[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0836196309″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51gctDc%2BY3L.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Logan Mehl-Laituri” ]The Beautiful and Horrible Realities of Human Existence
A Feature Review of :
For God and Country (In That Order):
Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals
Paperback: Herald Press: 2013
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Reviewed by Dana Cassell
Midway through his newest book, For God and Country (In That Order), Logan Mehl-Laituri explains the title. “One can serve God and country (in that order), since the interests of each will sometimes overlap,” he says, but “the difficult task is discerning when those interests are opposed and acting in conflict with each other.” To that end, the book offers something of an anthology, stories of soldiers from antiquity to today who have served their countries and their God, sorting through allegiances that are sometimes in concert and other times in conflict. Mehl-Laituri himself categorizes this book as a “hagiographic almanac,” a collection of self-contained stories of holy people meant to form practitioners in the field of faithful discernment, those asking what it means to love both God and country.
That he would go to such pains to categorize his own work might lead readers to assume that Mehl-Laituri writes for one particular demographic. At first glance, the book seems like a guidebook for those in active military service, offering examples of soldiers struggling with their allegiances. Outside of writing, Mehl-Laituri does run The Centurion’s Guild, a non-profit organization supporting soldiers. The Guild exists to “support and defend past, present, and future service members while bearing true faith and allegiance to God.” It would make sense for this book to be a book in the same vein, offering more thoughtful resources for soldiers feeling torn by conscience. A book like that would be familiar, especially to those of us in pacifist traditions long familiar with counter-recruitment efforts, conscientious objector hotlines, and anti-military advocacy.
But Mehl-Laituri is not writing for soldiers, and says as much. Soldiers already know these struggles of conscience all too well; it is the church that needs instruction in thoughtful, nuanced navigation of allegiances. “The church owes itself the truth,” he says, “that soldiers and their stories are part of our heritage of faith.” And so, starting with biblical figures like Joshua and winding all the way to present day veterans of the war in Iraq, he tells story after story of faithful people struggling to serve both God and country. The stories are ordered into three sections: warriors of the bible; soldier saints; and pacifists and pacific patriots.
Some of these stories will be familiar to those who have spent time learning about Christianity and war: Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Joan of Arc disguised her identity in order to serve, Tom Fox died in captivity while serving in Iraq through Christian Peacemaker Teams. But some of the stories are much lesser known. Who knew, for instance, that the very idea of communal monasticism traces its roots to military service? Pachomius of Thebes, a 4th century Roman soldier, landed himself in military prison by refusing some order. While there, visiting Christians converted him to the faith, such that after leaving military service, he studied with monks. Eventually, Pachomius felt called to start a communal order of religious men. He used his experience of communal living in the military to model this idea of monastic life together – a new concept as monks had, up to then, lived solitary lives. Pachomius is known today as the father of communal monasticism.
Pachomius wasn’t the only soldier-saint who had great influence on the history and identity of the Christian church. A soldier under Charles V of Spain, John of God founded the Brothers Hospitallers, an order that to this day cares for the medical and dental care of the Pope. Another Spanish soldier, Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits, an order known today as “God’s Marines,” because they strive to defend the faith as vigorously as the Marines defend their country. The soldier-saint legacy in the church extends to the present day, as Mehl-Laituri tells important stories of US soldiers torn by crises of conscience as they served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. These more recent stories, especially, are eye opening. While most American communities of Christ choose to either valorize or shun our soldier brothers and sisters, these stories reveal just how complicated and human these decisions of allegiance can be.