One of the things I love most about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City are the casts of characters who congregate there. The crowd that came together on Wednesday night, May 30, to watch The War Tapes and discuss it afterwards, included a wide variety of vets, joined by activists, clergy, and some curious folk from the Cathedral community.
I attended with my friend, Isaac Everett. Both of us could be categorized under "military families;" my brother is serving his second tour in Iraq as an Army medic and Isaac's brother is also in Baghdad for his second year, following a previous deployment to Afghanistan.
Thinking back to my brother's mass e-mails home, plus stories and pictures from the media, the movie resonated as a sort of "every soldier" story told through the camera work and individual tales of three National Guardsmen from New Hampshire who served in Iraq in 2004: Specialist Michael Moriarty, Sgt. Steven Pink and Sgt. Zack Bazzi.
Director Deborah Scranton wove amateur footage into a film that won Best Documentary at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York and was called "the single best document (book, film or article) you could see" on the war in Iraq by New York Times' Baghdad bureau chief, John Fisher Burns.
I was stirred by the documentary and shaken by some of the conversation that followed. Veteran Rob Timmins, field and outreach director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, reported that 1.7 million U.S. troops have cycled through Iraq and Afghanistan, many doing multiple tours.
In The War Tapes, Bazzi says he loves to be a soldier, but that "you don't get to pick your war." There was some consensus in the movie and the room afterwards that this was a sad war with too much contractor profiteering.
A woman brought up the Passover question, "why is this night different than all other nights?" and asked why this war was different from any other war. One answer is higher rates of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Another is the divide between soldiers and civilians in this country. Our soldiers go through so much, yet Timmins brought up that there is little national sacrifice for this war. No rationing. No draft. Many civilians live as if no war were going on.
One exceptional group of characters in the room were members of the Granny Peace Brigade. These grannies tried to enlist so their grandchildren wouldn't have to, but ended up getting arrested. A couple of them wore boldly decorated black shirts proclaiming "we will not be silent."
As we sat together, I wanted to ask where to find a spiritual or religious response to the reality that we're in this war. Beyond policies or politics, activism or artistic expressions, what are we -- who reside and find our gifts in the realm of religion -- called to do? How can we pull heaven down into the midst of this mess or harrow the fallen out of hell?
Lately, I have been wondering what we might be able to learn from veteran saints who have made major contributions to Christianity. Peaceful St. Francis of Assisi was captured in the Crusades before becoming a fool for Christ. Other soldiers turned monks include St. Martin of Tours and Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Jesuits). Then there are the heavenly fighters like Joan of Arc, Archangel Michael, and George, who slew the dragon. I would also include Florence Nightingale, who served as a nurse in the Crimean War.
Fresh models for faithful responses to this war may come from the 55 Episcopal chaplains who have served alongside those "in harm's way" since 2001. The Granny Peace Brigade is another inspiration, through their innovative and collective courage.
War takes lives, but most soldiers do come home again. Many will bear physical and psychological wounds, but also deep reserves of strength. Being a soldier teaches humans how to live together in community, how to step up for someone else, how to lead, how to serve, and how to live minimally... skills that translate into good monastic and Christian characteristics.
I wonder which characters that have been to the "theater" (as military personnel call the location of war) will show us how to respond to the crisis of this world as better Christians. And what new solutions are yet to be found in the examples of saints who have walked this way before.