Sunday, September 17, 2017

Whose Life Is It Anyway? A Sermon For the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached Sunday, 17 September, 2017, St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto

Lections for this Sunday: Exodus 14:19-31;   Psalm 103: 8-13; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14: 7-8)



Who do our lives belong to?   Or, for that matter, who do our deaths belong to?   In the western secular world, over the last three or so centuries, a general consensus has been that our lives belong to ourselves.   Our desire for personal freedom and autonomy, our desire to chose our paths in life, has led us to believe very strongly in human freedom.   For example, we commonly tell young children, particularly girls, that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be This is at it should be.  I think we would all agree that we want to live in a world where children can become astronauts or nurses, pilots or politicians, stay at home programmers and parents, regardless of their colour, gender, or religion.


At the same time, these expectations lead us to believe that we are belong to ourselves, that we are, each of us, our own projects.   As the poem Invictus puts it, we want to be the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.   We want to be self-reliant, to decide who, if anyone, we are responsible for.  Wealth and health are important because they allow us to seek this independence.  Some Christian preachers bless this mindset by preaching a prosperity gospel that promises wealth and freedom to those that God wants to bless.

Even in death, we seek to be self-reliant.  Some even dream of immortality, as some technology billionaires do who invest in projects to conquer the process of aging, or failing that to upload their minds into computers.  Lacking such resources, must of us prefer a peaceful oblivion.  The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that given the choice, most people would prefer to die peacefully, in their sleep, so that we don’t know that we’re dying.  If we can ignore death, then we can ignore our finitude, thus avoid the hard limits of our autonomy.


The church that Paul was writing to in Rome would have had a very different understanding of what the human life was all about.   The idea of being the master of one’s self would have been largely foreign to them.   Many would have been poor, and some would have been servants or even slaves of others.  So, when Paul speaks earlier in Romans 14 about the dangers of being judgemental, he writes “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they will stand or fall” (Rom 14:4-6).  Paul is this writing to a congregation who know that their lives are not their own, who live in an intricate and oppressive social web of class and hierarchy.  


One of the things which made the gospel so revolutionary, and so attractive, for these Christians, was that it exploded the categories of freedom and put all believers on the same level as men and women who were given freedom and equality by Christ.  This, in the next breath, Paul writes that all believers, even servants and slaves, will be given their freedom through the gospel:  “they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Rom 14: 4).  This idea of equality through faith is I think why Paul is so passionate, here in Romans and elsewhere in his letters, about why believers should tolerate and allow differences in religious practice between themselves.  Some might keep Jewish holy days and practices, others as gentiles might eat food that was offensive to others.   Paul didn’t want the Roman believers to fall into divisions and camps based on these old beliefs, because he saw them as all being equal to one another through Christ, who lived and died for all.  


This extravagant love of God in Christ, given for all regardless of class or wealth or even the number of sins committed, creates a new relationship between God and humanity.   Instead of belonging to other people, the Romans belong to God in Christ, giving them a dignity and a freedom that they have never known before.  This new relationship shapes the community of the church.  This is why, as Father Simon preached last week, forgiveness and reconciliation in the church is as important as it is necessary.   God who forgives us and reconciles with us, despite all that we have done and not done, creates a spirit or a culture which becomes the culture of the church and God’s gift to the church.   So Paul today, when he tells us in Romans not to judge one another, for that judgement is God’s work alone, and only through God’s love and grace in Christ will we be able to stand before that judgement.


We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.


So in life, so in death.  Paul tells the Romans that they belong to God in life, and after life.   For the believers of Paul’s day, whose lives on average were much shorter than our own, and who knew nothing of our modern medicine, I am sure that this verse was greatly reassuring.   And yet, in the dark moments of our own health crises, sorrow, and grieving, are these words not just as reassuring to us?  For this reason, the church has, since its beginning, advocated the idea of the good death, a time when we prepare for our end, seek absolution of our sins, and, as Christ did, hand ourselves over into the keeping of God in trust and submission to his power and his love.


As most of you know, for the past few years, my wife Kay has lived with advanced cancer and with all its various indignities.  Since we’ve come to join this yparish, Kay has lived through several life-threatening complications, and is currently in hospital facing new challenges.   She is not alone in this, others among you have faced or are facing situations that are just as severe.   And some of us grieve, for grief is seldom stale, but always close to the surface.  What gives Kay and (sometimes, me) much of our strength is that we know two things. 


First, we experience God’s love through the pastoral care, love, and support of this parish, including from members whose care for Kay has been selfless and generous.   This generosity was remarkable and we are grateful for it, but it is not just the generosity of one or two extraordinary people.  Rather, it is the generosity of spirit that comes from the church as a community that knows it exists because of the love of Christ, and so that it might continue its relationship of love for Christ and through Christ to one another

Second, we know that in life, and in death, we are the Lord’s.  We will always be the Lords.  We know that whatever may happen to our frail and fickle bodies, wherever we will go after our death, we will be held in God’s hands, safe in the mind and love of God, until it pleases God to raise us on the day of resurrection.


This Thursday, as I hope to kick off the theology on tap project, I chose as our opening question, What is the Point of Being Christian?   I think it’s a good starting point, even if it makes it sound like being Christian is a lifestyle choice that we make, like choosing to do yoga or follow a certain kind of diet.   What if, instead of a choice that we made, being Christian was simply being aware of our belonging to God?  Can we live in a way that doesn’t jealously guard our autonomy, in a way that is open to the fact that we belong to God, in life, and in death, and that through that belonging we find our true fulfillment and happiness?


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Better Burden: A Sermon For The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

The Better Burden:  A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario (Diocese of Toronto), 9 July 2017

Readings for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."


If you are an Anglican of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words.  One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11.


Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28


Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation.  They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins.  In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there were no barriers between us and God.  They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love.


My Anglican upbringing probably explains how I reacted once to a certain question.  When I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that I they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one.  “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.


