Reflections on the Clinton Nomination

2016 DNC Logo

2016 DNC Logo (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The nomination of Senator Hillary Clinton as our party’s candidate for President of the United States is one of those benchmark moments that gives us a hopeful glimpse into that just future, and reminds us how long it takes to get there.

The civil rights movement has grown to include important conversations about rights for persons of color, right for LGBT persons, rights for immigrants, and the concept of intersectionality. As those conversations continue, we must also remember that we have not completed the simple, obvious fight for equal rights for those people who are only set apart from the people in power by the fact that they still have ovaries instead of having had their ovaries turn into testicles in the womb.

At the 2016 Democratic Convention we finally saw a 102-year-old woman, whose life has spanned all three waves of feminism, declare her state’s delegates for a female candidate who is likely to be the next President of the United States. It has taken nearly the entire century since the Nineteenth Amendment has passed for her to see a major party nominate a woman for President.

I celebrate this milestone for what it represents about the progressive movement at its best – creating a world where prejudices, bigotries, and superstitions do not define people’s roles in society. I also view it as a cautionary reminder that, even on the most basic issues of equality, the work takes decades or even centuries, and the work is never done.

Even if we give lip service to the idea that we know the struggle for women’s rights in the West is an ongoing one, our practice as progressives undercuts the claim. We fight among each other as if the matter of equal rights – legally and culturally – for women were settled, scrabbling over minutiae and details and who the “real” feminists are. Meanwhile, it has taken a hundred years to go from women having the vote to a major political party putting forward a woman as their candidate.

Surely Jerry Emmett , and the other senior delegates, hoped it would happen in their lifetime and feared that it would never happen at all. I shared those hopes, and those fears. Hope, because it seemed like each generation was moving closer to the just future Dr. King spoke of in Montgomery. Fear, because – having gained some momentum and a seat at the table – whole segments of the feminist movement seemed to devour themselves and their allies.

I wonder how much harm we have done to basic progressive causes by attacking each other and fragmenting into tiny camps seeking to out-progressive our neighbors. I was born in the seventies, and saw – as a child – the victories of second wave feminism that made it possible for the leaders of third-wave feminism to have the freedom and social capital to attack each other for not being “real” TM feminists. I’ve watched people simultaneously defend gender and sex stereotypes when they found them personally affirming (and call that “feminism”) while simultaneously attacking gender and sex stereotypes when they found them offensive or counter-productive (and call that “feminism,” too).

All the while: female CEO’s, Senators, and Governors remain rare as hen’s teeth; disenfranchised men continue to vent their anger at successful women through threats of rape and other forms of violence online and in-person; and men who stay home to raise children, as well as women who go back to jobs outside their homes, face unfair stereotypes and expectations about their roles at home and in the workplace.

We turned on each other long before the fight was done, somehow thinking that our infighting would produce the final (as if there were such a thing) push into actual equality. Personally, I think we placed our energies in the wrong place, but equality means everyone should be equally free to fight for what matters to them, so I am glad that – at the very least – there is space for all of the competing voices of modern feminism to be heard. Nonetheless, the century it took to nominate a woman for President, fifty years after the Democratic party became the party of civil rights, reminds us that the original fight for basic equality of the sexes is far from over.

In this moment, then, I will celebrate this victory for what it is – a watershed moment in the long arc begun by the founding mothers of feminism when they fought back against the notion that women should have no say in how the world was run. There are people alive today who remember the era when denying even basic rights to women was “common sense,” and there are people alive today fighting to return to those good ol’ days and make America “great” again.

The nomination of Hillary Clinton stands as a beacon against the dark shadows of those days – past and yet to come. However convoluted and slow the path, we are nonetheless moving forward to a horizon that bends toward justice. My hope is that we will remember how hard-won this victory is, how long and difficult the road to that far horizon is, and that those of us to seek it will only get there if we overlook our factional differences and seek it together.

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Consider the Lilies – The CBF & Homosexuality in 2016

Calling of the Apostles - Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481

Calling of the Apostles – Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the turn of the millennium I was present when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to establish their now-infamous policy against hiring LGBTQ persons. I was there as part of the first class to graduate from the CBF’s flagship seminary, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, located in the same building as the CBF headquarters. My studies at Mercer had taught me to hope for a future in which Baptists would be united with our fellow, mainline brothers and sisters in a commitment to social justice, progressive theology, ecumenism, and responsible biblical scholarship.

