Slavery, sin, and death

Dr. J. Kameron Carter often referred to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in his Theology lectures, but it took me almost 4 years to make the time to start reading the book. Jacobs led a relatively privileged life, for a slave in North Carolina. She could read, she lived with her parents in the early part of her life, she was in one town for the length of her imprisonment, she didn’t work in the fields. But none of that “makes up for” being owned by another person. Sexual and emotional degradation and manipulation, and coercion and abuse of every kind was integral to the system of slavery. Holding an entire people in bondage for generations was only possible within a society based on fear, on the threat of violence and loss of liberty — and the Civil War did not dismantle this social order. This is who we are as a nation, and we cannot understand ourselves until we acknowledge what slavery was and how it continues to impact us. I pray for the day when this book becomes required reading in every high school throughout the country.

I grew up as a White person in the South, so I heard a lot about how it wasn’t as bad for folks under slavery as it was afterwards for sharecroppers. Which even if it had been true (which it pretty clearly could not be), was no recommendation for slavery. Seriously, if the only thing you can say in defense of something is that it wasn’t the absolute worst thing that ever happened to a group of people…? Which again, was a stretch. Sharecropping was an extension of the slavery mentality, and like slavery it was White people who structured this bad way of life, and who chose to use their power to continue the oppression of their Black neighbors.

But my imagination had failed to fill out the contours of the torture that was life as a slave. That required data. In order to really understand how bad slavery was, I had to stop and listen to a woman who had been a slave. Go figure.

Perhaps your “education” about the realities of slavery was similarly slipshod. If so, Jacobs’ book is a good starting place as you turn over a new leaf in your understanding of race and racism in this country.

In order to love someone, we need to begin by listening to them. We cannot love someone we do not know, and we cannot know someone we do not listen to.

After Michael Brown was shot, someone in my feed – I wish I remembered who, so I could attribute this sentiment properly, and so that I could thank her – said that the most important thing that white people could do to help was to count how many people they were following altogether, calculate 10% of that number, and add that number of Black women and men to our Twitter feeds. For me, this has been the most transformative thing in thinking about race in the U.S. since picking up Jacob’s book. I’m not imagining what Black people might think about this or that event, and I’m not pedantically extrapolating what they must think. I’m not relying on one “Black friend” to represent the “Black point of view.” Instead, I’m listening to dozens of Black individuals: people of many different ages and genders and religions and ages, activists and journalists and professors and politicians and novelists and musicians and pastors, each bringing their own experiences and insights to the table.

But there is a common thread there – the thread of living as an oppressed group, living as suspect on the grounds of ancestry and physical appearance, in a country that claims “liberty and justice for all,” but has never even attempted to live up to that promise.

About 100 days ago, thinking about my Whiteness became an everyday thing, thanks to my Twitter feed. I’m 41 years old. If I were Black in this country, thinking about my Blackness would have been an every day thing starting around when I entered elementary school, if not before. But I’m White, so I didn’t have to think about it. Here in the U.S., we White people have too long been like the folk that God describes in Isaiah 6:9 – we “keep listening but do not comprehend, keep looking but do not understand.”

Repentance – turning away from our fear and self-interest and towards our Black sisters and brothers – is long overdue. We cannot say we are sorry for something that we do not understand, much less for something that we still have not stopped doing.

God, like a potter you formed our ears: prod us to listen, not for affirmation of what we want to hear, but to comprehend something new; You formed our eyes: correct our vision that we may look, not to see what we have always seen, but to understand someone else’s experience. Lord, we cannot hope to find justice without truly seeking it – kindle the desire for justice in those of us White women and men who fear that we have the most to lose. Loosen our grip on all that we have wrongfully taken, in order that we may be seized by the love that would bind us all into one family. We pray this in the name of your Son, who by the Holy Spirit made his home and ministry with a subjugated people, in defiance of the earthly power that put him to death. Amen.

On Vietnam, again

Earlier this week, when only halfway through reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing, I wrote a post theorizing that veteran participation in anti-war protests during the Vietnam war was a factor in losing the war – and that this veteran participation was driven by army training that intentionally programmed these soldiers to overcome their natural resistance to killing.

The day after writing that piece, I spent several hours finishing reading the book. I was especially looking forward to reading Grossman’s section that focused on killing in Vietnam. I was surprised to discover that this one section was surprisingly disjointed from the rest of the book. This one section stands apart from the others because of how little Grossman connects the killing that took place in Vietnam with the theses he develops earlier in the book (and draws together in his final section – on violent video games and other media as haphazardly programming young Americans to overcome their natural resistance to killing – without the authority structures that the military provides.)

