Healing the Wounds of War

Healing the Wounds of War

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A soldier in dress whites stands among tombstones.
Written by: 
Published:
May 31, 2021

Editor's note: The following was previously written by the author reflecting on Memorial Day. It is published here with permission. 


On Monday, May 31, the United States observes Memorial Day to remember those whose lives have been lost in military service. But that is just part of the day’s purpose. Many are unaware that according to federal law, “The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation … calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace.”

General Douglas MacArthur said in his final address at West Point on May 12, 1962, “The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  

All who have served in the military understand that. Especially now, as we near the end of our nation’s longest war, service members and veterans alike reflect on the lives lost since 9-11, whether in New York, a Pennsylvania field, the Pentagon, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the unmarked battlefields around the world where war’s survivors wrestle with conscience and memory. And as MacArthur said, they “pray for peace,” for they “suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

Today an Army chaplain friend of mine was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained in Afghanistan in 2012. A rocket exploded about twenty yards away and he received a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He was in the hospital for six days and then returned to his unit to complete the deployment. When they returned, he entered the Warrior Resiliency Clinic, TBI Program, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. At the time, TBI was not seen as meriting award of the Purple Heart. Today, there is more awareness of the seriousness of invisible wounds.

I served as a chaplain in the Army Reserve and the National Guard for over twenty years. Today, as Assistant Director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries for the North American Division, my colleagues and I support those so serving. We have over 700 chaplains in the North American Division, mostly in healthcare (including Veterans Administration hospitals), but 130 serve in the various branches and components of the US Armed Forces. Some have had five, six, even seven or more combat deployments. All of us have ministered to service members and veterans suffering from invisible wounds like TBI, moral injury, military sexual trauma, depression, and suicidal ideation. We know the horror and the futility of war in our own gut and as testified by the confessions and tears of those we serve.

On Memorial Day I remember those who died in combat. I also remember friends who have died by suicide. I remember my dad, who died on April 23 and was buried in the Connecticut Veterans Cemetery, long after his service in the early 1960s as a Chinese linguist in the US Air Force. I remember the countless veterans who still suffer silently, many of them remembering the people whose lives they destroyed in foreign places in the name of “preserving liberty.”

What do I as a preacher have to say to them? What consolation can I possibly offer? Nothing but the healing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

***

The following thoughts I first sketched back in October 2017—the month we remembered the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I began my ministry when I was ordained a Lutheran pastor on June 11, 1989, so the anniversary of Luther’s initial protest was especially significant to me. It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses on Indulgences,” igniting a firestorm which swept through church and state.

At stake was the Gospel itself. How do we find peace with God? Is it through works, or spiritual disciplines, or following manmade rules? Luther said no. It is solely by believing the Gospel, that we are forgiven freely when we believe that Christ bore our sins on Calvary’s tree.

Of all the messages that I preach as a chaplain to Soldiers or to veterans, I think this is the most important. It’s the message of Paul in Romans 5: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This was one of the passages that helped Luther discover the Gospel. He wrestled for years with spiritual anxiety—“Anfechtung,” was the German word he used. It could also be rendered “afflictions” or “trials.” Perhaps “attacks.” And it was in the Gospel that he discovered peace.

Luther knew he wasn’t alone. He knew that soldiers wrestled with such spiritual trials as well. In 1525 he wrote a small book entitled, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved (It can be found in Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume 46).

Luther wrote the book to answer some questions asked of him by a knight, Assa von Kram. The times were tense. War seemed inevitable. The Lutheran princes were threatened by Catholic princes, and both were threatened by the Turks. And many soldiers questioned their role.

“Some soldiers have doubts,” Luther wrote.

“Others have so completely given themselves up for lost that they no longer even ask questions about God and throw both their souls and their consciences to the winds. I myself have heard some of them say that if they thought too much about these problems, they would never be able to go to war again. One would think that war was such an absorbing matter that they were unable to think about God and their souls. Actually, however, we ought to think most about God and our souls when we are in danger of death.”

Now, in this pamphlet, Luther’s main task was addressing anxiety related to whether Christians could serve in the military. So he focused on upholding the legitimacy of the profession. He quoted Biblical evidence that rulers are established by God and authorized to use the sword to keep peace and punish evil, and he referred to Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.

He noted that John the Baptist didn’t tell soldiers to leave the army, he merely told them to behave uprightly. John said to them in Luke 3:14: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Luther repeated the basic principles of just war theory, telling von Kram that the only just wars are defensive, when a ruler has an obligation to protect their people from an enemy’s attack.

