A pastor and marine describes the "spiritual uniform" he wears in both the city of God and the city of humankind. This particular landscape brings together the values of inclusive community, seeing the sacred in everything, authentic love, and service beyond self.
Send us your boy ... and we will give you a man.
(Valley Forge Military Academy, 1965–1968)
If you love me ... feed my sheep.
(Jesus of Nazareth)
Once a Marine ... Always a Marine.
(Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, U.S. Marine Corps, Korea, 1951)
Tears welled up in my eyes during morning worship. It was a pristine, clear blue October morning — not unlike September 11, 2001, in New York City years later, when more human life was to be obliterated in a fountain of flames and falling steel. I had arrived early for chapel at the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia that morning in 1983 to pray for my former fellow marines who had been blown to pieces in their barracks in Lebanon as they slept, crushed by the massive debris created by a truck loaded with plastic explosives.
I was anxious to know what had happened to these unsuspecting men and women, some of whom I might have served with and led as a young Marine Corps First Lieutenant a few years before. I wanted to know the names of those killed, those maimed, whose lives would be forever changed.
As the gathered seminary community of students and professors sang and prayed together that morning, I felt comforted by their love and faith, but my mind was focused on the marines, on their sacrifice, and their brave action to save others in the midst of chaos and death. My new seminary friends must have wondered what was wrong with me, for now my body was shaking with fresh emotion and abundant tears. And I remember feeling a hand on my shoulder, someone asking a whispered question about whether I was okay.
Called to Serve
Seated alone after morning prayer had ended — with all my emotions — I suddenly realized that my call to serve God from the streets of New York City had brought me to this place, to these students, to these faculty members, to this particular spiritual community that offered now comfort and hope in song and prayer. On that October morning my life changed once more: it was the culmination and recognition of my own unique journey as one who served his country and as one called to serve Christ's church.
To my mind, patriotism is neither sacred nor secular. It is its own unique calling.
I remembered too the community of young boys marching into St. Cornelius the Centurion chapel at Valley Forge Military Academy every Sunday, young cadets like myself — the long gray line of boys who would become men, leaders, patriots, and perhaps heroes like those magnificently rendered in the church's stained glass: George Washington praying in the bitter snow of Valley Forge, General George Marshall, General Dwight Eisenhower, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, soldiers and sailors of every war, presidents, and St. Cornelius the Centurion himself. But it was 1965 then — not 1983. And the Vietnam War was just beginning in earnest — a strange, faraway war that we Valley Forge cadets learned more and more about through confidential U.S. Army films, lectures by our military science teachers, and patriotic sermons by guest preachers through the years. When I graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1968, many of my fellow cadets volunteered for Vietnam and chose not to attend college. Many died. Embedded in a circle of concrete at the entrance to St. Cornelius chapel is a gold star that was saluted; it honored the sacrifice of every alumnus of Valley Forge who died serving the United States in a time of war.A Spiritual Uniform
The call to serve God in my life as a Lutheran pastor and former marine officer has placed me foursquare in the landscape of the city of God as well as the city of humankind. And both of these unique realities have brought a new understanding of the theological and secular tensions inherent in our American postmodern culture of neopatriotism.
Today you can go to the cinema and see polished film advertisements for the National Guard or the United States Army or the Marine Corps, replete with blazing guns, glory, and hip-hop soundtracks backing the patriotic hum of heroic action. You can go to the mall where recruiters stand ready to invite young people to climb into a Humvee mounted with a machine gun that points into a virtual Iraqi village battle scene.
And I wonder, is the promise of killing the new way we define patriotism and serving one's country? Has the city of humankind morphed into some virtual video game of bad guys and good guys? Us against them? Pride in one's country and its shared values lies at the heart of what is good in our country, but it has been usurped by our need to project power for power's sake; this is a fundamental change both in policy and philosophy.
As a pastor who did serve his country, I was granted a certain "cred" with those in my parishes who also served and considered themselves proud patriots. We came to an understanding together regarding the "spiritual uniform" we share in the city of God. We came to an understanding of the cross, of our baptisms into the life and death of Christ. Indeed, you can wear a flag pin on your lapel, but you can pin a cross on it too. Everything has its place in the cities of God and humankind.
Certainly, I have great respect for those who serve in the military as well as for their love of country. Being invited to speak and pray at national ceremonies for veterans has very much been a source of personal pride as well as an opportunity to explore the meaning of God and country with others. I remember well a special pastoral relationship I'd had with a vet who languished in a Veteran's Administration (VA) hospital for years, my prayers for him with his wife at my side, and the tender moments of blessing he gave to me. To be sure, I have visited many VA hospitals over the years and saluted many whose lives seemed unimaginably difficult and lonely. And I left those hospitals often in tears for these forgotten men and women.Seeing the Sacred
To my mind, patriotism is neither sacred nor secular. It is its own unique calling and a seminal part of being human. Unfortunately, our collective, innate desire to protect and defend those we love, which I believe is at the heart of patriotism, can be manipulated by fear and pride. Patriotism then becomes a kind of dysfunctional litmus test for allegiance to the nation rather than the free expression of love for others and defense of hearth and home in service to the community. This communal value at its core is inclusive rather than exclusive and promotes loving trust. As pastors we have an opportunity to speak to the need for community and to frame its spiritual values over against our culture's good-guy, bad-guy secular ethos.
One of the challenges of being a spiritual leader, I think, is to gently deconstruct the notion that one country is more worthy than another; that one country is blessed while others are not; that one country is chosen for a certain sacred destiny yet to be revealed. Every Christian especially should know and understand the forces that led to the rise of Hitler's Reich — the thin line between good and evil, between patriotic deception and courage in the face of lies. There is no doubt in my mind that because I served my country I was able to be heard and trusted as a pastor and as a person. But it is also true that I see myself first as a child of our Creator — regardless of the country I may live in. And so my faith indeed is not in principalities and powers, but in the loving God who teaches me to see the sacred in every living thing.Authentic Love
Jesus teaches us that there is only one master — not two. But we as human beings have many masters — self-interest being chief among them. I sense though, as a pastor, a real need and desire — especially among younger generations — to discover the powerful communal values that define our faith and natural patriotism, free of the baggage of false pride that contaminates authentic love of country. How can I celebrate God and country and the values of patriotism without cynicism? What does my faith teach me about the perils of nationalism in any form?
When I was a marine, I was taught to kill quickly and efficiently and to lead others into battle for the purpose of defending my country and our way of life. I was also taught to love my fellow marines more than I loved myself — to understand the meaning of sacrifice, courage, and integrity. When I was a young boy who went off to military school, I was taught the importance of duty, honor, and country. And in the safety and sanctuary of St. Cornelius, I discovered the God who loved and protected me from the violence of adolescent boys who wielded incredible power. When I was ordained in 1987, I was called to be like Christ in service to others, to be a "Christian soldier," as it were. I was asked to love my enemies, to be a vessel of compassion and mercy, to speak truth to power, to name what is evil, to absolve the sinner, and to become "a new creation."
Whether we have served our country or not, spiritual leaders that promote the values of community, humility, faith, and love are more important than ever. Teaching young people more about the spiritual uniform they wear in our culture as they seek to make it a better society is a special opportunity that is ever before us. Serving our God and country should not be mutually exclusive but rather informed by the fabric of connection and community in a broken world.Semper fidelis...Thomas Zulick, an ELCA pastor, has worked as a parish pastor and currently serves as deployed staff with the ELCA Foundation in Ohio.
See also Congregation Care for Vets
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).