How do I, a mom of a veteran turned conscientious objector, turned advocate for peace, justice, and non-violence honor our veterans in a way that is consistent with not only his transformed beliefs concerning violence and war but also my own? Showing love and concern for all the men and women who have put their lives on the line many times over and even given their lives as my son did, was his desire as well as my own, offering them our love and respect, in spite of our ideological or theological differences.
While believing that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to do what He said, “Do not return evil for evil but overcome evil with good” (one of many teachings on non-violence) we believe just as strongly that we are to follow all of Jesus’ teachings which includes making love the core and the cornerstone of all that we do and say. So it is with genuine compassion and gratitude that we honor the good intentions and the courage necessary to act on the those intentions and the courage every soldier in battle has to call upon. Each person is responsible before God to act according to his or her own conscience and it is not our place to judge those who believe differently from us but rather to live according to our own.
We also believe that it is a blessing that our government offers the option of conscientious objection to soldiers. And we are grateful that after years of struggling with the moral and spiritual issues surrounding the issue of war and violence as it relates to followers of Jesus Christ, when that time of crystallization of conscience came for Joshua during his tour of duty at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq while working as an interrogator, he was offered the opportunity to present his position upon returning home in the CO application process. His commander, who confessed that he had never believed there to be any good reason for becoming a conscientious objector, until he met Joshua, knew of his emotional and spiritual struggle while in Iraq. He not only commended him for the way in which he handled himself as an interrogator while at Abu Ghraib in the midst of his very real ethical and moral struggles, but also for then taking a stand that upheld his genuine beliefs. His words of encouragement were a real gift to Joshua.
Joshua’s journey to look at these issues differently than he ever had before, growing up in our Protestant Evangelical Christian home, sparked my own journey towards change. It is true that we came to believe that violence is not only incapable of bringing about peace, but instead incites more violence actually causing the cycle of vengeance to increase and continue. And it is also true that Joshua saw first hand the devastating toll that war takes on everyone involved, the soldiers as well as so many innocent citizens, communities, and as was true of Iraq, the entire country. The Iraq War was not unlike other wars that have been fought throughout history. They are a kind of ‘hell on earth’ to everyone directly involved. One walks away asking, “was the cost of all the lives taken and devastated for generations to come worth whatever it was we were told we were fighting for or against”?
Maybe there is something deeper that we as people need to examine within ourselves to answer this question. Maybe we need to look behind the research carried out by the military after WWII that revealed that only 20% of soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy. They either pointed them away or didn’t pull the trigger because of a personal aversion to killing. Hence, the military instituted what is now called ‘reflexive training’ to get soldiers to act reflexively, bypassing their minds and conscience. It was an efficient choice, but was it a good one, a healthy one for all those whose lives are changed forever because of the results of such training if put on a battlefield?
Could it be that we were not created to kill and it is our human weaknesses lived out that blinds us to who we were meant to be and how we were designed to live with one another? Or is there a better way to settle our disputes and deal with our differences, an answer which continues to evade us? We talk about wanting ‘peace on earth’ but doesn’t the history of war itself tell us that war and killing has done nothing to stop the cycle of vengeance that has simply taken different forms down through the centuries?
There are many sophisticated and complex theories out there that try to explain the dilemma of why man continues to fight wars at home and abroad, in our homes, and in our streets. But I want to speak about these things in a simpler more understandable way from not only a mother’s point of view but from the viewpoint of one who has looked deeply into the lives of others through intimate conversations as a counselor and a helper, one who has had the privilege to view the needs, desires, hurts, and struggles of the human heart.
If we’re honest with ourselves and allow a deeper examination of our own heart’s desire for love and understanding to surface, it isn’t quite as hard to acknowledge that as human beings we’re not that different from each other at the core. We all need and desire love and affirmation. We need to believe that we matter, that our lives have value. Even those who have been taught unhealthy, destructive, and even evil ways to define and achieve that sense of value are seeking the same affirmation and significance. Why? Because they are human beings with a body, soul, and spirit created to receive and give love. But more times than not hurt, anger, bitterness, and fear of vulnerability keeps us from seeing the common thread that binds us all together, the reality of being human and flawed. So we flee (in any number of ways) or we fight. Each of these responses separates us from each other, but violence, in particular destroys our desire to see the common bond. So we point fingers and throw blame on the ‘other’ causing hearts to harden, which makes greater violence more probable and easier each time it is perpetrated. What we don’t allow ourselves to ‘feel’ negates our conscience and the purpose it was designed to play in our lives. The desire to seek or offer forgiveness or believe that redemption is even possible where wrong has been done or evil is present is no longer seen as an option. So we feel justified in resorting to violence, whether it be on a small scale in the form of insult or revenge or on a large scale in the form of war to try to eradicate evil and wrongdoing.
