(Brief backstory on Moses and Israelites escaping slavery)
When we were children we read this (as we did during childrens time today) as a story of Moses revealing God’s power. Maybe later we are able to read it differently – as a story about God being on the side of the enslaved, the poor, the powerless. But somehow, this time when I read it, all I could think about was the soldiers. Pharoah’s army – real men with “hopes and dreams and families and inside jokes and, perhaps, questions about their role in life as soldiers” (Casey Thornburgh Sigmon). So, knowing that he – as one of many vets in our congregation – has insight into the soldier’s life, I called Gary Roberts and I asked him about it.
I was able to get a college degree because of a Navy ROTC scholarship. After Sharon and I graduated, I went to flight training and became a Naval Aviator, flying the planes you see the Blue Angels fly. I did two tours in the Tonkin Gulf, flew over 200 combat missions in North and South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia.
Not everyone who wears a uniform sees combat, and combat changes you. When you send soldiers into combat, they become a community of warriors. It’s hard to find that kind of community other places. There were no limits to what we do for each other. Soldiers willing to die each other is very common. I took a whole lot more risks to my own life when a fellow aviator was shot down in Vietnam – anything to help that man get home I would do. Same thing when the North Vietnamese Army was about to overrun Khe Sahn. (Remember Khe Sahn? I do.)
I listened as Gary shared his experiences in Vietnam, and my mind turned again to Pharoah’s army. Pharoahs army was not made up of patriots, or volunteers. They were slaves too, as much as the Israelite people were. They were conscripted, fighting for the glory, power and wealth of Pharoah alone. They were used until they were used up, or killed or swept under the sea, and then they were replaced by more young men, and then more and more. And yet, they were a company, a cohort, companions – bound together, willing to do anything to help each other survive. Willing even to die for one another. Sometimes that willingness must have come at a terrible cost.
Combat presents unavoidable moral dilemmas. In our everyday life we are taught the golden rule – to treat others as you would like to be treated. But in combat, life is more like kill or be killed. The golden rule – you can’t bring that into combat. Every solider faces this if they are in combat and it’s a problem. How do you get around it? You don’t, at least if you have any sort of a moral code. Every combat vet is an individual, with an individual experience, so every combat vet deals with this dilemma differently. But we all have to find ways to live with it.
Here’s a personal example of warfare’s moral dilemmas. For most of my early combat missions, I flew a dive bomber. I would fly at a target that through my bombsight often looked more like a village than a military installation, drop my bombs and then peel off and look over my shoulder. If my bombs were going off and setting off petroleum and ammunition and so forth then it told me that even though what I saw looked like a village, it was really military target. But all too often, all that was going off was bombs. I went into a terrible depression – the worst of my life. I couldn’t even write letters home to Sharon. So I went to a Mennonite chaplain and told him what I was going through. He said, “I don’t know what to say to help you, but you might want to read the 139th psalm.”
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I make my bed in hell, you are there.
And those words got me through it. In spite of my growing realization that that war, and most of our subsequent wars, have been fought for reasons that don’t really withstand careful scrutiny. That my moral injuries, and the very real suffering I was inflicting on others, was for reasons that were hollow, contrived, even cynical.
Like Gary’s story, the story we heard today is a violent one. It has been since the beginning – Moses was placed in a basket in a river to escape being killed. Then he kills a man. Later, Moses and his people suffer terribly under slavery. And then, Pharoah and HIS people suffer under the plagues. We want to take sides, and we tell our stories assuming God has taken sides. Like the Israelite people, we want to stand on the shore and cheer the demise of our enemy. But here’s what I know from listening to Gary’s story and to others like it – that God is on the side of all who are suffering – and violence hurts the perpetrators of violence too. And violent stories, and the consequences of violence, or not just “an old testament thing” they are not just in the past – those stories are here and now. As I talked to Gary, I asked him – how do we heal? How do all of us heal?
So we’ve figured out how to train people for modern warfare, but what we haven’t figured out how to do yet is to untrain people from that. Yes, I was used as a young man, for a pointless war, and when I got home everyone shamed me. But that pain is now my calling, because these moral injuries are not just mine. They aren’t borne just by soldiers. And I want America and the world to begin to understand that.
