Alienation and Reconciliation

Alienation and Reconciliation

Deacon Jason Ketz

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

Declaration of Independence and American Flag

Of the many unintended consequences that stem from this confluence of Christianity and “the American experiment,” I would like to look at only one, which requires a brief setup. The belief that all men are endowed with the right to life plays readily into Christian doctrine, which has always placed a high value on human life. Man is created in God’s image and likeness, so it follows that the taking of a life is a crime not only against fellow man, but also against our Creator, by destroying His image and usurping His authority over life.   From Cain and Abel through the Deluge, all the way to the Decalogue, the sanctity of life is affirmed and its taking is condemned.   Christ’s incarnation serves to amplify these beliefs immeasurably, by showing that humans are able to receive not only salvation, but that the human is an integral part of God’s saving plan.These words are taken from the Declaration of Independence, the famous document that severed the union between England and the colonies that would later form the United States.  Since they were written over two centuries ago, nearly all members of Western Society have internalized these words. Many of us would hold this statement to be a universal truth. So, like a rising tide, this political idea of ours relentlessly drives us to take action, continually reshaping and reforming our society, our laws and our policy, and continually.  And actions, as we all know, can have unintended consequences.

alienationIt’s no wonder, then, that American Christians see an easy pairing of scriptural lessons with the tenets set forth in the Declaration of Independence (by Christian politicians, no less). So Christians, including Orthodox Christians in America were early adopters of a highly pro-life ethic, in a sense much broader than the Roe v. Wade debates. Every life is sacred. Meanwhile, America continues to live out its political interests (including, but certainly not limited to the democratic ideals proposed in the Declaration of Independence) outside our nation’s borders, through diplomacy, and also through military force. And this combination creates an unexpected, and ultimately unintended consequence.  The Christian-ness of the American Ideal makes it possible and often appealing for Christians to volunteer for military service.  But our pro-life ethos presents an incredible challenge for our beloved soldiers upon their return.  How does one approach the chalice after having been trained to take human life?

Many people are instantly skeptical or dismissive of such a question, asking  ”˜How could a soldier ever have such concerns?’ and claiming that there is nothing incompatible between military service and the Christian faith.  I agree that our soldiers need not feel  alienated from the Church on account of their service, but what ”˜should’ happen and what ”˜does’ happen are often not the same.[1]

The Orthodox Church could certainly have a more clearly articulated and better known position on war and military service. This is not due necessarily to a lack of scholarship, but to the dissemination of the research into the wider community. Complimenting some very well expressed viewpoints are a collection of primarily pastoral responses that one is likely to hear at any given parish if the subject comes up. [2] When an otherwise competent seminary graduate, priest or theologian is confronted with questions about violence, military, war, etc., it is incredibly easy to solicit a response that does not display a consistent logic, and they rarely make good sense of the violence in the Old Testament.[3] The root of this issue is most likely that that military matters are not discussed frequently in civilian Church circles. Meanwhile, our teachings on the sanctity of life are nearly inescapable in Orthodox circles. No wonder, then, that a person (and especially a soldier) wonders, for instance, whether there is a difference of consequence between murder and the taking of a life in battle.


So this is our unintended consequence in the American theater of Orthodoxy. We preach the sanctity of life so heavily that we risk alienating those who defend our own ”˜inalienable right’ to life. This is a tragedy writ large!  Unfortunately, too few of us will have the time and expertise to contribute to a theological discussion about war and military service. But this is not what is needed most of all. We owe our soldiers a debt, and it is a debt paid not merely with thanksgiving, but through reconciliation.

I have chosen the word reconciliation very deliberately, despite its common sacramental association with confession and repentance. Our soldiers – who are also our friends, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our parents, and even our own children – are a part of the Church, and are therefore part of the body of Christ. If a member of the body of Christ perceives himself or herself to be alienated, this is a condition that affects us all, and one that we must take extraordinary steps to remedy.  Our veterans have made incredible sacrifices on our behalf. We cannot for a moment let one of their sacrifices be their place in our community. Reconciliation is precisely what soldiers describe themselves as needing, whether or not this involves any rite of forgiveness of sin. Our soldiers need to reconnect with us, and we need to reconnect with them. Therefore, those of us who remain at home have the responsibility of vigilance. Our task is to watch for soldiers, and run out to greet them upon their return.[4]  This is our first and most important step in addressing the unintended consequence of alienation that occasionally plagues our troops. And this step, once taken, makes a world of difference.

[1] I do not wish to overstate my case here. Not all soldiers struggle with this issue, and the struggles of soldiers returning from combat extend far beyond the realm of Eucharistic Theology or Anthropology. But These concerns have been expressed by more than one soldier that I have met, and what is more distressing, the concerns have been expressed by soldiers who have otherwise returned to life ”˜back home’ with relatively few issues.  So we should neither exaggerate nor ignore the possibility that the teachings and beliefs we choose to emphasize in our parishes might present difficulties for certain cross-sections of the population, in certain circumstances – like this one.

[2] Dr Stephen Muse and the Rev Dr Philip LeMasters have both addressed these subjects in recent years, and provide a well-informed and authentically “Orthodox” viewpoint.

[3] Even when addressed, it is usually qualified and dismissed. How often I have heard justification of all the violence in Caanan as “it was a different time back then.” Curious that nobody says that about the Decalogue with any seriousness.

[4] I am so drawn to the image of the father running out and greeting the prodigal son on his return, clothing him, giving him the signet ring, and throwing a feast in his honor. (Lk 15:20-23) My hesitancy to cite it outright is that the prodigal’s prior behavior should in no manner be compared to the honorable duty undertaken by a soldier. So can one capture the snapshot of the father’s embrace and successfully detach it from a memory of the son’s sins?  If this is too difficult a task, perhaps Esau’s embrace of his brother Jacob is more appropriate. See Gen 33:4.