Search and Destroy

la Drang Valley, Vietnam, 1965 photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons


There is a great deal of interesting, and sometimes even helpful information in the Vietnam section of the book, but in spite of his earlier warnings about the dire consequences of overcoming the natural resistance to killing, there is little in this section about the emotional consequences of this training on Vietnam vets. Grossman talks in great detail about the programming that occurred in boot camps, about how focused it was on overcoming killing resistance. He also contends that this was true to an extent that has not been matched since. (Instructing the boys to chant “kill” with every other footfall when marching together at boot camp, etc.) But he doesn’t carry his earlier concerns with the unreflective application of this policy, aside from his troubling suggestion that even those who did not kill when in Vietnam (because of their jobs, such as supply truck driver) could be plagued with guilt – because of the unprecedented certainty that they could have killed – and that they were more than ready to do so.

Instead, these sections are filled with other things that made Vietnam different – more traumatic – than other wars before it. Grossman talks about the lack of soldiers who served in other wars serving in Vietnam – so that there were no reassuring father figures in units – even the officers were young and green. He points out that the soldiers didn’t have a rear line – that there was no safe place to withdraw to for R&R – the soldiers were completely surrounded by a seemingly endless war zone. And the North Vietnamese were a cunning foe, whose leaders had made the decision to force the Americans in to atrocities – such as by training small children to throw grenades at soldiers, leaving them with the choice of losing the war to children or shooting children. Grossman writes that these methods were intended both to traumatize the soldiers and to turn public opinion against the war. Add all this to poor unit cohesion because of rotating replacements, both legal and illegal drug use (apparently the Army doctors routinely prescribed anti-anxiety meds and sent troubled soldiers back out – setting them up for more trauma later on), the lack of a decompression buffer between the war and home, and an unappreciative American public, and no wonder this was such a psychologically devastating war for so many.

All of this is important stuff to remember – doubtless any war is complicated, and any event draws together many different social and political and personal realities. There is no one answer – no pat narrative.

However –

It is very interesting to me that Grossman appears to believe that the trauma suffered by Vietnam veterans is mostly the responsibility of the average American civilian. Americans spit on returning troops, did not give them parades or a properly triumphal monument, or other celebrations. And it is because of this that we lost the war. When soldiers are made to kill, Grossman writes, the only thing that can re-integrate them into society is a ritual that recognizes their return as especially honored members of society.

Of all the people Grossman blames for the multi-faceted debacle that was Vietnam, the one group he has no harsh words for are the American military officers and other engineers of US military policy during the Vietnam era. Which is perhaps unsurprising for someone who was trained as an officer right after Vietnam (by men who had been officers in Vietnam, perhaps?) Though he does acknowledge this implicitly in a brief mention of the Weinberger doctrine, the idea that the Department of Defense was surprisingly unreflective in its direction of Vietnam goes unmentioned.

For instance – since we live in a country that values freedom of expression, if civilians celebrating the returning soldiers is critical to the success of the war, then perhaps the government is responsible for selling the war to the civilian population, and not going to war when it cannot do so. For instance, perhaps if being made to kill against one’s natural inclinations creates a need for spontaneous and genuine public approval, then high ranking army officers should think twice about making anyone kill against their natural inclinations – since sincerity is, by definition, impossible to demand.

Perhaps the chip on Grossman’s shoulder about Vietnam is equally matched by my own – as a Christian committed to non-violence, I find it deeply offensive for all anti-war protestors to be lumped together as the type of people who would spit on other people (that sort of hateful behavior is not only unloving but violent.) Furthermore, I don’t see it as my responsibility to tell someone that I am proud of them for shooting other people when I find shooting other people abhorrent. They are not suffering because I failed to be proud of them, but because they shot someone. I have a great deal of love for those men and women who have ended up in situations where they have killed another person, and this love is expressed as grief, both for and with them.

Whether or not the military chooses to recognize my freedom of conscience, God gave it to me – and I do not respond well to being told what behaviors I must celebrate. I take my orders from God, who tells me which people to love – and that would be all of them. That includes people towards whom the government would have me act unlovingly, in order that I might uncritically celebrate U.S. soldiers having killed them and their friends and family.

For me, loving people who are far away and dead or grieving is the easy part. But God help me, I am even called to love those who order “shoot!” to soldiers whose fingers tremble on their triggers, even to love those who send young men and women to far off places to kill other young people, even to love those who plot new ways to kill more people more easily. Coming from Northern Virginia, where I grew up immersed in the daily celebration of unchallenged American exceptionalism, my late childhood and adolescence was marked by disgust with that culture of war-profiteering and the people associated with it. Like anyone else, I have enemies, and loving them does not come easily to me. Thank God love does not mean unreserved approval of every bad idea a person has, or I’d be lost.

Lord, show me how I might better love my enemies. Transform me into one who is not merely wise as a serpent, nor only gentle as a dove, but both together. Amen.

