As we all know, life is a ‘journey’ and as we gain insight and experience our viewpoints and decisions evolve and change over the years. This is natural and of necessity if we are truly engaging with life and thinking deeply about the world around us, who we are, and what our own responses to this complex world should be. It involves a process of self discovery but also discovery of the myriad of systems of thought and beliefs that have developed down through the ages among the different cultures and nations in the world.
Most of us tend to stay within the confines of what we have been taught from our families, cultural and/or religious traditions unless something in our experience jolts us out of the confines of what seems normal and safe. Or if our personal constitution is such that we are naturally curious, introspective, or more sensitive to others and their experience in the world we find ourselves questioning and looking for answers to the complexities of life.
This was who Joshua was from the get go. These qualities revealed themselves in his insatiable quest to discover, experience, learn, and live his life with passion and purpose. In doing so, his life took many twists and turns, some exhilarating and some difficult, disappointing, and even harrowing. As is true with all of us he had to live and learn, accepting what he could not change and attempt to change what he could, which he found was oftentimes himself. This involved allowing honesty, courage, and humility to grow while allowing passion, purpose, and strong beliefs to remain subject to his faith in the One who had endowed him with the gifts he had been given and who was leading him on his journey. This was clearly the path and place that God had Joshua in the last years of his life. If one got close enough to see beyond the ideas and views he expressed, ‘against’ injustice and ‘for’ non-violence and the hope for redemption for all, they would have found a heart of love and compassion that longed for the same to be shown to his fellow man.
This is what you will find in his story, a growing and evolving pursuit to know God’s heart and live it out in authentic ways in the world. As Paul said in the Bible, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus”, (Philippians 3:12)
Joshua’s journey led him away from what he termed as Evangelical Fundamentalism to the Anglican Church first and then to the Catholic Church, in which he found the long standing tradition that he had always leaned towards. While at times in his journey he pointed out what he felt to be some of the weaknesses of modern evangelicalism he also saw clearly distinct weaknesses in the Catholic Church he eventually chose to be his place of worship. In other words he became well aware that no earthly tradition could ever be free from the sin and eventual weaknesses and mistakes that come with being human. In fact, the qualities of being tolerant and non-judgmental, desirous to listen and connect with others in a way that expressed respect and love became one of his strongest qualities in his last years on earth. While he had always been an extremely compassionate and caring soul, God used adversity and his own weaknesses to temper his passion and pursuit for ideas, giving him a kind of humility that put more value on the heart and soul of others as well as the condition of his own than the acquisition and expression of knowledge or ideas. And his ability to speak to people of all faiths in a way that expressed acceptance and love without compromising his own, to this day is said by many to be an inspiration and a model to emulate.
In the quote below Joshua expressed his heart’s passion in this excerpt taken from a statement he wrote on his application to the University of Chicago Divinity School, the last stop on his educational journey, which I believe God knew would feel more like ‘home’ to him, being the person He designed him to be.
“The demands of love and the burdens of violence are more to me than mere poetic tropes or philosophical categories. I believe at Chicago there are the sorts of thinkers most able to nurture not only my intellect’s searching after objects of knowledge, but also my spirit’s training upon the true good of which contribution to wisdom is capable of achieving. “
BIOGRAPHY: JOSHUA CASTEEL (Dec.1979-Aug.2012)
Joshua Casteel was a United States Army soldier, conscientious objector, writer, playwright, and divinity student. He was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in a Christian Evangelical family to parents Rick and Kristi Casteel. While Joshua displayed early interest and skills in various arenas, including sports, music, theater, writing, and academics he chose to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and make West Point Military Academy his goal which he achieved with an appointment to the academy in 2008. However, from his first experience with military life, joining early enlistment basic training after his junior year in high school, questions began to surface as to whether he was ‘a fit’ for military life and philosophy. But he believed he owed it to himself and his country to give the honor of an appointment to such a prestigeous institution a try. However, once at West Point he very quickly found his doubts confirmed and for the reasons he was sure about and some that were yet to be realized he decided he needed to leave West Point.