I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie.   I remembered listening to the Comfortable Words as a child and I decided on Matthew 11:28:   "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.


It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign.   For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”.  Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.   


Even for us civilians, unburdened by helmets and rucksacks, there is a paradox in these words of Jesus.  How can a yoke be easy?  How can a burden be light?   And beyond the paradox lies a thought which our contemporary mindset finds deeply unattractive.  When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?  


Well, I suppose it depends what we are yoked to and burdened with, and what we think freedom really is.   While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciple may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering.   Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for.  


2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’     


If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection.   It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some.  So why the language about yokes and burdens?


I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden.  Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power.   In fact, as U understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.


For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature.   For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)  


Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to.   Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late.  A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry.   Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint.  Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.


When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices.  David Lose notes that “We don't (the like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.”  Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.


Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives.   Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day.   This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.


If we read Matthew 11:28-30 again, we notice that Jesus speaks to those who already are carrying heavy burdens, to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”.  I think of several images from films where this mage is acted out in spiritual terms.  I think of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, shacked to the cashboxes that he chose over his fellow humans as his life’s concern, or the conquistador in The Mission who punishes himself for a murder he committed by dragging his heavy, rusting armour everywhere he goes.   I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying.   I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom, and I see that as the true message and goal of the church, to bring the burdened to Christ so they can find true freedom.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Here I Am" : A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St, Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, the Diocese of Toronto, 2 July, 2017

Texts for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 28:5-9 or Genesis 22: 1-14, Psalm 89: 1-4,15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10: 40-42



After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am.” (Genesis 28:1)

I think I would fail in my duty as a preacher today if I didn’t say something about today’s first lesson from Genesis 22, the story of God demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac.   I say that because I think this story, perhaps more than almost any other that is heard in the Sunday by Sunday lectionary readings of the church, can shock and offend us.   The cruel and impossible demand that God lays on the shoulders of Abraham are so hard to reconcile with our idea of God as the good, loving creator.   It explains why many Christian churches follow the age-old temptation to downplay the Hebrew Scriptures and to see Jesus the Son as being far more attractive than his angry and judgemental father.


If these things trouble you, rest assured that you are not only.  Over the centuries, Christian and Jewish scholars have struggled with this story and have tried to understand it.  There is an ancient Jewish story which imagines God asking one of his angels to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, but the angels refuse to do it.  If you want to command this death, they say to God, do it yourself.  This ancient story reminds us that the Jewish faithful, like the Christian and Muslim faithful who came after them, recognized full well the difficulty of this story.


Our unease with the story begins in its first verse, when God decides to test Abraham.   It’s not like Abraham wasn’t already faithful.  He had left his homeland to follow God into the wilderness, he had trusted God when told that his aged wife Sarah would have a child, and now he he had allowed his son Ishmael to be taken away from him.   What else did Abraham need to prove to God?  It’s hard to understand.  Last week I heard a rabbi speaking about the book of Job, and he basically said that while God has the right to test his people, most Jews wish that he would just stop already.  That’s what I love about rabbis, they embody the dark humour of being faithful to God despite centuries of hardship and challenge.


God calls and Abraham says “Here I am”.   We know these words well.  We find them elsewhere in scripture.  “Here I am” says the young Samuel when God calls him the night. Here I am says Ananias of Damascus when God calls him in Acts.  “Here I Am”, we sing in one of our most popular hymns today.  “Here I am, Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go, Lord, where you lead me”.    Abraham answers God, and goes where God leads him, to a mountaintop where he is asked to sacrifice his son.


At this point Abraham was not part of an organized religion.  He knew God and loved him, and followed him, but it was a personal relationship and he did not yet know all the rules.    Was this some new, terrible thing that God was now asking of him?   Who knows what Abraham was thinking on the three days it took them to reach that mountain?  We know that other cultures in the middle east practised human sacrifice, often of children. One such culture, the Ammonites, who worshipped a God called Molech, was a near neighbour of Israel.   We know that there are passages in the Torah prohibiting the sacrifice of sons and daughters (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35; 2 Chronicles 28:3), so perhaps the story of Abraham is meant to explain to Israel how their God was different from the  gods of the neighbouring peoples.


Explaining the story in these cultural terms helps  us understand it intellectually, but as the story unfolds all of that is still in the future and we can’t help but to read our emotions - sadness, horror, outrage - into it.   We see the old man slowly and painfully moving up the mountain while Isaac, presumably a strong young teen since he is carrying the wood, follows.   We wonder why Abraham could do this thing, and why how Isaac could go along, for when they arrive at the place, and there is no lamb, he surely understands.   And how could this strong lad let his aged father bind him and lay him on the wood, were it not out of his loyalty and obedience?   Abraham calls Isaac, and he too answers “Here I am”.   Either he is too innocent to know what is coming, or, more likely I think, he knows full well and he is obedient to his father up to the point where God reveals the ram and the story becomes clear.  The God of Israel will never demand human sacrifice of his people.  Instead, the sacrifices of animals in the Temple will become a sign of how God provides for his people, who offer part of their blessings back to God.  It becomes the same basic idea that we celebrate each Thanksgiving, or at each family meal, that God provides for us.


For these reasons, the three so-called Abrahamic traditions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have each found good in this story.  For the Jews, the story was about God’s faithfulness, and the ram was a sign that God would always provide for his people.   For Muslims, who recount the story in their Koran, the story was about obedience to God.  Abraham and Isaac, in their “here I ams”, are examples of how the faithful should follow God.  And what of us Christians?


For us, the idea of the son, faithful and obedient to his father, carrying the wood of his sacrifice to the place of his death, becomes an image or foretelling of Jesus bearing the cross to Golgotha.   Whereas God stops Abraham and does not demand this sacrifice in the end, God does not spare himself  or his son.  If Abraham sorrowed in his heart for what he thought he had to do, our theology of the Trinity, of the three persons in one, tells us that God is fully present in the pain and sorrow of his son’s death.   Some see the idea of the atonement as a callous sacrifice, of God ordering Jesus to his death, but I think our idea of the Trinity reminds us that this what happens on the cross, like on Abraham’s mountain, is a sorrow, pain, and sadness shared by the father and the son.   


