Is Service in Decline?

Most service members are aware of the recent news that the Army failed to meet its recruiting goals for 2022 by more than 30,000. For the first time in decades, the active Army is now below 450,000 members. Yet it is not just the Army. Every branch of the military is struggling with meeting recruiting goals to maintain the force, but none so dramatic. The reasons for this decline vary, but ultimately it comes down to whether people are willing to serve the nation or not.

Some sources blame the low recruiting on the politicization of the military. For those on the right, it is because of the Army becoming “woke.” They blame transgender training, political witch hunts, and vaccine or mask mandates – the service is about to discharge some 60,000 people who refused to get a COVID vaccination. They argue if you appeal increasingly to people on the left, who are statistically less likely to serve, and demonize people on the right, who are statistically more likely, the result can only be a decline in numbers. Meanwhile, those on the left blame toxic masculinity, right-wing extremism, and bigotry. The military continues to have a higher percent of sexual assaults than the rest of society, and it has long been a haven for the pro-gun lobby. The bigger problem is that people are applying politics of any flavor to the military, which erodes confidence that the U.S. military is professional and apolitical, serving the whole nation. Polls show that trust in the military has declined 25 percent since 2018 to 45 percent of those who responded from both political persuasions. If political leaders continue to inject politics into the military, declining professionalism, trust, and recruiting will likely be the result.

The military in general blames the declining eligibility of people as being the main issue impacting recruiting. Today, only 23 percent of people aged 17 to 24 are eligible for service due to weight, drug use, or criminal records. This is down 6 percent from 29 percent in 2018. With a smaller pool that is eligible, recruiting is naturally down. As a result, the Army is waiving some requirements, for example, by recruiting obese people and putting them on a rigorous weight loss program to help them meet standards and by allowing those with non-felony convictions to serve. They are also offering more bonuses to provide a financial incentive. Those who have been in the service for a long time have seen all of this before, since the military has periodically taken such actions to maintain numbers in the past. These efforts may delay the decline or make up for five or ten percent of losses. It is unlikely, however, that these alone can make up for the large declines in recruiting seen recently.

While both politicization and eligibility are no doubt contributing to recruiting declines, the larger problem is an overall decline in a desire to serve. Of those eligible, only 9 percent in polls say they have any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007. In the past, having family members who served was a major influence. In 1995, 40 percent had relatives who had served. Today, it’s only 13 percent. As the number of people serving in the military in each generation has declined, the numbers familiar with military service have also declined. Most people – 75 percent – are unfamiliar with the Army at all. Some of the reasons why fewer people want to serve are political – if you teach people the U.S. is evil, why would they want to die for their country? If you say patriots are extremists, why should they want to serve? Yet the bigger reason is simply that fewer people are interested in serving anywhere, in jobs, in the military, or in government. Many industries are having problems filling jobs and keeping them filled. Most people have no loyalty to any company or nation and so only work until they find something better, or they are forced to do something they don’t like. Likewise, more than half of those who are eligible for military service believe they would have emotional or physical problems if they serve in the military, meaning they would be forced to do something that harms them. In short, more people are looking out only for themselves and do not want to make a long-term commitment.

I have repeatedly written about Roman views of the necessity of service for civilization to survive (such as here, here, and here). Romans believed that it was public virtue – service and placing the needs of the state over others – was what made their state successful. Everyone from the emperor down to the lowest slave served the state in some way and loved their country. Most historians believe it was the decline in service that led to the fall of Rome. If we want recruiting to improve and our military to remain strong, we must teach our children the importance of service, sacrifice, and hard work. Only when people want to serve can our nation thrive.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

When An Atheist Came to Church

I recently read about an atheist who visited three London churches in 2015. He provided some surprising praise of churches, from which Christians can learn. Primarily, unlike in the past where atheists or Deists valued the church mainly for its moral instruction, his views suggest that what is much more important to unbelievers today is acceptance and inclusion. Most people simply want a place to belong. Sadly, this is an area where many churches most often fail. Yet he also felt that mystical experiences and modern technology help to draw people.

Sanderson Jones is a former stand-up comedian who led the Sunday Assembly Community Center, which some call the “atheist church.” In essence, it is a Sunday morning church experience for people who don’t believe but want the socialization and community that churches provide believers. They include music, talk, and an offering that supports charity. Invited to visit a friend’s church in 2015, Jones ended up visiting three London churches: St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Holloway, Hillsong, and St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Bryanston Square. He may have been shopping around for ideas, or perhaps he was merely curious. Regardless, he came away with high praise for the churches he visited. Although he did not believe in the teachings of the church, he commented on areas he could agree with rather than being cynical. His comments reveal, not only what he thinks churches are doing right, but also what most draws people to believe.

