Memorial Day and the Christian Crisis of Doctrinal Imagination

Tony Sig

It is perhaps predictable for readers of this blog that at least one of us should write about Memorial Day.  We are not often shy in our youthful enthusiasm and naivity about our conflicted loyalties as American citizens and also of the Church; and of the necessity of radical discipleship in the face of what we, or I at least, perceive as a nation state who has hijacked a Christian soteriology.

I am an American.  My life is pretty good.  I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities that I have had throughout my life, some of which I would not have had in some other countries.  It would be dishonest of me not to note this.  I often hear that these benefits are only possible because of the sacrifices of soldiers who have bravely fought and willingly sacrificed for the United States.  That may in part be true, but it also points to a larger picture that I should like to address.

It would be easy to blame Constantinianism, blame the Enlightenment, blame the rise of atomistic politics for war, but the old adage about pointing your finger seems to ring true: “If you point your finger, you’ve three fingers pointing back at you.”  My life is what it is with reference to these things.  I cannot transcend the history in which my identity is tied up.  So a simple blame game can only implicate myself in those things which I blame.  I am not an island unto myself:  who I am is only as it is in relation to other people and to the past which we narrate into our identities.

I’d like to think through this with reference to a few Christian doctrines:

It is common to hear Augustine blamed for the doctrine of “Original Sin.”  This is, as most such “blame the fathers for a doctrine” schemes are, reductionistic and crude.  Whatever the case though, we can thank Foucault for making the doctrine much more plausible in the contemporary scene.  There seem to be structures of power and violence in place before I even come to be in the world.  They are things over which I have little to no control and are fundamental to my existence, so much so that for most of my life they are invisible.  I am born into a world already organized politically, economically, sociologically, religiously.  This is essentially the doctrine of Original Sin: that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.

Because these structures are there from the beginning, they are easily taken for granted; assumed to be a natural given, something inevitable and often even good, as in being American, or at the very least ethically neutral, as in market economics.  Memorial Day fits in well here.  It is easy to assume that, because we have a relatively good life, the given social structures that we have are ‘how things are’ or ‘how the world works.’  The thought follows, that if we as Americans enjoy “freedom” and “prosperity” then the possibility of war as means to defend this freedom and prosperity are a necessity.

But no sooner is that thought out of my mouth than I realize that this implicates my own well being in a cycle and chain of violence and oppression.  We return again to the fact that our world still operates in a cycle of “Original Sin.”  My life is implicated and intertwined in the lives of others and that life is often manifested in and guaranteed by war.

This is why classical theology is so very important.  Christ enters into this world as one not implicated in this cycle.  His sinlessness means for us that by the power of the Spirit we are brought into the life of a God whose very nature from all eternity is one of perfect peace, perfect mutuality.  We are not merely shown a way to live well, as if Christ was a mere moral exemplar – which is good as we are rather bad at such imitation – rather, by virtue of our baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into that life of peace and given the means to live it.

This is why the Church is a politics and why it can and ought to challenge the givenness of Memorial Day.  In the Church, we are commanded to live reconciled lives to each other, submitting to each other, loving each other, giving to each other even as Christ gives perpetually and without reservation to the Father, a giving we are able to do only on account of the Spirit.  There is no other name by which we might be saved.

This then is what I mean by the crisis of doctrinal imagination; that we have become accustomed to imagining the Christian Gospel as one merely effecting ones personal salvation post-mortem.  Original Sin, Christ’s sinlessness, God as Trinity, the exclusivity of the Church; all of these reduced to crude propositional statements needed to fill a gap in narrative logic become worn out quickly and whither and die.  The Gospel makes a difference as to how we conceive our political allegiances.  This isn’t about some stupid “Right vs Left” thing.  This is an Isaiah 2.1-5 kind of thing:

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

3 And many people shall go and say , Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And he shall judgeamong the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD

This raises the problem of the Church’s need to relearn how to read the Old Testament Christologically, but that is for another day.  For now I hope I’ve hinted however poorly at the ways in which the Christian proclamation ought to revise other stories which we tell about ourselves.  I also hope I’ve done it in a way that does not reduce to finger pointing at American soldiers as such essays as this even of mine have been prone to do.