My hope then is that if we stick with the story to its end, and if we think about its place within our long family story of faith as Jews and Christians, we can find resources in it to help and sustain us in our daily lives.    Abraham’s response to God, “Here I am”, is our response.  We talk a lot about church shopping and choosing a church because we live in a culture that is dominated by consumer values, but in fact we are here because we are called to be.  We respond to God by saying “Here I am”, and that means more than just “Here I am, Lord, present in my usual pew on Sunday morning.”   


Saying “Here I am” means being responsive to God in those moments that feel uncomfortable, even those times that feel like a test.  God may call us to respond to moments of injustice, racism, or other evil things that may test us.  Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to stand with others who are suffering, even if that comes at a cost to us.   God may call us to answer for things we have done that we would rather not think of.  Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to reconcile, to ask forgiveness, to find new ways forward.  God may call us to live through difficult times of sorrow or grief or sickness.   Saying “Here I am” means that we are open to God and what he may ask us to do and be, even when our thoughts may be clouded by self pity, fear and anger.   God’s call comes in the good and bad times, and sometimes it takes courage to say “Here I am”, but we answer knowing that the one who calls us is good and faitihful.


My prayer for all of us that we can have the strength to wrestle with this difficult story, and that it can teach us something about being faithful and obedient like Abraham and Isaac, knowing that God will be with us and will provide for us in whatever he may call us to. Amen.

Michael Peterson+

Acknowledgement: This commentary by Kathryn Schiferdecker was very helpful in thinking through this sermon.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Called In Summertme: A Sermon For the Second Sunday After Pentecost



Preached at St. Margaret’s of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario.  Sunday, 18 June, 2017


Lectionary: Genesis 18: 1-15, Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19; Romans 5: 1-8, and Matthew 9:35 -10:23


1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 



Summer is right around the corner.  Some of us played golf yesterday.  Some of us may be at the cottage, or thinking about going soon.  Others are travelling.    You can feel the rhythm of our parish life starting to slow down.


However, the lectionary, our cycle of bible readings, is no respecter of summer holidays, and this Sunday it serves up a long reading from the part of Matthew’s gospel known as the Missionary Discourse.   As usual we listen to the gospel to help us understand who Jesus is and what our relationship to him is, and this reading is pretty demanding, even if we are easing into the summer doldrums.


This Sunday’s gospel remind us about the hard work that Jesus has given us, and be assured, it is work.   Today’s reading from Matthew reminds us that we’re not just followers of Jesus.  Followers just go along for the ride.  We may be disciples of disciples of Jesus, but disciples are students and at some point students leave school to become workers and do what they have been taught to do.   Today’s reading reminds us that we are indeed workers, that we are called to do what Jesus does, to go out and be part of God’s work to save the world.  


There is a curious pattern of mirroring in today’s gospel reading, as Jesus first does his work, and then gives that same work to the disciples.   First Jesus heals and restores people,  as he travels about, “curing every disease and every sickness” (Mt 9:35).  He then gives his twelve disciples the same task:  “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” (Mt 10:1).


Likewise Jesus preaches, going about  “teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Mt 9:35).  He then sends the disciples out with the very same message when he tells them to “proclaim the good news, that the kingdom of heaven has come near" (10:7).    


Healing and preaching.   Just as Jesus has done, so the disciples are sent with the same task.   


In his commentary on this passage, Colin Yuckman notes the importance of this mirroring of tasks.  “In Matthew, Jesus' followers include the original audience as well as us. We are expected to resemble him in word and deed. To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.”


Just as Jesus called his disciples to do this work, his work in the world, so we are called.   St. Margaret’s and St. Giles, like every church and congregation before us, get this call by virtue of our baptism and our decision to follow Jesus as Lord.   


It is sobering to think that we are called to be Jesus for the world, to be Jesus in the world.   Sobering because we may not think we are up task, that we are incapable of doing this work because of our limits, our flaws, our lack of understanding of the bible, of theology, etc.   But if we lack confidence, we can always be reassured by looking at Jesus’ disciples.


The twelve include Peter, who will deny Jesus, and Judas, who will betray him.  They include very different people: Matthew is a tax collector who works for the Romans and Simon is a zealot who fights against them.   As we know them from the many gospel stories, the disciples can be dimwitted, frightened, quarrelsome, and sometimes full of themselves.  Jesus chooses to work with them nevertheless.   


If today’s scripture readings teach us anything, it’s that it’s easy to underestimate what God can do through us and with us.   Remember how Sara laughs out loud at the thought that God could give her a child at her old age.  But remember that Sara’s bitter laughter of disbelief turns to laughter of joy as she realizes what God can do.    If God can work with the first twelve disciples, if he can turn Sara’s scorn to joy, he can surely work with us.


“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  We may not be able to do these things literally, but there are many ways that we can join with Christ in this work.   There are many ways of being sick, many ways of being dead, many who feel as outcast as lepers, many ways of being possessed.  


We as a church are called to exist for these people.  We as church are called to be a place of hope and healing for those who are hurting in body, mind and soul.   We can come alongside those who are friendless, who feel worthless, who are ignored by others.   In a thousand meaningful and challenging ways, today’s gospel lesson speaks to the pastoral work that we as clergy and laity share, to what we can do for those within, and without, these walls.  Today’s gospel reading should live in and inform every parish mission statement.


Why does Jesus give us this work?  Why does he ask us to go out and be his face and hands in the world?  Matthew tells us that ”When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).  Our God of power and majesty chooses to show compassion and tenderness to the world, and asks us to be part of his work. 