From there he enrolled at the University of Iowa and graduated with honors with a multi-disciplinary major in Literature and the Arts with an emphasis in Philosophy. After 9-11, although not as yet called up, he felt he was constrained to fulfill his initial military commitment. So in spite of the unresolved doubts pertaining to the reconciliation of his faith and the violence that military life demanded he re-enlisted in the Army in May 2002. He was trained as an interrogator at Fort Huachuca and in the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. Joshua served with the Army’s 202nd Army Defense Battalion as an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq conducting over 130 prisoner interrogations. His unit arrived in Iraq in 2004, six weeks after revelation of prisoner abuses by US personnel at the prison.
After spending six months in Iraq and experiencing the realities of war and violence first hand, all the while struggling with the ethical and theological questions pertaining to his job and identity as a Christian soldier his military career finally came to an end. Years of study, counsel, prayer, and first hand experience ultimately led him to apply for conscientious objector. The Army approved his application and granted him an honorable discharge in 2005.
Joshua went on to graduate from the University of Iowa in 2008 with a dual Master of Fine Arts Degree in playwriting and non-fiction writing. He was an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and the author of several plays performed in the US and abroad, including Returns and The Interrogation Room. As a public speaker on religious and political matters, Casteel addressed audiences in the US, Ireland, Sweden, Italy and the UK. He was featured in the documentary films Iraq For Sale: War Profiteers and Soldiers of Conscience In 2008. Excerpts of Casteel’s emails from Iraq were published in Harper’s Magazine and in book form by Essay Press, entitled Letters From Abu Ghraib. A second edition was published by Wipf and Stock Publishing in July, 2017.
During the seven years between his return from Iraq and his death Joshua was a featured writer for several magazines including The Virginia Quarterly, The Alaskan Review, The Point, and Harpers magazine. In 2006 Joshua was featured in Gary Younge’s Guardian article “We Shall Not Be Moved” and was the subject of a special report by Peter Marshall on Newsnight (BBC2) He was also a guest on The Paula Zhan Show on CNN. Joshua performed at the Royal Court Theater in London for Human Rights Watch’s ‘Cries From the Heart’ and collaborated with the British Council on projects such as the American debut of The National Theatre of Scotland’s Blackwatch. He was also commissioned to contribute to the Council’s landmark diplomatic project: The Transatlantic Network 2020. Joshua performed his play Returns across the US including Princeton and New York as well as in Europe. His play is currently in production as an opera to be performed in the UK and Northern England beginning in 2018.
Prior to his death Joshua was at work on his memoir entitled, No Graven Image. He was also part of a delegation invited to the Vatican in 2007 to discuss the theory of just war and the place of conscientious objection with Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI. Joshua also worked for Lumen Christi as an editor and wrote a yearly reflection meditation for Pax Christi. He was attending the Divinity School at the University of Chicago at the time of his diagnosis. Before he died Joshua was awarded The Bishop Dingman Award from Catholic Peace Ministries for his work toward justice and peace and after his death the St. Marcellus Award from Catholic Peace Fellowship.
Joshua died of lung cancer in New York City in New York Presbyterian Hospital on August 25, 2012. An oncologist told Joshua’s mother that “Joshua died of lung cancer without having any of the conventional risk factors such as smoking, asbestos exposure or radiation … I am quite sure we did not have anyone younger with lung cancer during those five years I worked at the VA.” Joshua did receive compensation and acknowledgement that his cancer was military related prior to his death but never an official acknowledgement that his cancer was the result of exposure to toxins released by a very large burn pit he slept and worked near for six months in Iraq. While Joshua was never bitter about his fate and battle with cancer his desire was to see that the burn pits be deemed illegal and would be banned for military use again so that no more soldiers or innocent victims of war could ever be exposed to the lethal toxins they released again. As of this writing there are still burn pits in operation.
The Joshua Casteel Foundation was formed to carry on his legacy of non- violence, working towards peace, justice and reconciliation in the world in ways that respect and honor the value of human life.