Compassionate Warriors is a program I’ve been involved in at the VA for the past two years. All these years later, it’s the best way I’ve found for complete re-integration – because it’s focused on moral injury and the guilt and shame that come from that. It has helped me be less angry, more compassionate with myself and with the Empire that sent me to that dumb war.
By the way, PTSD is really a subset of the immorality we ask our soldiers to bear. PTSD is a fear reaction you bring home with you. Fear is natural in warfare because at any moment you could die. Courage is the ability to act in spite of the fear. PTSD is when you bring the fear home and you can’t get over it because the experience is so intense that you’re stuck there. By contrast, moral injuries are based in the guilt and shame of the warrior experience itself.
Every combat veteran has a moral injury, but not every soldier comes home with PTSD, and many who do recover with time and with help. Something like a couple hundred thousand combat vets have PTSD. By itself, this would be a public health concern – because each of those soldiers have friends and partners and parents and kids and it affects all of them, all of us.
But PTSD has another definition. The other kind of PTSD is Post-Traumatic Social Dysfunction, because the moral dilemmas we present to our soldiers, the moral injuries they experience, they come from us. And they return to us, become ingrained in our culture, make us more likely to reach for a gun or fists or courts or violent language to solve the next disagreement that we have with someone. So they’re our responsibility, and ours to recover from as a society. And that’s a bigger deal than the other, more widely recognized, kind of PTSD. It’s a public health crisis, with tendrils throughout American society.
So where is the hope? I think of the words of James Baldwin: We have to learn how to love better – starting with refusing to hate the people we’re encouraged to hate, people we think of enemy. Syrians. Afgans. ISIS. North Korea. You know, when God created people in God’s image, that didn’t mean just us. Paraphrasing the musical, South Pacific, we have been carefully taught something else.
It was not Pharoah’s men, not the army, not those husbands and fathers and sons and friends who were the enemy. It was Pharoah’s blind ambition and lust for power that was the enemy. It was the impulse to build empire that was the enemy.
I wondered, how could we reckon with the great tragedy of this story, the tragedy that we want to believe that God took sides, is still taking sides? How do we heal from the violence that has made us, that we have benefited from? There are vets in this room, who have stories like Gary’s, and many even more difficult. How do we not sweep our vets away, out of sight, the way those soldiers in Pharoahs’ army were swept out of our minds so often when we’ve told we story. Well, we are Christians, we follow Christ, and Christ came here, to live among us, to practice and teach forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not all there is in our lives, as forgivenss isn’t all that Christ’s message was about, but it’s a start. Is it enough to forgive the violence committed in our names, the violence within our own hearts 7 times? How about more like 70 times 7 times?
In the movie the shack the main character, Mack, and his family suffer the most unimaginable loss. When Mack has a conversation with God, who he calls Papa, Papa tells him, “Forgiveness doesn’t establish a relationship. It’s just about letting go of his throat.”
When Mack cries that doesn’t know how to forgive, the character of God says, “Just say it out loud. You don’t have to do it alone. I’m right here with you. Haltingly, Mac says the words aloud “I forgive you.” Then, “I’m still angry.” Two which God replies, “Of course you are. No one lets go all at once. You might have to do it 1000 times before it gets any easier. But it will.”
(As Kristina says) This forgiving 7 times 7 thing is isn’t punishment Jesus is proscribing. This is just how long forgiveness takes. It’s a day by day, minute by minute practice. Forgiveness isnt’ about remaining a victim, – in fact, it’s the opposite. Forgiveness is about reclaiming your power. We do not get to choose the stories we inherit, and we don’t get to choose our own past, and the past of the people who shaped us – we are born of blood and water. But we do get to choose the kind of people we will be from this moment forth – whether we have made violence or been victims of it, or, like the soldiers in our story today and soldiers in all times – some of both. To those who have wronged us, to our own broken hearts, even to God – we say it over and over until it is true – I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.