I quite enjoyed reading Logan Mehl-Laituri’s Reborn on the 4th of July for the Patheos Book Club this month. Mehl-Laituri was weakly religious, but, while serving in the US Army, he became more deeply engaged with Christianity and ultimately decided that his newfound faith was incompatible with his job shooting people.
It’s obviously an emotional as well as an intellectual journey for Mehl-Laituri, but since I tend to be an unfeeling reader, wishing for a little less personality and a bit more theology in these kinds of books, I was delighted that Mehl-Laituri has helpfully included several appendices on his religious beliefs, military law, a concordance of biblical citations about soldiers, etc, so the reader is free to wonk out.
It turns out there are two types of contientious objectors under US law. The first is exactly what you think of: someone whose religious and/or philosophical beliefs mean they cannot serve in the military in good conscience. But it turns out there’s a second classification: someone who won’t carry a weapon or do any harm to the enemy, but is willing to serve in other capacities. It turns out that Mehl-Laituri sought the second, extremely uncommon classification. He wanted to be redeployed with his unit to Iraq, but could not consent to harming Iraqis.
The army did not allow him to return with his unit, and I was left wondering how and whom Mehl-Laituri intended to serve as a non-combatant. Would he be complicit with killing? Or at least, any more complicit than he is as a tax-payer? Did he intend to ship out as his comrades’ keeper, and try and protect them from the wounds they were inflicting on their souls, however unknowingly? As a Christian, how much hold do national loyalties have on him? He didn’t go into detail on this point, but my impression was that he wanted to return to Iraq because he felt a powerful communion with the individuals he had served with.I don’t particularly want to talk about the justice of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or whether a bad war creates an obligation to see it through to a good peace. The question I found most interesting is: What kind of resistance should Christians offer to injustice? Violence only seems useful if we’re using it against other people the way we would against a rabid dog. There’s an immediate danger, and, regretfully, we don’t have a way to heal or reason with the aggressor. And then we get to the question of martyrdom.
Ultimately, Mehl-Laituri has a duty to everyone on the field of battle, but no clear way to serve. His conflict feels a lot higher stakes than the way we deal with quotidian enemies, but there are a lot of kinds of non-lethal resistance and opposition that run the risk of being unloving. I’ve got a lot of questions and a couple interesting source texts to riff on here, so stay tuned over the next few days and browse through the posts tagged “radical forgiveness” and “sin eaters/dirty hands” for some background.
Bonus points if you can guess which Shakespearean soliloquy has been running through my head since I read Mehl-Laituri’s book and will be the topic of tomorrow’s post.