Over the past decade or so I have witnessed some disturbing trends at church. One would have thought that our Lord Jesus Christ had, himself, worn a government-issued uniform, given how much reverence, gratitude, and appreciation we are led to collectively express for these folks during Mass. At first, it was a weekly prayer “for the troops,” which is fine. There is no human being, alive or dead, who doesn’t need prayers.
However, we never prayed for the innocent civilians in the countries Americans had invaded, who were killed, maimed, and tortured in far greater numbers than Americans.
We never prayed for the loved ones they left behind, the widows, the orphans.
We never prayed for the refugees.
We never prayed for our enemies.
The secular state holidays have become occasion for military remembrance and honorary tribute. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the church bulletin includes a message of thanks to veterans for protecting Americans’ freedom, which sends the message to churchgoers that American “wars” abroad have something to do with the Bill of Rights here at home, and the wars are therefore necessary and just (a dubious notion at best). At some point, militarism began to invade Christmas with camouflaged Christmas ornaments and patriotic displays upstaging the Eucharist.
In the last year, the Catholic Church has expanded its prayers to allow more folks in uniforms to get in on the prayer action. In addition to (or in lieu of) praying for military servicemen and women, Catholic Churches are now offering weekly prayers on Sundays for all “first responders.” One wonders how this became a national “thing.” (I have heard it in several states). It seems to mesh nicely with the overall message in the mass media that we are all on the brink of ruin all the time, threatened by an inexhaustible number of enemies and looming crises, and should live in fear and trembling awaiting the next crash, attack, disaster, or pandemic; thus we owe an infinite debt of gratitude to those who offer us safety, order, and protection in such a precarious and nefarious world. (Hm. Who benefits when we have a nation of nervous Nellie’s?)
Things seem to have reached a new threshold with American Sniper. We now have American priests coming right out and saying things in the media like: “Chris Kyle was an American hero.”
The primary concern of the Church is the salvation of souls. Christians are concerned with holiness, not heroism. Whether Chris Kyle was an American hero is a secular idea and a moot point, and a strange pronouncement for a priest to make, unless that priest is willing to ask the questions that naturally follow: Does heroism lead to holiness? Do heroes go to heaven? Before you write me an email vilifying me as a “liberal” who “hates” soldiers for asking these questions, let me say: I do not know if “heroes” go to heaven. Nobody knows. Only God can judge the human heart. What I’m saying is: it is dangerous to pretend that they automatically do. It’s also dangerous to pretend that the question I am asking is, itself, a moot point.
When churches and religious leaders constantly adore, praise and worship those who wear uniforms, carry guns, and embody secular ideas of heroism, it leads to misunderstanding and moral confusion among the faithful. People begin to equate this image of heroism with holiness, especially children. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a look at www.nogreaterloveart.com, where uniformed government agents are depicted with angels’ wings, angels of course being spiritual beings who are known for their ability to guard and protect. All you have to do is look at the “Soldier’s Stairway to Heaven,” very popular on Pinterest, or license plates and t-shirts that quote John 15:13 and hold up the service of the soldier as being second only to the “service” of Jesus. There is an idea that if you have fought in a war, you have “served your time in hell”; soldiers therefore go straight to heaven. But is such an idea spiritually and theologically acceptable? Does God offer bypasses?
Heroism and holiness have many things in common: They both require strength, courage, devotion, fortitude, self-sacrifice. But all of those qualities could be attributed to people fighting for ISIS just as well, even faith. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” There is no holiness without renunciation; that does not mean that every act of renunciation leads to holiness. The way of perfection requires hardship; not all hardship helps us on our way to perfection. In short, not all suffering is redemptive.
It is easy to look at someone like Chris Kyle, who believed he was doing the right thing, and to see him struggling with what he believed was his duty, to see him suffering because of it, and to believe that this means he must have been fighting the good fight. But not every spiritual battle necessarily involves “the spiritual progress that tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ,” or in other words holiness. Chris Kyle surely had a conscience, but a struggle with the conscience only shows that you have a conscience; it is no proof that you end up coming to the right conclusions or doing the right thing. While priests like Fr. Trigilio can confidently assure us that men like Chris Kyle are American heroes, there is good reason to suspect that many of these “heroes,” despite their suffering, self-sacrifice, service to country, and good intentions, lose the spiritual battle, as evidenced in the depressing number of veteran suicides. How can we look at those numbers and not see that something is very wrong here? Look at the way Chris Kyle died. Obviously, our idea of heroism is very flawed if it can lead to so much despair, but I don’t expect to see Matthew 26:52 showing up on a lot of t-shirts and license plates any time soon.