As I wrote at the time, the experiences of that CBF meeting significantly disabused me of those hopes. I listened as speaker after speaker expressed concerns that “good” churches, particularly from Texas, would refuse to join if the CBF set a precedent for inclusion. There was no discussion about the vibrant, thriving LGBTQ-inclusive congregations whose lives and work would have been validated and renewed if the policy were voted down. Instead, I watched as greyed head after greyed head nodded enthusiastically while old men who represented everything I had come to McAfee to escape played to their fears and prejudices.

When the vote was finally tallied, and I listened to the uncharitable comments directed at those of us who had argued for inclusiveness, I realized that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not trying to make a complete break with fundamentalism. Instead, the CBF was destined to be a home for people whose far-right conservativism wasn’t quite fundamentalist enough for the fringe-right gatekeepers of the new Southern Baptist Convention, and who wanted to recreate as much as they could of their memories of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era of the old SBC.

In a concession to the common sense conclusions of the first part of the century that had already ended, they were open to the possibility of female clergy, as long as they did not become too prevalent. Nearly a generation later, the common sense of this century is also starting to intrude into CBF deliberations. Hundreds of people connected to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship signed a “Statement of Solidarity” with LGBTQ persons. (It is worth noting that this statement aligns closely with the position of the older but smaller Alliance of Baptists, which has ordained LGBTQ persons since its inception in 1987.)

In response, several CBF leaders have weighed in, with differing perspectives. Don Durham continues to preserve his prophetic voice, calling CBF to account for its sin of exclusion. He concludes, “I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.” Bob Setzer has written an excellent piece about why he has changed his view since his “Yes” vote of sixteen years ago. His recollection of the process that created the policy is far more charitable than mine, but I think his logic is sound that it is time to reverse this “increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy”

Conversely, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an opinion piece in which he resurrects the arguments from the meeting that closed the previous century. Subordinating the transcendent power of the gospel to the earthly priorities of denominational wealth and power, Dr. Parham asks, “Given what has happened with mainline Protestant churches, what evidence is there that such illumination will lead to church growth and expanded global mission efforts?” The answer, of course, is in Luke 12, when Jesus explains, “For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Even more offensive than Dr. Parham’s prioritization of earthly institutional success – over the eternal priority of offering an inclusive gospel – is his understanding of the key social justice issue of this generation. His article completely ignores the heartbreaking consequences of the Church’s historic prejudice against LGBTQ persons. Instead, Dr. Parham primly dismisses an issue of justice and civil rights as an attempt to “validate [modern] culture’s sexual mores.”

Apparently the “moderate” Baptist movement’s top ethicist needs a primer on the difference between sexual orientation (which relates to either the biological sex or gender identity of one’s sexual partner) and sexual morality (which concerns itself with conditions under which it is ethical to have sex with one’s sexual partner(s)). It saddens me that, in 2016, any theological leader would write in a way that ignores this simple concept. In his defense, however, it is a distinction that would also have been completely lost on the authors of our Scriptures, whose understandings of sexuality were linked deeply to the patriarchal and misogynistic political systems that sought to control wealth and heredity, female sexual autonomy, and the commodification of women’s bodies.

Consequently, Scripture is as useful a guide on marriage and human sexuality as it is on slavery. Which is to say that our Bible has a wealth of valuable contributions to make in helping us to develop a healthy, Christian ethos on those and many other topics; but that contribution will not be found through replicating the worldview of the people who wrote and edited the Bible. We have found a Christian ethic of human rights and dignity that rejects slavery, despite Jesus telling stories that looked favorably on masters beating their slaves, and St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Likewise, when it comes to human sexuality, we have to find a way to apply the principles of Christianity to our modern social setting in a way that is not compelled to carry forward the anachronistic superstitions and prejudices of the ancient world that birthed our tradition.

Failing to separate the core values of our faith from those prejudices is at the heart of the fundamentalism which “moderate” organizations like the Baptist Center for Ethics claim to oppose. This is what makes the myopia of Parham and those who share his views all-the-more dangerous. Rejecting biblical literalism about slavery and women, but preserving it on sexuality, also preserves the underlying logic that makes fundamentalism possible, even if it does not apply that logic universally.

“Moderate” opponents of an inclusive view of marriage and sexuality often argue that sex and marriage should be treated as a separate category from the other topics whose relevant passages they re-interpret or ignore. They are quick to point out that marriage is often a metaphor for the Church’s relationship with Christ, and therefore is “unique” among the ancient institutions described in Scripture. This approach, however, ignores the fact that we do not feel compelled to continue to farm using first-century methods, nor are we obliged to preserve the first-century pearl trade.

