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My father was in Vietnam on two tours of duty with the First Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army, served for a while in Bremerhaven Germany and taught at Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma when I was born. I would sneak into his closet as a boy and try on the jacket of his uniform. I'd prowl through his dresser drawers and open the square silk cases containing his medals. We looked through shoe boxes of black and white memories together: a younger more muscular dad with a snake around his neck in thick jungle, my father with a smiling vietnam boy wearing around his neck the Converse sneakers my mother sent him as a gift, a grouping of tents and shirtless men wearing dog tags and baggy pants and carrying beers, a firing mammoth cannon dwarfing my father and his men.

My father gave me three miniature cannons when I was probably ten. Made of wood and iron, they were built in Hong Kong and sold in military PXs - replicas of America's fiercest fire power on land at various points in her history: Civil War, WW1, WW2, and the modern age. They were three of my favorite things because they were his. And behind them, folded properly in a triangle, Old Glory.

In those days I saluted the flag and pledged allegiance to her. My favorite part of a high school football game was the presenting of the colors, the military personnel turning sharply, snapping to attention, marching in perfect sync with each other. I wanted to be them. I wanted to be like my father.

Today my evolving understanding of historic Christianity and scripture has me talking from time to time - more often here than anywhere else - about the Church's relation to Nation. I view myself as a citizen of God's kingdom first and America second. I don't pledge allegiance to a flag or cross my heart and repeat a pledge to a nation mostly as a symbolic refusal on my part to vow my life and death to anything but the Christ. I think most of what the governments of earth do to care for people in need is the job of the Church, a job the government does because we no longer see it as our own. I don't think the government does anything benevolent better than Christians working together can. We the Church are the institution charged by God to show mercy and set things right. The government also defines peace differently from the Church and secures it with violence I believe to be a temporary surface solution inherently opposed to the character, example and teaching of Jesus. We the Church are the institution charged with peace making.

I'm not against government but indifferent to it. Working to supplant it almost entirely with a loving active Church. I'm thankful for the benevolence of my government and the many pleasures and freedoms that are mine because I live in America. But her freedom is not thee ultimate freedom. Her pleasures are not the greatest I can know. And I'd like to think I'd go against my country and my flag and my father to pursue the greater freedom and pleasure of following my real King whose nation has no borders.

How'd a good Republican boy from a military family get so screwed up? Somehow I went from patriotism to indifference. From future to soldier to pacifist. How?

Ask me that yesterday and I would have gone on and on about how I began studying the example and teachings of Jesus more diligently through the lense of non-American theologians. I would have talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder and various Anabaptists and how they helped me see what Christianity was before America was even a dream and what it should still be - what it was when it started with twelve disciples and a revolutionary named Jesus. I'd quote early church fathers and their policies against patriotism and military service and I'd recite the passages of scripture it was all based on. I'd talk about the Church in Jerusalem and their nearly socialist practices of sharing all things with each other.

That was yesterday.

Today I have to confess that while all of this is true, well, there's more to it than that. There was more at work transforming my thinking than I've admitted.

This morning as I mowed the yard I stewed over a piece of "fan mail" I received last night and had an epiphany. The "fan" asked what my beef was with America. He accused me of a being a Democrat (hardly), a communist (huh?) and a heretic (maybe). But then he asked an accidentally great question: What did the government ever do to you?

Funny how the right question can force us into honest introspection isn't it?

See, I'd heard about the early church's pacifism and about Christians rejecting patriotism a lot in college and rejected it. It wasn't until my late twenties that I began warming to these ideas enough to study them and eventually accept them - about the time my father was diagnosed with cancer. His government, the one he served diligently for many years, the one he pledged his allegiance to and saluted every morning, doused him in Agent Orange and other chemicals while in the jungles of Vietnam. The American government, some say, knew the danger of Agent Orange but loved winning the war more than loving the people who loved her most. This caused my Dad's cancer, his doctor says and his government admits. The cancer is gone for now but he's slowly losing sensation in his body due to exposure to these harsh chemicals. The doctors say that eventually the numbness in his feet and hands will spread throughout his body and bind him to a wheelchair.

