'Born on the Fourth of July' by Logan Mehl-Laituri
Is it ever appropriate for Christians to kill in the name of Jesus?
Church history has a long tradition of debating this question, with everyone agreeing that mostly the answer is no.
We diverge at the question of war, particularly with regard to protecting innocence. Many Christians ascribe to some version of Augustine's "just war" theory, which claims that under some circumstances, war may be necessary and good (hence "just"). Many other Christians follow the more ancient tradition of the earliest Christians in confessing pacifism, which holds that it is never appropriate for one who follows Jesus to take the life of another person and usually entails a complete refusal of violence as an option for resolving conflict.
Increasingly, American Christians cannot dialogue about the justice of war. One must either be a radical pacifist or jingoistic in support of war. Many of us hoping for some sort of middle ground long for a better third way.
Logan Mehl-Laituri's excellent, eye-opening book Reborn on the Fourth of July seeks to chart out that third way. A memoir of his experiences as a soldier in the Army and a Christian, Logan narrates his journey from kid to soldier to Christian to conscientious objector to (now) Christian peacemaker. And while he doesn't offer his story as a normative example that everyone should follow, his words are a powerful witness to what it could mean to be a Christian patriot.
Before his conversion, Mehl-Laituri served a tour in Iraq as an artilleryman. He narrates his journey from the frontlines to the baptismal pool clearly and simply. His conversion wasn't a one-time, Damascus-road type moment. Neither was his commitment to pacifism. Rather, he took a series of small steps toward the healing Jesus offers. He found strength to face his post-traumatic stress disorder—a reality all too common among returning servicepersons. But he also found rescue from his own fallenness.
The interplay of Mehl-Laituri's two identities—that of soldier and Christian—shows us the possibility of that third way. Mehl-Laituri relates how he slowly recognized how he’d domesticated God and how he began to see his enemies as fully human, just like him. When he realized he was more like his enemies than he was like God, everything changed. He could no longer kill for God or country.
But he still loved his fellow soldiers and his country. His pacifism hadn't replaced his patriotism.
Thus begins the most interesting and tragic leg of Mehl-Laituri's journey: his unwilling exit from the military. Even though he could no longer in good conscience carry a weapon, he wanted to remain a part of his unit. He applied not for the conscientious objector status that would have him withdraw from the Army altogether but for 1-A-O status, which would allow him to return, unarmed, to combat with his unit. As Mehl-Laituri explains:
“By applying for 1-A-O status, I was actively trying to return to combat. I didn't see Christians as being prohibited from being present in war, only perpetrating it.”
Ironically—and this withering critique is central to Logan's message—the Church had not prepared Logan to dialogue effectively about his desires to serve both God and country. He wasn't content with the either-or dichotomy offered him. As he says:
“I found very little satisfaction in the two ideological extremes—strict obedience or absolute objection—currently available to me. Without any substantive theological training, I didn't know how to respond in faith to the call to love my enemies ... All too frequently we fail to engage meaningfully with how church history informs us about war.”
If nothing else, hopefully Reborn on the Fourth of July will raise the level of conversation around how Christians participate in war at the level of local congregations. Unfortunately, most churches are ill-equipped to help soldiers understand the ramifications of their choices or to provide them with healthy space to heal from the trauma of war. We need more Christians who, like Mehl-Laituri today, serve as Christian peacemakers.
Mehl-Laituri's story makes clear the stakes for soldiers currently serving in the armed forces. The Church has a great opportunity to lead by working with soldiers and veterans to help them find peace in the wake of their service. These are men and women whose bodies and souls have been traumatized, and the Church can be an instrument of peace to them.
If Mehl-Laituri's story is any indication, that third way does exist. And we would do well to listen to him. Reborn on the Fourth of July book is sure to infuriate and inspire both sides of this debate—which is all the more reason any Christian who seriously questions the role of violence should read this book. The Church needs this conversation.