Holiness never leads to despair; it leads to peace and joy. It leads to the kingdom of heaven. Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska wrote in her diary: “Pure love never errs. Its light is strangely plentiful…It is happy when it can empty itself and burn like a pure offering. The more it gives of itself, the happier it is.” If the service of the soldier were a pure form of love, the kind of love of which there is “no greater love,” then wouldn’t multiple tours of duty just make soldiers happier and happier? I saw American Sniper. I’ve seen a lot of Iraq and Afghanistan war documentaries. This doesn’t seem to be the case.
It is important to understand the differences between secular ideas of heroism and religious ideas of holiness, lest we be led astray by sentimental notions and superficial understandings or, worse, lest we begin to call evil good. The thing about virtue is that, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis: Every vice has a trace of virtue in it, while virtues are entirely devoid of vice. One problem with praising the secular idea of heroism in church is that we cherry pick virtues that we like to see in “heroes,” but we fail to take into account the bigger picture of holiness to which every Christian is called; there is a risk that we might only be identifying the traces of virtue in a larger sea of vice. Chris Kyle was a strong, courageous, and confident man, who felt very justified in killing all of those people in American wars and said he was ready to meet his maker, that he was sure God wouldn’t count any of those kills against him as sins. But self-assurance is not a virtue; the morality of an act does not increase along with our level of personal comfort. If there is one thing that stands out in the writing of the saints, it is a profound and troubling knowledge of their own sinfulness. Along with holiness comes a greater sensitivity to the will of God and a greater awareness of sin. Even the smallest offenses against God caused the saints great agony and pain, and I mean the smallest offenses. The only thing they are as assured of as their own sinfulness is God’s infinite mercy. Does heroism likewise lead to a greater sensitivity to the will of God and a greater awareness of one’s own sinfulness?
There are particular mortal sins that are so evil that they are said to be sins that “cry to heaven for vengeance.” Murder (Gn 4:10) is one of them. There are mortal sins that harden a soul by its rejection of the Holy Spirit: They are despair, presumption, envy, obstinacy in sin, final impenitence, and deliberate resistance to the known truth. Perhaps Kyle’s 160 “kills” are signs of courage and fortitude, or maybe they are a sign of something else. Maybe American Sniper shows us what happens when the heart and the soul are hardened. Maybe it shows us that “sin creates proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt concrete judgement of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself…Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and cause concupiscence, violence and injustice to reign among them” (CCC 1864-1868). Is there a better description for what happens in war? Maybe Chris Kyle was courageous, or maybe he was just obstinate. Maybe his self-assurance stemmed from a deep awareness of the will of God, or maybe he was just presumptuous. Maybe he wanted to protect America, or maybe he was driven by a desire to avenge the deaths of his comrades. Again, I don’t know. But neither does Fr. Trigilio. God only knows.
The one religious holiday that seems impervious to encroachment by celebration-of-all-things-military is Easter. There is just no way one can glamorize the soldier or equate military service with heroism after meditating on the Stations of the Cross. I gathered some images that show the soldiers in the story of the Passion of Christ as portrayed in various works of art. Not very heroic. Looking at these images, one can’t help but be reminded that the spirit at work in these soldiers was not the spirit of God but the spirit of Satan. It is a very different spirit. They have nothing, absolutely nothing in common. Each one is recognizable for what it is.
The religious leaders hated Jesus, but they turned to the power of the state. It was the Roman soldiers that carried out the act of crucifixion. I’m not saying the soldiers bear sole responsibility, but what is so frightening is that these soldiers, presumably, had no personal animosity towards Jesus nor any cause to hate him (as the religious leaders did)—and still, what cruelty they were capable of! The physical torture they subjected Jesus to, which was required to carry out the orders and enforce the punishment, which almost everyone seemed to believe was “necessary” for “justice,” was bad enough, but what do we make of their mocking and humiliating Jesus, something that was not required, not ordered, and definitely not necessary? It betrays a deeper, more sinister evil, a meanness that did not grow from outrage over the “enemy’s” supposed “savagery” or transgressions; it was a meanness seemingly already there in their hearts, just waiting for a chance to expend itself, to be loosed. The crowd who cried “Crucify him! Crucify him!” gave them that chance.
