If - and only if - you were really searching for news on the war in Afghanistan you might have read last week that "U.S. forces are massing on the outskirts [of Kandahar] for the biggest military offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war" (Reuters, April 30, 2010). General David Petraeus, the man charged with responsibility for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq - a brilliant thinker and one of our very best military leaders - said in a press conference held on April 30 that "the enemy is going to take horrific actions to disrupt the progress that Afghan and coalition civilian and military elements are working so hard to achieve" (Reuters).
As an aside, a Google search revealed a mere 110 stories reporting the relatively noteworthy fact that "U.S. forces are massing on the outskirts" of Kandahar (there were more than 5,300 news-related hits for "Dancing with the Stars!"). Only nine news agencies reported on General Petraeus' press conference that included his ominous warning. None of the major television networks and, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News, none of the major newspapers reported what the head of U.S. Central Command had to say about the largest planned military offensive of the war! (There is something seriously wrong in regard to either the media's coverage, the public's indifference, or both!)
Right now you're probably thinking, "What does the war in Afghanistan have to do with the church and culture?" Off the top, it would appear not much, but I think I can make a relevant connection later that speaks to a concern within the church. However, my first concern is profoundly personal. You see, my wife and I learned this past week that our 18-year-old son's battalion would be joining the U.S. Marine assault force in the battle for Kandahar.
To be sure, this news is never easily received. There are a multitude of thoughts that run through a parent's mind when confronted with the reality that his child will be going to the front of what is expected to be among the fiercest fighting so far in the most dangerous place in the world today. As one Marine colonel rightly said, "The last three hundred yards of America's foreign policy is faithfully carried out by 18-year-old kids who were playing high school baseball last year." Our son will be one among these.
Suffice it to say I have thought a lot about the Christian's role in warfare and the dreadful possibilities ever since my son announced that he was giving up a baseball scholarship to Ouachita Baptist University to join the Marine Corps. He explained his reasoning by simply saying, "I don't think baseball will ever make me a better man." How do you argue with that?
We are by no means perfect parents but we have tried to teach our kids to always do the right thing, even when it is the hardest thing to do. As to what is right, it is Jesus Christ - the Living Word - who serves as the source for determining how we are to live; for what purpose; to what end; and by what means. I believe being a Christian carries with it certain unavoidable responsibilities (i.e., duties or moral obligations) and that among these are an obligation to defend the weak, to enact justice, to oppose tyranny and evil, and to do these things is to love as Christ commands. I have tried to teach these virtues to my children and, perhaps more importantly, the idea that adherence to these virtues will require courage and sacrifice and that doing so is nothing less than obedience to Christ.
So in one sense, I should not be surprised that my son would choose the road he has taken; we taught him to do so. Neither am I being careless in the matter of my son's life. To lose him would be the most devastating thing I can imagine; but I trust in the sovereignty of God and the grace to endure should the worst happen.
What concerns me most is that the idea of self-sacrificial duty - not just in military service but also in any meaningful way - is disappearing in our culture. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor, and four other psychologists looked at the results of surveys, namely The Narcissistic Personality Inventory, that were collected during a period of 25 years from more than 16,000 college students. In reporting the team's findings, Ms. Twenge said: "Today's college students are more likely to have a feeling of self-importance, to be entitled and, in general, to be more narcissistic. About two thirds of current college students score above-average on narcissism, and that's 30 per cent more than in 1982."
Today, we live in a culture in which men (in particular) are no longer encouraged to "do their duty," to serve something greater than themselves and certainly never at risk to themselves. Instead, our culture encourages and even glorifies selfishness and narcissism on a herculean scale! So many today are so self-indulgent that to serve one's country through military service is thought to be foolish - a task due only to the poor and uneducated among us, those poor souls who either can't afford or lack the academic merits to go to college. This kind of elitism is alive and well in this country, especially among the more liberal who are all too happy to have someone else's son or daughter defend their freedom. My wife and I have encountered it frequently, however I was shocked to encounter it from other Christians!
I have been surprised by the disapproving tone that often accompanies the question, "Are you okay with that?" in response to having learned of our son's decision. The implication is "Why on earth would you let your son do that?" or "Don't you want him to go to college?" - as if success and prosperity for our children is the goal of every good parent. Granted, these folks may not be entirely cognizant of what they're saying. They would likely stand to applaud those in military service but the unspoken sense is "let someone else's kid do that but not mine!" This seems a contradiction between the belief that Christians are called to oppose evil and serve others sacrificially and actually doing so.
Should not the Christian be among the first to serve, including military service, and is not military service one of the many means that God uses to fulfill His purposes (see Romans 13)? Shouldn't Christians be among the most selfless and duty driven when it comes to protecting the weak or, in this case, liberating the oppressed? The Christian life defies fixation on personal fulfillment, selfish gain, or personal comfort or on the avoidance of risk in the face of one's duty. Here again, the Church must not allow itself to be seduced by the bankrupt values of the culture but must instead impart a higher set of values to the world around it.
If the Church does not impart those values that have historically motivated young men to take up arms in defense of freedom and justice, then who will? It certainly won't be the liberal institutions of "higher learning" to which we so eagerly send our kids! Who will defend future generations against the inevitable tyrants and potentates who prey on the weak when no one is bound by any sense of duty to stand against evil? Who will serve our communities as police officers, firemen, and every other emergency response worker whose motivation exists in their sense of selfless duty?
Church, may we all seek to raise a generation of selfless young men and women - people of good character first - committed to truth and justice who will not flinch in the face of their duties to Christ and others. If we don't, such people may soon be found only on the pages of history.