But he cautioned:

“You ought not to think that that justifies anything you do and plunge headlong into battle. … That does not give you God’s guarantee that you will win. Indeed, such confidence may result in your defeat—even though you have a just cause for fighting the war—for God cannot endure such pride. … Rather, God wants to be feared and he wants to hear us sing from our hearts a song like this, ‘Dear Lord, you see that I have to go to war, though I would rather not. I do not trust, however, in the justice of my cause, but in your grace and mercy, for I know that if I were to rely on the justness of my cause and were confident because of it, you would rightly let me fall as one whose fall was just, because I relied upon my being right and not upon your sheer grace and kindness.’”

That was Luther’s response to so many of our crises and our qualms: Have faith in God. It isn’t about you. It isn’t about your strength. It isn’t about your knowledge. All of these can be swept aside in an instant, and then what will you do? In your darkness, in your despair, in your doubt, will you rest upon your own abilities and strengths and skills, weak and frail as they are? or will you cling to God’s mercy and trust in his strength?

***

“Some soldiers have doubts,” Luther wrote.

That hasn’t changed over the past 500 years. There are Soldiers with doubts today. Some Soldiers and veterans have given up. Many are broken and hurting. You’ve probably heard the number that 20 or so veterans die each day by suicide.

In the past two decades of war, more service members have died by suicide than have died in combat.

That troubles me as a chaplain. It has troubled my commanders and my senior NCOs. They ask me, “Chaplain, why? Why is it we can have three combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and bring every Soldier home, only to lose them to suicide? Or to car accidents? Or to crime?”

Many Veterans bear scars. Some are visible, many are invisible. PTSD. Traumatic Brain Injury.

There’s another term we’ve been using more in recent years that you might not be familiar with—“moral injury.” A psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay, coined the term back in 1994 in his book, Achilles in Vietnam, to talk about the disillusionment that comes when you no longer believe in the cause, or are discouraged by the actions of those who are leading you, and you wonder whether the sacrifices are worth it.

Others have expanded the concept of moral injury to refer to the guilt or shame that comes from doing something you know is wrong, or failing to do what you know is right.

The term is new, but the feelings are familiar to Soldiers of every era. The NCO who feels responsible for the young private on point who walked into the ambush. The one person in a vehicle who survived an IED blast. The Soldier who knows a buddy committed a sexual assault yet says nothing. The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have fought over the same ground time and time again and say, “Now we know how the Vietnam vets felt.”

A whole industry has been built up around treating PTSD and moral injury. Books, conferences, retreats, new drugs and new therapies.

Some urge veterans to take refuge in such practices as yoga and sweat lodges. Art, music, and equine therapies are available. Others recommend modern versions of pilgrimages or penance, working out the stress in physical exertion, paying back a debt through giving back to others.

And these do speak to many. Similar things have been used over the centuries by warriors of many faiths, many cultures, as a way get rid of the nightmares, and cleanse the soul.

In the medieval period, soldiers returning from battle sometimes went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, or to Santiago de Compostela, or to Canterbury. Or they joined penitential orders, wearing rough clothes and devoting themselves to serving the poor. A famous example was Francis of Assisi. Broken by his experience as a prisoner of war, he gathered other combat veterans around him, renouncing violence and serving all in humility. Another was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who, after recovering from a cannonball wound which shattered his leg, developed a form of meditation which he called “spiritual exercises.”

Luther wasn’t a soldier, but he tried similar paths to ease his suffering and find a gracious God—and he found them all lacking. He joined the Augustinian monastery, and punished his body through harsh fasting and whipping his bare back, to show his sorrow. He took the dirtiest jobs to show his humility. He prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, and he tried the path of the mystics in contemplative prayer and meditation. He went on pilgrimage to Rome and crawled on his knees up a stone staircase. But nothing brought him the peace that he sought.

Nothing, that is, until he heard and believed the good news of the Gospel. And the Gospel transformed him and sparked the movement that became known as Protestantism. It was a movement founded on a simple idea, stated this way in the Augsburg Confession of 1530: “We receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.”

We often misunderstand that. We think of justification as an intellectual kind of thing, a doctrinal teaching about something that happened in our past, or our ticket to get in the heavenly gates in the future. But for Luther, justification is and remains a living reality. It is the core experience of the Christian.

Because we still get tempted. We get tempted to sin, and we get tempted to doubt. The past comes back to haunt us. Our feelings of anxiety, frustration, fear, self-loathing, guilt, shame—all of these things can still plague is.