The biggest attraction for Jones was the welcoming environment. He believed being welcomed at the door and invited to coffee were extremely important and done right in the churches he visited. “It’s the most basic things which you’ll take for granted in Churchland, which are in fact really powerful,” he said. It is this element that so many churches continue to struggle, despite the urging of Christ to love our neighbors. Some do not reach out to any visitors other than having them fill out a card to receive a letter or call at a later time. I’ve been to services where no one spoke to me other than the ushers as everyone around me flitted towards their friends. I’ve also been to churches where people spoke to everyone, asked them to get a cup of coffee or to meals later, and spoke to them during breaks. In many cases, it’s often the difference between visitors returning or never coming again. If the church cannot provide simple kindness and decency, it’s going to have a hard time getting people to come regularly, let alone participate in activities.

Jones also commented on being invited to take communion and to receive prayer despite not believing. Of course, many churches take the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper more seriously than others, with some believing that taking it without belief condemns people to hell, and so restrict access. Jones, however, was surprised that he was allowed to do so at the churches he attended. He found the experience “genuinely moving.” He described himself as a “mystical atheist” who looks for experiences that help people feel connected. He made similar comments about receiving prayer for healing. Although he did not believe in prayer, he thought the encouragement he received well worth the experience. “It’s really emotional…it’s going to have a powerful psychological effect.” Many churches have lost the sense of wonder that the Lord’s Supper or individual prayer brings. They’ve become social clubs or doctrinal schools rather than helping people to encounter God. Although Jones denied the presence of God, it is interesting that this was one of the things that most drew him. When God is present, people will come whether they believe or not.

Finally, Jones had a lot to say about the presentation. As someone who understood mass media, he found the service at Hillsong particularly appealing as people entered into ecstatic worship. The music was modern and high-tech, there were videos at the beginning, and the sermon was well-prepared, funny, and well-executed. While some churches reject such presentation as manipulative, he observed that people were merely putting their creativity into God. The energy was particularly appealing. “I just love it. I feel so excited to be alive,” which he believed led people to be more contemplative. Of course, we should always be wary that people are being manipulative, especially when they are asking for money or leading others to believe something. It’s always better to let God do the talking than trying to make things happen with slick speeches and fancy music. Yet providing a modern presentation can also help those raised in the video culture receive information they would otherwise reject with dry sermons, boring music, and uninspiring services. If people can use their skills to make their church more inviting, more power to them.

Of course, there are many issues that Jones did not discuss. As someone who does not believe in God, he did not address issues related to theology, faith in God, or spiritual experience. These are the most important elements of church experience, but one cannot expect an unbeliever to feel they are important. Yet his other observations are valid. The church ought to be more welcoming. It ought to embrace wonder and emotional support. It ought to try to make services inviting. If we want to see more people come to faith, we must reach out to the unbelieving. Jones’ comments are a beginning.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

The Reprobation of America

I constantly hear about how America has changed since my peers were young. While some changes are good – few complain about improving racial and gender equality, for example – most people complain about the increased hatred, violence, sexuality, and political intolerance. Most people attribute these changes to the nation becoming more reprobate, that is, immoral or condemned. Recent statistics appear to support this interpretation.

In this year’s Gallop Poll, only 81 percent of respondents said they believe in God. This is down 6 percent since the last poll in 2017 and is the lowest since Gallop began asking this question in 1944. In fact, the percent was consistently above 98 percent through the 1960s and above 90 percent until 2013, when the number declined to 87 percent. The largest percent of those who have stopped believing in God are young adults (68 percent). The younger generation is increasingly being brought up to not believe in God or at least to not believe faith matters. As more of our youth comes of age, they will bring their atheism and moral ambivalence with them. In other words, there has been a change in our national religious life, and there can be little doubt that this is impacting our moral life as well. People are embracing hatred, violence, sexuality, and intolerance because they increasingly have fewer moral restraints that most religions provide. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that fifty years ago, there were almost no school shootings despite much wider access to firearms. One of the factors that has changed is people’s belief in God.

This is not to suggest that all atheists are immoral or violent. Most atheists claim that they are very moral people, but their morality is based more on reason and voluntarism than on religion and fear. This is true as far as it goes, but there are three problems with a morality on this basis. First, the source of their reason may be unwholesome. Take Ayn Rand, an atheist who promoted a philosophy called “objectivism” that she believed was based on a scientifically objective reality. Applying Adam Smith’s view that an “invisible hand” guides economic activity when people pursue their own self-interest, she argued that selfishness was a virtue and that charity of any type leads to dependence. In short, her philosophy led her to reject all efforts to help our fellow human beings. Second, if your morality is based solely on human reason, it will change with the times as people discover new rights or emphasize new protections. Fifty years ago, there was near universal acceptance by people from both ends of the political spectrum that the first amendment was sacrosanct; today, many believe that the dangers of “fake news” should limit our right to free speech; in another dozen, unwelcome speech may result in punishment. Third, morality that is voluntary is quickly abandoned. When there is peer pressure, when faced with conflicting values, when a new moral imperative arises, it is only too easy to abandon the old if the only thing that was keeping you is your own willpower.