What Should We Ponder Today?

Tony SigToday I want to look at some hard realities that are the direct result of our sending away troops.  It won’t be a long post.

The tragedy at Ft. Hood is indeed a tragedy.  But it pales in comparison to a tragedy that occurs with more force and regularity than a damaged psychologists  violent outbursts.  On average, every month, 10 people commit suicide at Ft. Hood. We can be assured that if a Muslim American soldier killed 10 people a month at a US Military facility people would begin to wonder about the ability of Ft. Hood to take care of and honor the troops.

Indeed, it is a well known fact that an incredibly large percentage of soldiers sent to war return with lifelong psychological damage.  An overwhelming majority of our homeless are Veterans and suffer from an inability to overcome their injured minds.

War kills and wounds a much larger number of human beings than the number of those lost in battle.  As Christians, it is important that we not lose an opportunity for witness and also judgement in this.  When we send ourselves off to war, we are failing to do a number of things.

  • We have not properly calculated the real possibility that a Christian soldier sent off to fight against people of other nations may very well end up fighting and killing Christians in these other nations.  In this situation we have fully subsumed our service to Christ to our service to a finite, temporal and abstract power; in our case, the Nation State of the USA.
  • We have failed to realize in our own lives the Cross and sufferings of Christ.  Putting our perceived rights and welfare to such a momentous height that we are willing to kill for them.
  • As Americans, we are actually failing to honor the troops.  For one, if we really honored them we would make sure they got the attention that they need to overcome their injuries.  We also would recognize that this cycle doesn’t end.  To honor our injured and dead we might begin to ask about alternative ways of reconciliation.

Even in my own Church this sin is perpetuated.  Compare two prayers.  One a Thanksgiving from the ’79 BCP, the other the prayer of St. Polycarp before his martyrdom:

“O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.  Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen” – (emphasis mine)

” O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your presence, I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, so that I might receive a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection to the life of the age, both of soul and body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.  May I be received among them in your presence today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you have prepared and revealed beforehand, and have now accomplished, you who are the undeceiving and true God.  For this reason, indeed for all things, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages to come. Amen” -(trans. Holmes ’07 – emphasis mine)

Reflecting perhaps a “National-Cathedral-theology” we see in the Prayer Book the need to “accept the disciplines” of “true freedom.”  In St. Polycarp we see that “accepting the disciplines of true freedom” mean something incredibly different and diametrically opposed to the former.  Is it perhaps because we do not witness directly the testimony of the Blessed Martyrs?  Then blessed are they where they are privilaged enough to see such a testimony.

Three Notes on Non-violence


Last Christmas, Reed began a series on Theophiliacs about Non-violence.  It’s a really good series; you should read it if you haven’t done so.  This is one of those issues that haunts me.  It wakes me up in the middle of the night.  I brood over it.  The question of whether or not a Christian should use violence will not leave me alone.  So, here a few further ideas concerning Christian non-violence that have been rolling around in my head recently.  Maybe if I write them down I’ll sleep better tonight.   

John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder

Note #1: I recently had the opportunity to stay at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Centennial, CO.  One morning, I was waiting for the rest of my group to wake up and get ready to go (I was on a church trip with teenagers), and so I decided to avail myself of the church library.  One of the books I picked up that morning (I had to wait for a long time) was John Howard Yoder’s What Would You Do?  In this book, the esteemed Anabaptist theologian explores the “big” question that pacifists and advocates of non-violence are asked by those who wish to confound, confront, or shame them.  There are variations, but the basic question is this: “What if someone was trying to attack your _______ (insert wife, sister, mother, child, etc., etc.,), would you just let your loved one be killed or would you do something violent to stop the attacker.  Yoder notes that the question is designed to elicit an emotional rather than a rational response.  He exposes the presuppositions that the questioner almost always has when asking the question, namely that there could only be one possible outcome (a bad one)  if the person to whom question is posed would refuse to act violently.  Yoder then systematically lists all the outcomes, and weighs their probability of their being negative or positive.  Here they are:

1. Tragedy: Your loved one is killed, while you watch.  This, as far as the questioner is concerned is the only outcome available to those who reject violence.  But, in actuality, there are far more likely outcomes, especially since not acting violently rarely means not acting at all. 

