The following is a sermon I preached on the eve of Memorial Day, May 28th, 2017 entitled “Remember Those in Prison.” It highlights some similar challenges faced by veterans returning from war and citizens returning from prison. Communities of faith can help ease the transition for both groups.
Psalm 34: 4-8
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all of my fears. Look to Him and be radiant; so your faces will never be ashamed. This poor soul cried and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in Him.
Hebrews 13: 1-3
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being tortured as though you yourself were being tortured.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as a veteran I am grateful for this opportunity to bring a message to you on the eve of Memorial Day, the annual commemoration to honor all those who have died in the service of our country.
My wife and I just returned from my 50th college reunion, the class of 1967. That was the year that the Vietnam war was ramping up, and guys graduating with me were facing the draft with dread. Many like me joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the infantry. I figured in the Navy I would be assigned to a ship, and wouldn’t have to touch foot in Vietnam. For many Navy enlistees that was so, but not for me. I ended up in the “brown water Navy,” living ashore with South Vietnamese sailors and their families, and all too often stepping into the bush to see what traces we could find of our enemy, the Viet Cong.
Hunting for human beings to kill them is nasty and scary business. It can do bad things to your nerves and your conscience. I arrived in “the Nam” in January of 1970. By April I was pretty well cooked. There were just four Americans at Coastal Group 34’s compound, and one day my other buddies went up river for supplies, leaving me alone to monitor the radio. In idle hours I did a lot of reading, partly for entertainment but also for consolation. I was seeking and questioning. In one of her paperbacks Catherine Marshall encouraged her readers to invite Jesus into their hearts. Don’t think anything will happen? Try it, she urged. What have you got to lose? She assured me that the helping spirit spoken of in John’s Gospel would come if I asked. So, I prayed, “Jesus, I don’t know if you’re for real, but if you are, I could sure use some help here!” Jesus did come, pronto! The spirit of Jesus filled my mind and heart, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. In fact, I felt great joy, joy and peace like I’d never known before. The words of this morning’s psalm tell what happened:
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all of my fears.
Look to Him and be radiant. . . .
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in Him.
Happy indeed! Fast forward now to January of ‘71. I made it home in one piece, but for almost fifty years I’ve been unpacking that year that changed my life. The journey hasn’t been all happy. Oh, for a few years I seemed to be doing O.K., getting through seminary, starting to raise a family, trying to forget my warrior past. But warriors find they can’t forget their past. You can’t move forward as a peacemaker unless you own the part of you that once bared its fangs.
It isn’t easy coming home from war. Your nervous system is wound tight! Your brain and body are programmed for self-protection. You’re on automatic pilot. The slightest provocation can set you off, and you can’t figure out where the anger’s coming from. It’s in your body, not just your mind. A warrior’s anger is pent up energy that kept him alive in the ‘Nam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, but it’s totally dysfunctional when he or she tries to come home and behave like a normal citizen.
For a long time our armed services have not realized that it takes time to transition from battle consciousness to civilian consciousness. Signing discharge papers may make you a civilian in the blink of an eye legally , but not existentially. To cross over from warring to peaceful conduct takes time. Going through a rite of passage also helps. Like the one practiced by Lakota warriors.
When Lakota Sioux got close to their villages after being on the war path they were not allowed to cross over right away. Villages tended to be built beside a stream, and the warriors needed to keep that stream between them and their families for a while, because they were still charged with explosive energy and they could be dangerous. Their spirits needed time to heal. First, they removed their war paint. Then they went through a cleansing ceremony for mind and body in a sweat lodge. Then, when their spirits were ready, they put on backpacks filled with heavy rocks and they crossed the stream into their villages. There, members of their families took out the rocks one by one and carried them into their teepees. These rocks symbolized the burdens of war. The people of their village were owning the warring they had done by taking the burdens off their backs and carrying them into their own dwellings. That doesn’t happen much in our society. Our warriors go off to fight for us, but as a nation we don’t own the things they did, killing for our sake. And so, they keep on carrying those burdens; and they can weigh mighty heavily on a conscience, sometimes heavy enough to make one want to die.
What kind of burdens, you may wonder. Well, burdens from having to do something in a contest for survival that makes your soul ache. Like killing a civilian who got in the way. Or having to shoot a child wielding a gun. Or failing to save a buddy. Or getting coordinates wrong and bombarding a buddy by mistake. Or surviving a firefight when a buddy to the right or left of you did not. Or –yes this happens sometimes –killing an enemy and recognizing as you stare at his body: that could just as easily be you lying there. So, you experience a strange compassion mixed with a faint dose of guilt that can swell inside over the years. Movies and video games portray killing as a heroic adventure , but when you get into the business of hunting and being hunted you may find it becomes banal and numbing; or else, intoxicating, because it summons a natural stimulant, adrenaline. I’ve known warriors hooked on adrenaline. Adrenaline is great for staying on high alert, which is what’s needed in a war zone. But what do you do to come down? When you get home you are expected to come down, chill out. Some warriors can’t. They’re still wound very tight. They can’t sleep, and that makes them grumpy and morose. They have nightmares, maybe even flashbacks. They try to calm down with booze. That affects their judgment. Drinking or drugging begins to make them very hard to live with. Marriages fail, relationships crumble. Under the influence, veterans sometimes do really stupid stuff, criminal even, and they get arrested and incarcerated.