On Resistance

After two years off, I am working once again as a teaching assistant for Dr. Amy Laura Hall at Duke Divinity school – this time for her class on War and the Christian Tradition. The class is bringing together some of my longest held interests, and as usual when “precepting” (teaching assistants at Duke are called preceptors), the class is stimulating more insights than I have time to record.

Right now, the class is reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing. I am adding it to my short mental list of books everyone should read. Grossman has been a soldier, historian, psychologist, and teacher – and he brings together a great deal of research with his own personal experience in this book. The theme of the book is that most people – up to 98% of soldiers – are not capable of remorseless killing even in battle. Like most other species, humans have a great deal of innate resistance to killing another of their own species. When face to face with a perceived enemy, we would rather run away, or stand our ground and try to scare them, or demonstrate how unthreatening we are, or simply disarm / disable them than we would kill them. So much of military history is the history of a handful of people trying to figure out how to get another group of people to kill a third group of people, when they aren’t all that interested in doing so.

Grossman notes a number of ways that this inclination can be overcome – by dehumanizing the “enemy,” by diffusing responsibility (sharing responsibility with a group, or being commanded to kill in the moment by a nearby respected leader), by increasing the distance (ideally so you don’t even see the person you are killing, or at least not their face)… but even these measures are not enough, and so modern military practice has been to practice – to make training as realistic as possible, so that a soldier will go into “auto-pilot” in the moment of killing. Some soldiers have been so well programmed that they go into a sort of dissociative state – where they relive the experience of their training exercises, and don’t realize that it was all real until after they have stopped shooting.

It was after World War II that the need for this kind of training was realized – and by the time of the Vietnam war, it was fully in force. The firing rate was extraordinarily high in Vietnam compared to World War II – a jump from about 20% to closer to 90%.

One of the things that made Vietnam different from prior U.S. wars was the sudden shift in public opinion from support to large scale protests. Furthermore, returning veterans appear to have been at the forefront of this uncommon and rapid disaffection with the war. Which makes me wonder – the Pacific war was horrible – why didn’t returning veterans put an end to that war? The Civil War was horrible – why not that war? War is, in general, horrible. How can any war continue without veterans returning from the front putting an end to it?

“Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” Click through to see this cartoon in it’s original setting on

It has been said that one of the biggest problems with Vietnam was how unclear it was why we should be fighting there. However, this was one of the great flare ups in the Cold War – domino theory (the idea that a single nation falling to communism would trigger a wave of nations falling, until finally the U.S. was itself at risk) had been convincingly sold to the American people. The Cuban missile crisis (1962) was still fresh in everyone’s minds when the first ground troops were sent to Vietnam (1965).

So I’m wondering about this anti-war movement – a movement that included the active participation of Vietnam veterans… were these veterans who in World War II would have fired over the heads of their enemies – or might not have fired their guns at all? Were these men whose resistance to killing had been overcome?

Because here is the problem with overcoming someone’s resistance to killing – you can make someone kill, but you can’t make them ok with it afterwards. Increasing kill rates means increasing the number of people haunted by having killed. It means overcoming the natural resistance of people whose own brains probably know best how well they will handle the trauma of seeing someone die knowing that they themselves are responsible for that person’s death. It means not caring what a young man wants to do, but instead reshaping him so that he does something that he would never do without being programmed. Which is the word brainwashers use to refer to brainwashing, not incidentally.

So I am wondering, when people complain that we won every battle in Vietnam but lost the war – when they say that it was the shift in public opinion that lost the war in Vietnam – who exactly should we hold responsible for that? Privileged students and dope-smoking hippies? Or the very military commanders who decided to try to “improve” war – to change it from an already miserable experience to an even worse experience for even more people? Perhaps these soldiers who were rendered incapable of resisting to killing in battle could cope only by reclaiming their agency – by resisting when they had returned to the States.

I can’t say for sure – I’m not even done reading the book, so maybe Grossman addresses some of these issues. But it seems to me that it has not been established that conditioning young men to kill provides any real gain in outcome (such as bringing a conflict to an end more quickly) – and neither has the subsequent loss (the emotional fall out from having killed against one’s natural inclination) been given sufficient attention. What does it mean to ask thousands of people in every generation to live with a horror of themselves and what they have done?

For me, the aims of the military could not be more clearly opposed to the demands of Christian love – no distance between myself and my enemy is too great for God to overcome, nor can I forget at any distance that every other human being is God’s own beloved child no less than my own self.

But for American Christians who still are immersed in the potent conflation of God and country that is (not exclusively, but especially) a remnant of the Cold War – can we agree on our love for the young men and women who serve as U.S. soldiers?  And can we agree that conditioning them to become more efficient killers over the resistance of their own minds may be damaging to them in the long term? And if so, can we agree that maybe we need to reconsider just how important killing is to us as a nation?

May God have mercy on us, and forgive us.