What did the government ever do to me? Is there a wound there that influences my theology of nation? Apparently, I think today, Yes.

I realize this morning that my theology of nation wasn't crafted in a vacuum. No theology is. Doesn't mean it's wrong. Just means maybe - I'm thinking now - I was made ready for forming that theology by hurt. I hurt when I see the man who's always been my hero, who taught me to love my country and love my government, tossed aside and incapacitated slowly by the object of his allegiance and affection. And the hurt weaned me off of blind patriotism so I could learn a new way of thinking about my country and my faith - a way I couldn't stand to listen to, let along accept, before.

Now, I'm trying to be honest with you and with myself and trying to figure out how much of the hurt is in the foundation of my theology on war, nation and Church. I want to dig it out, forgive, and base my beliefs and life on something stronger than past pain. I want to base it on truth - the best I can know it.

How about you? How much of what you believe about God or anything else is under the influence of your past? If the past was stripped away would you still have a basis for your beliefs?

So you don't believe in my God. Why? Because people who do have hurt you? Because people you know who do are nuts or just annoying? Is that a basis for life-long disbelief?

So you do believe in this God of mine. Why? Because you associate this belief with happy memories and kind people? Is that a basis for life-long belief? Strip everyone else away. Try to look around the past and not through it. Stare God in the face the best you can...now what do you believe?

Is that possible?


Anonymous keith said...

I guess everything's under the influence of the past. If my circumstances raise questions for which I search and dig for answers, then my resulting beliefs have a firmer foundation than if, in reaction to my questions, I jump to conclusions. By searching for answers, hopefully, my beliefs will be based more on the truth I uncover than on the conclusions I would reach based solely on my feelings. You don't seem to have jumped to conclusions by what you say in this post.

Many people develop faith or deeper faith through difficult times. Should we strip away those difficult times and tell them to have the same faith? God uses our circumstances in making us who we are.

By the way, looking forward to seeing you in Raleigh on Sunday.

Blogger Lesli said...

Thanks for being honest and brave enough to face your tough questions on here and challenge us (me) to do the same. I'll be thinking this one through today...

Anonymous daniel said...

I am a wholehearted follower of Christ, and I agree with everything you said about the church being more responsible for benevolence than the government. However, government is still a necessity (although ours has far overstepped its boundaries in the last century or so) or anarchy would reign. That is precisely why separation of church and state is a necessity. When they're separated, the church isn't political and the government isn't run based on one religion's morals (thereby preserving true freedom for everyone). That is as it should be.

Anonymous daniel said...

Sorry, forgot one thing: You said that you believe that securing peace with violence is opposed to the teachings of Jesus. What about virtually the entire Old Testament? Using violence was certainly not in opposition to God then. Now obviously I realize that the Old Testament is nothing like our specific scenario today, but I say this merely to make the point that, simply because violence is involved, it doesn't mean it's directly in opposition to God, Jesus, Christianity, or whatever term one chooses to employ.

Anonymous ann said...

I really appreciate what you said, and I'm glad you challenged us to step back and look at our faith and see what it's based on.

I was just thinking about this idea of stepping away and looking at your faith just yesterday, as I was writing to an old friend, who isn't a Christian. The issue of morality came up, and I was trying to sound objective, but I realized I really couldn't separate my morality from my theology. (So I came to the conclusion that I can never judge anyone's actions on whether or not they're "morally ok," just whether or not they're offensive to my God (doesn't matter if they're offensive to me). )

And as for faith, though I did grow up around nice people (in church), I had no faith in their God (even though I thought I was supposed to), and it made me angry, so I eventually left the church. After being sucked into a pit of sin, with no reason to love myself and protect myself, God finally got me by myself and got me into His Word, and then used some nice people (the church) to get me out of that muddy sin funk and teach me how to turn my heart toward Jesus. Then, later, when people would compliment my "childlike faith", I'd think, "God has shown Himself to me. I have experienced a relationship with Him. I literally felt the burden of sin removed from my shoulders, and think of myself as a totally new person. When I talk about my life before Christ, I really feel like I'm talking about somebody else. I have seen evidence of His Word all over my life...I didn't make this faith, it was a result of my experiences." I'm really thankful, as painful as it was, that God let me go for a while and see my life without Him before He appeared to me, so I would really know He existed, and didn't just grow out of my brain.

