Death by Statistics

Posted: September 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

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I wrote that last blog in the midst of a very unproductive afternoon reading for coursework here at St Andrews. Earlier, as has happened now three times, I was skimming facebook and fell across a statistically significant number of posts about a friend of mine. The great algorithm in the sky discerned that I was supposed to hear about this particularly news feed worthy tidbit. The last two times were similarly anxiety-inducing and ominous; people posting vaguely nostalgically about someone, but never quite coming out and saying what happened.

Someone I know died.

Jacob David George and I were not “facebook friends” because he was not very active (it didn’t seem), and I rarely go around giving the internet access to my contacts list so zuckerburg can tell me when my third grade crush has joined his advertising database. Jacob and I met in Austin, Texas at the IVAW national convention where I was elected to the board of directors for a year. He played a mean banjo, which helped me appreciate appalachian music while I studied in Durham, NC for a few years. Since then, he had travelled to Afghanistan to visit peace workers there and continued to be active in anti-war organizations and communities. We only ever interacted by email as a result of our mutual confusion over the fact there there are Fayettevilles in both Arkansas and North Carolina.

But his death struck me at a very deep level. When I found out, I could not keep reading for my courses. My mind wandered and I got restless physically. I blogged because it made me feel like I was doing something, but in reality I was avoiding. Jacob killed himself and I found out about it digitally. It is so tragic, that I didn’t get to hear it from the voice of a friend, or with a soft hand on my shoulder. His death has rippled through many circles of friends, as I remain very invested in the community Iraq Veterans Against the War was to me and for me. I consider my academic work an expression of the work I was introduced to in Philadelphia when I was given a job by the national office in 2007, months after getting off active duty.

Jacob was a poet, the latest in a long genealogy of martial wordsmiths that include Tim O’Brien, Shel Silverstein, Ernie Pyle, and Wilfred Owen. In a bard he composed and titled “Support the Troops,” he writes;

RIP Jacob David George

 

what we Need are teachers who understand the history of this country
what we Need is a decent living wage, so people ain’t cold and hungry
what we Need is bicycle infrastructure spanning this beauteous nation
what we Need are more trees and less play stations
what we Need is a justice system that seeks the truth
what we Need are more books and less boots

 

The first and last lines ripped me out of my stupor the last few days. I want to be that teacher and read those books that Jacob reminds us we need. But I can never be that teacher or pick up those books by forgetting that I am irrevocably a part of this martial community that suffers a suicide rate of 22 every day. The other day, the sterility of that statistic came crashing down once more, a painful reminder that knowledge is nothing without blood, sweat, and tears. Theology or religion without mouths to cry for the oppressed, feet to walk humbly for justice, and hearts to beat (and cease) for one’s fellow, is nothing but clashing symbols and clanging gongs.

In IVAW I felt vestigial at times, as the guy who obsessed about those very things, theology and religion. I never felt left out or overlooked, but I knew I was different in how overtly religious I was (and remain). But every person there made me feel welcome and helped shape who I am today and how I think about war and the people it makes and breaks. In a recent interview, Jacob sounded very ‘spiritual but not religious,’ a sentiment some theologians and religious Christians look down on. But there is a deep honesty in his words and the sentiment itself is a judgment on the church; in a world ripped apart by war, Christians and their institutions have failed to speak, walk, and cry for peace in holistic and theologically credible ways. We have failed to be the salve of the souls for so many hurt by this world of war.

Jacob lamented the inability of the Department of Veterans Affairs “to address the depths of the wounds we have” or understand “how the soul has been injured in war.” But in what world is this the responsibility of a secular government? The church was created for this task, and we have failed. For two thousand years we have obsessed over proportionality or just cause or right intent. We have not loved God with our whole hearts because we have failed to love people like Jacob as we have loved ourselves. Jacob reminds us that there are “rituals and healing ceremonies [that] an entire generation of people needs in order to heal their soul.”

Instead, I wonder if the church gazes at its navel, passing the centuries wondering precisely what the relationship is between the Son and the Spirit, whether the latter passes from the former or from the Father. As though God wants us to spend our time with questions like that. At a recent social event, wife asked a number of New Testament students what Paul would think of the church studying his letters with the critical attention and literary and historical fervor we have. I blurted out “he’d probably ask what’s wrong with you and tell you to study God instead.” We get caught up in the abstract and lose sight of what is right before us. It is convenient, our selective attention, but it is not good.