It’s easy to imagine how cynically the world might react to this message.  Our world today seems to be drifting more and more to an idea that strong men, rich, entitled, and ruthless, should be in charge.  Power is measured in military strength, or in vast fortunes, it flatters the few at the top and increasingly ignores the many at the bottom.  Our gospel message would inspire mocking laughter in so many places.  The ending of our gospel reading warns us that this hostile reaction will happen.  Jesus is clear to his disciples that this will be hard work. But I think the world hungers to know that God exists, that God is compassionate, and that God cares for them.


We know better because we know our God, and we know that God is faithful.   God has given us this work, to help God to save the world, and we trust that because of this work there will come a day when mocking laughter will turn to joy, for "God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.

Michael Peterson+

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Paul in Athens: Sharing The Gospel In A Pluralistic Age

Preached Sunday, 21 May, the Sixth Sunday of Easter at St. Margarets of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON

Texts for this Sunday Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 68:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

Want to stay true to the faith you were brought up in?   That’s fine.  Want to convert to another world religion?  Go ahead.  Perhaps one of the new religions might suit your needs?  Perhaps you have heard about some guru with some teaching that everyone is talking about, or some new book on spirituality that everyone is talking about, or maybe some teaching about guardian angels?  Go for it.  Or, maybe you think all this spirituality is just a bunch of nonsense, and you want to dedicate yourself to science and reason, because they are the most sensible way of explaining the world.  Hey, that’s your right.  Just don’t go pushing your faith down other people s throats.  Try to get along with other people.

This description of the religious landscape could just as easily describe our own time as it describes the time of the Apostle Paul.  The world that we see in our first lesson, from Acts 17, is like our own world in that it is pluralistic.  Pluralistic in this context simply means multiple faiths and beliefs living side by side, offering a kind of marketplace that believers could search to find the belief that best suited them.   The Book of Acts has numerous examples of conversions, of which Paul (formerly known as Saul) is the most well known, but there are others, including the Ethiopian eunuch or the Roman officer Cornelius and his family.  These are believers who were attracted to Judaism, but then become followers of Jesus when they hear the gospel.   

Some of you may have friends and family members who have converted because they have found another faith to be convincing and satisfying.  I can think of an Anglican friend who became an Orthodox priest, or a young man raised in the United Church who is now a Muslim imam.  You may also know someone who has converted in order to marry their loved one.  Many people seem to have no problem in combining bits and pieces of different faiths and spiritualities, like the Christians I have met who also believe in reincarnation or the healing power of crystals. Then of course there are those who reject religion as being irrational, and then ironically profess to be atheists with a kind of religious fervor.  

People make these sorts of choices because of the basic human need for meaning, for a belief or a worldview that makes sense of the world, which calms our fears and which helps us decide how to act.   It helps that we live in a country that protects our freedom to believe and to choose between beliefs.  Many in the world don’t have that luxury, and thus the many Christians who are now fleeing the Middle East, or the young Russians who are being jailed for disrespecting the Orthodox Church which is now the same as disrespecting Russia and Putin.   I think it is safe to say that most Canadians value our tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.  Most of us, I think, don’t care what other Canadians wear on their heads, we just care what’s in their hearts.

At the same time, we need to be honest that pluralism poses a challenge for us as Christians.   For those of us of a certain vintage, that challenge may be our sense of unease that the Christian country we grew up in has faded away along with that prayers and bible readings in public school or laws against Sunday shopping are gone.  That feeling is understandable but I think we need to guard against nostalgia, because I am not really convinced that there ever was a truly Christian Canada.  Sometimes it’s easy to think we see religion when what we really see is culture and force of habit.  However, for those of us who are clear that we are followers of Jesus and faithful believers, the real challenge of pluralism is about messaging.  How can we faithfully proclaim the gospel message to others without offending them or suggesting that their faith isn’t real or isn’t good enough?  I can tell you that this is a real problem for my employer, the Canadian Armed Forces chaplaincy.  We used to be a Christian organization, and now we are a multifaith organization, serving military members that range from Sikhs and Baptists to Mormons and atheists.   It can be a challenge for our chaplains who come from more conservative Christian churches.  It can be a challenge for us, too, as we go from St. Margaret’s to our workplaces, circles of friends, and extended families.

The story of Paul in Athens gives us a model of how we as Christians can act and speak in a pluralistic society.  We can draw several lessons from how Paul shares his faith with the Athenians, and the first lesson is to know the culture you’re in.   Athens was a centre of philosophy and learning in the ancient world, a crossroads where peoples and beliefs would come together and compete with one another.  It was a marketplace of beliefs.   Luke (the likely author of Acts) tells us that “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new (17:21).  That description sounds a little tongue and cheek to me, as if the Athenians are swayed by whatever trendy belief or idea comes into town.  It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The second lesson we can draw from Paul is to meet people where they are. Earlier in this chapter, we are told that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but in his opening words he hides his distress and even uses humour, by seeming to compliment the Athenians on how they have covered their bases by even acknowledging an “unknown God”.   Normally we think of Paul from his letters as being dour and earnest and self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard for me not to imagine him smiling as he says these words.   Paul then goes on to tell the Christian story, but in a way that an audience familiar with Greek philosophy would understand.  God is a creator, the first mover who can do all things, who doesn’t need any praise or tribute from humans, who isn’t confined to any one temple of space, and who is a truth that can be searched for.

Notice that while Paul often uses references to the Hebrew scriptures when talking to his fellow Jews, here he doesn’t.  He describes God in such a way that Greek philosophers could agree with, and even quotes “some of your own poets”.  In other words, Paul is acting like a good guest, getting to know the Greek’s culture and speaking to them in a way they can understand.  However, Paul isn’t afraid to draw sharp differences between Greek belief and his faith.   You Greeks, he says, think of God like the Xfiles, like a truth that is out there somewhere, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him”, whereas for Paul God’s truth can be found very specifically in one person, Jesus, “a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). 

