The United States celebrates today the sacrifice and commitment of those women and men who have served in the armed services over the years. It is a day when we express our gratitude for their willingness to do the difficult job of defending a country, acting as mediators or peacekeepers in conflicts and aiding the citizens of this nation in times of natural disaster or civil unrest. They deserve our prayers and praise, especially because so many veterans, until recent decades, had entered military service not because of their own choosing, but simply because their draft number was picked. So many of these formerly young men (drafting 18+ men, but there were also women that served during that time) were inexorably changed by the tragedy that is war; by the suffering that is violence.
The son and grandson of a veteran, I remember my family and the millions of other families that have been affected by military service. Today I offer a prayer of thanks for the service these soldiers, sailors and airmen (and airwomen) have given, whether conscripted or voluntary. I pray especially for the safety of those who continue to find themselves in the heart of violence and war. I pray for an end to all conflict.
A day like Veteran’s Day causes me to also pause and reflect, not just on the valiant service of some of this country’s citizens, but also on the more systemic and historical causes and consequences of violence in our world. It is no secret that I consider myself a strong proponent of Christian nonviolence, which to me sounds like a redundant, but necessarily descriptive, term. When thinking of the women and men who serve in the military, I often think about the conditions that lead to the situations that threaten their lives. Those conditions, as Thomas Merton keenly outlines in New Seeds of Contemplation and elsewhere, arise from fear. Merton writes:
At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men [and women] have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.
And this reminds me of today’s first reading from the (all-too-often overlooked) Book of Wisdom. It poetically describes the experience of humanity, intelligent as it is, living in a world, looking at all of creation and living day-by-day without recognizing the Creator who remains so very near to us. Humanity, the Book of Wisdom tells us, misses the mark. Humanity misses the point. Humanity misses God.
All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God,
and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is,
and from studying the works did not discern the artisan…
For they indeed have gone astray perhaps,
though they seek God and wish to find him.
For they search busily among his works,
but are distracted by what they see,
because the things seen are fair.
But again, not even these are pardonable.
For if they so far succeeded in knowledge
that they could speculate about the world,
how did they not more quickly find its Lord? (Wisdom 13: 1-2, 7-9)
Indeed, how foolish are we? We lash out at one another, nation against nation, person against person, because we neither know Wisdom nor trust in God. More often than not, human beings — even professed ‘believers’ — act as practical atheists, not recognizing God in our midst and in our lives nor trusting in the same God. We choose to trust only in ourselves and so we resort to violence.
Where is the Wisdom?
The Franciscan tradition poignantly redirects our gaze to creation, scripture and Christ as the threefold presence of the Word of God, of Wisdom. The reason Francis of Assisi, I believe, was so adamant about nonviolence has to do with how in-tune he was with what the Book of Wisdom describes in our reading today — he looked around the world and in his life and he recognized God! Following Thomas Merton’s point on war, Francis did not fear and because he believed, really believed, he could live nonviolently among all of Creation.
May the fear that is the root of war be overcome by our increased recognition of God who is intimately close to us. May God grant us Peace.
UPDATE: I was reminded via a Tweet that St. Francis was also a veteran, which is 100% correct. It slipped my mind while writing this reflection and I am grateful for the reminder (h/t to Don Watkins). This aspect of Francis’s early life is highlighted well by Paul Moses in his book The Saint and the Sultan (Doubleday). Moses makes the point that his early military service, witnessing the atrocities of war, helped inform his peaceable outlook on life.