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May 26, 2008

Faith in the Midst of War

Faith_war Today is a day during which we should remember all those who have fought for freedom around the world over the years -- and thank the ones who did so and are still with us, as the opportunity presents itself.

As I mentioned Friday, many of our veterans have seen darkness we cannot begin to imagine, and some still deal with the after-effects. In the midst of the horrors of war, where is faith and where is God? Chuck Colson addresses that in today's BreakPoint commentary:

Where is God amidst the horrors of war? How do soldiers keep their faith in God’s goodness amidst the suffering and slaughter of battle?

American soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines have asked questions like these ever since the War for Independence. The questions occupy their thoughts and find their way from faraway battlefields into letters to loved ones.

Journalist Andrew Carroll has collected many of these letters in a book titled Grace under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War. Among them is a note from Private Walter Bromwich, who questioned God’s role in the slaughter of World War I.

“How can there be fairness in one man being maimed for life, suffering agonies, and another killed instantaneously, while I get out of it safe?” Bromwich asked his pastor back in Pennsylvania. “What I would like to believe,” Bromwich wrote, “is that God is in this war, not as a spectator, but backing up everything that is good in us. I don’t know whether God goes forth with armies, but I do know that He is in lots of our men or they would not do what they do.”

Other soldiers worried about their public witness more than their personal safety. In 1943, Private First Class William Kiessel, who was about to take part in the invasion into France, wrote to friends that he did not want prayer for his safety, because “safety isn’t the ultimate goal. True exemplary conduct is.” And he added, “What is important is that whatever does happen to me I will do absolutely nothing that will shame my character or my God.”

Read more, and share your thoughts here.

Then, related to this issue is Preston Jones's back article from BreakPoint WorldView, now posted on our website, "The Cross and the Man in Combat." Jones served in the U.S. Navy from 1986 to 1990.

. . . After war, many veterans feel pride and a sense of patriotic honor. Combat itself is merciless, hateful, exhausting, devastating, dismembering, filthy, and stupefying. . . .

Yes, young men and women may volunteer for military service partly motivated by assumptions about the justice of a war. Yes, the experience of war may push a former combatant toward pacifism. But when the bullets fly, when the napalm cascades to earth, when the gate on the landing craft opens, when the improvised explosive device disables your vehicle in the middle of a hostile neighborhood, philosophy goes out the door. In a battle zone, writes one combatant, there is “absolutely no room for day dreaming or soul-searching.”

So the question arises: Where is God for the 20-year-old Marine throwing a hand grenade? Or for the young person who has just lost an arm or a mind to an enemy’s bomb? Where is Jesus for the exhausted medic or nurse?

At first the answer would seem obvious. In a war zone combatants face death, and this, one assumes, forces them to confront the big questions of life and come to terms with their Maker. As the famous saying puts it, there are no atheists in foxholes.

The problem with the famous saying is that what it means to convey—namely, that warriors draw closer to God—is false, because combatants do not think very much about God. Of the veterans I have interviewed, only one said that he felt closer to God during combat—and he knew of no others who felt the same way.

The striking reality is that most combat veterans say that God did not have anything to do with their war, and many see their times in combat as pauses in their spiritual lives. Andrew Exum, a veteran of Afghanistan, writes that he would pray before battle to say good-bye to God: “I told God I was about to take leave of my faith for a few days.”

It is true that in combat zones there is a lot of prayer—prayer that the battle will be over quickly, that the incoming artillery will stop, that you will survive or at least die with dignity, and prayer that God will cut you a deal: Vietnam veteran Robert Mason writes that he “promised God that I would quit smoking . . . if He would only let me live.” But this matters only to survivors. Those who died had also prayed. . . .

Now, lest you think Jones concludes that God is not present in war or its warriors, please read the whole article, and see where he -- and war -- lead.

Finally, to all our veterans who have served, and to all the enlistees and officers now serving, thank you.

(To learn more about today's remembrance, visit this website.)

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Rolley Haggard

“He best honors the war dead who works hardest to end all wars.”

War's End

Did not God say things must be made right?
In holiness, I swore allegiance to the death.
I told my neighbor, Sergei,
God said things must be this way. Let us make it so.
He said, God told me no such thing. I will not.
Angrily I left him and spoke to another.
God said things must be this way, I said. The other pondered and agreed.
Together we went to still others and told them the same thing.
Some agreed, but others scoffed.
We spoke no more to them, only of them.
Then came the war.
To escape the shelling I took refuge in the old church.
Sergei, too, had come there, and we quickly came to blows.
Soon we both lay bleeding, near death.
At length, we spoke to one another.
Tell me again what God told you, he said.
I sighed. He said things must be the right way.
But what you did was wrong, he said.
No, what you did was wrong, I said.
We are dying – why argue and fight any more? he said.
What I did seemed right to me, I said.
He told me, make things right, and I did my best.
What did he mean by right, Grigor? What you did to me was wrong.
He meant we should get along, I said. But you would not hear of it.
Get along, yes, but on your terms? Is that what he said? Maybe you misunderstood.
I replied, someone must give up their way if there is disagreement.
But why must it be me? he asked. Grigor, what if we both gave up some?
I looked at him for a long time. His breathing, like mine, was labored.
I handed him my canteen.
He looked at me -- and drank the last swig.

I roused when they came to put me on the stretcher.
They began carrying me out of the old church past the sign that had inspired me as a young boy,
The sign that had for so long mutely declared “GOD IS HOLY”.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.

The shelling had rearranged three of the letters in the word HOLY.
All of the H except for the crossbar and the upper leftmost part of the character was gone,
And the L had tilted counterclockwise 45 degrees.
The Y had pivoted clockwise so that the legs of the V portion of the letter were pointing to 2 o’clock and 3 o’clock, respectively. And the bottom upright stem was slanted – strangely, as if moved by hand! – to 4 o’clock....

The captain shouted at the stretcher-bearers to keep moving.
Wait, I said. What about Sergei?
Him, I said, pointing at my neighbor.
He’s dead, they said.
I killed him, I said.
Yes, they said approvingly, misunderstanding.
You helped us win the war.

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