Previously in this series: An Introduction to Peacemaking
Playing war was easily one of my favourite pastimes as a kid. I suppose that’s not uncommon, but I soaked it all up. When I was little, it was re-enacting Civil War battles in our living room and pretending any object imaginable was a gun. Or playing Risk repeatedly by myself because everyone else was tired of play with me. As I got older, it was relishing stories of warriors and heroes and ninjas and samurai and fighter pilots and anyone who demonstrated some mythical “Warrior Code”. And learning to identify every firearm and military aircraft imaginable. And learning to shoot, taking up wrestling because it was tough, and teaching myself kickboxing (very poorly) after experiencing a session of Tae Bo (thank you, freshman PE class). Or staying up late at night to ambush a group coming to TP our house, shooting them with a low-power BB gun (yeah, that one was a bad idea…).
Clearly, I was a bit of a nerd—an unexpectedly dangerous nerd.
I’ll admit it—from a young age, I happily and thoroughly bought into the myth of redemptive violence. This belief, the story that the best heroes are created through fighting and that violence is required to solve major conflict and exact justice, was lodged deep in my soul.
I’m not sure exactly where it came from. My parents tried really hard to keep me from anything that glorified violence. But it didn’t need a specific starting point. Growing up in a small Midwestern town amidst a national culture that glorifies violence—from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman to Clint Eastwood films, from GI Joe to every movie that shows the American military as the guardian of world freedom—there was no escape. Good luck keeping a little boy from play fighting and pretending with guns when his entire worldview is shaped by the idea that the greatest heroes kill their enemies.
Really, it was simple: heroes were powerful, and I had been taught that power was synonymous with violence. And that meant a lot to me, because at the end of the day, I wanted power—yes, benevolent power that came in the form of being strong and smart enough to help others, but power nonetheless. I enjoyed control and influence over situations and people. I longed to be relied upon, trusted. Above all, I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be unconquerable.
I thought the best way for me to be this hero was through the military—reminiscent of idealised warriors of old, saving the world with a “sword” in my hand. I would protect the innocent and give out justice, serving God and defending freedom all at the same time. I knew I had the mind for it, and was developing the related skills; this was something I was sure I would excel at.
Don’t get me wrong—even back then, God already had a firm hold on my life. I trusted in Jesus, and I believed in God’s mercy and forgiveness. But at the same time, we were living in a fallen world, and the best way to save in the innocent was to stop evil people in their tracks with deadly efficiency, be they terrorists, communists, pirates, murderers, aliens, or anyone else. Thankfully, God’s hold on me was even stronger than I could have understood.
After high school, I considered West Point and the Naval Academy, and looked at several different schools with good Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs. Because it was important to me that I had a solid Christian environment before embarking on a life in the massive mission field of the military, I chose to go to Wheaton College just outside of Chicago, an evangelical school that manages to combine a commitment to faith alongside strong academics. And, they had a high quality Army ROTC with good scholarships!
I really, really enjoyed ROTC. That’s where I found most of my primary community at college, and it drove my sense of purpose and significance. I enjoyed learning to march, practice battle tactics, rappel, navigate in the woods, shoot and clean weapons, and compete in physical training. My classmates and commanding officers were Christian, and ROTC offered it’s own system of discipleship small groups—our patriotism and faith were deeply intwined and reinforced. It felt like a dream finally coming true.
But underneath, deep inside of me, something wasn’t quite right. It took awhile for the feeling to surface, but I began to recognise that while I loved everything we did in ROTC I was becoming uncomfortable with the significance behind it. It was subtle, but things kept coming up—the inherent us vs. them attitude and dehumanising approach to potential enemies; the glossing over of the potential conflicts between obeying God and obeying the government; some of the cadences that we chanted during training (“Throw another hand grenade, Should have seen the mess I made, ‘Cause all I ever want to see, Are bodies, bodies, bodies”); the very fact that we were committing to an institution dedicated to destruction, not creation.
For the first time, I started re-evaluating how the things Jesus said mixed with what I was learning about being a soldier, and they didn’t mix well. How could I love my enemy when modern technology allowed us to kill them before we’re ever close enough to speak? How could we pursue forgiveness when I’d just dropped him with “two in the chest and one in the head”? I had no language or theology for what I was feeling, but by the end of the year I was left with the sinking, confusing feeling that I shouldn’t be in ROTC because “God said so.”
So, at the end of the school year, I left—leaving behind my community, sense of purpose, and vision for the future I thought I had.
When I returned for my sophomore year (after a very depressing summer, but that’s another story), I struggled to address my loss of identity and community, studying at my familiar but suddenly lonely and isolating school. I had to wrestling with scripture on a whole new level—what did Jesus mean by loving our enemies and carrying our cross? What was Paul actually talking about in places like Ephesians, where he said our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood but against the powers of this dark world? How should I confront my desire to be powerful, to be a warrior, when God seemed to have closed that path? How was I supposed to be working for the Kingdom of God, since that was why I stopped serving the Kingdom of the USA?
That was the beginning of the Spirit leading me on what has now been a decade-long journey to figure out what it meant for me to follow Jesus not on my terms, but on his.
It led me to rely on God when, for the first time, I felt utterly lost.
It led me to let go of my overconfidence and self-assurance and learn a lot of humility and openness.
It led me to understand the being a warrior of God meant using the weapons of love, peace, and truth, not the weapons of earthly armies.
It led me to see the larger struggle against sin and the need to fight oppression and corruption, fear and hatred, poverty and hopelessness and loneliness.
It led me to explore ministry and missions and to see who was serving at the “tip of the spear” of the Kingdom.
It led me to discover how the Spirit was already working in the world through spiritual gifts, miracles, prayer, and the Church.
It led me to a church that gave me a framework for how peace was central to the Gospel and how community was essential for understanding and living out our faith.
It led me to a far, far bigger and more beautiful and more hopeful vision of what God is working toward, a hope that God isn’t not merely salvaging us from this evil world, but that God is restoring and redeeming this world from the bottom up.
This journey has felt massive, overwhelming, terrifying, and tumultuous, but also wonderful and inspiring and daring. And I’m equally terrified and excited to see where the next decade takes me as well.