In fact, oppressing people over hyper-literal fidelity to a metaphor seems remarkably similar to the passionate conflicts of prior eras in which Protestants found themselves the minority group arguing against the literalism of transubstantiation. That argument turned out to be more about politics and regional/generational alliances than theology, something that I suspect is always the case when one group or another claims to simply be following their religion’s Scriptures.

If the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wants to remain relevant into the next century, they need to move beyond a tentative, piecemeal denunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, they must reject fundamentalism of all stripes and in all its incarnations. Christianity survived learning that the universe is not geocentric, and that women and men are equals, and that some people cannot own others. Christianity will survive the gradual and eventual elimination of all vestiges of the bigotries and superstitions of the era that produced it. The question is, will the CBF?

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The GOP and the Destruction of Christianity

The Baptism of Constantine - Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

The Baptism of Constantine – Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

I’ve been fascinated by the critiques of my recent essay on how abundantly clear the obligatory, Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is. Some critics noted that they were glad Jesus didn’t determine our governmental policies. Others noted that “times were different” in Jesus’ era, and we can’t take his words out of context in an attempt to apply them to a modern circumstance.

So, in other words, despite the plain teachings of Jesus (and of the Hebrew Bible, c.f. Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 19:33-34, and countless other texts about “widows and orphans”), we should ignore the consistent voice of the biblical writers and the tradition because: times are different now, it wouldn’t be safe/practical, and personal religious belief shouldn’t determine public policy. The hypocrisy here surely needs no clarification, but, just to be safe, here goes.

Let’s begin with the idea that times are different now. When the topic is homosexuality, prominent figures within the Republican Party are quick to point out that God’s Word and will are unchanging. Mike Huckabee explains that we have not been given permission to change “God’s standard.” Ben Carson writes that he is not willing, in the interest of “political correctness” to disagree with God’s description of homosexuality as an “abomination.” Marco Rubio, in agreement with the teachings of his Roman Catholic faith, answers directly that homosexuality is a sin. Ted Cruz, strident in his opposition to same-sex marriage, believes its legalization is a threat to religious liberty. Apparently, when it comes to homosexuality, the GOP leadership sees no room whatsoever for considering the possibility that changes in historical context require interpreting biblical texts with nuance.

These same candidates are equally clear when it comes to their view of the relationship between Christianity and the United States government. Mike Huckabee believes that it is essential that the United States function as a “God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God.” He also believes that the Supreme Court “cannot overrule God.” Ben Carson talks of a “war” against those trying to turn America away from what he believes is its heritage as a Christian nation. Marco Rubio actually makes the bizarre claim that – unlike other nations where rights come from government and laws – part of America’s uniqueness is that we believe “your rights come from your creator.” Ted Cruz launched his political campaign at a prominent, fundamentalist Christian university with language that makes his run for president sound like a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. The leaders of the Republican party are not shy in their rhetoric about America as a Christian nation that is obligated to follow Christian principles.

They stay steadfast in their support of “Christian” political principles, right up to the point where those principles conflict with their right-wing ideology. Mike Huckabee, in what one hopes in not a demonstration of his pastoral understanding of Christian compassion, compares Syrian refugees to “tainted meat.” Ben Carson believes that our “big frontal lobes” should inform us that accepting Syrian refugees is not a good idea. Marco Rubio, demonstrating a significant lack of understanding of the refugee process, said simply that we can’t take more refugees. Ted Cruz actually wants to establish a religious test for potential refugees, accepting the Christians and sending the Muslims elsewhere.

Cruz might want to re-read his Bible. The biblical witness is abundantly and overwhelmingly clear that Christians have a moral obligation – even if it means personal risk – to help those who come to us in time of need, even if they do not share our faith. Yet, without irony, the political leaders who shout the loudest that “Christian values” should determine our government’s laws and policies are the same ones who are most eager to slam the door on the refugees hoping to find a safe haven on our shores. Apparently, the GOP leadership believes that we are a Christian nation, whose rights are derived from God’s will and benevolence; and, that we are expected to adhere completely to God’s stated laws as clearly expressed in the Bible; but, none of that applies when it comes to providing shelter for the weak and wounded who have been ravaged by war. How is it possible that the blatant and explicit hypocrisy of that set of beliefs is going unchallenged within the Republican party and among their political base?

