I am a U.S. Army Veteran. I am also an organizer and activist with Veterans for Peace (link: https://www.veteransforpeace.org/); an organization that seeks to end militarism and U.S. imperialism at home and abroad by providing a counternarrative to the governmental pro-military propaganda put forth on days like Memorial Day. We tell about the true costs of war and militarism by sharing our own experiences.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us that you can’t have peace until you give up fear.
During his farewell discourse, in a time where he and the disciples were facing a lot to be fearful of, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Things like guns, which people say are for protecting themselves, are meant to kill. They are tools that we turn to because we are afraid. So much foreign policy, so much about the military is inherently about fear. We fight wars out of fear of the other. We deport people and turn people away from our border because we are full of fear. But this kind of fear does not bring peace.
I signed up for the military for reasons rooted in fear; because I didn’t have money to pay for college. I was afraid of not being able to meet my needs. I stayed in the military for the entirety of my 7 year commitment because I was afraid that if I tried to leave, they would make me pay back my scholarships with money I didn’t have. Because of this fear, I contributed to a system of violence, a system that in and of itself is totally based on fear. I ended up being a part of a system that does not bring peace, does not bring nations together. The Army is not a tool for democracy or peacemaking, despite what our propaganda might tell us. The military is more akin to organized crime. I have friends who enlisted because they said they wanted to get away from gangs, but now realize that they just ended up joining a bigger gang - the US Military. And the violence they saw, experienced, and even perpetrated haunts them.
I know people who live their whole lives stuffing down their experiences, insisting that the violence that they experienced or were a part of didn’t impact them and that they are fine. And later their kids and spouses name to them that they have all this anger and problems that they didn’t even know was under there because they were afraid to face it. And because of this, they continue to do more damage.
This Monday is Memorial Day, a day that our country has set aside to honor veterans who have died. I remember going to War Memorials before I became a Veteran for Peace. I used to see the people memorialized on this day as heroes. I thought and spoke of them with all of this rhetoric of nationalism and militarism. But now I have come to see veterans as people who were caught in a system that capitalizes on fear. Instead of seeing them as heroes, I see them as victims. Frequently it is poor kids fighting wars, asked to do horrible things on behalf of people they’ll never know or meet. Most of them will never meet the president or any of these people who make decisions about war. They just receive orders and are told to go do these things. They are told to go kill, to go destroy, and to go be the hired thugs of the US government and shake down anyone who is not “behaving” according to the so-called American Ideals, which are really a facade for our capitalist interests.
The actions of the United States Military do not only affect human beings. Militarism is inherently against God’s created world and valuing the things in it. The ways of war hurt people, as well as nonhuman nature. The United States Military is one of the biggest polluters in the world, one of the biggest enemies of the earth. I think often of agent orange, which was created as a defoliant literally meant to spray on plants to kill them by wilting them away as a way of clearing away plants for warfare. It killed people and creation. It is still killing people. Bombs, dynamite, and all of those weapons are used to blow up chunks of the earth which kills animals and disrupt ecosystems. These things do not bring life; their very purpose is to destroy, to kill, or to make an environment more hazardous. Both our Psalm for today and Revelation speak to this connection of human peacefulness and the health of the earth.
The Psalm speaks of “all nations be[ing] glad” (vs. 4) only lines before talking about the healthy earth, which has “yielded its increase.” (vs 6.) The picture put forth in Revelation speaks also of a borderless place with open gates where all nations, all peoples, and all kings gather together to glorify the Lamb - a symbol of Christ that stands in stark contrast to militaristic ideals. And in this passage we also see crystal clear, clean flowing water. We see healthy trees bearing fruit. And this tree’s leaves are for “the healing of the nations,” (Rev 22:2). The fate of the peace of the nations is explicitly wrapped up in the health of the earth. The health of the earth brings healing to the nations. Our fates are wrapped up together. The way forward towards peace does not come through militarism but through the slain lamb.
Our military and militarized culture has an obsession with power and control. We continue to invest in bigger and fancier weapons. We find more and more sophisticated ways to kill each other (and eventually ourselves as we kill the earth and our souls in the process). We always have to be the biggest, fastest, strongest, toughest. It is reflected in the toxic masculinity inherit in the military which forbids showing weakness or softness. The lamb in Revelation turns all of this upside down - it is gentleness and sacrifice that is to be worshipped and aspired to. This kind of power is not the abusive power of domination, but the power of love.
So much of the rhetoric in the military is used to dehumanize people. It is really hard to kill people, it is against our human nature. But if you can see them as less than human, or something other than just a person trying to live their life, it becomes easier to kill them. If you get to know people and their cultures, it becomes harder to be angry or fearful of them. The military industrial complex is a multi billion dollar industry that counts on us being afraid of one another. But the reading in Revelation reminds us that all nations, all peoples are made in God’s image. What would change if we saw God’s name reflected on the foreheads of everyone we meet? (Rev. 22:4)
As you are writing your sermons, you might feel pressure to talk about Memorial Day. You might feel pressure to honor people or events that are really against Christian values of nonviolence and that undermine the clear message that people of all nations are God’s children. You might feel pressure to display a flag that symbolizes a system of capitalistic, nationalistic, militaristic, white supremacy that oppresses people here and abroad. I am pleading with you, as someone who has been a part of that system because of lies I was told, to refuse to perpetuate this propaganda and to actually preach a gospel where we are no longer afraid, where the gates to God’s city are always open, where we see God’s name on the foreheads of everyone we meet.