One of the benefits of religion is that its morality is more consistent and objective, especially for people of the book (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). If the source of holy books was divine inspiration, then their moral laws came from God, a source that we can trust. They are immutable and inarguable. Other than the slight variances in interpretations, the words of the Bible never change, so the morals it teaches will be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Faced with judgment and eternal reward or punishment, it is much less likely that those who are dedicated to the faith will abandon their morals. Of course, not everyone who follows a religious creed is fully dedicated to it and may try to reinterpret scripture or be willing to abandon its morality. This is especially the case for those who are cowed into obedience by fear, which provides poor motivation to follow creeds precisely. Those who are moved by love, who spiritually experience God, are more likely to be obedient without being hypocritical.

If, then, our religion and morality has declined, what are we to do about it? Some have argued we need merely vote the other party out and implement different laws. According to Gallop, more than 90 percent on the political right believe in God, compared to less than 70 percent on the political left. Yet these numbers are deceptive because of the overall cultural impact that disbelief in God is having. There have been mass shooters from both sides of the political aisle because the problem isn’t just with party or political ideology. Even many who believe in God have stopped believing in the Bible and thus may accept a voluntary, evolving, and politically expedient morality. Rather, the problem is cultural and must be addressed culturally as much as through the law. By this, I don’t just mean movies, books, television, and games, although these do have an impact on what young people believe. Primarily, it means families, churches, and schools, which are the largest purveyors of culture. If we are not teaching our children that faith is necessary, that God is good, and that His commands are unchanging, both by our actions and by our words, we will continue to get the same results we have now – the increasing reprobation of America.

Most of all, we should remember that God not only provides us with a morality we can trust; He also gives us the freedom to choose and the power to overcome. My mother used to say that an atheist is someone with no invisible means of support. Without faith, we cannot change ourselves, let alone the world, and our moral decline will continue.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

The Power of Children

I recently ran across a story about Adolph Hitler and a little girl. It was strange, a little macabre, and somewhat iconoclastic because it is not what one expects from a genocidal dictator. While some may see the episode as an anomaly and others as proof that there is good in everyone, I see in it a certain power that children have to bring even the most ruined souls love and joy.

The story emerged in 2018 when an autographed photograph of Hitler hugging a little girl sold at auction for more than $11,000. Taken in 1933 by Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s official photographer, the picture was quickly identified. A little research showed how bizarre the story was, which an auction official called “mind-blowing.” While visiting his Berghof retreat in the Bavarian region of Germany, Hitler struck up a friendship with a little girl in the crowd, who he learned had the same birthday as himself (April 20). Her name was Rosa Bernile Nienau, and she was eight at the time. She soon became a frequent guest of the recently appointed chancellor and started corresponding with him. More than seventeen letters have been discovered in the German archives from her. She became known as “Hitler’s child,” and she called him “Uncle Hitler.” In other words, she was taken with him, and he with her. So far as is known, their relationship was normal, as they chatted about flowers, the country, or beautiful things. Hoffman widely published several pictures of Bernile and Hitler to show the human side of the Fuhrer, that he was able to relate so well with children.

The problem, as some might have guessed, was that the girl’s grandmother and mother were Jewish. Since anyone who was at least a quarter Jewish heritage was considered fully Jewish by recently passed restrictions on Jews in Germany, it created an uproar among Hitler’s Antisemitic friends when his friendship with her became known in 1938. Despite his well-published attitudes toward Jews, Hitler had disregarded her heritage for the sake of friendship, which his adjutant, Fritz Widemann, described as a “purely human attitude.” Hitler had in fact known about her heritage from the beginning. The situation became serious when Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and deputy of the Nazi party, found out. He immediately barred the girl and her mother from appearing in Berghof. When Hoffmann complained that Bormann had also forbidden him from publishing any more photos of Hitler with the girl, Hitler was furious and at first refused to stop seeing her, saying, “There are people who have a true talent to spoil my every joy.” Eventually, however, the party leaders had their way, and in May 1938 the mother was officially ordered to stop having contact with party officials.