This brings us to our key verse for this morning: “Remember those In prison, as though you were in prison with them.” This has become a mission statement for hundreds of prison ministries across our country. I belong to one, New Beginnings-Next Step, which welcomes former prisoners home. We meet on Saturday afternoons at the Friends Meeting House. We help returning citizens to find a job and housing, We help them to feed and clothe themselves. But maybe the most important thing we do is provide a place where it’s safe to be open and honest, and where you won’t be labeled weak for showing compassion.
Compassion abounds at New Beginnings-Next Step, and this is a blessing, for many hurts are shared there. Hurts of regret for mistakes made that cost years of separation from sons and daughters. Hurts from years of struggling for respect and self-respect. Hurts from addictions. Hurts from being poor in a society that prizes material riches.
I joined New Beginnings-Next Step about the time that I started another organization to help people coming home, the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup. As I sat with the returning citizens in New Beginnings-Next Step I was also reading about post traumatic stress in veterans. I began to realize that the two populations face similar challenges coming home.
One challenge they have in common is leaving a regimented culture where belonging was a given. Returning home, a soldier or returning citizen reenters a society where belonging is not a given, a society marked instead by radical individualism, one might even say, selfishness. Coming home to such a society, you need to work hard at belonging. It requires a deliberate self-investment.
A second challenge that returning citizens and returning veterans may share is controlling their anger. I haven’t done a scientific study, but I’ll bet that many returning citizens and soldiers were traumatized before they went to war or got involved in crime. Trauma is cumulative. Soldiers who were traumatized as children carry that burden with them into war; and then, making war heaps more trauma upon them. Being traumatized can make a person angry, because as I said before, anger is self-protective energy. If it is not expressed at the time of the trauma it gets stored in the body and the mind; and when the burden of accumulated anger gets too heavy to bear, a person can lose control, explode. Living with an out-of control angry person can be unbearable, so some returning citizens and some returning veterans have difficulty maintaining loving relationships.
Finally, here’s the last similarity I observed between returning citizens and returning veterans: Living in a dangerous environment can either numb you, or give you a full bodied experience of being alive! A returning citizen remarked that she mustn’t return to “the hood,” because old acquaintances there might suck her back into bad habits. However almost within the same breath she confessed that she missed the excitement of her old neighborhood, and the good feeling she had of belonging there. Likewise, listen to what Vietnam veteran Robert Jost writes as he remembers what it was like walking point, that is, being the guy in the platoon who marched in front of everyone else, and therefore was the most likely in the column to first come upon the enemy, an enemy perhaps lying in wait.
Out of a village gate at night
Past the bunkers, looks
Out on the narrow road
And sees the possibility
Of death. And he doesn’t care.
For the past months he hasn’t
Slept much and he scarcely feels.
He’s getting short, but there’s little
At home. He’s got few illusions.
“The World”: It’s hard,
There’s little compassion,
And they won’t understand. No,
Life is here. On point he can feel.
Fear and the threat of death
Exhilarate him. He’s been
Scarred and scared and numb
For months. But on point
He can really feel.
There’s people behind him
who depend on him
And he’s good and he cares,
Though he doesn’t know
Them well. He guesses it’s
Love and walks
Out that narrow road and
For one more night.
Remember those in prison. Why have I chosen that verse for the title of this sermon on the eve of Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have died in the service of our country? Because some veterans even after they come home are in prison. If not a prison made with bricks and stones, then a prison made of memories that won’t go away and won’t let them rest. Memories that may lead them to add their names to the list of war dead. Returning veterans and returning citizens have stories to tell. Sharing them helps warriors heal. In his poem, Jost says that folks back home won’t understand. They won’t have compassion. They don’t want to hear real war stories. That’s what he thinks. A lot of returning vets think that way. But the returning citizens in New Beginnings-Next Step will give you a different view. One said to the volunteer staff who mostly sit and listen, “We don’t know why you love us, but it’s clear you do. Thanks for being with us!”
From the outset the veterans in the Interfaith Veterans Workgroup decided to invite friends and family members of veterans to join us. Since our mission is to help veterans adjust to a civilian society, it makes sense to include non-veterans in our circle of listening. For too long veterans have kept the burdens of war on their own backs, thinking that they mustn’t divulge the things they have done or failed to do that plague their consciences. They probably think they’re protecting the innocent that way. They’re trying to protect the image that their loved ones had of them before they left for war. But, for the sake of wounded warriors and for the sake of their loved ones, this intention must be abandoned. The truth must be faced. Warrior wisdom must be shared. Otherwise the homeland will continue unenlightened and naive, ill equipped to bring veterans home.
Brothers and sisters , I want you to know that communities of faith are pretty much an untapped resource in helping veterans share their warrior wisdom in order to become teaching elders in a culture of peace. Sorely burdened veterans suffer from “moral injury.” Communities of faith are uniquely equipped to help veterans heal from moral injury. Sacred scriptures contain abundant resources for peacemaking. Communities of faith have rituals of forgiveness, and they can inspire and collaborate in service projects that give veterans an opportunity to create a different future. The past cannot be undone, true, but a different future can be shaped. The letter to the Hebrews admonishes us, “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them.” Church, I trust we are up to that challenge. Thanks be to that same spirit that visited me in 1970, a sacred advocate that is with us always.