Joshua wrote in his book, Letters from Abu Ghraib, “Evil cannot be destroyed, it can only be redeemed.” When we objectify evil as being incarnate in the ‘form’ of humanity, we tell ourselves that destruction of the people/groups/society etc. will rid the world of certain evils. This ideology is the foundational thinking behind war, violence, and in particular the terrorism we see today carried out by radicals. But it is evil ‘within’ a person that produces evil actions and evil within always has the ‘potential’ of redemption. That was at the heart of Jesus’ message and reason for coming to earth, to offer us the possibility of redemption.
But I realize that not everyone accepts the teachings of Christ or believe in a God at all. They look at life through a very different lens. For those who do, however, it seems to me that we have but one choice, to hold on to not only the truth and promise of redemption but also to the rest of Jesus’ teachings, which is summed up in that one and only life changing word, ‘Love’.
Our only hope for moving towards something different from what we’ve seen throughout mankind’s history of division, violence, and wars is to simply do what Jesus says, find ways to show love where there is hate, offer acceptance where there is prejudice, and give hope where there is despair in our sphere of influence, where we live and work. Another quote from Joshua’s book, Letters from Abu Ghraib, I believe is a question worth pondering.
“What would it look like if the same determination to defeat the enemy was used to redeem the enemy?”
Imagine, if you can, what the world would look like if every person who professes to believe in a loving God in our world took that question to heart and determined to live it out.
Joshua believed he was far from having all the answers to our world’s complex problems, as do I, but even in his last days on this earth, suffering from extreme pain from a cancer caused by just one of the many tragic and unethical inequities of war, the burn pits used by our own military to dispose of waste, (*see the book, ‘The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers’ by Joseph Hickman) he refused to succumb to anger and bitterness. Instead his focus was on requesting that we help eradicate the use of the burn pits in an effort to prohibit the poisoning of other soldiers, as well as helping the Iraqi people who suffered and whom he knew would continue to suffer for generations to come because of the war. Joshua chose love over hate, acceptance over prejudice, and hope over despair, a legacy worth contemplating.
I am trying to do the same, but I have to admit that after losing both my husband and son in a very short period of time, and looking at the daunting task of carrying on the message of love and non-violence in a world that seems to be slipping into a black hole of violence, hatred, and despair, I’m quite sure I could have easily chosen the same, just in different form than some, had I not had the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. I can truly say with David from the Psalms;
“If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have dwelt in the place of silence.” (Psm.94:17)
But I will, by the grace of God, do my best to continue to speak out and carry on what I believe to be Jesus’ teachings which are revealed in part in what Joshua left behind. One of those things being his book, Letters from Abu Ghraib, revealing his struggle to come to that place in his heart and in his life where he would choose to follow his conscience before God, with the hope that it would inspire others to think deeply about their lives and how they wanted to live in this world.
In addition to his book he left behind a play entitled, ‘Returns’, showing the impact of PTSD and moral injury, which is still ravaging the lives of thousands of soldiers. Returns will continue to be produced as a play/workshop in the US and as an opera in Europe with the hope that it will help others to understand these difficult and painful issues, so they can better help those who come back from war. He left other writing, plays and speeches given here and abroad that we trust will continue on in the minds and hearts of those that were touched by them and beyond as we share them on the Joshua Casteel Foundation website. And yet, more important than all of the creative gifts he left behind is the legacy of love, acceptance, and hope, he lived out, gifts he was given by the One whom he loved and served.
So, I return to the question I asked at the beginning of this writing. How can I best honor those veterans who have given so much of their lives or those who gave it all? The only answer that makes any sense at all to me or gives me any hope for the future for them and the world we all live in is to commit myself to furthering the message that radiated from Joshua’s life in a world that is still struggling to find peace, within themselves and with each other. And I will try to live that message out in the ways God calls me to until the day comes when Jesus will cause all wars to cease and will Himself reign as the Prince of Peace. That is our promise and our hope!
Joshua Casteel Foundation