For a time, at least, the little girl had done what few were able to accomplish – she had tamed the genocidal maniac to overlook his own prejudices. Like David playing on his harp for King Saul, she had soothed the tortured soul of Hitler, giving him momentary joy. Perhaps, had the friendship continued, he may have moderated some of his views, for how could he continue to persecute the Jews when he was friends with one? More likely, he would have continued at least some of his policies but would have made an exception for his friend, as indeed many Nazi officials did when confronted by close companions who were Jewish. By cutting off his contact with the child, the Nazis closed one of the few humanizing elements in his life. It was shortly after this that the Reichstag passed the strictest laws against Jews and that the first pogrom against the Jews, Kristallnacht, took place. Though sad, it is fortunate Bernile died of polio in 1943 at the age of seventeen before she had to face what was to come – the implementation of the Final Solution. Although the Germans had already opened concentration camps, few knew of them until after the war. In other words, within a few years of losing his friendship with the girl, Hitler rapidly descended to megalomania, genocidal mania, and eventual self-destruction.

While some may look at this story to defend Hitler, who seemed to display a human side, or argue that it was just an isolated episode in the midst of Hitler’s evil, I would argue that it demonstrates the ability of children to save even the most lost of souls. We will never know what could have happened if Hitler’s relationship with the child continued, but we do know that for a time he was able to find a love that seemed to slow his decline into madness. This is the strange power children have. Because they are so innocent, so totally dependent on others, and so willing to love the unloveable, they bring incredible joy, love, and peace to those who struggle the most. I remember taking my daughter to a retirement home to visit my grandmother, and she would always end up in the lap of someone struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s. You could see the joy and love in their eyes, which nothing else seemed to bring. There came a moment of recognition, of healing, though it disappeared as soon as she had left. For a moment, at least, they felt joy and peace. The same happens to most people when they come into contact with children.

I encourage those who are struggling with depression, with hatred, and with pain to spend time with small children in a safe environment on a regular basis and watch your attitudes change. It is impossible to remain angry or depressed if you can immerse yourself even for a moment in a child’s world and experience the unconditional love that children offer. This is the power of children.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

Trust Your Training

There is a saying in military and law enforcement circles – trust your training. We practice over and over again how to respond in difficult circumstances so that we will take the proper actions when placed under stress. The same is true in parenting. There comes a time when you have to trust that the training you gave your children will help them when they encounter the trials we know are coming.

The police and the military undergo extensive training about how to handle difficult choices. Through years of repetition, they train by going to firing ranges, practicing how to enter rooms with unknown assailants, responding to lone shooters, or administering first aid. The reason for all this repetition is that it helps us to respond to situations without having to think about every little action, because someday we won’t have time to think as danger comes before we realize it. In these circumstances, muscle memory takes over. The idea that we only need to be told something once is a myth. It is only after repeated practice sessions and encounters that we learn how we need to respond. It is only by going to the range repeatedly that Soldiers can take the right stand, breath properly, and fire accurately when someone is firing at them. It is only by repeatedly practicing what to do when faced with a lone shooter that you can take the right actions in the face of fear. It is only when you know how to bind a wound that you can do so with someone bleeding all over you. When faced with an emergency, you have to trust your training.

The same is also true of parenting. You train them for first-time obedience. You repeatedly practice your child doing exactly what you say when you say it, so that, when they are about to run into traffic, they will obey you. If you’re always letting your children disobey without any intervention or consequence, there will come a time that they disobey when their life depends on your guidance. You train them to control their tempers and answer questions without being disrespectful. You repeatedly discipline them for lashing out or throwing things and make them stand respectfully when speaking. If you don’t, they may one day become angry at their teachers or at the police and end up in worse trouble than they were. They may lose all of their friends and learn the hard way that they can and should control their temper. You teach them not to talk to strangers and repeatedly drill into them to go to the police when they are in trouble. If you don’t, they may go off with a serial killer or get lost and not know who they can or cannot trust.

Even the most mundane training, such as how to treat people kindly and to be honest, helps prepare them for life, especially when they get older and begin to make life choices. At some point, they will leave home, and the only thing that they can rely on is the training they’ve received. You drill into them the evils of drugs because you hope that, when tempted to take drugs with their friends, they will trust their training and say no. You show them what it’s like to be a true friend so that, in the heat of anger, they can remain calm and help others. You make them do chores so that, when they are on their own, they can take care of themselves even when other temptations come to bear. You teach them to be careful in relationships so that they avoid pregnancy. Since my children have gone to college, I look back at the training they received and know that it has helped them make the right decision when the easier path tempts them. I can see them interacting with others respectfully, applying discipline in studying, shopping and cooking for themselves, and avoiding danger, and I know that they turned out the way they did because of the training they received, at home, at church, and at school.

