Veterans: A new era of serving God and country

By James Magness
Posted Nov 11, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] Editor’s note: This piece first appeared online in The Huffington Post‘s Religion Section.

For many people of my generation who came of age through rites of passage in the 1960s, military service most often was looked upon as the least preferred life choice. Even amongst those of us who joined the military service through our own choice — often to avoid the Selective Service which, we reasoned, surely would have resulted in Vietnam duty — it was fashionable, and at times expected, that we would let it be known to anyone who would listen that we detested military authority and wearing a uniform. Those of us who grew up with a religious dimension as a part of our lives knew that we would receive little if any support for our choice to serve from our faith communities. Within the communities of worship in America attitudes about military service were often angrily expressed. In fact, for those of us who were spiritually formed in the main-line religious traditions, the only support we could expect was if we had chosen to become conscientious objectors.

Today the social and religious landscape of America is changing. While seeking the status of being a Conscientious Objector may be an honorable choice, there are other honorable choices as well. During that era I chose to be one of the draft-avoiders and joined the Navy. Though by that time I had a mostly dormant faith in God, even I knew that I need not expect much support from people in the pews — and perhaps not even from the clergy who led the congregations.

For those and other reasons many of us today struggle to understand why young men and women, frequently people of faith, are so eager to line up at Armed Forces Recruiting Offices to join up, be administered the oath of office and take the roller coaster-like ride of basic training or boot camp. The Marine Corps, the military service with the highest expectations and most demanding standards, has so many requests to join that an applicant may have to wait six months or more to go to boot camp. Considering that we have just completed 10 years of a brutal and ongoing war, and that there is no requirement for compulsory military service, something is happening that most of us may have missed.

My observation is that a new ethos is emerging about military service. Even though far less than 1 percent of our citizens of our country serve in any branch of the military, as a society we have become very connected with men and women in the military services. A significant part of this positive connectedness in no small part has come as a result of all the National Guard and Reserve members from our communities who serve alongside their active-duty counterparts. It is very possible today for a soldier, sailor, marine or airman to be in Afghanistan one week and then the very next week be back at home working in the office and sitting beside you in the pew of your synagogue, church or mosque.

I recognize that any war, by the very nature of what people who are engaged in armed conflict do to one another, will always be viewed through the lens of moral questions. Some of these questions will be faith-based. It is always possible that military service will result in periods of being immersed in the moral tension of war. As a follower of Jesus Christ I hope we will never cease to view the actions of our military within the context of the scriptures and teachings of the church. Though the wars of the current era are no exception, our military leaders impress me as having an incredibly high standard of moral and legal requirements that must be met before engaging in doing personal harm to our enemies. Accordingly, I think it is certainly very possible that people of faith can honorably serve in our country’s Armed Services.

Within my own Christian tradition I am reminded that Jesus viewed the service of others and self-sacrifice as one of the superior virtues (Matthew 23.11-12). To those of you who are in some way related to a service member or count a service member as an important person in your life, thanks for supporting your loved one in uniform. The life of a service member is not easy, nor is it easy for you to be connected to her or him. I hope that on Veterans Day this year, you will be able to suspend your fears and anxieties, even if only for the day, and simply be proud that you are related and connected to a person who is serving her or his country, and who may be serving as an expression of faith

— Bishop James “Jay” Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of the Episcopal Church. Based in Washington D.C., he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 in the rank of Captain, serving as command chaplain of U.S. Joint Forces Command and fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Prior to those assignments, from 1997 to 2000 he was on the Navy Chief of Chaplains’ staff as personnel manager of the Navy Chaplain Corps.