This morning my eldest, Abby, a rising junior at Goshen College, a Mennonite college in northern Indiana, requested that the following Gospel excerpt be read at our church, First Mennonite of Indianapolis.
The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 8:5-13
King James Version, Authorized
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.” And Jesus saith unto him, “I will come and heal him.”
The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man,’ Go’, and he goeth; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he cometh; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he doeth it.”
When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
And Jesus said unto the centurion, “Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee.”
And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.
She then gave the sermon that follows below:
Average age is about twenty-one. Seventy-five percent are white; twenty-five percent are other minority groups. Most are middle to upper middle class. At some point in the term, they serve abroad, see things that they will never forget. They’ll come back with stories, with people, with memories forever in their hearts. And they never really come back the same.
That describes roughly the average student at Goshen College. But that also describes the average combat veteran returning from the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Granted, there are quite a few differences between a student at a pacifist college and a combat veteran. Our stories don’t tend to end with “And then I never saw him again,” for example. Our stories don’t tend to involve as much violence, as much death. Our stories don’t tend to leave us feeling as if our sense of peace and trust in humanity has been stripped from our very soul.
The number of veterans who will need to be treated for years because of the emotional scars of war has been labeled the major mental health crisis of our generation. More than 2.2 million service members have been deployed since the war in Afghanistan began. According to a study done by the not-for-profit organization RAND, twenty percent of those who have returned show signs of mental health problems. These mental and emotional scars ultimately lead to serious repercussions that forever change the lives of these warriors and their families.
If we are really called to be peacemakers, it is time for us to serve those in the service.
The most widely-known and commonly-diagnosed mental health issue among the military is posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In the past ten years there have been a total of 88,719 reported cases of PTSD in all branches of the military. The National Institute for Mental Health defines PTSD as “an anxiety disorder than can develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.” The three common symptoms of PTSD are “re-experiencing symptoms” such as intense flashbacks or night terrors; hyperarousal symptoms, which are essentially a heightened awareness of one’s environment; and avoidance symptoms. These symptoms come together to cause extreme anxiety. These men and women are having intense, horrific flashbacks and are also so aware of their environment that they can appear paranoid. It causes them to become extremely anxious, angry, and fearful, and therefore they avoid people who don’t understand.
Other problems facing service members are traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and substance abuse. According to a Frontline report, over 400,000 cases of TBI have occurred during the recent war. TBI’s can cause an array of physical as well as mental and emotional problems such as lack of concentration and focus, self-control problems, and difficulty with mood changes, to name a few.
In the Time Magazine article “America’s Medicated Army,” Mark Thompson reported that over 20,000 troops are taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. Many times troops are obtaining psychotropic and/or pain medications without prescriptions. When they come home and are unable to obtain these prescription drugs, the withdrawal symptoms are so bad and the emotional pain so intense, they commonly self-medicate.
The wounds of war do not stay on the battlefield, but are often dragged home. In a recent study done by Dr. Steven Sayers and his colleagues, forty percent of veterans expressed feeling as if they were strangers in their own homes. Sayers also found that veterans with PTSD or depression are five times more likely than other veterans to have family issues. Combat experiences leads to a sixty-two percent higher likelihood of divorce. And according to a US Army report, over the past six years cases of child and spousal abuse have gone up 177 percent.
But the most shocking statistic is not of those wounded, but of those lost. The cover of Time Magazine for the week of July 23, 2012 was a picture of a soldier with the title, “One A Day” printed under it. According to the article inside, “The War on Suicide,” on average one soldier commits suicide every day. Since that article was published, 335 soldiers have committed suicide.
And those are only active duty soldiers.
Further on in the article, the author says that among veterans, a suicide happens every eight minutes. Since that article was published, therefore, the number of veterans who have taken their own lives has reached 6,030.
If every person attending the upcoming convention of the Mennonite Church-USA in Phoenix were to commit suicide twice, we would almost hit that number.
We have a crisis on our hands. As peacemakers, we are called to serve in times of crisis. So why are we just sitting here?
I understand that as pacifists, we are not always sure how to react to soldiers, those with whom we disagree on a fundamental level. But as peacemakers, we do not have the best record of being peaceful when it comes to dealing with warriors.
In 2008, Ernest Martin, a retired Mennonite pastor, wrote an article in The Mennonite [the church’s national periodical] entitled “Human Sacrifice.” The last paragraph of this article is as follows:
We hear of instances of soldiers intentionally falling on an explosive to save comrades. Risking life and losing life for the benefit of another follow the example of Jesus’ sacrificial love. But initiating, supporting and participating in human sacrifice for advancing personal, ideological, and economic goals is God-rejecting idolatry. Kyrie eleison.
For those of you who don’t know, kyrie eleison means “Lord, have mercy.” But my question is: why can we not show that same mercy? If a young veteran were to come up to you and say, “I saw my buddy die out there to save my life. Within split seconds I watched what was once a body, what was once a friend, a husband, a father, what was once a man turn into an unrecognizable pile of flesh and blood,”—I would hope your first response would not be “Sorry, but you know: it’s God-rejecting idolatry.”
Because if it is, you might as well be talking to Veteran Number 6,031.
It isn’t about them or us. It isn’t about patriotism or pacifism It isn’t about war or peace. It’s about people suffering and people serving. It’s about warriors and peacemakers. Take down those barriers and see the person on the other side.
My father is the inspiration for this speech. Four years ago my father started working as a psychiatrist at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Indianapolis. Day after day my father goes in to work to serve men and women no older than myself. And day after day he comes home with horror stories sketched in his mind, with tales he cannot tell us, with burdens to hold that were not his to bear. But he bears them—because he embodies the core value of being a compassionate peacemaker. On Goshen College’s website, it says that compassionate peacemakers “embrace ‘shalom’—the peace that God intends for humanity.” Day after day my father sees those who have lost their humanity and helps them find peace once more.
Jesus was approached by a soldier. But not only was he a soldier, he was a Roman. He was a Gentile. He was a warrior. The peacemaker and the warrior disagreed on fundamental levels.
The soldier came up to Jesus to serve his servant, to help his fallen comrade. And what did Jesus do in return? Did Jesus scorn the soldier? Did he ask him to leave the Army? Did he say, “I’ll give you grace, but only if you follow me?”
No. He looked at the man, amazed, and said, “Truly I tell you: I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
I’m not saying to go become a psychiatrist at a VA hospital. I’m not even asking anyone to go visit veterans at a hospital. What I am asking for is a change of heart.
I’ve been a nanny for two veterans. I’m a friend of several soldiers. And I’m a Mennonite for peace. I don’t think those contradict.
If you choose to befriend a soldier or welcome back a veteran, just remember to love with no strings attached. They aren’t asking you to change your views, so don’t go in trying to change theirs.
Eastern Mennonite University professor Lisa Schirch wrote:
When you start to love people you disagree with, everyone starts looking a lot more like a human being doing the best she can with what he knows and has experienced.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing any of that, then I ask just one thing: Stop seeing a military. Start seeing a person.
As a father, I admire my daughter, admire the woman she has become. I so look forward to the life that she is hoping to create. I am so thankful for every moment that I can have with her.
As a fellow Mennonite, however, my response can only be a direct, simple, and heartfelt one:
Amen, my sister. Kyrie Eleison. On all of us.