On Praying for the Military
The following is a letter CLN board member Julia Smucker addressed to her church at the request of one of her pastors after raising these concerns in person. As a nonsectarian organization, we welcome perspectives from various faiths, as well as secular ones, that affirm consistent-life principles.
Since attending my current church, I have noticed that the Prayers of the Faithful often include a prayer for members of the military, usually with a reference to them “protecting our freedom.” For Christians, who belong to a universal faith, confess Jesus Christ as the one true lord and savior, and believe in the inviolable sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death, this language should raise some concerns.
It is well and good to pray for the safety (both physical and spiritual) of our loved ones and others who may be in harm’s way. This can be a meaningful way of joining the particular concerns of our parish community to the prayers of the universal Church – as long as we never lose sight of the fact that this is what we’re doing, recalling that our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world are likewise praying for the needs of their own communities and the safety of their own loved ones. Whenever we turn the attention of our prayers beyond ourselves, it is this catholicity that we should look to, and not to any idols of militarism, nationalism or exceptionalism that would supersede it. In other words, whatever we pray for our country or members of its military should be things that Christians anywhere in the world could pray for their own, without contradiction between their prayers and ours. For that matter, whatever we can pray for members of our own country’s military, we should be able to pray the same for people who participate in the armed forces of any country in the world.
When nationalistic language creeps into our liturgy couched in quasi-religious terms, it becomes something even more dangerous. This is because the language of the American national mythos uses terms like “freedom” and “sacrifice” in ways that are radically contrary to Christian understandings of them. The national mythos finds heroism in military might, including both the willingness to risk one’s life and the willingness to take life. This is the militaristic understanding of sacrifice that is credited with protecting freedom, generally understood in an individualized sense as doing what one wills, and delineated by citizenship. But for Christians, there can only be one sacrifice that truly guarantees our freedom, and that is the self-emptying sacrifice of the Lamb of God who became obedient to the point of death, who laid down his life freely rather than being defended by the sword or calling down legions of angels, who conquered death not by inflicting it but by submitting to it. And the freedom gained by this sacrifice is not merely individual liberty but the freedom to love as we were created to love, without being enslaved to fear or dependent on violence; the freedom to be servants of all (a more Christian understanding of service that’s also obscured by referring to members of the military as “servicemen and women”); a freedom meant for the entire world regardless of nationality or citizenship. For Christians to look to any other sacrifice for our freedom is not only settling for a much lesser freedom; it is a turn to a false god.
Contrary to the story nationalism tells, Christian tradition teaches us that all human life is sacred. Even putting aside questions of justification that might seem to override it, if we truly believe in the sanctity of all human life, from conception all the way to natural death, what we absolutely cannot do is sacralize the countless unnatural deaths that occur in the name of “protecting freedom” through military combat. If all human life is indeed sacred, then all killing of human beings is cause for lament and penitence, not for celebration or praise.
Those human beings who participate in the military, combatants and otherwise, certainly do need our prayers, because of the moral, psychological and spiritual dangers no less than the physical ones. In addition to post-traumatic stress and moral injury, widely recognized as consequences of exposure to or participation in violence, peace psychologist Rachel MacNair, who I work with on the board of the Consistent Life Network, coined the term Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress for a form of PTSD caused by perpetrating violence and has studied its effects on people who have participated in various forms of violence such as war, abortion, and executions – all things that, in the phrasing of the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes, “do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.” Because of this, I pray for soldiers and veterans in the same way I pray for abortion workers and executioners.
In this vein, I’ve heard one liturgical prayer for military members that I’ve been able to join in good conscience: “That no harm may come to them, and that they may cause no harm to others.” This is what I pray in the place of any congregational prayer offered for the military. Whatever the wording of our liturgy, it is crucial that it be conducive to a soundly Christian formation of conscience, and that it be orthodox both in the sense of right belief and (doxa meaning glory) of right worship: giving glory where glory belongs.
For a post on a similar topic, see: