Below is a story submitted by James. We asked James to tell his story about his journey from military veteran to donating his guns to RAWtools. Trigger Warning: suicide, combat
— RAWtools (@RAWtools) March 10, 2017
Radical Red Letters – My Journey from Soldier to Pacifist
Those red letters. Those inconvenient, beautiful, challenging, and freeing red letters will get you every time. I know they sure got me. If you ask those closest to me, they’d tell you that I’d be the last person in the world to be writing these words. I’d be the last to be writing on my evolution from infantry NCO to someone who embraces Christian nonviolence. With apologies to the Apostle Paul, looking back at my life, I think I may challenge him for the title of “chief among sinners”. Thankfully, though, my story didn’t end while I was wallowing with the pigs like the Prodigal Son. Instead, those red letters drew me back to my Father’s embrace. This is my story…
I grew up in the fundamentalist Baptist world. It was a world filled with judgement, anger, and an alarming lack of love. The god that they created reflected those “values”. Saying the “sinner’s prayer” was part of my nightly routine. I didn’t love God. I was terrified of Him. My life quickly began to reflect the violent, angry god that I was raised on. I was a bully, so much so that I ended up being suspended on many occasions, always for fighting. Violence solved everything, or so I deluded myself into thinking. This was reinforced by an idolatrous view of America and its bloody history, and especially an idolatrous view of American soldiers, that was prevalent in my churches.
By the time I had gone to college, though, it became clear I had a serious problem. Not only was violence so ingrained into who I was, but because of the scars of the fundamentalist world I grew up in, I had run from God as quickly as I could. After being suspended from a city league softball team for hurling vile comments towards an official, I was forced to begin anger management treatment. The problem, however, is that managing my anger was pointless without Christ. What I failed to see then was that I needed to become an entirely new person altogether. I needed a radical transformation, which was still years away. I needed the transformation that only our nonviolent Savior could bring. But, even in those dark days light shone through, for this was when I had met my wife, Heather. We were both in the same place spiritually. If you asked either of us if we were Christians, we’d emphatically say “yes!”. Our lives, however, screamed the exact opposite. We were textbook “cultural Christians”. It’s amazing to look back and see God’s fingerprints in the most unlikely of places, but here they were, all over the meeting of two people who had no interest in Him.
Shortly after graduating, I did what seemed natural. I enlisted in the Army. But, I didn’t just enlist. I wanted to fight. I wanted to kill. So, I became an airborne infantryman. What better way to prove how “manly” I was? Of course, I was using the world’s toxic standard of what makes a “man”, instead of looking to the beautiful, nonviolent standard of Jesus Christ. I had deployed to Iraq in October 2006 out of Alaska. I look at my time “in country” with horror. Sure, what we did to the Iraqi people was bad enough, but what terrifies me most is just how dehumanized I had become. And this process of dehumanization started from day one of Basic Training. I recall how we would march to chow while calling cadences that involved chopping up children with machetes. I remember how common it was to joke about dead babies. Everything was focused on dehumanizing the soldier and the enemy. It becomes much easier to kill when, in your mind, you and the “enemy” are nothing but mere animals. It is this dehumanization that led me to laugh as an innocent Iraqi’s stomach fluid blew back on our medic’s face as he was practicing an unnecessary tracheotomy on his lifeless body. It is this dehumanization that led me to give an 8 yr old boy a can of chewing tobacco just because I wanted to see him throw up. I had become an animal.
After six years, my body and mind were broken. Addiction to pain pills and subsequent spinal fusion surgery ended my military career, although I had already grown tired of the Army way of life. I had even grown tired of life itself. The previous six years had been littered with pain, for myself and those who loved me. I had the constant desire to end it all. It was here that I hit rock bottom. It was here that I lay in a bathtub with loaded gun in hand while slamming my head against the tile wall. I wanted it all to be over, and it would have been had it not been for the living evidence of God’s grace in my life…my wife and best friend. She dragged me through that time, often kicking and screaming, until it was time to move on to the next phase of my then-godless life. Before moving on, though, I do want to add something about my time in the Army. While I typically don’t speak of my time in the Army in a positive light, I also developed some of my deepest, most meaningful friendships there. I love my brothers deeply and do not wish to demean them in any way, especially since I know that their motivations behind serving are pure. Most soldiers serve with a genuine desire to do good, and I think that’s something that is important to recognize.
So, I was finally a “free” man. While I was free of the Army, I was still enslaved by the shackles of anger and violence. I had received a job offer in Houston, TX so we moved there. Since my wife and I were both born in Texas, this seemed like a natural place to settle. We started trying to fill that emptiness in our lives by pursuing the American Dream. We had looked for a house in the suburbs and ended up making an offer on five different homes. We didn’t see it then, but God’s fingerprints were all over something as simple as our search for a house. After all was said and done, we bought a house across the street from a Church of Christ. Given that my wife was raised in the Church of Christ, we decided to visit. Our motivation wasn’t to grow in, or rediscover, our faith. We simply knew that both of our parents would ask about the church across the street, so we visited to simply check off a box. Walking into that church, though, changed our lives forever. I had never walked into a church and felt love. It was a weird feeling. It was immediately disarming. God, in all His wonderful craftiness, planted a seed that day.
