Christians can be among the most clueless people regarding how their language and theological prejudices negatively impact others and harm their own witness regarding their professed devotion and love of Jesus the Christ. Sadly much of what they spout is neither scriptural or has any roots in reason or church tradition. Instead it is a product of their own prejudice and uncomfortableness with those who express doubt that they have learned from very popular, yet extremely ignorant and often hateful political ideologues who masquerade as preachers in mega-churches, on television, radio or the internet.
There are many Christians, particularly conservative Evangelicals and Charismatics who are fine people, men and women of integrity who I can honestly say love God and try serve God and also to care for his people. That being said many of these same people in their attempts to help others; especially those dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and faith crisis’s do more far damage and harm than good. This is because they are unaware of their prejudices that they learn in church and how wrong their preachers are about such subjects, but still presume that what they have learned trumps other people’s experience. Yes this is a generalization, but there is much truth in it.
Those who read this site regularly and know something about me know that I am a Navy Chaplain, a Priest in an Old Catholic denomination and have been in the military over 30 years including a tour in Iraq and one at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom. You also know that I am very transparent about my struggle with PTSD as well as faith following my return from Iraq in 2008. According to many I am now a “liberal” which for some is even worse than being an “unbeliever.”
Being transparent about this difficult because it involves risk and as a person who is extremely introverted to begin with I am a very private person and eschew risk. I can understand why people who struggle with different parts of themselves that are unpopular or stigmatized by people in “normal” society feel, especially in the church. However in 2009 in consultation with my first therapist I decided to in a sense “come out of the closet” in regards to PTSD, moral injury, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and mental illness in general; as well as my struggle to dealing with faith and God. All of those things are fraught with danger in a military society where the stigma regarding all of these things is all too real and all to prevalent in the military. But I digress…
Stigma is difficult and I deal with it all the time. What I represent by being so transparent, especially to Christians who have an absolute need for certitude in their lives is a topic that they don’t want to face. PTSD and other mental illness is a subject that scares many people. For some religious people, not just Christians, it forces them to retreat into the certitude of a Fundamentalist theology that blames the victim rather than to face reality of the issue, and the uncomfortable truth that it could happen to them.
Of course when your theology is that of “Job’s comforters” the only way to deal with such subjects is to retreat to that certitude. Admitting the truth would be something that would shred their faith and maybe even destroy their belief structure, thus to keep that certitude the experiences and faith of others which are different must be dismissed, confronted or shown to be wrong so the offending individual can repent and turn back to God.
Last week I had an officer come up to me after a ceremony and begin to tell me that “God sent him to our school” and he was there “not to learn what we teach” regarding what he as a relatively senior and up and coming officer is there to learn, but “to do the Father’s business.” For those that don’t understand this him that business meant that he had to tell me that God didn’t send him here to learn what he was sent to learn but to bring me back to the right way of thinking and belief.
I have no doubt of the man’s sincerity, but sometimes sincere people scare the hell out of me. I understand why Eric Hoffer wrote these words about “true believers”:
“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”
It has been my experience that such people are more inclined to want to tell you what to do rather than listening. This man began to tell me about his “testimony” that though he “didn’t have PTSD that he had a right to have it” and that “God wanted to take my “garbage” from me…but I kept taking it back.”
It took me the night to sleep on it before I realized the full implications of this man’s words.
Though I have heard this kind of talk for decades growing up in evangelical and charismatic Christian circles what this man said to me stunned me. I don’t expect educated professionals to make those kind of comments. However, religious fundamentalism, be it Christian, Jewish, Moslem or whatever can make educated professionals as fanatical and even as bloodthirsty as unlearned oafs. Please note that many of the top leaders of the Islamic State are educated professionals with highly technical backgrounds. Being educated does not mean that you cannot allow your religion to turn you into a sociopathic killer.
Let me just share my thoughts on his words. First there was the comment that he “was not at our Staff College to learn what we taught” but rather “to do his Father’s will.” I am sorry, I cannot accept such logic from either a Christian or a military professional perspective. First from the Christian perspective we have multiple responsibilities in our lives, faith should inform us. At the same time if a person is a Christian but also an officer, he or she is also an agent of the state who has sworn an oath to the Constitution.
The more that I thought about this man’s words, that he wasn’t at our college to learn, but to “do his Father’s will” I got more angry. He said that he wants to talk to me about my stuff next week but I think that I will have to tell him that if he is not here to learn that he should resign his commission. If he is not learning and does not care to learn then it is a waste of the taxpayer money and an abuse of his office and I am going to tell him that, and I may even inform the senior officer of his service on our faculty of his comments. Of course I cannot divulge his name or anything about him, but maybe the senior officer of that service can fire “warning shot” across the bow of all of the students from his service. But that comment angered me, it was arrogant and if I have any Christian concept of our responsibilities to God as well as our responsibilities to the citizens of our country who employ us.
