Tuesday, May 15, 2012

CoG Interfaith Reps at Veterans Event

A couple of weeks ago, Macha and I attended a one-day interfaith event in the San Francisco East Bay called “Beyond Memorial Day: Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War”.  The conference was aimed at educating clergy about the spiritual problems of returning vets and helping to connect clergy with the resources that are out there.  Macha and I had been part of the planning group for this event – she acting on behalf of the Marin Interfaith Council and me on behalf of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.  Main organizer Carrie Knowles has written a fine account of the event (available on the ICP website at http://www.interfaith-presidio.org/BAIC/baic_articles12.htm#beyond) and Macha has written on the [AIR] e-list of the Covenant of the Goddess about the moving personal stories we heard.  I’d like to address the aspects of the event that I found problematic as a Witch.

We knew going in that the program would be based in a pastoral model of congregations.  This was due to the overwhelming presence of Christians (with a few Jews) in both the planning group and in the resources available to us in the form of vets, active service people, printed documents, etc.  Mach and I had a number of vague issues and concerns about this, but the experience of the conference brought them into focus.  We were two of only three Pagans at the event, at which there were very few non-Christians.

First, on the positive side, I learned a lot about the issues.  A key problem of which I had been unaware is how much more the problems of vets are magnified among members of the Reserve and National Guard.  These folks have been called up repeatedly in unprecedented numbers for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Unlike regular duty personnel, Reservists and Guard members leave combat and go straight home, where they are 1) dispersed, 2) away from the understanding community of peers, and 3) further away from easy access to veteran support services.

Another thing that makes these recent wars unlike previous ones is the ease of communication with folks back home through sat-phones, text, email, etc.  One minute you can be a Dad arbitrating a dispute between your kids and the next be suiting up for combat.  This is like coming home and shipping back out every few hours.  It makes coming home for real less real.  And when you do come home, it takes just a few hours, not a long boat trip among comrades during which you can decompress.  As a result, vets have to decompress on the fly while already back home.

Over and over again we heard about how the voluntary military has resulted in the creation of a warrior caste, in which certain families send their sons and daughters into service generation after generation, while most of us remain unaffected.  We heard many calls for, if not a draft, at least some form of national service.

Where I had difficulty relating to the material being presented was when the speakers addressed the “moral & spiritual wounds of war” and how to respond to them.  I couldn’t help feeling that both the problems and the solutions were being exacerbated by the Christian and Jewish (maybe “Biblical”?) context that was being assumed.

Rev. Ed Hatcher, author of Care for Returning Veterans, talked about the problem of confronting evil.  How young people who have grown up believing in a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God are brought face to face with “evil” in the arena of combat in the form of torture, rape, killing of civilians, etc.  No one used the term, but this is familiar to the student of religions as “theodicy” (lit. “justifying God”) or “the problem of evil”: If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, then how can evil exist in the world?  Christian theologians and scholars have written volumes on this, but Witches don’t have the same problem in the same way.  (Gus diZerega has an excellent discussion of a Pagan view of evil in his Beyond the Burning Times, Lion Books, 2008.)  Our personified Gods don’t combine the qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence.  We don’t believe in the existence of evil as an active metaphysical force.  To the extent that evil does exist in the Wiccan worldview, it is in the actions of some humans.  I don’t know if Wiccan soldiers would experience this problem in the same way or to the same extent as Christian soldiers (except, of course, to the extent that we are all products of an overwhelmingly Christian over-culture).

Ed said that “killing is not a natural human act and there is a price to be paid for it”.  I believe that this view comes out of the Old Testament, in which an originally perfect humanity “falls” into its current, sinful state.  Most of the Witches I know accept the theory of evolution and have no problem seeing humans as killers under the right circumstances.  In fact, it was an essential part of the process that led to modern humans.  The Warrior Ethic found in some forms of Paganism makes killing a virtue when circumstances demand it.  While killing is usually a breach of the social contract that requires some sort of repair, once again, I don’t know if we would have the same sense of fundamental “wrongness” that Ed assumes.

Ed spoke of the need to understand the spiritual side of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a “spiritual disruption in a person’s core belief system”.  This can lead to an unwillingness to discuss the problem with members of the clergy since the clergy are representatives of the system that’s been disrupted.  I have trouble seeing what core Wiccan beliefs about the world would be disrupted by the experience of combat, or would result in an unwillingness to turn to one’s fellow Priests & Priestesses for support.  The disruption we would most likely share with Christian vets would be that of the usual sense of home, trust, and cooperation that living in the US permits us to enjoy.

Ed said that he prefers a “guilt-ridden” vet to a “shame-ridden” vet because the guilt-ridden vet will seek redemption while the shame-ridden vet will hide from the world.  That’s fine, unless you don’t come from a guilt-based or shame-based system.  In my experience, Witches reject this dichotomy and tend to be more honor-based than anything else.

I don’t know.  I am not a veteran, nor have I known any family members or close friends who have been in combat.  Also, I am one of the few Witches I know of in my generation who was not a practitioner of another religion before becoming a Witch.  Wicca is the only religious tradition I have ever known.  So, my view might not be representative, but I can’t help feeling that the issues that confront Witches in combat are different than those confronting Christians and Jews.  If that’s true for us, than it is probably also true for many other non-Abrahamic religions.

All this being said, I think Ed’s basic advice, and the advice we heard reiterated by speaker after speaker, was sound and valuable:
            1) Don’t sit in your office; go where the vets are.
            2) Build personal relationships with vets.
            3) Do this before and during deployment, not just after.  (Several service people nodded when it was pointed out that a clergy person should NEVER just go knock on the door of a family with a member who’s been deployed.  They will always assume the worst!)
            4) Be prepared to pass various informal “tests” before being accepted.  Can you stomach the horror stories?  Do you know what you are talking about?  Will you stick around?  etc.
            5) Don’t do it alone; have peers you can rely on for support.
            6) Listen!

Once we process that feedback from this event, we plan to hold more, similar events in other parts of the SF Bay Area.  Macha and I will work to ensure that the structure and content will be more inclusive as we go.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative
Covenant of the Goddess

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