So you want to be a peace church? Start by welcoming veterans and together, deepen your understanding of Christ’s peace. How might churches deeply rooted in a peace tradition engage with fellow human beings whose bodies and souls bear the marks of war? What does peace-, church-, or hospitality-for-veterans look like in the context of a militarized culture? Many of the points below come from personal conversations with veterans, some of whom are now pastors.
As a society, we have failed to find alternatives to our persistent use of bombs, tanks and bullets. So we all share responsibility for the wounds and scars that veterans bring home. With this in mind, we offer these practical steps for engagement with veterans:
1. Take expressions of guilt and remorse seriously. Some veterans have seen and done things in combat that have been deeply harmful and wounding on many levels. Don’t minimize what the veteran may be feeling, yet be especially attentive to expressions of shame or worthlessness. Offer grace. Refer to spiritual counselors or pastors as appropriate.
2. Be aware of your own perspectives and emotions as you relate to veterans. Don’t argue. Engage in genuine, respectful discussions. Explore issues and concerns together.
3. Pray. Offer public and private prayers for veterans and their families even as you offer prayers for the civilian victims of war. Pray for your own sensitivity to the veteran’s needs and for the leading of God’s Spirit in your relationship.
4. Be yourself. Don’t hide your beliefs about Jesus’ way of peace. Many veterans are genuinely in search of understandings of God and faith that offer courageous alternatives to war and violence.
5. Don’t assume that every relationship with a veteran will blossom into a deep, mutual friendship, or that all veterans that you meet will readily respect peace and nonviolence as the path to true security. If/when perspectives clash, engage in respectful dialogue.
6. Remember that the families of veterans may also be experiencing stress, especially if the veteran is struggling with PTSD or moral pain. Pay attention to the needs of the family.
It is important to remember that peace churches and veterans are all part of one militarized context. We are both at the same time, longing to live for peace while also tied to systems and economies of violence. We are Saul, the one who stood and watched Stephen being stoned, and we are Paul who urged the early church to love their enemies and overcome evil with good. As pacifists and veterans engage with one another we do so with humility, knowing that we all need God’s help to overcome the violence within and the oppressive systems from without.