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;
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.