2. Martyrdom:  2a:Your loved one is martyred for the sake of the peaceful Gospel of Christ and meets his/her reward on the Last Day.  2b: You are martyred by non-violently coming between the assailant and your loved one, and you receive your reward on the Last Day.

3. Another way out: 3a: A natural way out.  The police come, the assailant changes his mind, trips, drops his weapon, or one of a million other possibilities happen providing a nonviolent solution to the conflict without the loss of your loved one’s life.  3b: A providential way out, Yoder chides his violence-believing fellow Christians for their lack of faith in the possibility of God intervening in a situation, especially when the Christian involved in committed to being faithful to the peaceful Gospel of Jesus. 

4. Attempted killing of the assailant: 4a: Successful: There is loss of life, legal trouble, guilt, retaliation,  etc., etc.  4b: Unsuccessful: There is a high probability that the average person will be unsuccessful in an attempt to violently intervene in this sort of situation. Unsuccessful attempts of violent intervention almost always lead to an escalation of violence, more unnecessary loss of life is almost always certain. 

When weighed, especially from a Christian perspective, the possible positive outcomes from acting non-violently (2a, 2b, 3a, 3b) far outweigh the possible negative outcomes of  acting non-violently (1)., and the likelihood of something positive happening from non-violent action (2a, 2b, 3a, 3b) is much greater than the likelihood of good things coming from violence (4a, if you can count any loss of life as a “good thing”). 

This all reminds me of Pascal’s Wager, anyway, it’s an interesting book. 


Note #2: I have begun to wonder if Christians interested in acting non-violently can learn something from Buddhism.  I have questions.  If I understand things correctly (and there’s a fair chance I don’t) one of the ethical tenants held by some Buddhists is to “do no harm.”  Is this the same as doing no violence?  It’s a tricky question.  Can you, for instance, spank your child (a seemingly violent act), but do no harm to the child (if it theoretically teaches him a lesson and makes him a better person, yadda, yadda, yadda)?   A Buddhist monk developed the martial art of Aikido as a way to defend oneself without doing harm to the attacker.  Is this type of self-defense permissible to a non-violent Christian?  It’s not exactly “turning the other cheek,” is it?  I’d be interested in hearing other’s opinions on this, especially those who know more about Buddhism than I. 


Bishop Paul Jones

Bishop Paul Jones

Note #3: Episcopalians (in true Episcopalian form) do not necessarily agree on, or have a consistent stance on the issue of Christian non-violence.  An example of this is in the curriculum for the Sunday School class that I’m teaching.  One of the units is on non-violence.  A lot of time is spent in this unit examining what Scripture says, and after coming down firmly on the side of non-violence, it uses the examples of Martin Luther King and Gandhi to explore how non-violence can be put into practice.  The very next unit,  is about self-defence.  In this unit, students are encouraged to kick at the shins and groin, and elbow the face and neck of any one who even remotely looks like they could possibly be capable of rape or kidnapping.  Not surprisingly, disagreement on this issue in the Episcopal church has been going on for a long damn time.  One of the bright examples of Christian non-violence in the Episcopal church has made his way onto the Church Calendar, however.  This coming Friday is the day we remember the Blessed Paul Jones, bishop of Utah 1914-1918.  Here’s a good article about him, but I’ll give you the short version: he was very outspoken about how WWI (and all wars for that matter) was “unchristian” and was consequently forced to resign his bishopric.  He was an amazing man with an amazing witness to the peaceful Gospel of Christ; you ought to read up on him or at least give him and especially his cause a thought this Friday; you can rest assured I’ll be thinking about it.

Merciful God, who sent your beloved Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in this and every land witnesses, who, after the example of your servant Paul Jones, will stand firm in proclaiming th Gospel of the Prince of Peace, our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  AMEN.