The simple answer is that the GOP, along with their public relations arm Fox News, has so fully conscripted, prostituted, and re-invented “Christianity” that – in public perception, even among self-identified Christians – it is inseparable from the fringe-right ideology of the Republican political machine. Far too many people have come to assume, without critical reflection on the actual words of Scripture or the history of biblical interpretation, that whatever the right wing of American politics recommends must be the “Christian” approach. If there was ever any doubt that the “family values” movement was not about families, and that “Christian nation” policies are not about making sure our government acts in a Christian manner, the response of far-right politicians to the Syrian refugee crisis is the unequivocal proof.

Co-opting the Christian banner in this way is hardly surprising when political leaders do it, but the willingness of religious leaders and rank-and-file Christians to follow blindly along is deeply disturbing. The problem is not just that granting fringe-right politicians free reign with the label “Christian” allows them to advance their xenophobic and reactive agenda without scrutiny or critique, although that is certainly a grave threat. Of equal concern for those of us who love the Church is the possibility that the unique and transcendent identity of the gospel will be lost, as Christianity simply becomes a synonym for fundamentalism and right-wing ideology.

If Republican politicians have their way, that is the dark and terrible future of faith in America, one that is – ironically – not unlike the ways in which the Taliban and Daesh use religious rhetoric to gain support for their own regressive policies. The only way to prevent it is for individual citizens to refuse to accept the cognitive dissonance and blatant hypocrisy of politicians’ haphazard use of Scripture to justify whatever agenda serves their purposes. Simply put, when politicians claim they are advocating for “biblical truths” and a “Christian nation,” they are lying, and the responses to the Syrian refugee crisis is the inarguable evidence to that effect. As citizens concerned with the integrity of our political process, and as Christians concerned with the integrity of our faith, we cannot allow that to stand.

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Jesus Already Answered the Refugee Question

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) (Wikimedia)

Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.

That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.

The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.

Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”

So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”

Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.

The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.

The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at  the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.

After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians,  “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked:  The Good Muslim.

The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.

Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).

Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.

An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.

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Thoughts on Service and Honor

My Grandfather during WW2

My grandfather, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. (center), on a ruck march during the Second World War.

By virtue of education and occupation, I now spend a lot of time in a world that is a couple of social echelons above that of my childhood. In contrast to the blue-collar, middle-class environment that defined my neighborhood and public education, our son graduated from a private school where the annual tuition would be enough to buy a new car every year. He now attends an elite, Northern liberal arts college where the families of half the students can afford the $65,000 per year cost of attendance, out of pocket, without financial aid.

Over a decade of social overlap with members of the “one percent” has taught me more than a few lessons about class differences, and has occasionally made me self-conscious of our solidly middle-class income and home. Comments like, “Our nanny has an apartment that’s bigger than your whole house,” and “You don’t make enough money to understand why I vote Republican,” have had the cumulative effect of reminding me that our family’s definition of wealth and prosperity is out of step with the one used by wealthy elites. In fact, there have been moments of jarring collision between the working-class values that shaped me and the lives led by those in the upper class.

None stands in more stark relief for me than the Spring concert when our son was in elementary school. The auditorium, which could comfortably seat 300 people, was packed with parents and grandparents who listened intently as their cherubic progeny sang their hearts out. For the final performance, the music director asked everyone who had ever served in the military to stand. The school’s founder, a retired Navy Commander in his late eighties, was at the front, bracing the American flag. I stood, as did two other parents. One was a Coast Guard officer, the other an Army officer. I was was the only NCO.  The other two men were in or near their fifties, I was in my early thirties.

It was a vivid, visual reminder that the social tier that produces our political and cultural leaders is not the social tier that places its life on the line to defend the policies they put in place. Over 300 people – physicians, attorneys, politicians, academics, corporate executives – were gathered in that room. The question was asked who there had taken an oath to serve their country. Fewer than 1 percent stood, and only one of them was an enlisted person, a former soldier who was also the only one under fifty.

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

Larger samples of age and demographic data also support that anecdotal visual. This trend is reflected in the makeup of Congress, a statistic that likely includes very few former NCO’s or junior enlisted. The numbers also show that military service tends to run in families, as it does in mine (including my grandfather, a mustang who climbed from private to Lieutenant Colonel and served in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Increasingly, however, those are not the families that are casting the votes – in Congress or in the shareholder meetings that actually govern our country – that send us to war.