It takes nerve to be specific.  Paul was probably doing ok with his high-brow Greek audience until he said that the truth of God could be found in one person who died and rose again.  Elsewhere Paul acknowledged that this message of Christ, the cross and resurrection was “foolishness” to the educated Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).  It can seem just as foolish today, in a world with so many choices and things to believe in, to say that we as Christians have found God’s truth in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son, whom God raised from the dead as a sign of hope for all people but, my friends, if we don’t believe that, then why are we here?

If Paul looked for ways to relate his message to the Greeks of his day, then I think we need to look for ways to relate to our own culture today.  Very briefly, I have some suggestions as to how we might do that effectively.  First, I think we need to acknowledge that we do live in a culture of spiritual and religious choice, which means that we can’t condemn and criticize people for making the wrong choice.  That would only come across as disrespectful, hostile and judgemental, which is exactly why so many people dislike Christians today.  Instead, I think we need to use today’s Gospel reading from John as a resource.   

John’s gospel reminds us that God is not a distant, abstract deity like the Greeks believed in.  John tells us that God wants to be with us, not because (as Paul tells the Greeks) he needs anything from us, but out of love:  ‘those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them’ (John 14:21).  The gift of the Spirit’s presence in today’s Gospel is a sign that God will keep his promise, made in John 3:16, that God loves the world and is determined to save it.  It is the promise of God not to abandon us, a sign of his love and compassion for those who created.

There are so many ways in which this message can be heard in our age of choice and uncertainty.  Think of how many people fear the end of the world, either through war or environmental and ecological collapse.  Some scientists say that we may only have a hundred years left on this planet.  Others see a dark future where a wealthy few will keep their boot on the poor many.   The rise of racial hatred and violence between religions fills many with despair.   Some people say that this is a time like the end of the Roman Empire, and that is certainly true in the sense that we can no longer count on the Christian church to have a place of honour and respect in society.  Let that nostalgia go, and focus on the power of the gospel in this dark time.  We can tell the story of a God who created the world and gave us life out of his great goodness, who needs nothing from us but who wants to be in relation with us.  We have a God who cares passionately for the poor, who gives everyone the right to respect and dignity because they are made in his image, who has promised that in the death and resurrection of his son he will stand with us and fight against the darkness of sin and death, and who will certainly win that fight.  This is our story.  Have faith in it, live it out, and trust that god will give you the wisdom and opportunity to share it with those who need to hear it.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Generations In Uniform: The Rise Of An Hereditary Military Caste

Lt. Col. Shawn McKinstry of the Canadian Army Reserve shows a picture of his great-grandfather with his regiment from the First World War.  Photo credit here.

My  father, like his father before him, was a soldier, as were my two older brothers. My earliest memories are of life on an army base in West Germany.  Even after dad aged out and fitfully pursued a second career as a high school teacher, there were his army mementoes around the house as well as the books of military history that he pursued voraciously.  When my brothers visited, there were stories of army life in the air, which burnished their heroic auras to my young eyes.  No surprise, then, that I should want to "go for a soldier" as a young man.

Sociologists use the term "professional inheritance" to describe the influence of parents on their children's career choices.   Whether its the law, the clergy, the factory or mine, or the military, there is "an increased probability of a child entering his or her parent's career field".   Amy Schafer, a scholar with the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), makes professional inheritance the focus of her recent study, Generations of War: The Rise of the Warrior Caste and the All-Volunteer Force.   Her study of data from a variety of sources notes that having a family member with militarys service, particularly a parent (and thus usually a father) is a strong predictor for a person to join te military.  US Army data from the year 2015 shows that 36 percent of recruits had a father who had served (6 percent had a mother who had served) and a stunning 60 percent of general officers surveyed in 2007 had children in service.

The implications of Schafer's survey can be outlined broadly as follows:

1) As the generations of veterans who were conscripted into the military (Korea and Vietnam) fade away, the total number of veterans as a percentage of US society declines correspondingly.
2) With the end of the draft after the Vietnam War, the rise of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) has meant that fewer and fewer Americans have any contact with the active-duty military.
3) This "familiarity gap" has been exacerbated as the US military was reduced in size after the Cold War, and as military bases were closed.  Today only .4 percent of the US population serves in the active duty military, while many of the military bases are concentrated in the US South.
4) As military service becomes more and more multigenerational, it becomes more homogenous.  Over half of recruits now come from one region, the south.  Multigenerational service, particularly in the primarily white officer corps, limits the growth of diversity in the military.
5) While military children may take better to military life and may be more resilient, multi-generational service has the adverse effect of reducing the overall  recruiting pool and limits the growth of diversity in the military.
6) A military that is slowly evolving into a "warrior caste" becomes increasingly isolated from the democratic society that it serves, meaning that fewer and fewer Americans know anyone in uniform, while voters and legislators become increasingly ignorant of issues surrounding the use of military force.  Conversely, while the military is revered and largely trusted by the American population, unlike other organs of government, the lack of civic connection to the military poses risks to the stability and endurance of democracy.

As always, I try to translate this article into the Canadian context, though I am far less qualified than Schafer to do that well.

Canada's population in 2016 was in excess of 35 million, while the Canadian Armed Forces numbers approximately 68,000 Regular Force and 28,000 Reserve Force members, for a total of approx. 96,000.  The CAF is thus a miniscule percentage of the total national population, even though the CAF and the civilian personnel of the Department of National Defence together make up Canada's largest single public sector employer.  The CAF Regular Force is primarily concentrated on a few bases, only a few of which are near or in large population centres, with the Navy being a significant exception (based in Halifax and Victoria).   The CAF is primarily white, and recruited from smaller communities, particularly from Atlantic Canada.  The Reserve Force is distributed more evenly through urban centres.  The CAF has worked hard to recruit a more diverse military, but has had difficulty meetings its goals.  Persistent budget cuts, pay freezes, limited training opportunities and many antiquated base facilities all work against the goal of making the CAF a career of choice for many young Canadians.