In the painting entitled “Christ with Mocking Soldier” by Carl Bloch (1834-1890), the character of the soldier is depicted as practically drooling with hatred. This is no reticent and regretful man shamefully escorting a harmless innocent to his death for fear of disobeying orders. This is a mean man, a shorter man, an older man, weaker in both body and spirit than Jesus, but he happens to have a certain kind of power: the power of the state, which is the power of this world, which is the power of violence, which is a kind of power that Christ refused and told his Apostles to renounce (“Put down thy sword”). The soldier relishes it. In the painting we see a certain spirit at work.
This same spirit we see in the terrible images from Abu Ghraib, where soldiers are torturing and humiliating prisoners and giving thumbs up next to the bodies of their victims. Lest we think these were only isolated incidents carried out by a few bad apples, there are over 2,000 additional photographs that government has tried to keep classified. See: Stanford Prison experiment. These things happen. All the time. I remember the soldiers in Afghanistan who were photographed urinating on the bodies of dead Afghanis, and the soldiers who were cutting off ears and fingers and keeping them as trophies. Retired Cpl. Robert Richards was one of the Marines in the infamous video with the dead bodies. There is a video of him explaining his controversial actions: “I want to say you’re not killing human beings and I still don’t look at them as human beings. I never will. You don’t feel any empathy or remorse for them…At the time it meant nothing. It was just funny.”
The soldier is not a very powerful person, not as powerful as a Herod or a Hitler, but he is willing to take a piece of the power pie, to use the power of this world – the power of weapons and violence – on behalf of the state against an enemy of the state. It would take a very holy person not to be corrupted by that worldly power. There are three enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Rape has always been used as a weapon of war, a tool to punish and subdue the conquered, but the American military is now dealing with a very high incidence of rape within its own ranks; American servicemen are raping American servicewomen and even other men in very high numbers. Rape is not about sex but about power. All of this betrays a certain spirit at work.
Power corrupts. Only the holiest of people can resist the temptations that come with power, which is why holy people usually don’t want anything to do with it. They, like Jesus, prefer to be with the powerless, not the powerful. Most people enjoy power and are corrupted by it by varying degrees, especially in groups. The conscientious objector is almost always a loner. The conscientious objector is rare.
Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hirsh recently traveled back to My Lai and wrote a book about it. In an interview with Democracy Now!, he retold the story of what happened that day:
“They went in in the morning, a group of boys… they got up thinking they were going to be in combat against the Viet Cong. They were happy to do it. Charlie Company had lost 20 people through snipers, etc. They wanted payback. … They landed. There were just nothing but women and children doing the usual, as you said in your intro—cooking, warming up rice for breakfast—and they began to put them in ditches and start executing them.
Calley’s company—Calley had a platoon. There were three platoons that went in. They rounded up people and put them in a ditch.…
The other companies just went along, didn’t gather people, just went from house to house and killed and raped and mutilated, and had just went on until everybody was either run away or killed. Four hundred and some-odd people in that village alone, of the 500 or 600 people who lived there, were murdered that day, all by noon, 1:00. At one point, one helicopter pilot, a wonderful man named Thompson, saw what was going on and actually landed his helicopter. He was a small combat—had two gunners. He just landed his small helicopter, and he ordered his gunners to train their weapons on Lieutenant Calley and other Americans. And Calley was in the process of—apparently going to throw hand grenades into a ditch where there were 10 or so Vietnamese civilians. And he put his guns on Calley and took the civilians, made a couple trips and took them out, flew them out to safety. He, of course, was immediately in trouble for doing that.”
There are those who are always eager assure us that these kinds of episodes are isolated incidents sensationalized by the media. In his book Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse explains that rather than being exceptional, violence against Vietnamese noncombatants was systemic and pervasive. Rev. Walter H. Hannoran was the priest that took part in the exorcism that spawned the book and film The Exorcist. He also received two Bronze Stars for serving as a paratrooper chaplain during the Vietnam War. I read once that he said something along the lines of: “I saw more evil in Vietnam than I ever saw in that boy’s bedroom.” If most soldiers are good, and war is hell, which is a place filled with evil, then why is the conscientious objector so rare? Why are guys like Thompson the exception, not the rule?