Abraham Heschel reminds us that the world is messy and our hands are not clean, that deaths like Jacob’s are on our heads and we will have to answer for them in this world of war we have made for ourselves. Heschel says over and over again in his essays and interviews “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” He goes on to speak especially to a church that has forgotten how to do theology, that has lost sight, sound, and motivation to follow our incarnate God;

There are no proofs of God. There are only witnesses.

Jacob witnessed more than his soul could take because a channel surfing public (including the church) was unwilling or unable to help carry the load of more than a decade at war. We are sent to war uniformed and uninformed, to the desert wilderness, and came home broken and wandering, not sure what to make of the manufactured moral landscape back in the states.

If you want to help, go to hell. You will find us there, ferrying our battle buddies back from the abyss, wings singed and charred as we hold back its gates, picking up the Petrine church’s slack.

Academic (in)Security

Posted: September 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

Well, now that I am back in school, it’s time to dust off the old Academia.edu profile. That is where I filed and published some undergraduate and MTS work so I could share it with others when the need arose. Re-reading it has made it clear I need to update a few things…

Thinking about my life in terms of academic history led me to the realization that I have always felt like a bit of an outsider. In the military I felt as though I was very “Christian,” but I could not stand going to chapel because it felt like I never left the drill pad, as though there was no departure from that set of behaviors to a setting defined by very different convictions. It felt like the same old thing, even though the Bible seemed to prescribe things very different from what I spent my days as an artilleryman doing.

In high school youth group I remember having a conversation with the pastor that arose from my impression that most there were there almost exclusively for social reasons. I remember telling him that I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there (read: I wasn’t cool enough for church). He was very reassuring, but I left feeling no different. I did kept attending though. In fact, I remember quite clearly as a young child wondering why so many verses were not often obeyed or followed, despite being clear they were imperatives upon individal readers (love your enemy, give to the poor, bless and do not curse). Was I the only one bothered by these things? Was everyone else privy to a set of rules that I had no access to? Was I cool enough to be in the know?

Just to be clear, this persists as a deep insecurity in my life and may very well inappropriately shape my read of what surrounds me. It touches my theology, my relationships, my entire perspective. I don’t mention this to discredit myself, but to be honest about my fallibility. One thing I learned from war is how fallible I am, and how fallible humans can be more generally. In fact, theology came alive to me when I realized I could disagree with established minds and voices that had been held on a pedestal in the days of my youth.

At Duke I learned one of those pedestalled voices was Augustine. A popular bishop in the 4th century, he wrote beautifully, even becoming the very first person in recorded history to write an autobiography (his Confessions). When I learned he was credited with being the earliest proponent of “just war” thinking, I wanted to learn more. I learned he got his ideas from a roman lawyer named Cicero. Problem was, there were several centuries of christian soldiers he could have learned from, the most noteworthy of whom being my patron saint, Martin of Tours.

Martin was a bishop when Augustine was still sorting out Manichaean heresies from orthodox Christianity and had spent a full term in the Roman army (25 years). He knew the Caeasars personally because his worldly career had been to protect their bodily lives. It was put to an end when Martin was forced to distinguish between protective service in the Praetorian Guard and destructive service on the battlefield in Worms in 356 AD. His Roman street cred suffered, but his Christian authority only increased exponentially as he studied under the most learned theologian of the time (Hilary of Poitiers) and participated in a number of ecumenical councils and debates, eventually becoming the Bishop of Tours in Gaul. So why didn’t Augustine turn to Martin’s life, the teachings he left his disciples (like Victricious, the Bishop of Roeun), or the stories of countless soldier saints that Martin drew upon for guidance (like the martyr Maximilian of Tebessa, or the first cenobitic monk who inspired Benedict’s later “rule” Pachomius of Thebes, just to name a couple)?

Questions like that plague my studies. I wonder why Augustine is given the primacy of place that he is in terms of martial theological traditions like “just war” or “responsibility to protect,” if he himself never performed military service. He advised generals, but he did so without the benefit of first hand knowledge. In its lack, he turned to the pagan world for resources already bodily extant in the church. As a former soldier myself, I am left to wonder why Martin, another soldier, got left out, overlooked, and under-utilized. My insecurity returns, but I think it may be more than that. It may be that in fact somehow I can turn that question, that doubt, into an academic project. With it, I hope, the constant reminder of my fallibility returns as well. I am only human, I am insecure and anxious. But in my commitment to honesty, which is inherently self-critical, I may also discover a bit of truth. Maybe we DO need to look again at how the Church has framed war and take stock of why and how those accounts have failed and whether they might need to be desperately reimagined. Maybe we need to see soldiers and soldiering as having theological resources that go much deeper than the dichotomy of war or peace, justice or mercy. I don’t know, but I want to learn more. It will provide decades of fulfilling research, I am sure, so I should have plenty of academic (and hopefully professional) security.

