Over the past decade or so I have witnessed some disturbing trends at church. One would have thought that our Lord Jesus Christ had, himself, worn a government-issued uniform, given how much reverence, gratitude, and appreciation we are led to collectively express for these folks during Mass. At first, it was a weekly prayer “for the troops,” which is fine. There is no human being, alive or dead, who doesn’t need prayers.
However, we never prayed for the innocent civilians in the countries Americans had invaded, who were killed, maimed, and tortured in far greater numbers than Americans.
We never prayed for the loved ones they left behind, the widows, the orphans.
We never prayed for the refugees.
We never prayed for our enemies.
The secular state holidays have become occasion for military remembrance and honorary tribute. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the church bulletin includes a message of thanks to veterans for protecting Americans’ freedom, which sends the message to churchgoers that American “wars” abroad have something to do with the Bill of Rights here at home, and the wars are therefore necessary and just (a dubious notion at best). At some point, militarism began to invade Christmas with camouflaged Christmas ornaments and patriotic displays upstaging the Eucharist.
In the last year, the Catholic Church has expanded its prayers to allow more folks in uniforms to get in on the prayer action. In addition to (or in lieu of) praying for military servicemen and women, Catholic Churches are now offering weekly prayers on Sundays for all “first responders.” One wonders how this became a national “thing.” (I have heard it in several states). It seems to mesh nicely with the overall message in the mass media that we are all on the brink of ruin all the time, threatened by an inexhaustible number of enemies and looming crises, and should live in fear and trembling awaiting the next crash, attack, disaster, or pandemic; thus we owe an infinite debt of gratitude to those who offer us safety, order, and protection in such a precarious and nefarious world. (Hm. Who benefits when we have a nation of nervous Nellie’s?)
Things seem to have reached a new threshold with American Sniper. We now have American priests coming right out and saying things in the media like: “Chris Kyle was an American hero.”
The primary concern of the Church is the salvation of souls. Christians are concerned with holiness, not heroism. Whether Chris Kyle was an American hero is a secular idea and a moot point, and a strange pronouncement for a priest to make, unless that priest is willing to ask the questions that naturally follow: Does heroism lead to holiness? Do heroes go to heaven? Before you write me an email vilifying me as a “liberal” who “hates” soldiers for asking these questions, let me say: I do not know if “heroes” go to heaven. Nobody knows. Only God can judge the human heart. What I’m saying is: it is dangerous to pretend that they automatically do. It’s also dangerous to pretend that the question I am asking is, itself, a moot point.
When churches and religious leaders constantly adore, praise and worship those who wear uniforms, carry guns, and embody secular ideas of heroism, it leads to misunderstanding and moral confusion among the faithful. People begin to equate this image of heroism with holiness, especially children. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a look at www.nogreaterloveart.com, where uniformed government agents are depicted with angels’ wings, angels of course being spiritual beings who are known for their ability to guard and protect. All you have to do is look at the “Soldier’s Stairway to Heaven,” very popular on Pinterest, or license plates and t-shirts that quote John 15:13 and hold up the service of the soldier as being second only to the “service” of Jesus. There is an idea that if you have fought in a war, you have “served your time in hell”; soldiers therefore go straight to heaven. But is such an idea spiritually and theologically acceptable? Does God offer bypasses?
Heroism and holiness have many things in common: They both require strength, courage, devotion, fortitude, self-sacrifice. But all of those qualities could be attributed to people fighting for ISIS just as well, even faith. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” There is no holiness without renunciation; that does not mean that every act of renunciation leads to holiness. The way of perfection requires hardship; not all hardship helps us on our way to perfection. In short, not all suffering is redemptive.
It is easy to look at someone like Chris Kyle, who believed (continue reading)