There is no data that I am aware of to suggest that military service in Canada is as multi-generational as it is in the US, though given the dynamics I have outlined above, I would not be surprised that it is similar.   Speaking purely anecdotally, roughly one in four of my colleagues have family members with military service, and some have children in the CAF.   Several past Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Canada's ranking military officer, have or have had children in uniform.  So one can assume that a Canadian generational dynamic that is roughly equivalent to the US is in play.

Whether there is the same civil-military familiarity gulf in Canada as there is in the US, and whether it matters as much, is debateable.   Canada is not a military superpower.   Our citizenry feels good about seeing military personnel hauling sandbags to help flood victims, but not so good about seeing them fight, kill, and even die.  While there was considerable national pride over the Afghanistan deployment, there was little argument when a casualty-adverse Conservative government ended the combat mission, and then ended the training mission.  Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror, did not fit into a national narrative (however unrealistic) of Canadian soldiers as peacekeepers.   The current Liberal government has clearly signalled that defence spending is not a high priority, and there has been little public complaint over the fact that Canada lags in the bottom half of NATO countries in terms of percentage of GDP spent on defence.  Not since the end of the Cold War has any Canadian government convincingly argued for a large military or for its role on the world stage.

In summary, the same multigenerational trends in military service that Shafer observes in the US may well apply in Canada, though the data deserves closer examination.   The political and social stakes in Canada are less important because our military, frankly, is far less important to the national identity.  Nevertheless, Canadian citizens, like their US neighbours, should ask whether they can afford to entrust their military to an hereditary warrior class.  

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

No, Mr. President, There Isn't A Religious Freedom Problem In The Military

US Army chaplain visits a simulated casualty during a training exercise.

My Twitter feed lit up a bit recently when this story aired on CNN, regarding comments by US President Donald Trump that US service personnel in a military hospital were denied religious items.
What was remarkable about the social media reaction is that several US military people I follow commented on how the chaplains they knew would fulfil a response for religious items before the person asking could finish the sentence.    My own experience is similar.  The military chaplains I know are eager to provide not only bibles and rosaries but also korans and prayer mats.  Part of the training that we conduct at the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School focuses exactly on this kind of work as part of the chaplain's duty to defend the rights and support the needs of believers of all faiths.

Possibly, as the CNN article noted, President Trump was referring to confusion that arose at a US military hospital when proselytization triggered a temporary ban on religions items.   It is regrettable that the President seems to have misunderstood this situation.  Chaplain training, at least in the CAF, focuses on the need for chaplains to meet people where they are and to respect their beliefs, however diverse they may be.  Proselytization, trying to aggressively convince another person to adopt one's faith (what Christians can evangelization) is strictly forbidden.   A conversation may lead to a request for a chaplain to say more about what the belief, but that is an entirely different matter.

Another US veteran I follow commented on Twitter that he couldn't imagine a worse situation than being helpless in a hospital bed as a chaplain or other religious person used that opportunity to proselytize.  I would agree wholeheartedly.  It reminded me of a scene in the old (2005) US series on FX, Over There, about the Iraq war, in which one of the characters is immobilized in a hospital bed while an unctuous chaplain in dress uniform, gold crosses glinting, a bible held in his hand, enters the room.   No, that's now how it's done.  A smile and a question, "How's today going?", is a better way to start.

Monday, May 8, 2017

War And Remembrance: Notes Towards A Taxonomy Of Contemporary War Literature

For a long time it was TGWOT - The Global War on Terror, the term for the US led conflict that officially began on September 11, 2001, though one could argue that it began with the USS Cole attack in 2000, the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, or the Khobar towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or maybe even the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or ... well, you get the picture.

At some point, the operations fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Iraq (again) and now apparently Syria, began to be lumped into a single term, one that conjures up the titles of classic science fiction novels by the likes of Harlan Ellison:  The Forever War.  That term may have been coined by the US journalist Dexter Filkins, who used it for the title of his indispensable 2008 book based on his assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Forever War is primarily an American war, though at different times and places it has also caught up America's friends and allies, including Canada in Kandahar, Great Britain in Basra and Helmand, Germany in Kundiz, and the Kurds in Raqqa.   However, the Forever War is now part of the American experience, longer than any single conflict in US history, and it is not surprising that after a generation of conflict, American writers and poets of note, most of them military or recent veterans, are now emerging.  However, one could argue that these writers have less of a shared context with their civilian readers than at any other time in US history.   America's all volunteer military, its power augmented formidably by technology, has fought and still fights a war that scarcely touches the home front.

The challenge of communicating across this civil-military disconnect unites many of the authors discussed by Adin Dobkin in his recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "The Never-Ending Book of War".   Some of these writers - Phil Klay, Brian Castner, and Eric Fair, have been previously reviewed on this blog.  

In thinking through Dobkin's review of recent war writing,  the EngLit student in me got to wondering how I would survey the disparate voices of the Forever War.  What literary modes do they work in?  What traditions, genres, and literary predecessors do they draw on?  Dobkin rightly notes the starting point, memory, in his opening paragraph.

"The necessity of a long memory runs throughout our conception of war.  Just consider the phrase,"never forget". 

The phrase "never forget" points to a powerful moral imperative in this mode of history, a dual belief that this history should not be forgotten, and that it not be repeated.  Writers like Castner would rightly have their fallen and wounded comrades remembered, while writers like Fair would not have their country fall back into the moral shame of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

As Dobkin notes, since modern wars do not cause "societal shocks" on the homefront, the writers and publishers of these wars have to fight headwinds of incomprehension, alienation, and indifference, as Klay's characters do upon their return home in the short stories of his book Redeployment.  Other writers, as Dobkin notes, fight the moral obfuscation of language as political change in the Trump era resurrects ideas such as enhanced interrogation/torture.  For some of the current military writers, as they admit to Dobkin, it is discouraging to see that the "Never Again" moral and protest function of war literature, a tradition going back at least far as Eric Remarque and Robert Graves, has little apparent efficacy.  As Eric Fair tells Dobkin, "we're right back to where we started, and in fact, might be headed somewhere far worse".

