John 15:12-15; Romans 8:35, 37-39
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 12, 2017
Fr. Richard Rohr describes how Japanese towns helped their soldiers to re-integrate into society when they returned at the end of World War II:
Japanese communities had the savvy to understand that many of their returning soldiers were not fit or prepared to reenter civil or humane society. Their only identity for their formative years had been to be a “loyal soldier” to their country: they needed a broader identity to once again rejoin their communities as useful citizens.
So these Japanese communities created a communal ritual whereby a soldier was publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.”
- Falling Upwards
Today, we have no such rituals to aid our returning vets. Obviously, we must do something creatively different to help our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
These veterans return to a society that, for the most part, does not recognize them, does not help them to re-integrate into our society, and does not listen to – much less learn from – their stories.
Paul said that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” But if there is no one to put hands and feet and voices to that love, how can it be seen, how can it be felt, how can it be known?
Somehow, we must help our veterans make the transition back into our society. But our society is so individualized, so focused on individuals, that we have forgotten how to help our returning vets these days.
Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, describes the way the Iroquois Nation made such transitions possible and helpful for their warriors:
The Iroquois Nation presumably understood the transformative power of war when they developed parallel systems of government that protected civilians from warriors and vice versa. Peacetime leaders, called sachems, were often chosen by women and had complete authority over the civil affairs of the tribe until war broke out. At that point war leaders took over, and their sole concern was the physical survival of the tribe. They were not concerned with justice or harmony or fairness; they were concerned only with defeating the enemy. If the enemy tried to negotiate an end to hostilities, however, it was the sachems, not the war leaders, who made the final decision. If the offer was accepted, the war leaders stepped down so that the sachems could resume leadership of the tribe.
The Iroquois system reflected the radically divergent priorities that a society must have during peace time and during war. Because modern society often fights wars far away from the civilian population, soldiers wind up being the only people who have to switch back and forth.
The earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own. Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country; it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half.
A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.
We have lost the connectedness of a true tribe. Not only do those who return from war need loving acceptance, they need, just as much, to feel valuable. Our society is not very good at making sure that that message of being valuable is given.
And it is not just veterans; the message we often give to both children and the elderly in our society is that they are either not yet valuable – children – or past being valuable – the elderly.
In his book, Voices in the Stone, Kent Nerburn comments on this:
I often think of two small events that had profound significance in my life.
The first was a conversation I had with my teenage son and one of his friends when I asked their advice about what I should say to a gathering of a thousand fathers and sons at a wealthy boys’ school in the South where I was scheduled to speak.
This was a school that had produced scientists and senators; it was where the wealthy and most influential men in the country sent their sons to receive the best education money could buy.
I could not imagine what I could say that would be of value to these fathers and sons.
So I asked my son and his friend what they would like to tell their fathers, if they were given the chance.
My son’s friend, whose artistic predilections and leftof-center lifestyle had estranged him from his financial planner father, thought for a moment and then spoke with heartfelt conviction.
“We just wish we could do something to help you,” he said. “You do so much for us, but we can do nothing for you. We just wish we could do something to help you.”
His father was a good parent, competent and caring. He had held his son to exacting standards of behavior, provided him with all that he needed, and been present to him all through his childhood and youth.
But the best parenting he could provide could not give his son the one thing he needed to feel worthy and significant – the capacity to be useful.
His son had been kept in the liminal status of an “adult in waiting.” He had not been able to make a claim on any identity that served a larger good and connected him fundamentally to a larger purpose and greater sense of community.
When, a week later, I passed this along to the fathers and sons at the banquet as they sat together around their linen-covered tables in their blazers and regimental ties, there was an almost audible gasp when I repeated the words of my son’s friend. All across the room I could see the sons nodding a quiet assent, while the fathers had a look of stunned recognition.
The second event was more solitary and poignant.
My mother, widowed for several years, had finally consented to move into a senior living complex.
She was a complicated woman, deeply insightful, deeply aware, and deeply harmed by both her childhood with an alcoholic father and the culturally constricting times into which she had been born.
My sisters and I did what we could to make her happy in her new life, but she saw too clearly what her world had become. Though on the surface she made the best of things, in her deepest heart she was inconsolable.
One day when I went to see her, I found her sitting alone in the empty corridor outside her apartment, slumped over in her wheelchair, crying.
I went up, put my arms around her, and asked what was wrong.
“I can’t do anything for anybody,” she said between sobs. “I’m of no use to anybody.”
I tried to tell her that her life had been a gift to us all, and that her presence remained a treasure that we all valued. But I knew the truth of what she was saying. She was vestigial, in both the culture and the family.
Her children came to her to honor her; her grandchildren listened to her respectfully. But no one came to her for advice or teachings, and she had been accorded no cultural status either as the teacher of the young or as the wise, disinterested adjudicator of disputes.
How much better, how much more humane would it have been if in the winter of her life she had been given the responsibility of passing on her knowledge of the past and called upon to dispense her insights about life as more than fodder for school projects?
But she was called upon for none of this. Her cultural role was finished; the familial visits were almost more an obligation than an opportunity.
She was left alone with her memories and her small, rapidly fading life.
Cultures, like individuals, reveal much about themselves by the way they treat the elders and the children.
In this regard, we have much to learn from Native ways. In their world it is understood that, despite the fact that the young and old are economic burdens, they have gifts to offer that only they can give.
Is it any wonder that so many in our society feel alienated, and of little worth?
When veterans come home today, we must find a way that they can still have something of value to give to us all.
When people become older and unable to work in the way they used to do, we must find a way to enable them to still have something of value to give to us all. And, as children grow up, we must help them to learn how to give their own special gifts, helping them to know that they are valuable, and they can already contribute to our society in a way that is valuable to us all.
If we understand that each person we encounter is valuable to God, loved by God, a friend, not a servant, then every person has something of unique value to contribute.
Our task is to help every person to uncover and understand their unique value: veterans, children, elderly, family, friends and strangers, and each of us- each and every person.