Sermon: The Widow’s Sacrifice


One hundred years ago today, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, fighting in World War I came to an end. Kaiser Wilhelm had abdicated on the previous day, and the new government of Germany, eager for peace, immediately concluded an armistice agreement with the Allies.

The war did not go out with a whimper, however, as the deadliest battle in U. S. history still raged with fierce destruction that very morning. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive had begun on September 26, 47 days earlier. By the time the armistice was declared, more than 54,000 soldiers had lost their lives in this battle; 26,277 of them were Americans who had volunteered for service.

First Lieutenant Thomas McNeill Bulla, a Presbyterian minister of the Word and Sacrament serving as an Army chaplain, was among those who had given his life less than a month before.

Bulla was born of immigrant parents in the rural area of Cape Fear, North Carolina, in 1881. He attended Davidson College and Union Seminary. Ordained and installed in First Church, Emporia, Virginia in 1913, Bulla served four congregations simultaneously at the time of his entrance into the Army Guard of Virginia in 1917. In June of 1918 his infantry regiment sailed for France. On October 8, the regiment joined the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

On October 15, Bulla’s unit became the lead element in an attack at the Moleville Farm. During the assault, Bulla exposed himself to enemy fire, moving across “no man’s land” to help wounded soldiers to safety and to bring back those who had died. The duty was not required of chaplains—Bulla went forward of his own volition and contrary to orders. On that day, Bulla was struck by enemy fire and mortally wounded. He died of his wounds two days later.

Chaplain Bulla answered in the affirmative to this vow at his ordination: “Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the gospel, whether personal or relative, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the gospel in your conversation, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?”

In fulfilling this vow, Chaplain Bulla suffered and died.

On this 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I, we pause and remember the more than 16 million people who lost their lives during that conflict. And as we remember and pray that we never have to put our military personnel in such a horrendous situation again, let us also remember the Lord’s servants represented by Chaplain Thomas Bulla.

He was a servant of peace, proclaiming the entire message of Christ, even in the midst of war; sacrificing himself that others might live.[i]

Alongside those whom we honor today for their service in the armed forces of our military, we also remember those who are called to embody the hope – and the peace – of Jesus Christ, as military chaplains serving in some of the world’s most perilous places.

We understand that service to those two distinct authorities – God and country – is not necessarily incompatible or mutually exclusive. But we also understand, today, that honoring our veterans – their service and their sacrifice – is not tantamount to glorifying, or even endorsing, war.

In my years of ministry, I’ve had the privilege of knowing many parishioners who have honorably served this country—both in times of war and in times of peace. And I’ve never known a single one of those individuals to prefer war over peace. In fact, those I’ve met who have been in the arena of war understand more profoundly than anyone else the importance of maintaining peace.

Brave men and women go to war out of necessity, not out of predilection. Furthermore, they primarily serve in the name of our nation and its values to preserve and protect and, when necessary, restore peace among peoples and between nations.

In 2002 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to former President Jimmy Carter “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

President Carter is perhaps best known for brokering the Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

In his acceptance speech, Jimmy Carter said, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”

And yet, as President John F. Kennedy asserted in his 1961 address to the Canadian Parliament regarding Arms Control and Disarmament: “At the conference table and in the minds of men, the free world’s cause is strengthened because it is just. But it is strengthened even more by the dedicated efforts of free men and free nations. As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”” [Italics mine]

There is a dynamic tension between these two perspectives on war. And that is precisely as it should be. The debate leading to the decision to engage in war should always be robust and exhaustive; and should never reflect political expediency.

Therefore good men and women – refusing to stand idly by in the face of evil and yet understanding fully the terrible costs of war – only sanction war under certain very strict and morally definitive circumstances.

The doctrine of just war – which originated with St. Augustine  – says that before Christians go into war there must be 1) a just cause – such as self-defense or protecting innocent life; 2) put forth by a just (competent) authority – which is to say, initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice; 3) for just intentions – reasons other than for vengeance or personal/political gain; 4) as a last resort – when there are no other political or diplomatic means of achieving the just cause; 5) with a probability of success in achieving a clearly articulated outcome; and finally 6) with the commitment to proportionality in conducting the war – inflicting the least amount of harm necessary to secure peace, and avoiding violence against  noncombatants (what we today call “collateral damage”).

“Just war theory postulates that war, while terrible, is not always the worst option. Important responsibilities, undesirable outcomes, or preventable atrocities may justify war.”[ii]

This is the basic doctrine which, by in large, U. S. presidents have traditionally relied on to weigh the elements of balance of power and political responsibility in determining whether or not to engage in war—whether or not to risk putting our nation’s most precious resource – our brightest and our best – into harms’ way.

In other words, we should never take the prospect of war as anything but the most grave of national resolutions. Nor is it an ethical responsibility we can simply abdicate wholesale to our leaders of state. It calls for a profound mutual accountability between the electorate and elected officials.

We have been given a voice in this democracy. And we are called – both as Christians and as patriots – to make our voices heard to our governing leaders.

