November 21, 2011

Duke Hosts Discussion on Soldiers and the Church

Warren Kinghorn via Duke Divinity School

On October 25th, United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina offered a midday panel discussion entitled “Narrating War at Duke.” The event was hosted by Milites Christi, a new organization devoted to bringing a variety of disciplines together to address the problems of soldier suicide and substance abuse. “Narrating War” provided a refreshing balance of views, even with renowned pacifist and Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas on the panel.

“Narrating War” featured four speakers, the first of whom was Warren Kinghorn. A staff psychiatrist at the Durham VA Medical Center, Kinghorn also works as professor of psychiatry and moral theology at Duke Medical and Divinity Schools. “The church and divinity school need veterans in our midst,” he said, “[They bring] a perspective we’re not comfortable with.” Seminarians sheltered within the safe walls of the academy cannot simply ignore the “raw experience” of veterans, deluding themselves about the world’s harsh realities. Kinghorn remarked that in classrooms dominated by universalism and sunny views of human nature, it is former soldiers who argue, “Satan rules this world. Christ alone can redeem. Man is fallen, depraved, and selfish.” The professor also condemned progressives for their perfunctory yet inauthentic praise for veterans. “Honoring soldiers without candor isn’t worth it,” he observed, “It’s called assuaging liberal guilt.”

Next, Hauerwas weighed in. A professor with joint appointments at Duke Divinity and Duke University School of Law, Hauerwas censured fellow pacifists for “blaming people who go to war.” He clarified, “We’re all culpable for the continuation of war.” An outspoken pacifist, Hauerwas nevertheless claimed, “I’ve tried increasingly to think with warriors.” From his reflections he gleaned, “The greatest sacrifice we ask of soldiers is not to lay down their life. The greatest sacrifice we ask of people that go to war is the sacrifice that they give up their normal unwillingness to kill…That makes war an extraordinarily moral experience.” The theologian also elaborated on the “beauty of destructiveness,” where “you cannot turn yourself away from it.” “That’s why war is more powerful than Christianity today,” he argued.

Andrew Bell, a 3rd year Ph.D. student, seemed less hesitant towards war. A former Air Force intelligence officer, president of Duke Vets, and a major in the air force, Bell admitted that war can “put your moral development in jeopardy…After a while, you stop seeing people as people, but people as targets.” On the other hand, he still thought that soldiers and their commanders could make wise, careful ethical choices.

Following Bell was a very different sort of veteran. Logan Mehl-Laituri, a Master of Theological Studies student, had been in the U.S. Army scheduled for Iraq deployment. But his request for noncombatant status as a conscientious objector prompted is discharge.  He is co-founder of Centurion’s Guild, a pacifist group, and he is outspoken in denouncing U.S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, at Duke he did not expound a screed against war and bloodthirsty political leaders. Instead, he observed that in 2009 and 2010, “more soldiers have fallen on their own sword than have fallen to the sword.”

“This has a great relevancy to the church,” Mehl-Laituri declared, “There seems to be a general malaise.” Like Hauerwas, Mehl-Laituri despised the “inconsiderate comments” of his fellow pacifists. He thought too many think “every soldier is motivated by bloodlust.” He encouraged his fellow theological students to “make spaces that welcome something like confession” in “ways that don’t harm [a soldier’s] moral and mental health.” In conclusion, he asserted, “The wrong thing is to venerate…or villainize our service people.”

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