That is why justification is by faith. It isn’t about works. It isn’t about feelings. It is about believing the Gospel.

Ellen White put it this way in Steps to Christ, p. 51, “Do not wait to feel that you are made whole, but say, ‘I believe it; it is so, not because I feel it, but because God has promised.’”

Someone might say, “Well, I believed. I was fine for a while. I felt like I was on top of the world. I felt such peace. And then, the doubts returned.”

And that’s why I say that for Luther, it isn’t a one-time thing. He said we need to hear that word of promise and cling to it. We need to remember those times that promise was directly spoken to us, like when we were baptized. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Jesus said in Mark 16:16.

Baptism, said Luther, is a kind of “visible word”—the promise is attached to a visible sign, to help us grasp it more firmly. And so he said in his Large Catechism:

To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, ‘But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’

Some Adventists treat baptism as something you need to do every time you feel guilty. Some evangelists push the practice, especially on our youth. I have seen people get rebaptized again and again, every time they feel an awareness of their sins, every time they have an emotional experience. It cheapens baptism. This is affirmed in the Church Manual (2015 ed.), p. 50:

To administer baptism repeatedly or on an emotional basis lessens its meaning and represents a misunderstanding of the gravity and significance that Scripture assigns to it. A member whose spiritual experience has become cold needs a spirit of repentance which leads to revival and reformation. This experience will be followed by participation in the communion service to signify renewed cleansing and fellowship in the body of Christ, making rebaptism unnecessary.

Communion is another place where we hear and see the Word of promise in a visible, tangible form. Bread that is broken with the words, “This is my body given for YOU,” and a cup that is shared with the words, “for the forgiveness of sins”—YOUR sins. That is justification for Luther—believing THOSE words, grasping that bread, and believing that the promise is for you.

Compare this from Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p. 659:

… the Communion service was not to be a season of sorrowing. This was not its purpose. As the Lord’s disciples gather about His table, they are not to remember and lament their shortcomings. They are not to dwell upon their past religious experience, whether that experience has been elevating or depressing. They are not to recall the differences between them and their brethren. The preparatory service has embraced all this. The self-examination, the confession of sin, the reconciling of differences, has all been done. Now they come to meet with Christ. They are not to stand in the shadow of the cross, but in its saving light. They are to open the soul to the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness. With hearts cleansed by Christ’s most precious blood, in full consciousness of His presence, although unseen, they are to hear His words, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” John 14:27.

Our Lord says, Under conviction of sin, remember that I died for you. When oppressed and persecuted and afflicted for My sake and the gospel’s, remember My love, so great that for you I gave My life. When your duties appear stern and severe, and your burdens too heavy to bear, remember that for your sake I endured the cross, despising the shame. When your heart shrinks from the trying ordeal, remember that your Redeemer liveth to make intercession for you.

That’s the living reality of justification by faith.

We don’t get beyond justification. We don’t get to a point where we don’t need to hear the Gospel. We forget, we doubt, we have emotional swings, and so we need the preached word, we need hymns which remind us of the Gospel, we need to remember our baptism, we need the Communion service, because, Luther said, the promise of the Gospel “cannot be beaten into our ears enough or too much.”

Does this mean we don’t grow? Does this mean there is no place for sanctification? Not at all. It happens. It happens slowly, sometimes so slowly we don’t see. It’s like seed sown in the ground in the winter, Luther said. All winter long it’s “a dead, moldy, decayed thing, covered with frost and snow.” But faith and hope assure us that there is something alive, and it’s growing, and it will be fully revealed in God’s good time. (From Luther’s “Sermon on the Blessed Hope.”)

This sense of hope is what we need, as service members and veterans, when we think back on our experiences. When we remember the loss of friends. When we remember the trauma. When we cry out in despair, wondering if it was worth it. When we remember things we did, or failed to do. There is only one thing that will give us peace of mind. There is only one thing which washes away the past and gives us hope for the future, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Memorial Day brings many tears each year, especially when I hear the somber notes of Taps echoing over the gardens of stone where the dead rest in peace. At the same time, this message of the Gospel gives me hope—for those who have died, for those still struggling, and yes, for myself. All can be forgiven. And those tears also stir up a prayer for the end of war—this endless #ForeverWar and all the others we so glibly claim are just. 

 

William Cork is Assistant Director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries for the North American Division. He is a former chaplain in the Army Reserve.

Photo by Tanner Ross on Unsplash

 

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