Ironically, my wartime spiritual experience was so profound that I now believe that I will never again live in such communion with the spirit until I give up my last breath. Even among great shortfalls and mishaps of morality, hardship, and loss, I know that the sacred was always extremely close. And while I don’t know if it’s possible in America, I hope that one day we can all experience the diverse community of believers like the community I knew in war.
My duties afforded me the opportunity to travel all over Iraq with a number of different units. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a prayer shouted by someone in the truck as we embarked on a mission. It didn’t always happen; there was no unwritten rule. It just happened when it happened. Often, these prayers from the heart would go something like,
“God, protect our asses on this mission. But if you decide it’s our time to go, please be merciful and put an inattentive guard at the gate so we, the undeserving bastards of the (insert unit here) may sneak our way in to heaven. Amen!”And usually all would shout a true, deeply honest, “Amen!” On these trucks, there were Catholics and Baptists and Pentecostals and Mormons and those who had never stepped foot into a formal church building a day in their lives. And yes, there were probably atheists.
And when we returned there’d be glory given to God, usually in the gruffy way of the soldier as we smoked Cuban cigars (because there’s no embargo in that part of the world). There, the warrior would think of his existence and ponder about his Creator. It’s easy in war to see God, but it’s even easier to question of Him, “Where are You?” At that time, we had no idea the spiritual conflict we’d face at home, alone, because the American church is more concerned about protecting marriage, whatever that really means, and electing their flavor of faith to political office.
It was difficult not to be thankful, profoundly thankful. Nothing was taken for granted. God was significant, far more than I had ever experienced back home.
The soldiers came together in community. As our tour was winding down and the incoming unit was picking up our mission load, we started holding movie nights. A sheet—that often warped the picture as it swayed in the breeze—would act as our screen and the commander let us use the mission briefing LCD projector and a laptop to play DVDs.
These DVD were the newest films, still in the theaters but bootlegged. We bought them from the locals who got them from the Saudis or Kuwaitis. They usually had subtitles in Arabic and the silhouettes of theater attendee’s heads bumped across the bottom. On occasion the shot would be obscured when the bootlegger moved the camera; but what more could we ask for? We were in Iraq.
One night, we got a copy of “The Passion.” It was just out in theaters so many of us wanted to see what all the hype was about. The room was packed. Our copy was subtitled in Arabic; English was nowhere to be read or heard. To top if off, the movie doesn’t do a good job of telling a story to those who don’t already know the story, which just happened to be most of the scouts in our unit.
So the chaplain’s assistant and I decided to attempt to be the voices of the characters, simply making a best guess effort at what was being said. However, there was no mistaking the opening scene.
As Jesus is on the ground in prayer and Satan is moving around the garden, our group fell silent. Off in the distance we could hear test fire, or maybe real gunfire, but it was too far off to worry about. Normally the radio in the HQ area was alive with units calling in for QRF or reporting their positions; but at that moment, it was still. Nobody was breathing.
Satan bent down and released a snake at Jesus’ face. The Devil’s eyes told the story. Perspiration drained from Jesus and soaked the dirt. The fog ebbed and flowed through the trees. Then, from the back of the room, a young soldier who had no affiliation with church, shouted, “Punch him, Jesus!” Seconds later Jesus stomped on the head of that snake to the great cheer of us warriors forged by blood and fire.
We watched that movie together as a community, no different than how we experienced war. There was no debate as to the accuracy or theology or whatever. We had no controversy, only the love for one another and the desire to “sneak” into heaven someday, as a team. Collectively, we were what America needs. Together, we wanted to understand Jesus and each other. Iraq, as it turns out, was the safest place I’ve ever experienced a believing community. Too bad our foxholes in American aren’t as great.