The second thing that bothered me was that he insinuated that “though he did not have PTSD that he had a right to have it.” First, if he does not have it he is lucky and should be thanking God and not judging others. Second, if he does not have it he doesn’t have any right to have it. That statement is arrogant and presumptive and it totally devalues and dehumanizes the suffering of the person who would rather not be dealing with it. It would like someone telling a person with cancer that “though they don’t have cancer that they have a right to it.” I’m sorry, that would be reprehensible, just as this man’s words were to me. No one who does not have a disease or illness does not have a right to it.
But that’s the difference for the fanatic. Mental illness is not the same as physical illness. I cannot imagine this man telling me what he said if I had an illness like cancer, but I could be wrong because I have heard Christians, especially charismatics and Pentecostals say similar things to those with cancer or other terminal illnesses. The attitude is hateful, arrogant and so against what Jesus would do in a similar situation based on the words of scripture.
The last thing was that the man told me that “I kept taking my garbage back from God.” That devalued my experience, my suffering and my struggle to still believe even when I couldn’t believe. The fact is that I have heard this metaphor so many times that it is not even funny. What the illustration says in so many words is that if we suffer and God does not grant relief or healing that it is our fault, and we are guilty of keeping our garbage, even though God wants it.
Sorry that is bullshit of the worst degree. That metaphor is not even in scripture and I cannot even recall any of the Church Fathers who made such a statement. If we believe in God at all, and have faith to believe that in spite of trails, tribulations and suffering that God still loves and cares for us, that God has not abandoned us even when we feel that he has abandoned us that to say what this man said is outright blaspheme.
As you can understand from what I have said here, I am angry about this on a number of levels. I hope that this officer comes to see me this week because while I will be pastoral to him and care for him, I will not mince words. Unless he cares about his commission and duties as an officer then he better be at the Staff College to learn If he is not he should resign his commission and become a missionary. He is wasting taxpayer money and pissing on his oath of office and I am going to tell him that.
Second, I am going to tell him that if he doesn’t have PTSD that he doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about and he has no “rights to it.” I am going to tell him that if he says those words to the people who serve under him who do have it that he is misusing his office. I know far too many soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who suffer the very real effects of PTSD, who suffer the discrimination and stigma that comes with it to have some “Christian” senior officer tell them that their suffering is “their problem” because they “took their garbage back from God.”
The whole thing was offensive, and last night I had a terrible time sleeping and this morning woke up suffering a lot of anxiety. On the way home from a visit to the local Navy Exchange I told Judy that I felt anxious and couldn’t put my finger on the reason why. Now I know, I was really bothered by what this officer said and it was much more disturbing than I had initially thought, because it is more than about me.
Now here is the bigger issue for me. It is a societal and policy issue. Chaplains are in the military to facilitate the free exercise of religion for all those in the military. We are not to proselytize and are to either perform or provide for the religious rights of all assigned to the units that we serve. I do that, and have done it for over 22 years as a chaplain in the Army and the Navy, honoring and caring for the religious needs of people across the spectrum.
But here’s the deal, thanks to the Christian right there are a host of fanatical Christians, mostly lay people who serve as officers and NCOs who have no concern for the rights of others, even the Chaplains who are there to make sure that they get what they need. Instead they are there not to serve the country but on their own religious mission paid for by tax payers and this is being promoted by many leaders of the American Religious Right, including James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schafly, the leaders of American Family Association and Family Research Council including Jerry Boykin, Tony Perkins and Bryan Fischer, not to mention the corporate leaders of the big and politically mega-churches.
Can you imagine if Moslems in the military were to say that they in the military to serve “Allah” first what the same Christians who say that they are in the military to “do the Father’s will” would say? They would be apoplectic and protest how Moslems were trying to use the military to take over the government. But isn’t that what they are trying to do? As retired Army Lieutenant General and religious right activist Jerry Boykin said: “The military is the most respected institution in America. So if you want to change the rest of society, you have to target the military.”
As the late Dr. D. James Kennedy said before his death: “As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government… our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors—in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”
Personally I cannot see how this is different from the the statements and actions of those of militant Islamic leaders of Al Qaida and the Islamic State. But then my presence and my transparency must be a threat. I’m pretty sure that this officer when he comes to share his “testimony” will further attempt to devalue my faith and experience. In fact I believe that this man is not so much driven by God but rather by his own doubts, fears and uncertainty about his own faith which is threatened by my words. Truthfully I have seen this far too often. People who must have absolute certitude in their own life who are threatened by those that express doubts. I felt that almost immediately when this man told me these things.
The stage is set, but I don’t plan on becoming a notch in his Bible and I am going to tell him straight up I believe that his theology is flawed and that I believe him telling things like this to me, or anyone else suffering PTSD is an abuse of his office. I also will ask him if he is sure that this is God, or if it is not his own fears hat he is expressing; and finally I will tell him that if his purpose at this highly selective level of military education is not to learn what we are teaching in order to serve as an officer, that he should immediately submit his resignation and retire from the military.
Why will I do this? Because simply I care about my country and my faith more than I do my career. I’ve been in the military a long time, well over half of my life, and frankly encounters like this are getting old.
Pray for me a sinner, because I will need it.