Good Conscience: A Response to "Reborn on the Fourth of July"
The great French film director Francois Truffaut once said it was impossible to make an anti-war film; the truly successful film would—just by depicting the drama, tension, and violence of battle—almost certainly entice an audience into excitement about war. This quote inspired an Internet meme: "Truffaut was right" (alternatively known as "Do Not Do This Cool Thing").
I begin with this observation not just because evil unfortunately always seems much more enticing than good (John Milton's Paradise Lost famously makes Satan its most interesting character, and Thomas Kenneally says in Schindler's List that it is a difficult thing to have to write about virtue) but because it's rare that we allow ourselves (or are allowed) to even think through these reactions.
That's why I think Logan Mehl-Laituri's new book Reborn on the Fourth of July is so important. It actually dissects his (and our) reactions to war and battle in such a psychologically and theologically honest way that we can honestly say that with this book, he has written something that is genuinely anti-war.
We celebrate the Fourth of July this week, and patriotism fills the air. And yet I've chosen to write about this new book by a conscientious objector who wrestled not just with his conscience, but with the Army and also with his relationship to American Christian culture. Raising such a topic at this time might seem anti-American, but I don't intend that. In Faithful Citizenship, I said something very much like Mr. Mehl-Laituri does in his book: "I love my country. But I love God more."
Because so many Americans claim Christianity as home base, it is important that we ask the hard questions about why we go to war, what our aims should be, how we treat those with whom we fight, how we treat those who fight on our behalf, and what the Christian tradition says about war and violence. And what better time to do that than when we celebrate our freedoms to think, worship, and associate as we wish?
At one point, Mr. Mehl-Laituri alludes to Augustine's Confessions, and talks about how he wanted to take that title for his book. In doing so, he consciously references the modern meaning of the word: the confession of a penitent to a priest, or of a wrongdoer to some other authority. But as Garry Wills writes in his biography of Augustine, Augustine would have understood "confession" in three ways, only one of which would have been about 'fessing up to one's sins.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.