This semester at Hartford Seminary, I am taking a course entitled, “Suffering, Theodicy, and Repentance: Interreligious Readings of Job and Jonah,” taught by Yehezkel Landau. Interreligious, in this case, means that we are looking at these two characters in scripture officially from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic perspectives, and incidentally with a bit of Buddhism on the side. The first three classes focused on Job; the last two focus on Jonah. We meet once a month, all day.
By we, I mean sixteen of us: two Jews, five Muslims, one Unitarian Universalist Buddhist, and a host of multi-flavored Christians (Seventh Day Adventist, UCC, Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist). Korean, Malaysian, Indian (specifically Nagaland), Turkish, American, Israeli/American. Both men and women. Clergy, clergy-wannabes, chaplains, lay people. Yesterday, we held our first class on Jonah.
Jonah is a very short book in the Hebrew Bible. Four chapters. You might remember that Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. Yes, fish; not whale. And yes, Jonah; not Pinocchio (who was also swallowed, but by a whale). Two totally different stories with two totally different morals. Jonah does every thing he can to escape God’s instruction to call on the people of Nineveh to repent.
My interest in reading Jonah (and the many pages of supplemental reading we were assigned) has only intensified since Passover. Ever since attending a seder at a friend’s house just a few weeks ago, I cannot stop thinking about reluctant prophets. In the Exodus story (which is what Passover commemorates), Moses didn’t want to accept God’s “invitation.” Moses kept trying to wriggle out of being God’s prophet, but God would not have any of it. God finally had to assign Moses’ brother, Aaron, to make sure Moses did the right thing. Moses was, in a word, reluctant.
Off syllabus, for the last two and a half hours of the class, we had the opportunity to sit with the Reverend Chris Antal. I’d never met him before. He has an academic connection to HartSem (he’s on leave currently, but is in the D. Min program). Chris is a UU, a community minister with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) and a military chaplain recently returned from Afghanistan.
I purposely use the passive tense in that last sentence, because Chris was recently released from active duty three months before his time was up and very much against his will. Reverend Chris wrote a confession – his own confession and one that can and could resonate for all of us: “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America.” After leading a UU worship in Khandihar, Afghanistan, with this confession was part of the liturgy, then posting it to his CLF blog as a community minister, he was formally investigated and officially reprimanded, leading to his premature return to the United States.
Though soft-spoken and deliberate in his speech, Reverend Chris is the opposite of reluctant; it’s possible that he’s never had a reluctant bone in his body (that is certainly my impression based on our brief meeting). He is, most decidedly, spot-on in exercising his prophetic voice. It was impossible for me to turn a deaf ear to what he shared in class and what he is trying to share with the world. Earlier this month, in a newsletter to a congregation he served before being deployed, and with whom he stays in a pastoral relationship, he wrote the following:
As a Unitarian Universalist Minister deployed to Afghanistan as an Army chaplain, I faced the daunting challenge of being a good steward of our heritage in the combat zone and bringing the prophetic witness of our principles to bear on the military institution. As a member of the Profession of Arms in service to the Nation I also felt an obligation to provide spiritual leadership to the people of the United States, many of whom have been all too separated from the consequences of our war-making over the past decade. I wrote “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America” to address this harmful separation, facilitate purification and cleansing, restore connections, and reconcile us to right relationships.
I have Chris’ permission to share his confession here. Though it was on his CLF blog, due to the investigation, it had to be temporarily taken down. However, Chris expects it to return to the public eye by the end of this week (as of 4/19/13 it is up with a new disclaimer posted at the bottom).
I encourage you not to skim through the Confession. It is worthy of your slowing down, setting aside both time to read it and all other tasks. Imagine hearing this in his voice (here’s a video clip where you can see Chris and hear his voice). Imagine being in a war zone as you listen, your minister sharing it in a circle as part of worship. Imagine that you are connected to the war’s devastation, that you are connected to the military, that you are connected to this war’s legacy — because you are. Because I am. Because we all are. Remember that interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part? That web is this: our culpability; this confession, aspirationally collective.
A Veteran’s Day Confession for America
November 11, 2012
On this Veteran’s Day Let us confess our sins before God and neighbor.
Most Merciful God
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed by what we have done,
and what we have left undone.
We have become people of the lie
out to tame the frontier wilderness
while the beast within lurks hidden in shadow
paralyzing us in a perpetual state of denial.
We have made war entertainment
enjoying box seats in the carnival of death
consuming violence, turning tragedy
into games raising our children
to kill without remorse.
We have morally disengaged
outsourcing our killing to the one percent
forgetting they follow our orders
the blood they shed is on our hands too.
We have insulated ourselves
from the painful truths veterans carry
our bumper magnets proclaim, “support our troops”
but for too many, suicide is the only panacea
our insulation is their isolation.
We have made our veterans into false idols
blood sacrifice on the National Altar of War
parades and medals perpetuate the hero myth
glorifying those who kill and die on our behalf.
We have betrayed the dead saying,
“they will never be forgotten”
yet how many among us
can name a single war casualty
of the past decade?
We have sanitized killing
and condoned extrajudicial assassinations
death by remote control
war made easy without due process
protecting ourselves from the human cost of war.
We have deceived ourselves saying,
“Americans do not kill civilians; terrorists do”
denying the colossal misery our wars inflict on the innocent
the national closet bursts with skeletons.
We have abandoned our Afghan allies
luring them in with promises of safety and security
then failing to follow through with promises made
using them and leaving them to an almost certain death.
Almighty God, on this Veteran’s Day
help us to turn from this wayward path
deliver us from indifference, callousness, and self deception
fill us with compassion for all who bear the burdens of our wars.
Grant us the courage to pay attention,
to stay engaged so we may listen without judgment,
and give honor
to whomever honor is due.
Rev. Chris J. Antal, Kandahar, Afghanistan November 9, 2012