While at Duke, I did a directed study with Stanley Hauerwas and Warren Smith, but never finally wrote up my conclusions because I had overcommitted to other writing projects. Here at the University of St. Andrews, I can take up those questions once more in the company of scholars like John Perry, NT Wright, Mark Elliott, and others. I look forward to sharing my findings here and at my Academia.edu profile. Engage with the material I provide in the comments, or shoot me an email at lml7@st-andrews [dot] ac [dot] uk!

Studies in Scotland

Posted: September 5, 2014 in Uncategorized
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So I’ve really neglected blogging for some time and there are a few of y’all that read this for updates on my academic, literary, and personal development. I’m very grateful for the support of so many so I wanted to throw up one such update regarding my most recent life event (after, of course, my marriage to Laura Tardie in June).

While preparing to apply to doctoral programs last fall, I discovered I had another full year left of funding on my GI Bill. I was under the impression that my MTS from Duke effectively exhausted it, but most programs I was interested in were fully funded and I therefore would not have to pay tuition any way (many theology or religion PhD programs justify funding by basically enjoying copyright privileges on any research you conduct while in their employ). The discovery of 9 more months of funding coincided with numerous commentators suggesting that spending our first year of marriage in the first year of a PhD program was not a hot idea. So Laura and I ended up switching my applications and rethinking our first year. On a hunch, I began looking at UK schools and finally applied to two (St. Andrews in Scotland and Kings College, London) with a Duke ThM as a backup plan.

I was accepted and confirmed an offer at the University of St Andrews in their Master of Letters program in the Divinity School. Originally, I was confirmed under the Scripture and Theology track, but recently switched to the Systematic and Historical Theology track instead. So shortly after our wedding, we began planning our one year move to Scotland, including all the packing, storing, and stressing that would entail. It was a lot.

But last week, after an extended and very enjoyable move away from Durham, NC, we moved into our “flat” a few blocks from St Mary’s College, the name of the divinity program at St Andrews. Classes begin in about a week, and I am finalizing all the stress-inducing details around funding, accommodation and everything else. I look forward to taking the required Origins in Christian Theology under NT Wright as well as a slew of other intriguing classes by well-spoken of professors and lecturers.

Laura and I will be keeping a blog together to chronicle our adventures here across the pond, and you can find us at artsyfartsyoc.wordpress.com if you’re so inclined. I’ll be presenting a paper based on my MTS thesis at the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain’s annual conference next week at St Mary’s University College near London. I have some new writing projects, including some articles for a SAGE encyclopedia on sociology and war as well as a book tracing various manifestations of combat stress (like posttraumatic stress, shell shock, soldiers, heart, and others) across medical and theological history with academic publisher Wipf & Stock. Because of this workload, I’d like to think I will be focusing on my writing more effectively than I have been, but you’ll just have to watch this blog to see if that comes to fruition…

Thanks for reading.

Becoming Isaac(s)

Posted: July 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

When I first got engaged, I can say honestly I did not know that men do not normally wear engagement rings. This was before reading any scholarship on gender or taking the one women’s studies course I did as a graduate student. It was genuine ignorance. Or innocence maybe. It seemed odd – if women wore them to signify their preparation for marriage and departure from the dating pool, then why would men not also do similarly? It was only after those readings and that one course that I learned it was a vestige of ancient patriarchal instincts about women being property of which most societies in the modern era are highly critical. So when I got half-engaged last year on Labor Day (my then-fiancée proposed back to me on the seventh day after I proposed to her), I wore an engagement ring. It just seemed logical.

So when we were getting ready to enter marriage, we talked about what name she might take. The conversation didn’t last long before it was about the name we might take. It just seemed logical. And reciprocal.

The thought of giving up my family name(s) was not easy. None of the options seemed ideal. Hyphenating was out of the question, unless we wanted to be only double hyphenated couple we knew of (Mehl-Laituri-Tardie doesn’t really roll off the tongue either). We played around with a Scrabble-type last name, in which we discovered new names made up of the letters from our parents names (including her mom’s maiden name, of course), but we just were not touched by anything we came up with. At our first wedding shower, close friends proposed names for us, that we selected pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style, but we are not the type to have “#” in our name either, so that was out.