For parents who sometimes let their children get away with things, keep in mind that your children will only know what to do if you train them consistently. For children, know that the constant nagging helps to train you to respond appropriately without thinking. For parents of adult children, trust that your training will bear fruit one day. At some point, you have to trust your training.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

The Problem of Evil

For many people who do not believe in God, the largest obstacle to accepting His reality is the existence and nature of evil. Even many theists struggle with the concept of a loving personal God who allows evil to exist. In essence, both argue that if God is omnipotent and good, He would stop that which is evil from happening. For example, some people are suggesting that the recent school shootings would not have occurred if God exists. All people of faith, therefore, must address this obstacle in some way in order to believe.

The problem that evil poses to people of faith has been a challenge since the beginning. Greek philosopher Epicurus once argued that God “either can do nothing to stop catastrophe or doesn’t care to.” Although he believed in the gods, he believed they did not interfere with the world. When he was an atheist, C.S. Lewis observed, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust…. For many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question, because I kept on feeling, ‘whatever you say, and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power?’” While this always made Lewis uncomfortable, other atheists seem to have no problem with the cruelty of the universe. Richard Dawkins, for instance, sees the evil actions of man as being the result of evolution, of survival of the fittest. Meanwhile, even those who believe in God sometimes struggle with the issue. Deists believe that God created the universe and its natural processes, but He is not involved in its day-to-day operation, which continues under natural laws that are indifferent to us. Sadly, even some Christians have a similar view.

Most believers explain the existence of evil as a matter of choice. That is, while God is good and prefers righteousness, He leaves it up to each person as to whether to obey or not. This is perhaps the best way of explaining human behavior. Some people are going to choose evil no matter what, and no laws, no government, and no entity can prevent this. Does this mean that God is powerless to prevent it? By no means. It is also a matter of choice to allow people free will. While an omnipotent God can certainly make people do what He wants, forcing people to do what is right at the cost of their freedom is itself a form of evil. God wants people to choose to love and obey Him without being forced to, for the robotic love of those who have no choice is meaningless. Even so, those with faith recognize that God still works out everything for our good despite the evil choices of men, though we often cannot see the end.

But what about injury and death that results from natural processes, such as hurricanes and disease? Is this not proof that God is indifferent to our suffering? Many Christians likewise argue that the reason the natural world is so hostile to us is also because of the evil choices of man, which resulted in the Fall, though some may say that is unfair since we did not ourselves make those choices. A better response is to recognize that most of the time nature is cruel to us because of our choices. We are killed by a hurricane because we refuse to take shelter or leave when warned, and we get pneumonia because we played in the rain barefooted in the winter. Those who do not learn how to behave in nature, to avoid danger and disease, and to protect themselves are going to see nature as evil far more often than those who do.

In fact, the existence of evil actually proves that there is a God. As Lewis concluded, “But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? … What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” If there is no good and evil, what right have we to complain about what happens to people? If there is such a thing as absolute good and evil, then there must be a good power that established that standard. In short, our innate feeling that certain acts are senseless and evil demonstrates that there is a God who is good and is trying to help us become good. If Dawkins is right, we should no more get upset about people who try to dominate and kill those they don’t like than we should get upset when an elk fights to gain dominance of the herd. Of course, most atheists would argue that they are moral by choice rather than by design, yet their very response to evil around us, which continues to surprise, depress, and angers them, belies this self-deception. Rather than seeing evil as nature taking its course, they get just as upset as the theist who recognizes that evil is wrong because God is good and desires that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

When unmitigated evil occurs, it is jarring. We ought to get upset, to feel sympathy for survivors, and to help those who are wayward make better choices. Some may do this through law and order; some by appealing to the heart. Yet rather than doubting God, our very reaction ought to help convince us that there is a God, and that He is good. Those who do these things are those who have rejected Him and His goodness. More and more people will reject Him as time goes on, so we should be prepared for more evil, not less. When faced with evil, we ought to draw even closer to Him, for the only alternative is to become more like that which we hate.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

Take Time Off When You Return

The first time I came back from a deployment, I was back at work within days. The second time, it was about a week. The last was the first time I actually took off several weeks and used up all of my leave. While I eventually became stir-crazy from staying at home, it was much more of a healing process than I had in the past. This is why I now advise returning service members to take the time off if they can.

For most of my deployments, I returned to work very quickly. After my first deployment, this was largely a financial decision since my income was much higher in my civilian job than as a National Guard noncommissioned officer. My second deployment, it was mostly out of loneliness. While we took several days off, went to stay at a resort, and spent every waking moment together, eventually my wife and children returned to their job and school, leaving me at home. I did not last more than a few days before I started begging my boss to start back to work. Looking back, I can now see the beginnings of depression that reflected deeper problems in dealing with separation. My last deployment, I probably would have also returned to work immediately, but it ended up being close to 90 days before I was picked up on contract and so was forced to remain at home. It was during that time that I discovered how important it is for returning service members to take the time off if they can afford it. Most people have at least 30 days coming to them. The wise use most if not all of it.

