Fifteen years ago, I waded into the pool of an apartment complex in Waikiki on the island of Oahu. Moments later I would be immersed in the warm, pee-infused water to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Little did I know that I was also wandering into a centuries-old debate about God and country, about what it means to be a Christian soldier. It was the Fourth of July, and I was a noncommissioned officer in the Army preparing for a second combat deployment to Iraq.
My first had been in 2004, where, out of sheer boredom, I had started reading Bible commentaries. The more attention I gave it, the more fascinated I became with Christianity; Jesus was far more gritty and real then I remembered from youth group. I read the beatitudes from a bunker after an insurgent hit our base’s ammo point, “if anyone strikes you the right cheek, turn the other also.” My platoon was tasked with finding “rocket man” the next morning and I felt like the biggest hypocrite in the world.
My baptism was the result of more than a year of soul searching. As a forward observer for the artillery, I was basically an infantryman with a heavier ruck and higher ASVAB score. I couldn’t square being a so-called “trigger puller” with following the Prince of Peace, but I had no beef with military service itself. A few months before my baptism I had applied to be a noncombatant conscientious objector, to deploy with my unit without a firearm.
Scripture, history and the Uniform Code of Military Justice each allow for Christians to serve their nations nonviolently. In the New Testament, there are the soldier saints attracted to John’s baptism in Luke 3, Longinus at Christ’s execution, Cornelius of Acts 10 and the Jailer of Philippi in Acts 16. There are also innumerable patriotic pacifists who served with such distinction that they were awarded the Medal of Honor, including Desmond Doss in WWII, and Thomas Bennett in Vietnam.
That saying about the devil being in the details is misleading; complexity is the devil’s refuge because Christians have short attention spans. Over and over, I encountered God-fearing, well-intentioned believers from both sides of the political spectrum that preferred to ignore details which, as a Christian soldier, I could not. For example, not all soldiers are killers and not all wars are just. There is something wrong when we think things fall so easily into cheap binaries like progressive or conservative, Democrat or Republican, military or civilian, war or peace, love or justice.
Six days after I was baptized, I got kicked out of my infantry company and denied the opportunity to deploy with my battle buddies. Those responsible for moving me had no knowledge or interest in military history or law, preferring to “just get rid of [me] as fast as we possibly can.” I had to conform to their own personal expectations of service, rather than to Army regulations or military tradition. It was their way or the highway.
Structure and order are kind of the military’s thing. One can forgive my chain of command, ignorant of men like Doss or Bennett, for shutting down what they saw as insubordination. The fact of the matter is that the law did and does allow Christians to serve nonviolently, it is a freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Fourth of July is the day that Americans remember the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a living document that insists people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This year it falls on a Sunday, calling to mind “Nature’s God” by whom many Americans believe these freedoms are vouchsafed. In many communities, Christians will leave services that celebrated soldiers to go to a military parade in their community and do it again.
When churches and communities make these token gestures, they obscure the complicated reality that soldiers and veterans inhabit. The truth is that Americans, including Christians, expect military families to shut up and play the part they’ve been assigned, regardless of the part they have played. It is not about what soldiers have been, but what they represent for others. If we do not ask questions, it is because we do not see the need.
Emerging from that pee-water fifteen years ago, I had to ask questions because the answers given to me about Christian soldiers felt inadequate at best and dishonest at worst. To some Christians, the military was God’s hand of judgment. To others, the military was inherently sinful. July 4th is supposed to evoke independence, but Americans seemed to have forfeited their rational faculties to partisan sloganeering. Being Reborn on the Fourth of July became my life’s work, a constant effort to promote human dignity for soldiers and veterans.
This year, Americans of all persuasions should declare independence from the tired stereotypes that dehumanize soldiers and veterans. Christians have an obligation to treat people with God-given dignity rather than rote ritual. Parades and pats on the back are great but lose their meaning if all they do is placate the masses. If we are going to put military personnel on pedestals, let us see them for who they truly are and have been, not just for what we expect them to do for us.
Logan M. Isaac is an author, advocate and educator promoting human dignity for soldiers and veterans as the founder of Pew Pew HQ. His third book, God is a Grunt, will be released in early 2022. Follow him on Twitter @iamLoganMI