Thanks for opening your heart and being so sincere. I think our world needs more people who are willing to saw themselves in half and show their interior...to allow their joints and marrow to be divided... I appreciate your witness.

Guess I'm gonna have to check out your music now. (I know it's good cause i have friends with good taste who are fans)

Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Daniel, thanks for the question about OT wars. Rather than bore regular readers with stuff that's been said before by me here, maybe check out these posts below and then shoot me an e-mail if you want to talk further about all this war stuff - shaunfanmail@bellsouth.net...

Hauerwas clip 1

Hauerwas clip 2

Hauerwas clip 3

Hauerwas clip 4


Blogger Amy said...

Ok, here's the thing. When getting to know God...learning to trust Him, etc, it's extremely difficult to separate experience from faith. I believe that as we grow older...God continues to shape us, to mold us, and to reveal Himself to us through what we experience in life. Having grown up in a Christian family (Dad was a pastor!) I had all of the head knowledge about God that was necessary, but actual living gave me the heart knowledge. I needed to experience grace after gross moral failure to truly understand and know that about God. And to extend that same grace to others. I needed to move to a foreign country where there were few Americans and I experienced prejudice based on my nationality in order to embrace the truth that my citizenship is in Heaven and my identity is in Christ. I needed to experience God providing fellowship with His saints in times of desperate lonliness in order to know how tenderly He cares for my heart and well being.
I had the head knowledge of these things before, but without the experiences, without my past, they would have probably remained just that.
Good story though. I appreciate your writing so much and all that you share. I appreciate your honesty, and truthfully it brings your fervor on this topic to a much more human and believable level. Because it came from an experience that was real. To me, it shows the hand of our Father. I know He has used you to influence many on this topic and bring people closer to His heart.

Blogger Seth Ward said...

The reason we question establishments, habits, traditons etc. in the first place is because something has shook-up or view of that particular thing we took for granted as true. I think it was Lewis who said "Pain is a megaphone God uses to rouse a deaf world" It is what we do with that pain that shapes us. So in a way we can look around it, but then in a way we can't and God doesn't intend us to. It is through the suffering that we choose to see Him as well as the Joy. "though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him"

It is strange to think about pain as a gift. But in an odd way and mysterious way, it is.

Good post! Man I actually miss mowing. It was prime thinkin' time.

Blogger holyteach said...

You know, I read this blog PRECISELY because you are 1) a Christian and 2) a bit of what some would call a "liberal".

I didn't go to Baylor, but I would have fit right in. I used to be straight-ticket Republican.

But listening to NPR and reading blogs like yours has made me more thoughtful about my own duty to the poor in spirit.

I don't know if you're a liberal or not. I do know you're a Christ-follower, and much of the time I can't see Jesus disagreeing with you.

Keep up the good work, you communist.

Blogger Chaotic Hammer said...

Shaun - As you may recall, I have questioned you heavily on previous threads about this subject. I have admitted to you that this part of your message has challenged me personally -- perhaps as much as any aspect of my walk with the Lord, and any of my preconceived notions, has been challenged.

I'm not sure whether or not it came up in those previous threads (I think it did), but for the record, I served in the U.S. Army for six years. I did that as a Christian, with a clear conscience, and emerged from my time in the military as someone who was very patriotic, and very conservative politically. I still have strong passions inside my heart that are aroused when I hear somebody talking politics, and either supporting or opposing some position which I "intellectually" support because I believe it is somehow "superior" ideologically.