I am not saying that soldiers are solely responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ or the evils of war. I am not saying that soldiers are especially malicious or evil human beings. I am not saying that soldiers are going to hell or that if I were in their shoes, in the heat of war, I would be able to resist the collective pressures or see my way through the moral madness. I might not be able to see straight at all. I am merely saying that we learn something about – not the strength – but the weakness of human nature in the story of the Passion by looking at the soldiers, and therefore we learn something about being a soldier because soldiers are human.
It’s not entirely about the soldiers of course. In the painting “Christ With Mocking Soldier,” Christ does not look accusingly at his military tormentor. He stands with eyes cast in the direction of the beholder: We, the beholders, are implicated.
Christians are all called to holiness. We are all called to be saints. While it is not impossible for heroism to coincide with holiness, there is evidence to suggest that military service is not the best path to sainthood, that the “heroic” participation in the hell of war is not a very safe path to heaven. This notion I’ve gathered from reading about the lives of the saints. It is worthwhile to study the lives of the saints. Catholics, at least, believe that they are unquestionably in heaven with God. If we try to emulate Jesus and the saints, the idea is, we might have a chance of getting there too. If we try to emulate secular heroes, I think it’s a crap shoot.
(The military enthusiast will surely point out the story in the Gospels when Jesus praised the centurion, and will ask, “If Jesus had such a problem with soldiers, why would he praise the centurion?” I am not suggesting that Jesus had a problem with anyone—soldiers, prostitutes, tax collectors, women, men, Gentiles or Jews. But it is interesting that those who serve their country in the military pride themselves on their willingness to use violence to defend others, but it was not this “heroic” quality that Jesus praised in the soldier: He praised the centurion for his faith, for recognizing that just as he told others what to do and they were expected to obey, he, too, was expected to obey a higher authority. Jesus did not thank the centurion for his service. He did not praise his willingness to lay down his life for his friends.)
There are many saints who served in the military, but when reading about their lives, it is hard not to notice a pattern: many of them, as they experienced “the spiritual progress that tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ,” felt it necessary to put down their swords and leave the military. Here are just a few examples: St. Martin of Tours, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Bl. Charles de Foucauld, St. Cadoc, St. lltyd, St. Menas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Paul of the Cross, and St. Marcellus of Tangier. In reading about the lives of the saints, I have yet to encounter even one (let me know if you know of one) who lived after the year 1300 A.D. who, as he or she experienced “the spiritual progress that tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ,” felt it necessary to pick up a sword and join the military. (I’m talking about soldiers, not chaplains or medics). It usually seems to go the other way. Does this pattern not tell us something?
The apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima involved three secrets. In the Third Secret, soldiers play a role: Their role is not heroic. In the story of the Passion, their role is not heroic. Perhaps all of those images of soldiers and first responders with angels’ wings are more appropriate than I initially thought. St. Gregory wrote about the word angel, “nomen est officii, non naturæ”—or “the designation of an office, not of a nature.” Angels are not necessarily angelic, or good. The devil too has angels. Lucifer, himself, is a fallen angel.
We must keep in mind that the word “soldier” is, likewise, the designation of an office, not of a nature. If this essay has any point, that’s it. The word “hero” is a designation of a nature, not an office. We mustn’t confuse or conflate the two. Soldiers can be examples of profound human weakness; perhaps we need to allow ourselves to see that.
No matter their office, Christians must strive for a kind of heroism that can also be deemed holy. We have a picture of that in Jesus, who healed Malchus’ ear, who showed mercy to his enemies, who prayed for those who persecuted him, who renounced the powers of this world, who served only God, who laid down his life not just for his friends, his comrades, his family, or his country, but for everyone, for truth, for you, for me, and yes, for them. In the painting “Christ With Mocking Soldier,” Jesus does not repay evil with evil, threats with threats, violence with violence. No. Christ stands with eyes cast in the direction of the beholder—Behold the Lamb!
(There is one more soldier in the story of the Passion of Christ. It is the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus while He was hanging on the Cross, after He had died. Story goes that the soldier was nearly blind. He was healed when some of the blood and water from Jesus fell into his eyes. It is this soldier who exclaimed, “Indeed, this was the Son of God!” [Mark 15:39]. He went on to become St. Longinus. After the crucifixion, he converted and left the military.)
Copyright 2015 Ellen Finnigan
first printed at LewRockwell.com