But something struck while our friends toasted us during that first shower. A few themes emerged of characteristics they saw in us collectively; of giddiness, youth, celebration, and laughter. In fact, I frequently tell Laura that, despite my vestigial combat stress from a 2004 deployment to Iraq, she reminds me who I once was and who I could be, a person who was goofy and vibrant, who smiled easily and often. It was something some of my seminary friends only saw in me when I was with her, because my experience at a student veteran at Duke was not the best (which I mention in the introduction to my first book, Reborn on the Fourth of July).

I went home that night and did some digging. Those words our friends uttered stuck in my mind like a warm caramel apple from the candy store, or salt in my eyebrows after an afternoon surf; joy, happiness, hope, laughter. These things I was and am with her…

In many sacraments, like ordination or confirmation, for example, Christians take a new name. It is to signify an evident yet mysterious change in the person. When priests become bishops or deacons in many denominations, they will add those titles to their name and take the name of a saint who has inspired them. Upon confirmation, I took the name Martin, from the fourth century bishop and soldier saint who modeled the lives Christian soldiers can aspire to by protecting life and serving the poor.

Women in the west have most often changed their names upon being wed, but in secular society it is not considered a sacrament. It is considered a change of ownership – in this case from their father to their husband. But in the church, people are not owned, they are one body of Christ in which there is no slave or master. We submit to “the least of these,” those who give up everything, be it sex, wealth, or prestige (all of which priests have historically done). We follow Jesus downward, to the lowest of the low. We give up in order to be taken up, we might say.

Of the three major patriarchs in the Christian Old Testament, Isaac is the most minor of the three figures. His father was called as Abram by to be “the father of many,” but nearly killed his youngest son in obedience to God, and becomes Abraham. His son, Jacob, would “wrestle with God” and become Israel, the father of the twelve tribes. It is only Isaac who never receives a name change operation in the text. Isaac is noteworthy for being the only patriarch to have only one sexual partner, his “faithful” wife Rebecca, though their relationship seems strained, as the incident toward the end of his life indicates – Rebecca conspires with their youngest to redirect the birthright against Isaac’s wishes.

Isaac seems the type of character the Bible wants us to notice. Like Abel and Seth before him, he is overshadowed by the greats by whom he is surrounded. Cain was highly regarded by Eve, but Seth “replaced” Abel, and was said to have been “made in the image and likeness of Adam” (who had been made similarly, but “of God”). The same cannot be said of Cain, whom commands the readers attention in Genesis 3-6. The authors point, however, seems to focus on the overlooked Abel…

Isaac, despite the difficulties he faced in life (stemming from the daddy issues certainly arising out of the whole Moriah affair), is called “laughter.” I aspire to be unassuming, like Abel and Isaac before me. But I also aspire to laugh. It is a new years resolution I made not so long ago with my mom, after a year in which laughter was hard to come by for me. It will no doubt be a pain to change my name (after returning home from a year abroad, more on that later), but as a guy, I don’t have much room to complain. More importantly, changing my name (in about a year from now) will shape me into a new person, or rather into a personhood shared with my partner. Though we are individuals, we will become a single entity as far as both church and world are concerned. I hope we become people worthy of the name by laughing frequently and being faithful to one another and to God.

Hopefully we will become Isaacs.

TATP frontI was honored to have been invited to read a manuscript by Benjamin John Peters, a former Marine and OIF combat veteran. His Through All The Plain is both moving and provocative, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a reviewer. Wipf & Stock, his publisher, gave him the freedom to be quite forthright about the reality of combat and everything after, and it made for a valuable resource to those invested in war, peace, theology, and community. I cannot recommend his book enough, for fellow Christian soldiers and veterans, or their loved ones. It is available from the publisher’s website or your local bookstore.

I endorsed it by saying the following;

Benjamin John Peters writes as a possessed man, overcome not by demons, but by the divine, for he displays a wonderful knack for ordering the chaos that is war. Weaving story with scholarship, this book illumines the dark place that our veterans visit and is therefore a precious gift for congregations, communities, and classrooms alike. Take and read this seemingly bitter tome; its words will prove as sweet as honey on your lips, I know it has mine.