But lately, and increasingly, I find myself sharing your sense that I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God first and foremost. I find myself increasingly open to the idea that I'd rather suffer injustice for the sake of the Gospel, and show forgiveness and love and kindness, than to be "right". I don't care if I win an argument, and I don't care if I can take some political position, uphold it with flawless logic, and destroy my "political opponent's" positions with sharp, biting precision.

In searching my own heart, I have to acknowledge how deeply my intellect and passions are tied up in these matters, and how quickly I abandon love and forgiveness, and embrace hatred and anger, when certain subjects are brought up. And therefore, I know there's something wrong with my heart. I have acknowledged it before God and man, and have been actively praying and studying, looking to let the Holy Spirit renew that area of my heart with the heart of Jesus. I'm not anywhere near the conclusion in this process (and for that matter, none of us is or will ever be during our present state), but if nothing else, I was hoping to encourage you that wherever the truth lies in these matters, you really have brought an important part of it to light.

Unlike you, I have no bitterness for past hurts related to the government or other authority figures, and yet by approaching this subject from a completely different place than you, I am concluding that what you have been advocating and teaching about these matters has a deep ring of truth to it. It can be supported by a plain, untwisted reading of Scripture, taken at face value. It's not some huge departure from the teachings of Jesus; but rather, it's a bold and daring willingness to actually apply them to every area of our existence, not just "theory" or "theology".

I had one question from your post here, Shaun, and I realize that because you are opening up to some sensitive areas, your answer might be "none of your business, go away" (and that's fine if that is your answer), but how does your father feel about the government and nation today, after such a betrayal?

Thanks, great discussion as usual.

Blogger Jeremy Botter said...

As someone currently serving in the United States Army (4th Infantry Division, just down the road from the 1st Cav where your father served), I figured I'd share my opinion. I joined the Army to serve my country and to do my part, and I would say that when I came in, I was stoutly conservative, at least politically. I did a tour in Iraq, and when I came home, it's fair to say that I was on the liberal side.

What happened?

I can trace it all back to a day in Iraq that I'll remember for the rest of my life. We were on convoy through the Tikrit area, and as we pulled through the streets, a bunch of kids came out and yelled at us. They waved at us, and I felt like a hero. Here we were, giving these people democracy! I turned around to talk to one of my buddies, and I got hit in the back of my kevlar helmet with a rock. I turned around, and the kids who'd been waving at us moments before were now giving me the universal sign of disgust -- they were shooting me the middle finger.

That night, I started thinking about why we were out there. I started to think that maybe, just maybe, everything wasn't roses and that perhaps a culture that had existed for thousands of years before America was even a dream didn't need democracy. I started feeling that maybe they needed to be left alone, to work out their differences the way they always have, and I thought that maybe us being there is a lot more offensive to them than anything Saddam Hussein had done.

I'm pro-soldier. I will be leaving the Army in January, but I have loved my time here. I enjoyed most of my time in Iraq, although I can honestly say that I never want to experience anything like it again. It's hard to explain the feeling you have when you're coming home from a warzone; I suspect that I might know a portion of what Vietnam vets were feeling.

So yes, I'm pro soldier -- but I am definitely not pro-war. I do not believe that our mission in Iraq is just, and I do not believe it's righteous. As a soldier, I respect my chain of command, and that goes all the way up to the President, but as a Christian, I cannot resolve the things I saw (and did) out there with what I know in my heart to be true.

Blogger Kathryn said...

i'm so sorry to hear that your Dad has cancer. . even sorrier to know why he has it. This was an achingly honest post. I like that you did not just put our your own story, but you invite us to dialogue and tell ours as well. I like the questions you pose.

my belief in God. . if anything, my past drove me into His arms. .I didn't have it so good, growing up. It was not idyllic. . there was trauma and trouble. . i had bad examples. So, for me. . i HAD to strip that stuff away in order to see God. His love appeals greatly to the love-starved. .