For one thing, taking time off allows you catch up on household chores. Most returning service members have a “honey-do” list waiting for them that include chores and repairs that piled up while they were gone. For me, it was a lot of yardwork – my wife has severe allergies and does not often work out in the yard. Although we hired someone to keep the yard cut, no one really kept up with trimming hedges and trees, weeding beds, or making sure fences were repaired. For others, it may be a deep cleaning. A lot of people simply don’t do a very good job at it when they are on their own, though hiring a maid can help. For me, it was cleaning the garage. I seem to be the only one who knows how to put away tools, and it took me days of searching through drawers and cabinets to bring them all together. My earlier deployments, I had spent a lot of weekends catching up rather than doing so after I got home.

Another issue that can take time is for service members to become reintegrated with the family. Some of this is resuming normal parental duties. My earlier deployments, this was helping the children get ready for bed and reading to them. My oldest daughter had picked up this duty while I was gone (after working all day in kindergarten, the last thing my wife wanted to do was spend time with children). For others, it may be picking the children up from school or getting caught up on the children’s lives. Then there were the bills. My wife had more or less taken over bill payment during my first deployment, but she was growing tired of it. I found boxes of paperwork, which I had to file. Others may need to gradually pick up other household duties. All of this takes time, and being busy with work can complicate things.

Most of all, I found that staying home for a full month allowed me to process a career of being away from home. By jumping into work so quickly in the past, I had kept myself too busy to reflect on my deployments. When I was finally still, a flood of memories, fears, and anxiety came back to me. It was then that I saw how much recovery is a necessary part of the redeployment process. It is not only to deal with injury and trauma caused by war, it also is to release the stress of working days on end at peak performance and hypervigilance. For the first time in my life, I felt unstressed and fully healed from the suffering I had endured. For this reason alone, taking time off after a deployment is critical. We cannot heal until we can process our pain and stress.

Many military service members prefer returning to duty or to their jobs without taking time off. That way, they don’t have to deal with their feelings. In the end, however, they need the time to catch up on chores, become reacclimated with their families, and heal from trauma and stress. Even if it makes you uncomfortable, take the time off. You need it and deserve it.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

We’re All Connected

A few weeks ago, I went to the funeral of a friend’s dad. Because of being close friends with her stepfather, who married her mother just after she was born, she has called me uncle all her life. As I sat looking over the audience and watched the videos with pictures of her father, I was surprised by how many people I knew or had met that were connected to this man – I worked with one, I went to church with several, I served in the National Guard with others, I saw them at birthday parties, graduations, etc. It was a quick reminder that we are all connected in some way.

As I continued to meditate on the number of people I knew from the funeral, I began to see the implications. The man I had worked with felt sympathy for a relative. Would it impact his work? Were there others I once worked with who knew my friend through this man? The ones who knew her from church felt sad with her and prayed for her, although they may not have known her father. The ones who served in the military knew the pain of loss and traumatic stress and understood more than most what she was going through. I barely knew many of the people I had seen at my friend’s birthday parties. Some of them were close to her father; many of them were related on her mother’s side. Yet we had in common our love for one beautiful young lady. I suddenly found myself in alliance with them in their sympathy for my friend. The lines were sometimes slender, but I saw that, though strangers, we were all in this boat together, all struggling to get back to land, all sharing duties, all looking for land or rowing or handing out food or praying. We were all connected, spiritually if not physically.

Charles Williams, the friend and fellow-Inkling of C.S. Lewis, frequently discussed the concept of co-inherence, meaning “binding together.” In essence, he believed that all people were connected to each other spiritually in Christ. He took literally all of the talk about the church being the body of Christ and bearing each other’s burdens and thought that all believers were spiritually connected. When his friends went off to World War I and he was disqualified because of his terrible eyesight, he felt connected to them in their service and grieved terribly when they died. Based on this, he argued that the pains experienced by any Christian ought to be felt and carried by all and that it is possible for one person to carry the burdens of fear, grief, and pain if others are willing to give them up. In his novel, Descent into Hell, poet Peter Stanhope agrees to carry the fear of Pauline Anstruther when she began seeing her own doppelganger and believed her death was imminent. The ones who struggled most with evil were those who were disconnected from others. In fact, in real life Williams actually established an informal organization, the Companions of Co-inherence, which included his friends and protégés who agreed to be bound to each other in the spiritual sense that Williams meant.