The preaching minister at the time was a man named Aaron. We began soaking up his messages. God used him to water that seed. My wife and I began pulling out our bibles at night while we sat in bed and just talk about what we’re reading. We would pick each other’s brains. I’d typically email Aaron the next day to ask him what he thought on a topic, expecting he’d tell us we’re crazy for reading it as we did. Then we got to those beautiful red letters. Those red letters are quite the challenge. I began asking, “what if Jesus meant what He said?” I don’t know how many times I uttered that question. What if Jesus was serious when He said to not resist an evil person, to turn the other cheek, to put our swords (or guns) away because those who take up the sword (or gun) will die by the sword (or gun), and to love our enemies? What would that look like? Is it even possible? I couldn’t get past these teachings. I’d read how we’re to be imitators of Christ, and that, as Isaiah prophesied, Christ committed no violence. How can we imitate the nonviolent One, while justifying any violence? Surely, I couldn’t be the only one to see this, but I looked at the American church and figured that it had to be me that was wrong. I mean, how could so many be so wrong?
I started digging even deeper, especially into the early church. I’d read the writings of some of the great early church fathers, men like Origen, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. I would read about Stephen and how the early church responded to violence. I’d marvel at what I read and think “now, THAT looks like Jesus!” I couldn’t get past the fact that in the first 300+ years of the church, no church father attempted to justify the use of violence, even in self-defense. That had to mean something. I began reading about the pacifist tradition within the church, from the early church to the Anabaptist and Church of Christ traditions. So, one day I looked at my wife and said, “I don’t see how I, as a follower of Christ, can be anything but a pacifist.” But, as anyone who is committed to Christian nonviolence will tell you, it’s not just a belief. It’s not just a way of looking at the world. It’s all that, but so much more. It’s a call to action. Being an imitator of our nonviolent Savior requires action because Christ acted. His love was an active, nonviolent, self-sacrificial love aimed at showing us a new Way. A Way centered on Christ crucified…the exact representation of God’s enemy-loving, nonviolent nature. The cross, such a grotesque device designed to torture and kill, was recast into a symbol of the greatest weapon we have against evil, which is the nonviolent self-sacrificial love of our Savior. That’s how we’re supposed to love, as Christ loved…even to the point of death. I had to be willing to sacrifice my comfort and my security. But sacrifice requires action, so I began to look into how that would look for me in today’s society. That is when I found organizations, such as RAWtools and Christian Peacemaker Teams. These are organizations that have embraced the active and nonviolent love of God.
It was time to be more than a hearer of the Word, but a doer. So I contacted RAWtools. I had an AK-47 and a .357 Taurus that I couldn’t justify owning any longer. How could I, someone who follows a nonviolent Savior who gives life abundantly, own something designed to take life? How could I say that all humanity bears the image of our Creator, and also own something designed to remove His divine image from the world? I had many friends and family offer to buy them from me, but I turned them all down. It wasn’t just a matter of not wanting to own them anymore, but I wanted to make sure that those guns would never take a life. Sure, I knew that I could keep them in a safe and never use them against another person. But there’s still no way to guarantee they would never be used to take a life. There’s no way to guarantee they’ll never be stolen, or even worse, accessed by one of our children. There is only one way to ensure these weapons would never be used to rob the world of God’s image, and that was to beat these swords into plowshares.
I also knew my own weakness. I was keenly aware of my battles with depression and that, in those darkest of moments, I couldn’t even trust myself around these guns. It was a fear of which I was reminded on February 28th of this year. It’s a day that will stay with me forever, as one of my dearest friends, someone I consider a brother and love deeply, lost this battle. In all the yelling over gun control versus the 2nd amendment, suicide is often something that is rarely mentioned. Yet nearly two thirds of all gun-related deaths are due to suicide. While it’s true that someone who is intent on taking their life will find a way to attempt it, it’s also true that attempts that do not involve a firearm are far more likely to be survived than those involving a firearm. There’s no panicked 911 call to have them pump your stomach or stop the bleeding of the wrist. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Will or his wife and children left behind. I want to be mad at him. I want to cry because it pains me to know that he was in such pain. I want to cry because I’m in pain. But, all I can do is be there for his family in any way they may need. The gun that he used, though, will never be used again. It will be disabled, sent to RAWtools, and then come back as something useful. Just as Christ transformed the hideousness of the cross into something of infinite beauty, so do His followers seek to be His imitators by turning that which is hideous and painful into something beautiful. It will be something that will draw my mind and heart to one of the finest men I had the honor to know. As I type this through the tears, all I can say is that I love you and miss you so much, Will. You will always be my brother.
That’s how I ended up here. A life full of anger and violence radically changed forever because those revolutionary words in red. I’ve heard all the accusations…”you’re naïve”, “you’re a coward”, “your way doesn’t work”. I’m called, though, to be faithful. The Jesus way isn’t always viewed as pragmatic or even effective, as man defines them. But it is always stunningly beautiful. It hasn’t been easy. It has led to tension with family. It’s even led to having to find a new church family with which to walk and grow. But, all I can do is be faithful to the Spirit’s call. It may result in pain, enslavement, or even death. One thing I do know is that no matter where it may lead, I know that I’ll be free. Maybe not free from pain or oppression, but I’ll be free in Christ. And that makes all the difference in the world. There is a reason why we hold up the martyrs of our faith…those who have faced their deaths with nonviolent love of enemies. It’s because that is when we most see Christ on display. Let’s strive to be imitators of Him who committed no violence and show the world the only Way to peace and reconciliation. Lord, make us instruments of Your peace.