After I received my copy in the mail, I was flattered to learn my endorsement landed at the top spot (which, quite honestly, I do not know if that is significant at all). Check it out

Through All the Plain rear

Thoughts on Marriage

Posted: June 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

as a calling, a vocation, it is quite unique. nobody is called to marriage as such, as though when one spouse dies, they hurry out and find another. no, marriage as a vocation seems to be to a particular person, til death do you part. the vocation ends there to that person, though it extends to the persons that union may have created.

the particularity of marriage is very different from the other vocations and offices in the church, like holy orders and others. many vocations are generic and pertain mostly to serving God. but the vocation to marriage is to serve another person, to be tied to them so that they may give you the capacity to make sense of your own life, in the same way that you need God to make sense of it. every morning you wake up and, whether you like it or not, they are there. as long as you both shall live, you provide for one another the grounding to make sense of this thing we call life that is done inescapably in communion with and dependence upon others.

because marriage is a vocation to a particular person, you discover the vocation as it unfolds before your eyes, like undressing in the bedroom that first night you make love(ingly). you cannot know you are called to marriage until the person to whom you are called stands before you and breaks into your life, whether you like it or not.

marriage is not ‘about the children,’ as some might say, it is about God and you and that person that you love God through. children may erupt from your union, but they are always accidents, for if we were responsible for their creation, then we would be able to predict like clockwork when, how, and what form they would take. Life is not in our power alone. pro-creativity requires not two people, but three (or perhaps five); two bodies and one trinity.

I appreciate that Stanley Hauerwas suggests that Christians never marry the right person, but in a way,we always marry the right person because any person is capable of teaching us love. the meaning of marriage is discovered in love, in that place that makes no sense until we cannot escape it, until we cannot escape god, for God is love. the vocationality of weddedness is peculiar, for love is often not what we are told, but what we know without asking.

the world tells us that love adorns itself in fine jewelry and dresses itself in cosmetic embellishment. but love comes to us in the cow pies and the straw bales. love finds us on the street between phone calls; it pushes shopping carts and begs our attention. love does not dress itself up nearly as often as it puts on a disguise. love and marriage cannot be pursued apart from particularities; we are not called to lives of marriage, but to beautifully broken creatures with short lifespans, who are no better than ourselves.

there is no ‘waiting for the right person,’ there is only listening for God. one may not be called to marriage, but everyone is called to be with others. for marriage must be a gift, as all vocations are. we must seek God instead of our desire to escape loneliness.

Morally Inconsistent

Posted: May 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

I knew I would not keep a consistent posting schedule, so perhaps I should not be too hard on myself for keeping to my consistent inconsistency.

There’s been a creeping bug in my head about the increasing discussions about moral injury. Well, technically not a creeping bug if I wrote my masters thesis about it. More specifically, I am bugged by the way in which it is being talked about popularly.

Astute observers will notice that the Huffington and Washington Posts both wrote really captivating articles about moral injury, complete with pictures (I like pictures). But keen sleuths will also notice that for expertise on “moral” injury, they turned toward the mental health profession. Why not to moral philosophers and theologians, who have been writing about this stuff for at least 1600 years? To think of combat stress in terms of the mind is quite new, for it historically has been considered a condition of the heart.

Augustine, in responding to generals Boniface and Marcellinus, relied on his notion of animi dolori, what Catholic theologian Bill Portier translates as “heartfelt grief,” to settle the sorrows of the high ranking Christian soldiers. During the crusades, a horror sanguinis, a fear of blood, animated moral considerations of war and its effect on human beings engaged in its conduct. In the midst of the American Civil War, Union doctor Jacob Mendes Da Costa proposed that war somehow enlarged the four valves of the human heart, requiring it to beat harder. The metaphorical implications of this suggestion are profound.

But it is not a concern for historical cohesion that causes my hesitation to embrace a mental focus in contemporary settings. It is how such assumptions locate and dislocate the loci of responsibility. In fact, in this sense, associating combat stress with the mind is in alignment with prior discussions of the heart. When we speak of mental health, or the internal trappings of the human heart, we suppose that the center of agency and affect of war are contained within the individual soldier. We suggest that responsibility therefore does not seep out beyond their individual epidermal pores.

The soldier has a problem and must seek counseling and rehabilitation. Society is just fine, thank you very much.

Confining the discussion of combat stress and trauma to the individual fighter safely confines responsibility to those we want to think pull the triggers. When Ivan Lopez went on a rampage at Ft. Hood, a headline in USA Today safely reassured its readers he “had mental problems.” Phew! I though America had a violence problem.

Quick, let’s round up some mental health experts to discuss his issue.