In the rest of this essay, I propose a few gradations of analysis, or pigeonholes, to enhance Dobkin's summary.   Perhaps its the EngLit student in me who finds taxonomies helpful in refining Dobkin's core idea of remembrance by proposing the following categories, and if nothing else it allows me to locate contemporary war writers more easily in my mental landscape.

Remembrance as Epic -  this classification would be writers working in what we might call the encomiastic tradition, in which heroism and pride win out over anti-heroism and irony within a narrative that follows a relatively uncomplicated moral trajectory, what Dobkin calls "clear-cut good versus evil".  While we see this mode in history used in accounts of recent wars, most notably in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation (1998) or Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy (2002-2013), today's writers live and work under the shadow of post-modernity, with its scepticism and suspicious, mordant humour.  Thus The Greatest Generation gives way to Generation Kill, in which careerist officers and petty NCOs are almost as much of an adversary to the protagonists as are the enemy.   Some works of military journalism fall at times into the epic mode, such as Fifteen Days, Christie Blatchford's account of the Canadian Army in Kandahar or Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer's account of the life and death of NFLer turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, though the later part of Krakauer's book falls into irony as he dissects the tragic circumstances of Tillman's death.  Surely the reluctance of many authors to identify with the Epic mode has to do with the moral ambiguity ad even moral taint of wars like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  As Tom McDermott, an Australian army officer and scholar has noted, that war, fought without a clear causus belli or UN Declaration has a morally "malignant" quality, so that the participants look back with, "if not a sense of shame, at least an absence of pride".

Remembrance as Mimesis - this classification could also be described as the documentary mode of remembrance, in which the writer works to capture a sense of "this is what it was like" for the reader, who is often a civilian to whom the military ethos and war are compelling but foreign.   To borrow two terms from the literary scholar Northrop Frye, we can subdivide this mode into the High Mimetic and Low Mimetic modes.  The High Mimetic mode is something akin to Shakespearean tragedy, in that it shows us admirable but flawed figures struggling against an often inescapable feat.  The EOD operatives in Brian Castner's works, or journalist David Finkel's portrayal of the doomed soldiers climbing into their fragile Humvees for another patrol in bomb-infested Baghdad.  In this mode of memory, the writer can both offer tribute to comrades for their heroism, while also fully acknowledging their ordinary and flawed natures, as well as the terrible ambiguity of the wars to which they offer themselves.   In contrast, the Low Mimetic mode is marked both by graphic realism and a sense of pathos, of a profound sympathy.  In this mode, the subjects are more victims than heroes, and memory is tempered by sorrow and outrage.  In war literature, the templates for this mode include well-known First World War figures such as Wilfrid Owen, particularly his poems "Anthem for Dead Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est".   The two perplexed heroes of Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds (2012) are good examples of the low mimetic, as are their real-world counterparts, struggling with injury, suicide, and reintegration to civilian life in David Finkel's sequel, Thank You For Your Service.

Remembrance as Comedy and Satire - in this category the primary mode is irony.  Unlike Shakespearean comedies which include strong characters and some positive new social order being established at the conclusion, the voice of this mode of remembrance in war literature is one of mocking laughter.   Well known examples of military comedy and satire include Robert Grave's Goodbye to All That, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy.   The antiheroes of military comedy and satire are often junior in rank, profoundly alienated from military culture, fully aware of the incompetence of their peers and superiors, but generally helpless to do anything about it.   A classic contemporary example would be David Abram's Fobbit (2012).   Examples of military parody, or snark, abound in social media circles frequented by military types, as is seen in this well known blog.  Satire is directed more outwards, towards the society which largely ignores its complicity in wars and its responsibility to those who fight in them, while uttering banalities such as "thank you for your service".   A classic example of contemporary military satire is Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2012), recently made as a film directed by Ang Lee (2016).

Remembrance As Soul Work - there is something therapeutic about the act of writing.  The literary critic Andrew Brink once described literature as "symbolic repair", a kind of healing by which the act of literary creation helps balance or ease a loss or grief.  A rich PhD thesis or book of interviews with the Forever War generation of writers still needs to be written, perhaps noting how many of them took advantage of MFA programs or other kinds of educational opportunities as ways of easing their transition back into civilian life while processing their wartime experience in a healthy manner.  The work of Phil Klay and Brian Castner would certainly bear examination from this point of view.  in some cases, literature and memoir works in a penitential mode, as the author works through both the effects of moral injury and their complicity in the immoral or shadow side of these wars.  A particularly good example of the penitential mode would be Eric Fair's Consequence, describing how he ended up as an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  One senses that atonement in Fair's writing does not depend upon a transaction with the reader.  Rather, the reader, implicated in acts done in the national cause, must uneasily reflect on his or her own complicity.

Remembrance as Art - this is perhaps the most challenging aspect to war literature of any generation.  What distinguishes a soldier's memoir or a journalist's account of war from that of a poet or novelist?   What are the standards by which we can assess the craft of war literature from the content?   This has always been a contentious subject in literary criticism.  The great poet W.B. Yeats, a master of poetry, wrote in 1936 that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry", yet he was surely wrong when he dismissed Wilfrid Owen's war poetry as "blood and dirt and sucked sugar stick".  What gives Owen his power and his claim on memory is surely that the power and even sweetness of his verse conveys the horror of the subject.  Consider Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth", which captures the sound of battle in its first stanza, but then gives way to this graceful couplet which evokes the grief of a whole society:

