A U.S. marine watches children play in Ramadi, in Iraq's Anbar province. (AP Photo/Todd Pitman)
Are there atheists in foxholes? How do we justify our participation in wars that kill civilians, often children? At The American Scholar, veteran and author of RedeploymentPhil Klay turns his writer’s eye on himself in this essay on war, faith, and fatherhood, and reckons with his own complicity.
I was in a different position. My job in the Marine Corps meant that I was generally a spectator rather than an actor in the war. I was never faced with the responsibility of leading men in combat, never responsible for the direct act of killing, never faced with what Marlantes has described as “a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite.” Instead, I had the images of those children in my head, and for a young man, fervently believing in the mission and in the potential for the Marine Corps to turn around Anbar Province, they confirmed me in all I believed. A Special Forces veteran later told me why, for him, killing people in Iraq felt less morally troubling than killing people in Afghanistan. “Iraq may have been a giant clusterfuck,” he said, “but al-Qaeda did always make it easy.” In other words, al-Qaeda was so grotesquely, absurdly evil, you could not help but compare yourself with them and assume that you must be good.
So rather than challenging my Christian faith or provoking deep questions about who I was as a man, what kind of war I was in, and what sort of country I was a citizen of, the children made me feel like I didn’t have to justify myself at all. When I got home, those children were a useful tool for propping up my image of myself as a decent human being. Confronted with a man who voiced contempt at the notion that anyone would fight in a war that had caused such horrendous civilian casualties, I told him, “I carried injured Iraqi children to medical care with my own hands! What have you done for Iraqi civilians recently? Posted snarky comments on Facebook?”
Johnny was more honest than most about his salvation. Other teens said they’d felt so lost in the secular world that they’d attempted suicide. When pressed for details, they produced accounts of the angry boredom of being sixteen in the suburbs: “attempted suicide” meant driving too fast, going for a too-difficult dive, getting dangerously drunk on dad’s Jack Daniel’s. One boy told me had resolved to strangle himself and would have, too, had not Jesus invisibly pulled the boy’s hands from his Adam’s apple. For Johnny there had been no special signs, no spiritual lows. It was simple as this: he was on a ski trip, and Jesus got him—shouldered into Johnny’s heart and said, “You’re mine, buddy.” It felt “wicked awesome,” better than eight girls in a Hummer all at the same time.
– Jeff Sharlet, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on a day spent with the sexually pure teens of Battlecry Honor Academy in Garden Valley, Texas — where he learns that renouncing your sins doesn’t mean redacting their memories.
Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days represent a friendly (if bony, skeletal) handshake between Paganism and Christianity, an exaltation of escape and revelry, as well as somber respect for death and those whom it has claimed. I still love graveyards, rattling chains, black cats, black velvet, and all manner of spooky things. And I adore the blessing of sacred serendipity — that you can discover yourself while pretending to be someone else. That you can pray for a guiding angel and God will send Alice Cooper.
-From an essay by Lily Burana on The New York Times’ Women in the World page, about trying to reconcile her love of Halloween and all things Goth with her “surprisingly Jesus-y” faith, plus the time she asked for a sign from God that she was in the right church and looked up to see Alice Cooper dressed in “Goth golfer casual.”
The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?
Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.
But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?
At The New York Review of Books, President Obama interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, a conversation he requested to have after becoming a fan of her novels. As a companion to this interview, read her recent essay, “Fear,” a rumination on American history, religious history, guns, violence, war, and her deeply held Christian beliefs.
Faith, technology and Christianity in Silicon Valley:
The internet and social media present a conundrum for Chuck DeGroat, the pastor at City Church. With a congregation of hip modern professionals, from architects and financial advisers to programmers and venture capitalists, he can’t afford not to have a Facebook page, Twitter handle, or website. And yet, the social media channels that dominate so many of their lives conflict with various Christian principles he hopes they will live by.
‘We follow people on Twitter,’ he says to a half-full church on a recent Sunday. ‘We follow news stories. We follow celebrities. We check boxes to say ‘I’m a fan of this.’ But what does it really mean to follow?’ He launches into a text from Corinthians 1, telling of a city whose people are obsessed with reputation, who boast of their prominent roles in the community. He draws a parallel to today and people’s obsession with how they present themselves online. ‘God is not impressed with your status update,’ he says. ‘He’s impressed with what’s beneath the pretence.’