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Coming Home (review)

James Summers
On Politics (July 2017)
Coming Home
Written by Zachary Moon
Reviewed by James Summers


Zachary Moon’s book, Coming Home: Ministry That Matters with Veterans and Military Families, asks an urgent question. What do we do with more than two million U.S. veterans, who have served all around the globe, when they come home? The camaraderie they experienced while in uniform is in their past; now they must meet most challenges alone. The transition can seem sudden and unreal, and their responses can be unpredictable. Veterans are frequently dealing with injuries, illnesses, and mental health issues, which place them at increased statistical risk of suicide, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and even violent crime. Society suffers, too. Shooters in Orlando and Dallas – like the Beltway Sniper and the Oklahoma City Bomber before them – were schooled by the U.S. military. These problems are not trivial, must not be ignored, and don’t look like they will go away soon.

Moon addresses Coming Home primarily to congregations that wish to welcome and support returning veterans. After a brief explanation of why good people might volunteer to serve in the military, what the experience of war is really like, and a brief introduction to military culture (including the experiences of families), Moon turns to a consideration of what he sees as the pastoral-care needs of returning veterans. He summarizes his basic assumptions in Chapter Four:

Anyone who has been through intense experiences of violence, loss, and overwhelming stress understands the need for meaningful relationships to process that experience, grow and become stronger. . . Military service members and their families who have been through intense experiences will need trustworthy and caring persons to hear their stories and provide the needed support.

The book provides some good, practical advice about talking with veterans. Dumb questions and insensitive remarks are often based in mistaken assumptions that one knows what a veteran’s experiences were or the effects those experiences had on them. (One time, I heard a Friend ask a veteran if they had killed anybody. Another time, I heard a veteran share a difficult account of a very personal experience, to which a Friend responded by sharing an experience that someone else had seen in a movie.) Moon also reminds us of the importance of recognize people’s gifts as well as their wounds. Many veterans have developed strengths and gifts through their service, which could enrich our communities.

The more theoretical parts of Coming Home – including a rather cursory review of Christian theological views of war – seemed less useful to me. The value in this book lies in its practical understanding of experiences of war and returning home, not in theory. Rather than examine the history of concepts like “Just War” and “Holy War,” this book might have done better to explore the disjunctions between war and the teachings of Jesus. Moon has examined the dynamics of “moral injury” to warriors in other writings. As he has explained elsewhere, internal conflicts can be intense for warriors, particularly for individuals with active spiritual lives. Post-traumatic stress is complicated; it can be acute and even dangerous for warriors and the people around them. I regret the absence in Coming Home of a more practical analysis of the impacts of theology and spirituality on the lives of returning veterans.

Moon grew up in the pacifist tradition of Friends in Berkeley, California. It was a bit of a shock to some Friends in Pacific Yearly Meeting when, in the middle of a war, Moon joined the U.S. Navy. He held, however, a clear logic for his decision, and he made it out of love. While studying to become a hospital chaplain, Moon interned with the VA, where he felt a calling to expand upon that work. He accepted a commission as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and was deployed with the Marines. He has since earned his PhD and accepted a faculty position at Chicago Theological Seminary. Perhaps reflecting Moon’s personal path, Coming Home seems more clearly directed towards an audience of churches in the mainstream Protestant tradition than the Quaker meetings of his youth. Quakers, however, very much need to hear Moon’s message and to make it their own.

The task of welcoming veterans home is perhaps especially difficult for Friends, with our uniquely radical peace testimonies. I was hoping that Coming Home might address some of the peculiar challenges and opportunities that confront Friends in this regard. Quaker peace testimonies were forged in the fires of the English Civil Wars. Soldiers and veterans were all around in those days, and many became Friends. In contrast, our peace testimonies today are frequently mere lip service – spoken of, but not understood by people who have no experience of war. Wielded in this manner, our peace testimonies become blunt instruments of self-righteousness, rather than invitations to love. Unfortunately, suspicion and judgmentalism have prevented too many Friends from welcoming veterans into their fellowships. As a veteran among Friends myself for almost thirty years, I still experience affronts like these in our community. I was looking forward to Moon’s analysis of such dynamic, but the matter fell outside the scope of this book.

I believe, however, that Friends face more opportunities than hazards from reaching out to veterans. When warriors embrace peace, and peace communities embrace warriors, a kind of energy is released that can change the world. Examples abound. Returning WWII vets energized much of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Quakers worked with veterans’ resistance and peace movements to help force U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. We should not forget that even Gandhi wore a uniform as a medic in the Boer Wars. Quiet alliances between people of faith and Veterans For Peace, Iraq Vets Against the War, and other groups are continuing this work today. Some veterans at Standing Rock discovered a new intersection of peace/prayer /recovery, and a new sense of purpose that continues to animate their work. This sort of peace work is essential for many veterans to heal from the moral injuries they have suffered, and offers one of the few real hopes for world peace. I am still hoping for advice from Zachary Moon about how Friends, individually, and as a faith community, might make this more of a living reality. Maybe in the next book?  ~~~

James Summers is a member of the San Diego Chapter of Veterans for Peace and a member of La Jolla Meeting (PYM).


Veterans PTSD War peace testimony Reconcilliation

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