In a similar way, I recognized the connections I had with so many others as part of my own co-inherence with my friend and her family. When my friend wept at her father’s passing, my heart was burdened, though I lived across town and did not see her daily. When her family members grieved, so also did I. Even now, I pray that I can help carry her grief during this time that she might know peace. When she was younger, and her family rejoiced with each year passing, with graduations and awards, I rejoiced with her and her family and friends. Though we are not as close as we once were, I remain connected to her, as I am also connected to all who place their faith in God. I desire all of these friends and family to be successful, healthy, happy, empowered, and spiritually attuned. The same is true of my friends and family, who are connected to me, who feel my pain and help carry my burdens. Even the strangers I meet at stores or see on weekends are connected to me and would ask about me if I were gone. This is how the body of Christ is supposed to work. We are constantly supporting each other, inquiring about each other, and helping each other.

When we look at life, we begin to see how we are all connected by a web of interactions and relationships with friends, family, and even strangers, and that these interactions are what make up most of our lives – our loving, grieving, helping, and supporting. It is only by recognizing that we are all part of the same body, all connected by God to each other, that we understand how serious our responsibility is to help one another. This is when the spiritual power of being interconnected truly comes to life.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Skepticism as a Way of Life

I have written in the past about the need for skepticism in all walks of life, including faith. More than ever, many today want people to simply submit to authority. The only way to overcome this attitude is to make skepticism a way of life. The philosophy of skepticism has existed for thousands of years and was a major influence on the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the rise of Western Democracy. Most of what we have accomplished as a people is due to those who refused to accept the party line. In fact, the more we move away from skepticism, the harder it will be to maintain the achievements that led to our modern culture.

The founder of philosophical skepticism was Pyrro of Elis (fourth century B.C.). Since his works are lost, we know him primarily through Sextus Empiricus (second century A.D). Sextus argued that we should suspend judgment about nearly all beliefs that are not based on what is evident to our own experience or observation. We should especially question any belief based on adherence to philosophical dogma rather than inquiry. It was not that Sextus did not believe in an objective reality or societal norms; rather, he doubted that reality could be known with absolute certainty using reason, science, or mathematics due to the finite knowledge of these fields. There is always something more to know that could change opinions. It is better to approach truth with humility and admit only that this is how things appear to us. While some have argued that this leads to living in constant uncertainty, making life impossible, he held that it is the only way to reach a state of happiness. You question all things until you come to a point of equanimity in which you recognize there are some things you may never know. All people go through the stages of seeking, refuting, and suspension of judgment. In other words, it is a philosophy that is as much about our state of mind as it is about what the world is like.

You can probably see immediately the importance of skepticism to the modern world. Sextus had a direct influence on Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, Rene Descartes, and Blaise Pascal, and through them Isaac Newton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson. Science and reason took enormous leaps because people questioned received dogma. People resisted and overthrew tyrants because they questioned treatment of their subjects and refused to accept what their party told them. We can especially see Sexton’s influence on Fredrich Hegel, whose dialectic involves finding equanimity between two premises (thesis and antithesis) that results in a new position (synthesis). Hegelian dialectics greatly influenced Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism and the views of the modern left. Sadly, many who claim the mantle of these philosophers and scientists have lost sight of their skeptical roots. Too many are demanding that we submit to their authority when questioning orthodoxy was what led to the political, social, and scientific advances that mark our modern culture. It is an open question whether we can survive and continue to advance if we suspend our skepticism.

For example, in the political realm, some have argued that democracy requires an adherence to truth and that fake news and social media tribalism have undermined our institutions. As a result, some have proposed limitations on free speech. This attitude has led to censorship by social media and cancellation of past authors based on their view of the truth. The skeptic, however, asks whose view of truth they are enforcing, and whether this is merely opinion? What if the version of events they are promoting proves incorrect? This frequently happens, such as when much of the media banned as Russian disinformation any mention of Hunter Biden, who now even the New York Times and Washington Post admit was likely involved in corruption. Their earlier denial of what they now admit is true had a dramatic impact on electoral politics. Rather than limiting access to information and opinions, the skeptic argues that it is better to increase access to them, for it is only in reviewing all information that the truth can be determined. If we stop questioning the actions of governments and government officials, we can only revert to tyranny.

The same can be said of science. Some public figures have claimed that questioning them about policy issues is tantamount to questioning science. The skeptic would observe that no science is settled, and in fact the scientific method requires constant review and revision. There are widespread views about many medical issues. This is why getting a second opinion is always recommended. One need only point to products and procedures such as thalidomide, DDT, asbestos, and frontal lobotomies, which were once considered safe by scientists that are now recognized as causing irreparable harm. Attitudes about diet, medicines, and even physics and biology have changed radically just in the past generation. Only by questioning accepted science has there been advancement in technology and medicine. In short, when we shut down questioning science, we end up with stagnation. The scientific method cannot survive without a climate of skepticism and open discussion.

