Finding a Third Way with Veterans

I have always had a complicated relationship with the peace testimony. It’s in my blood. I have several Quaker ancestors who were veterans, going all the way back to the Civil War. A few years ago, I asked my grandma to dig out the letters she received from my grandpa during his merchant marine service in World War II. I admired the way he endeavored to live with integrity in morally complex circumstances. My uncle and a handful of other relatives served in the Vietnam War, but my father was a conscientious objector. I grew up hearing allusions to how military service impacted generations of Henry men, for better and for worse. My family history is full of fine men and women, but it is also a reminder that war doesn’t just affect the single soldier; it impacts the soldier’s family and the soldier’s family’s family. War has intergenerational consequences.

Coming from a Quaker family full of war veterans makes for some confusion of conscience. I could feel the tension inside me between honoring a history of military service and honoring a tradition of peace. I also felt this tension in my encounters with the wider world of Friends. I grew up in an Evangelical Friends church. There were occasional references to a peaceable past, but we also prayed for young congregants as they left for Iraq and had our veterans stand on special Sundays before we sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

As I engaged more deeply with the gospels and discovered more about the witness of peacemakers like John Woolman, Henry David Thoreau, Daniel Berrigan, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., the latent longing for peace awakened within me. My conviction grew that Jesus really meant what he said on the Sermon on the Mount and the spirit of Christ has continually called the Friends and saints of God to realize the possibilities of peace on earth. I began to speak more openly about this conviction. But the stronger my convincement became, the harder it was to know how to respectfully relate to my friends and family who were service members.

It was at my current meeting that I began to understand how real this tension is within service members and veterans themselves. During a conversation, a member of our meeting who is a Vietnam veteran told me about his struggle to find a church that could “speak to his condition.” One of his most telling statements helped me see what Friendly work may be needed with veterans: “It felt like [to the churches I visited] I was either a monster or a hero.” This connected with my experience of many churches, including Quaker meetings. Too often, meetings have trouble distinguishing the wars they oppose from the men and women who are asked to fight them, seeing them as monsters. Other churches want to honor the service of veterans and their willingness to “lay down one’s life for their friends” (John 15:13) and can only relate to them as heroes. Neither of these extreme labels fits the experience of most veterans. Veterans are like most other folks in that they have mixed emotions about their life choices and experiences. They carry a mix of pride and shame, joy and regret. Veterans need Quaker meetings that are able to navigate a “third way” beyond the labels of monster and hero and create a hospitable space where they can attend to the leading of the Light. They need a safe space where their wounds can be healed, their stories can be heard, and their gifts can be shared.

There is new language that helps us understand the spiritual and psychological trauma faced by so many veterans. We not only hear about post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma, we are now hearing about moral injury. Moral injury happens when there is a deep violation of one’s conscience and moral center. The violence and trauma becomes internalized within the service member, and there is a need for healing and cleansing. Many ancient cultures had rituals and healers who were practiced at integrating warriors back into the community, but those communal structures have largely broken down. Perhaps this is a unique invitation and opportunity for Friends. We do not believe in war; we oppose war and want to end it. But we do believe in peace, and if we want to be faithful to that testimony, we must address violence in all its forms: external violence between groups and nations and internal violence within those who experience the trauma of war. The realities of moral injury call us to a ministry of soul repair. Perhaps this is the “third way” to which we are being led.

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