong to train them to be so and those who support these activities in the name of Jesus or God are misled and wrong, wrong, wrong."

  14. I attended the GOM conference with my own girls. NEVER did I feel like the leadership of the conference was communicating that the men and women of this great nation are heroes any more than anyone else who would share the LOVE of the FATHER with others. The Christian men and women who serve overseas are in a difficult position whether they agree with their presence in Iraq or not. If they agree, they are still sacrificing their personal lives to honor God in all they do and if they disagree they are honoring the Lord by respecting the leadership of our nation. The very leadership that GOD has allowed for us. I am SHOCKED that men and women of God would become so politically consumed that they would be blinded to the reality of service no matter where you are or what your situation. Men and women in the military have a HUGE opportunity to show the love of Jesus to a spiritually dying society. In my book they are heroes, just like my pastor, my Sunday school teacher, my GA leader, my parents, my friends, my youth leader, my choir director, my grandparents, etc. All who led me to Christ over 30 years ago. Maybe if we spent more time determining what we can do to honor the Lord most in our OWN lives, we could just let these young ladies who attended GOM feel good about the fact that they honored others who serve God where they are and we could be rejoicing that 5 young ladies came to know the Lord that same weekend!

  15. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Rev. Seat.

    There are several methods being employed to assess the "Iraq body count." The "official" method was once curtly expressed by General Patreas thus: "We don't do body counts." The Iraq Body Count method, which you draw from and is most often referred to by the mainstream media, counts only those deaths that are "documented." In other words, the approx 100,000 figure counts none of the deaths that occur in large swaths of Iraq out of view of the largely embedded "liberal" media.
    As one who has studied statistics and research design, I favour a third method, which is clearly laid out at the Wikipedia page ( This places the figure at 1.2±0.2 million (as at August 2007).
    This much higher and, I believe, more reliable figure adds a great deal of weight to your misgivings about the "hero" worship you observed last weekend.

  16. Being neither a pacifist, nor an imperialist, I have a messy view on war. I suppose we could create a three-axis grid to measure a war, in dimensions of justice, wisdom and intent. Neither the war in Iraq nor the war in Afghanistan has shown much wisdom, this they have in common. On justice, they diverge, Iraq with very little, Afghanistan with a moderate amount. Then there is intent. My heart is covered with a dark shadow on this subject, especially concerning Iraq. Compared to Iraq, even the pained LJB question, "Why are we in Vietnam?" is relatively easy to answer.

    What I know is that any war comes with a very high price. One of the lessons of Vietnam was the recognition of how our previous wars had produced so many wounded soldiers. We learned to recognize the wounds in our fathers, even the "Greatest Generation," home from WW II. After we learned to cry at the Vietnam Memorial, we saw the other war memorials with new eyes, seeing their oddly strained visages as messages of pain.

    And now the pain of Iraq is coming home. Our VA hospitals are strained. Our soldiers in the field are being doped up so that they can continue fighting. Recently I saw a news item on "Theater of War." It really is theater. Theater for victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Iraq may not be another Vietnam, but it is reviving interest in the tragedies of Sophocles. Actors read passages from Sophocles to the audience. Afterwards, therapists lead discussions. The madness and suicide of Ajax echo down through two thousand years of Greek tragedy to put words onto the experiences of Iraq veterans. Our pre-emptive war in Iraq has done what few English teachers can do, it has made the classics come alive.

    Yes, our soldiers are heroes. What they give is beyond our measure. What they have frequently received in return from our leaders is also beyond our measure, but for a much different reason. So much stupidity and bad faith that I can understand why many people are pacifists, for a just war seems more a phantom than a standard.

    I remember Carl Sagan, in his mostly delightful series, "Cosmos," discussing the statistical continuum from isolated murders up to the millions slaughtered in major wars. His point was that, left in process, this statistical model predicted that eventually there would be a death event as large as the entire human race. I suppose that would mean that the next war would then be fought by the descendants of cockroaches or, maybe, rats. As the Bible says of this time of year, "It was the time in spring, when kings go forth to war."

  17. The same "anonymous female" who wrote above, later sent this:

    "Re: 'War does not solve anything.' Should we not have engaged against Hitler?

    "Re: Anonymous postings. Then why do you offer anonymity? It is my first trip into blogs and I do not feel safe in this new venture. One of the responders seemed quite hostile to me, not in keeping rational discourse. For now 'Anonymous female' will have to do...

    "Re: The word 'heroes.' I agree the word is overused. It is in the same vein as giving trophies to all the kids, win or lose. I simply meant soldiers should be respected for their willingness to serve to protect their country. Whether the choices made by those in command are just or not is Beside the issue for me.

    "P.S. To those who read my response as conservative, I am a liberal, I just don't see things in term of black and white, nor do I think the left has all the answers."