War has consequences. And we all shoulder the weight of that responsibility.

Major Brent Taylor – in his second term as mayor of North Ogden, Utah – was called up for his fourth deployment to Afghanistan. He would inform his followers on Facebook that he had been called to serve his country “whenever and however I can,” and that he would be part of a team helping to train an Afghan Army commando battalion.

Many of Brent Taylor’s friends would try to persuade him not to return to Afghanistan, arguing that he had already done enough for his country. But Major Taylor wanted to go, because he loved the people of Afghanistan and thought he could do some good there.

“Service is really what leadership is all about,” he told them.

He said goodbye to his wife, Jennie, and their seven children, and turned over his municipal duties to his friend Brent Chugg. “You need to keep safe,” Mr. Chugg told him. “I will,” Major Taylor replied.

Brent Taylor never made it home again alive. He was killed in an insider attack, apparently by one of the very people he was there to help.

Major Taylor’s death “was a brutal reminder of a 17-year-old war that has carved gaping holes in communities across the country, with little end in sight,” reported The New York Times.

“We are overwhelmed with heartache, but not regret,” said Mrs. Taylor’s sister, Kristy Pack, in an interview. Even though Brent Taylor died in a suspected insider attack, Kristy would go on to say, “in our view there is not a whole lot of room for anger.”

At a news conference at the Utah National Guard headquarters outside Salt Lake City, Governor Gary Herbert said he knew Brent Taylor personally, calling him “the personification of love of God, family and country.”

Major Taylor enlisted in the military after the terrorist attacks of 911; as did his five brothers. Before his final tour, Taylor had served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He joined the City Council [of North Ogden] in 2009, was chosen as mayor in 2013, and re-elected in 2017. He had built a reputation as a hands-on leader and careful listener; someone who would be seen in the streets before dawn to direct snow plows on stormy days.

In what turned out to be his final Facebook post, Major Brent Taylor wrote about the recent Afghan election: “It was beautiful to see over 4 million Afghan men and women brave threats and deadly attacks to vote in Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years . . . Many Americans, NATO allies, and Afghan troops have died to make moments like this possible.”

Then Major Taylor turned his thoughts upon his own country: “As the USA gets ready to vote in our own election next week, I hope everyone back home exercises their precious right to vote. And that whether the Republicans or the Democrats win, that we all remember that we have far more as Americans that unites us than divides us. “United we stand, divided we fall.””

Major Taylor concluded with the words: “God bless America.”[iii]

It is only fitting that Major Brent Taylor’s body was returned to the country he loved and served so well this past Tuesday – November 6th: Election Day.

Shortly after the tragedy of 911, there was an anonymous Facebook post going around that, I think, beautifully articulates the profundity of military service in its high aspirations for the pursuit of peace. It read as follows:

“Let us deploy our troops. Let our diplomats seek broad international agreement. Let our soldiers advance first, to clear the field of violence. Then let us unleash our most powerful weapons!

Let us lay down roads where none have ever been. Let us dig wells of clean water where people can safely drink. Let our armies build hospitals and schools. Let our warriors teach hygiene and mathematics. Let our doctors inoculate against disease, and our soldiers battle malnutrition. Let us scour the Earth clean of terrorism through the merciless application of knowledge, compassion, hope, and tolerance.

Terrorism is the weapon of the desperate and hopeless, the brutally blinded, and the deliberately blind. And we can defeat terrorism. We, America, have the power to do so if we are not ourselves blinded by vengeance, anger, and fear: we hold the light of Liberty.

So let us unleash our weapons of mass construction, even as we deploy our gunships and missiles to defend our endeavors. Let us carry the battle into the tent-cities of the Palestinians and the arid crags of Afghanistan, the doctor and the engineer shoulder to shoulder with the U.N. peacekeeper and the U.S. soldier. Let us hurl homes at the homeless, unleash law upon the lawlessness, and let justice roll down like a mighty river and wash away the unjust.

We have an opportunity, now laid so grievously before us, to start and win a war with our most powerful and uniquely American weapons: love, opportunity, education, and hope. England and Israel teach us that the battle against terrorism takes decades. Let the next generation all over the world say to the terrorist recruiters, `Why would we want to harm America, who inoculates our children, houses our poor, champions justice, and feeds our hungry?’ Only then shall we have defeated terrorism. So let us arm our soldiers and mourn our dead, and take up both the pen as well as the gun.

Let us fix a steel-eyed gaze on the true costs and the real efforts involved, let us gird ourselves against our inevitable losses and unavoidable setbacks. Let us join with all people in all nations who worship in truth and love, and let us set forth on this, the true, final World War. Let us incessantly, relentlessly, wage Peace.” Amen.

 

 

 

[i] Smith, Lyman M. (Chaplain, CHC, USN, Retired: Director of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel) “Armistice Day—100 Years Ago”, Presbytery Mission Agency, www.pcusa.org.

[ii] Wikipedia: Just War theory

[iii] Turkewitz, Julie, “Brent Taylor, Utah Mayor Killed in Afghanistan”, November 4, 2018, New York Times.