My belief in God has been strengthened as much by unhappy memories and mean people. . the adversity has helped me to seek Him out. I realize that it can also work the other way.

My life isn't a black picture, its wonderful. I have much love now, God has been so good. I have such a deep appreciation for Him and for the wonderful people He has brought into my life.

Blogger Shaun Groves said...

My dad's view of government and military...

Well, we disagree on violence versus non-violence. My dad is still the smartest man I know. Very rational. Logical. A great teacher. And we just disagree. So his view of war has not changed. It's a necessary evil at times, in his mind, and Iraq would be one of those.

He's knowledgeable about politics. He votes. He's civically minded and active. He seems to hold no grudges and hasn't taken his ball and gone home, so to speak.

But he's also not expecting the government to fix the world's problems either. He recently served with my mom at Royal Family Kids Camp - a camp for abused children. He loved it. He gets more merciful as he gets older and wiser. He's still the kind of man I want to be when I grow up.


Blogger GrovesFan said...

Thanks again for your honesty Shaun. While our life's experiences are sure to shape our beliefs and theologies to an extent, it's the growing process that has brought about the most change for me. I see things differently now than I did as a child or even a young adult. I too served in the military and in the first Gulf War as you know. My husband is still serving. Pro-military, anti-war. That pretty much sums it up for me too these days.

Thanks for always making me think, making me do more than simply read the Bible. I'm studying now, and it makes a huge difference.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shaun, I lost my dad two years ago this August. A relationship with Christ makes me grateful for what I have, and for what I have had. My father went to the VA hospital in Houston with emphysema related problems. I went to see him. He was heavily sedated, awake but unable to talk to me. I rubbed his head and had a one way conversation with him, he only able to speak with his eyes. My brother and I were called into the hallway by his doctor and he told us that they had detected a very malignant form of cancer. If he made it out of the hospital, he would not have long to live. I left the hospital (my brother stayed the night with him) and I never saw him alive again, he died that night. I thank God that he was the person that raised me. He was not perfect, but he was my dad. I look at my little boy and hope he loves me half as much as I loved my dad. Should I be stuck looking at the death of my father and blame the asbestos industry? The tobacco industry? The government? No, I just remember him and love him. I thank God I knew him. My little one will look at pictures of him and I will tell them what a great dad I had. How much more does God love me, You, all of us?

Being a Christian does not mean be a victim. The early Christians that Nero fed to the lions were not victims. They were conquerors! Nero died without knowing Christ, he lost. Those Christians died standing for Christ! They won! "What did the government ever do to you?" Maybe a better question would be What did I ever do for my government? Praying for this nation should be the first thing out of the lips of every Christian. Our government is what we make it! Our true war is with Satan and his legions. But that war is over, we didn't have to take up arms, just choose sides.

I am thankful for many things. We (my wife and I) are going through a trial right now (it started a couple of years ago) and my faith has been stretched beyond what I thought possible. It is nearing an end, but it is not over. I am thankful. Above and beyond all I am thankful and know that I have a reservation in heaven. I did not earn it, nor do I even deserve it. But the creator of the universe loved me enough to make that reservation and I accepted. Another thing I am grateful for is to be here in America. I am a flag waving, patriotic veteran. I fly an American flag in front of my home. I water up at ball games when I see the colors presented and place my hand over my heart. This country was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs and I am thankful to be here. I could have been born in equitorial Africa and be an AIDS orphan. I could have been born in Stalinist Russia and been placed in a gulag to rot. But, God placed me in Texas... and I am thankful! I don't mean to sound like "I'm more patriotic than you", but I am just so thankful for what I have been blessed with. Our freedom was bought with blood of those that came before us. But only one of those gave us eternal freedom. As far as my past is concerned, I live for my future. The past holds nothing for me. My future is everything. I'll embrace tomorrow if God sees fit to give me another one.


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