Even on matters of faith, skepticism can be helpful. As I argued last month, questioning statements about faith not only helps keep church people honest; it also helps them to focus on love rather than doctrine. While some may believe that philosophical skepticism is incompatible with faith, which often requires acceptance of authority, in fact I’ve found several of their tenets helpful. First, it forces us to question what we know. We find answers only when we ask for ourselves, not when we simply accept something on the word of other people. Second, skepticism reminds us that we should believe most strongly in what we’ve directly experienced and seen. While I believe in the Second Coming based on authority (the words of Jesus), I have experienced the love of God, the salvation of Christ, and the indwelling Spirit, and I’ve seen miracles and lives radically changed. I ought to believe in and argue for what I know personally above all else. Third, I’ve come to accept that there are many issues about which there are no clear or provable answers. These are the times that we must accept certain issues on faith. In other words, skepticism leads us to a point where we must trust in God. Without a little bit of skepticism, we are more likely to rely on ourselves than to have a pure and sincere faith.

For those who do not question the statements of those in charge or who do so only occasionally, it can seem iconoclastic and shocking to encounter a skeptic. Yet it is precisely because of such skepticism that our society has obtained such a level of freedom, prosperity, technological achievement, and faith-based morality not seen by many other countries. To maintain our current culture, skepticism must become a way of life. Seek, ask, and knock, and then you will know the truth. If you don’t, you will never know true contentment or achievement.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Deployment as a Sort of Death

Spring is a time of renewal. It is when dead deciduous trees come back to life with new growth, when grass starts turning green, when winter ends with warmer days, and when many species of animals bear their young. Easter, the Christian holiday that celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ, is also in the spring. It is a celebration of life returning to what was previously dead. Service members also go through a death and resurrection some years. It’s called a deployment.

Death rites are an important part of many religions. In fact, most major religions believe in life after death. Mummification was a rite to prepare the dead for the afterlife. Muslims, Jews, and Christians believe in judgment and paradise. Hindus believe in a cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. Others believe in death and rebirth experiences during life. The Eleusinian Mysteries (Persephone) included a rebirth ritual in imitation of her six months in Hades. Christian baptism represents the death and resurrection of the believer. In the case of Christianity, however, Christians believe that the death and resurrection of the believer are more than symbolic. In the same way that a historical Jesus died and rose, Christians believe that the believer shares in this event by dying to fleshly desires while being born again with the indwelling Spirit of God.

Like these rebirth experiences, I have lately begun to see deployment as a sort of death. Service members experience something like death each time they leave. They must leave behind a part of them that is alive to family and friends. It’s like being buried in a tomb. There is the abrupt pain of separation, and then you seem to be interred into a life of darkness and emotionlessness, where you are cut off from real life and the ones you love. Many become Stoic or emotionless when talking about their feelings. As the afterlife is very different from your life on earth, your new life in the service seems to have no connection with the old. You have a new job, a new place to live, and new friends that are distant or foreign from the old. Of course, you don’t really die – memories of the life you left behind go with you, and you remain in contact with those you left behind. But it feels like a sort of death.

For me, this last deployment was the worst so far. The first two deployments I handled reasonably well. The first I was more or less in shock and was too worried about our dangerous mission to think about missing family. It was not until after we drove through Iraq in soft-shell vehicles and arrived at our base that I was able to call home and check on them. The second deployment, I was very busy, and in any case I was much closer to those in my unit. Most I had known my entire career. The last time, I did not know as many people in my unit, and I missed my family much more. Because I had to travel to another location to mobilize, I had a lot more time to think about my situation. It was much harder to leave them, and I found myself trying to keep in touch with them more than I had previously. Yet I still had a job to do, and so had to leave worries of family and job behind. It was, in a way, like dying. I had to put aside my old life and start a new one.

The good news is that there is a resurrection coming. Eventually, your mission will end, another unit will replace you, or your time will run out. You will go back to your demobilization station and start to wake up and realize that you have the rest of your life in front of you. When you go home, you will return to the good life and the ones you love. Your suffering and separation will end. The darkness of being stuck in another place and time will fade away. Life will return. When you walk off that plane to greet your loved ones, it’s like coming out of a grave to the crowds waiting for you. The stone is rolled away. You are filled with pride and joy to be rejoining the living.

As we celebrate Easter and spring this year, remember that there is life again after the deployment. You will return to life and love. Do not give up hope. There is a resurrection waiting.

Reprinted from 2018.

@ 2018 J.D. Manders