Wanting our leaders to have “skin in the game” is reason enough to encourage our elites to consider military service, but I don’t think it should be our primary motivation. Those with power will always have ways to keep their families out of harms way. I think the formative aspect of military service is a much better argument for military service among the ruling class.

Uncle Henry

My Great Uncle, TSgt Henry Clay Travis

Another anecdote from observing my son’s academic world is perhaps relevant here. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at our son’s top-notch school. A gifted professor was leading a spirited discussion on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a medieval text that, among other things, deals with the price of honor and loyalty to friends and family. The professor asked the students, “Is there such a thing as too much honor?” One student answered, “These days, probably. Then, no.” There were murmurs of assent from the other students in the class.

It occurred to me that the students, all of whom were obviously smart, thoughtful, and conscious of the many social and political nuances and relevancies of this 700-year-old text, are likely to choose careers where concepts like “honor” and “loyalty” are considered anachronisms. They are unlikely to enter career paths where commitment to integrity and an established code might mean life or death for themselves and for their comrades-in-arms. Whether a member of the military ever sees combat (and, unlike my grandfather, I never did), joining into the centuries of tradition that train our warfighters shapes us in ways that no other experience can. To a servicemember, there is no such thing as too much honor, and there is no price too high to pay for the sake of loyalty.

Aubrey Thompson Villines, Jr. - 2LT

My Uncle, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Jr., during Vietnam.

The military has a long, successful history of inculcating the importance of those archaic values. It carries forward other anachronisms too, like honoring the generations who preceded us, and respect for those who have earned their place of leadership or authority through diligence, skill, and sacrifice. My own understanding of leadership was shaped as much by knowing I could trust that my NCO’s and officers earned their place, and that they would put my needs above theirs, as it was by the sophisticated, formal leadership training I received. Having watched the world of elite education firsthand, I am deeply concerned that we are training our future leaders to begin at the top and only periodically peer down from there, a critique that William Deresiewicz articulates beautifully in his book Excellent Sheep. Military service, even for those who begin as officers without having been enlisted, teaches leadership from the bottom up. Living that out changed the way I understood my obligations and expectations as a leader in ways that I think are unique to the military.

That life also let me to shared experiences of collaboration and interdependence with people from the widest range of socio-economic backgrounds I have ever encountered in one place. As an enlisted person, I served alongside a (fellow enlisted) Harvard graduate with a law degree from Boston College, as well as a soldier from the swamps of Louisiana fresh out of high school. In Basic Training, I was one bunk over from a soldier from the south side of Chicago, and one bunk over from him was a guy who enlisted after finishing his Master’s at Tuskegee. In an era where our neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class and income, and where social mobility is, at best, stagnant, military service is a rare opportunity to actually work alongside people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Grandpa, Great-Great Grandpa, Barbara

My grandfather, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., newly graduated from OCS, stands with his grandfather, John Castner Villines, and his newborn daughter, Barbara.

“Alongside” is the key adverb there. Military service means knowing, trusting, and sacrificing for the person on either side of you, no matter how much or how little you might have in common. This is vastly different from the controlled, scripted opportunities for “cross-cultural understanding” or “community service” through which young elites are dutifully filtered before returning to their lives of privilege. I remember the moment in Basic Training when I realized that my strong academic skills and linguistic facility had absolutely zero likelihood of determining my success, and that I needed to rely on the people around me, people with far less experience with the skills that – until then – had defined “achievement” for me, to survive. When I was going through PLDC in the Okefenokee swamp in July, I didn’t care if the guy pouring his canteen of water over my head to stop me from puking had read Chaucer. I was just glad to know that if I needed him to, he would carry me out of that godforsaken swamp, or die trying.

We do our best to teach our future leaders that they should value everyone equally, but that equality takes on an entirely different dimension when you realize that the “value” of the person who is saving you from heat exhaustion has nothing to do with their level of education or tax bracket. Our next generation of leaders could benefit greatly from that kind of education.

If they are not going to get it through the military, then we need to have a serious discussion about where they might. There are millions of people for whom honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are not abstract concepts. Our future leaders should be among them.

Grandpa's Grave Marker

After presenting the Flag of the United States to my Grandma Sue, I stood, in uniform, at attention, on this spot in Lynchburg, Tennessee as my fellow soldier was finally laid to rest. I carried forward his watch, and others will succeed me.

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