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Prose writers like Klay, Power and Castner offer many examples of well worked prose, the result of long hours and revisions.   Some memoirs have a highly poetic quality to their prose; Benjamin Busch`s Dust to Dust (2012) is a particularly strong example.  However, poetry per se invites our attention both for the quality of the craft and whatever hard-earned truths the poet has brought back from war.   Randy Brown's 2015 collection, Welcome to FOB Haiku, is a series of near-virtuoso uses of the haiku form, but also draws on classical English forms such as the sonnet, as well as free verse.   Brown moves easily between modes, from low-mimetic comedy

You'd think the poo pond
would attract more mortar rounds,
but they can't hit sh...

to an Owenesque closing couplet that evokes the gulf of experience between civilian and veteran:

they do not grasp our names our found
on medals and on stones
and on the lips of friends who've seen
what sacrifice has been

Brian Turner's 2005 collection of poems, Here Bullet, based on his experience in Iraq, has a different quality than Brown's often colloquial tone, more formal and perhaps more introspective.   Turner's work is beautiful and haunting, and shows, as Dobkin notes in his essay, how war literature can create strains of empathy which complicate and even overcome the enemy's Otherness.   In Turner's ''In the Leuopold Scope'', a rifleman is suddenly connected with an Iraqi woman on a distant rooftop, hanging laundry.  In the soldier poet's mind, that woman becomes a muse channeling the countless war dead through her billowing clothing, creating a powerful sense that the soldier is an interloper, complicit in an eternal tragedy.

She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind's breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon's curving lens.

This survey has been partial at best.   I confess that I am woefully ignorant of war literature written by women veterans, whose experience of the Forever War included many combat and support roles.   Likewise there are no voices of African-American or Hispanic war writers.   There is a whole realm of literature from veterans of NATO armed forces that also played their part in the Forever War.  The UK's Patrick Hennessey (Junior Officer's Reading Club, 2009) is one example.  I would love to discover soldier writers and poets from Canada, Germany, and Denmark, to name just three of many allied countries.

Adin Dobkin has done us a great service by guiding us through an emerging and important body of work.  I hope that my own modest refinements make a further contribution in understanding the shape, variety and importance of contemporary war literature.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Diet, Fitness and Military Readiness: Connecting the Dots

Last week was an example of how two different news stories , while not directly connected, can nevertheless invite, even scream for, side by side comparison.

The first was this 26 April podcast from Freakonomics entitled "There’s A War On Sugar. Is It Justified?".  The podcast surveys the evolution of schools of thought on the increase in obesity rates, Type 2 Diabetes, and other related health issues. The podcast looks at how sugars the criteria used by scientists to determine if a substance is addictive, and also considers arguments how sugar came to be found in almost all commercial foods.  It then looks at the question of whether sugar should, or even should, be regulated in the way that, say, alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

As one of the experts on the podcast noted, regulation of sugar is problematic for many reasons:

It’s a difficult question, because sugar is safe when it’s used in moderation. But the problem is that most people are unaware of how much sugar they’re consuming. Also, if the data suggests that the sugar is producing addictive-like changes in the brain, then we’re talking about something very different. Because if you’re no longer be able to have full volitional control over your decision to eat or not eat the sugar, then that becomes a different type of discussion.

CAF personnel involved in emergency flood operations: one reason why soldiers need to be fit.

Next, consider this podcast of an interview with US Army Lieutenant General (retd) Mark Hertling on the connection between physical fitness and national security.

General Hertling has a degree in physiology, was a physical education instructor at West Point, and went on to be commander of the US Army in Europe before being appointed to a presidential panel on health and fitness.

In the podcast, he notes that today only 23% of US youth meet the physical standards necessary for service in the US military.  The remaining 77% are ineligible for various physical defects including lack of fitness and obesity.   Compare that rate of eligibility to the situation in 1917, as the US Army was gearing up for World War One, when 75% of US youth were physically fit to serve.

For leaders such as Gen. Hertling, these numbers are important because they determine the size of the recruit pool that allows militaries to maintain itself at a good state of operational readiness.  As a former commander of mine said, readiness is like the Alamo - the more men you have on the walls, the better off you are.

Gen. Hertling first noticed declines in the fitness of recruits around the year 2009, though he notes that a health crisis had been underway since the 1990s because of societal issues, among which he includes increase in divorce rates, changes in eating habits, amount and type of food served by the fast foot fast food industry, increase in obesity levels.  At the same time, changes and cuts to the public education system meant that mandatory PE classes were being cut by many states, at the same time  as leisure activities for children and young people became more sedentary.

The Army's basic training system thus had only ten weeks of physical training to compensate for this health crisis, , without physically damaging the recruits or driving them out of the military.  While the military made changes to its training, making time for more sleep and better nutrition, Hertling notes that society as a while has to make these changes by improving diet, giving opportunities for kids in K-12 to have physical activity in schools, reinforce this in families. As a footnote, I would love to hear what the General would say about Republican plans to roll back school nutrition standards set during the Obama era.

You might think that in a more technological era, physical fitness would be less important than cognitive abilities and education, but as Gen. Hertling notes, mental stamina is connected to physical stamina.  The nature of recent warfare, he said, is more continuous and more psychologically demanding than in previous conflicts, where soldiers might have periods out of the line and combat had a start/stop quality.  In contemporary warfare, the threat environment can be near constant.  In such conditions, fear is a stressor that can wear the body down as much as physical exertion, and thus physical fitness will be even more central to resilience and battlefield victory.

From a Canadian perspective, there is some evidence that our children and young people are less obese and more fit than are young Americans.  Even so, the Canadian Armed Forces has faced criticism in recent years for relaxing its entry fitness standards for recruits.  The base where I currently work is a dedicated training base, and recently I heard the commander speak about how many of the personnel here for months long training courses resent the cost of their compulsory meal plans.  His reason for not allowing an opt-out option was the high likelihood that trainees would then make poor food choices to save money, thus impairing their ability to train to course standards.

Clearly health, nutrition and fitness are and should be high importance concerns for all senior military leaders.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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