This past Veterans Day was especially troubling to those of us who don’t go to church to see and hear the military idolatry that is unfortunately all too prevalent in many churches. The reason this year was so bad is that Veterans Day actually fell on a Sunday. It is bad enough to attend church on the Sunday before Veterans Day (or Independence Day), but it is even worse when a state holiday falls on a Sunday. Thank God Memorial Day is always observed on a Monday. So, this past Veterans Day was the perfect day for military-loving churches to give their last full measure of devotion, so to speak, when it comes to the military: veterans dressed in their military uniforms, veterans asked to stand while they are applauded, active duty military personnel recognized, the church building and grounds decorated with flags, the pledge to the flag recited, patriotic songs sung, hymns of worship to the state sung, prayers for the troops, thanks to the troops for “keeping us safe” and “defending our freedoms,” the songs of the different branches of the military played on the piano before the service or during the offering, a “Support Our Troops” message on the church sign, a video tribute to the military played during the Sunday morning church service, a special message by a military chaplain from the local base, and the glorification of the military in general. I have observed on more than one occasion that American Christians don’t seem to care how many wars their great troops are involved in, how senseless the wars, or how many lies the wars are based on. They don’t seem to care how many countries their beloved troops are in, how many foreign bases they are on, or how many billions the United States spends to maintain its empire of troops and bases around the globe. They don’t seem to care how many foreign civilians are killed by their glorious troops, how many are maimed and injured, or how many widows and orphans they create. It doesn’t seem to matter what their great troops do, where their beloved troops do it, and to whom their glorious troops do it.
This is no more apparent than in the writings of the theologically schizophrenic Michael Milton, whom I discovered and wrote about a year ago. Milton is the Chancellor, CEO, and The James M. Baird Jr. Chair of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Milton is also a Navy veteran, an Army Reserve chaplain, an instructor at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center & School in Fort Jackson, S.C., and a member of the American Legion, the Reserve Officers Association, and the U.S Army Chaplain Corps Regimental Association. And as I also pointed out last year, he holds to every armchair warrior, red-state fascist, reich-wing nationalist, imperial Christian fallacy known to man. “Veterans Day is a holy day, at least for me,” says Milton in an article for byFaith, the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America, “And I think that Christ is glorified, at least in my heart, when I hear the Navy hymn sung by voices that have been there, in the air, in the land, and on the sea.” In his article Milton reminiscences about being a young man and seeing a neighbor named Carl leaving for Vietnam. “I felt proud to see him go. He had his uniform on, having just returned from boot camp for a final few days of family time before being flown to Vietnam, and I was impressed,” says Milton, who “loved to see young men in our country’s uniforms” because it reminded him of his late father, a naval officer, who died when he was five. Milton never saw Carl alive again, but he did see the men in uniform emerge from the “white government car” a month later and tell Carl’s young wife that he had been killed in Vietnam. What made my blood boil was not that Carl died unnecessarily, duped, in vain, and for a lie, just like the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have done so in Iraq and Afghanistan, but – as senseless and as tragic as Carl’s death was – because of what Milton said about soldiers in recounting his Veterans Day custom: Each Sunday nearest Veterans Day, I would always take time in the announcements to read from Romans 13 about “showing honor unto whom honor was due.” I would ask our organist or pianist to play the service songs of each of the Armed Forces branches and for veterans to stand as they were played. I would ask them to stand for those who also served but did not come home. I always reminded them to play for the Merchant Marines, too. At the conclusion, as all were standing, I asked that we go to the Lord to pray for these and give thanks for all who would imitate Christ Jesus and serve and sacrifice so that we could be free.
Taking these last statements in reverse order – U.S. troops fighting in foreign wars are doing everything but defending our freedoms. The more they defend our freedoms – by bombing, invading, and occupying other countries – the more enemies of the United States they create and the more our real freedoms are taken away in the name of “fighting terrorism” and “national security.” Since I never “served,” don’t take my word for it; listen (here and here) to Army veteran and now president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, Jacob Hornberger, who has been arguing this very point for years. Something is always sacrificed for a reason and a purpose. An accidental death is not a sacrifice. An unnecessary death is not a sacrifice. A death in vain is not a sacrifice. A senseless death is not a sacrifice. A death that is not required is not a sacrifice. The thousands of U.S. soldiers who have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan did not sacrifice themselves for freedom or anything else. Their lives were wasted. They were wasted because their deaths were both pointless and preventable. Do U.S. soldiers perform any service that is honorable, necessary, and worthy of thanks? Do they defend the United States by securing its borders, guarding its shores, patrolling its coasts, or watching its skies? Fighting foreign wars is not serving. Bombing and destroying Iraq and Afghanistan is not serving. Killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans is not serving. Occupying countries is not serving. Playing golf on a U.S. military golf course while stationed in Japan is not serving. These are just ways of earning a paycheck for being part of the president’s personal attack force. Of course, the worst thing that Milton did was to say that soldiers imitate Christ. He went on to say this once more in his article: “Christ is the captain of our salvation, and we will serve our nation, our people, in some way, as a pale but earnest imitation of His life and death on Calvary’s cross.” U.S. soldiers don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Lord Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. Just because Christ died and soldiers die doesn’t mean that the two deaths are somehow related. Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. The American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t die for us, unless you mean the U.S. imperial presidency, U.S. hegemony, the U.S. empire, the U.S. military, the U.S. military-industrial complex, U.S. foreign policy, and the U.S. national security state. Do soldiers imitate Christ when they bomb and shoot, when they invade and occupy, when they plunder and pillage, or when they maim and kill? Rather than Veterans Day being, as Milton concludes, “a holy day when mortal men and women remind us of the service and sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” I think it is rather an unholy day when mortal men and women are wrongly exalted over the service and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.