Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Michael J. Iafrate's Theological Reflections on Militarism and Discipleship

Michael J. Iafrate

And as a companion piece to Mike Lofgren's statement about which I've just blogged, which notes the pronounced bellicosity of one of the major political parties in the U.S., I'd like to recommend another rich essay this morning.  This is a theological essay by Michael Iafrate entitled "Destructive Obedience: US Military Training and Culture as a Parody of Christian Discipleship."  The essay has just appeared in  Conrad Grebel Review 29,2 (Spring 2011), and is online.

It's impossible to do justice to a theologically dense, rich piece like this in blog format, so, as I did with Mike Lofgren's article, I'm going to encourage readers to link to Michael's essay and read it in its entirety at the Conrad Grebel site.  Michael argues that induction into the military and being prepared by the military to make war involve a kind of deformation of character and conscience that parallels, but inverts, the lifelong formation of character and conscience that occurs in communities of discipleship.

And so he maintains that people of faith who want to resist war and the making of war need to pay more attention to the notion of discipleship in various religious traditions, and within the Christian tradition in particular.  As a Catholic who has been decisively shaped by his encounter with some of the Anabaptist-Mennonite communities of discipleship, Michael is critically aware that when Catholics talk about issues like war and peace, we tend to do so in typical Catholic fashion, applying high-flown platitudes and universalizing generalizations that float above the real world.

And so much that we say, do, and think about issues of war and peace has little effect on the culture at large or even on ourselves as disciples of Jesus who are ostensibly committed always to making peace in the world and always to resisting war.  In Michael's view, the concept of discipleship provides the ground for a critically engaged Christian practice that is far more effective at preparing followers of Jesus to deal with questions of war and peace.  It does so by situating their reflection in an ongoing communitarian context of praxis (i.e., discipleship) that is engaged with mainstream culture in manifold critical ways, which hone the conscience and thinking of disciples of Christ and prepare them to deal with the complexity of the challenges presented by the militaristic culture in which we live.

This is an outstanding essay, a splendid one, by a first-rate theological thinker who--I have to admit my bias here--is a student at my alma mater, the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto.  I understand precisely where Michael is coming from when he talks about how his understanding of Catholicism has been enriched by creative encounter with other theological traditions, because this was my experience at St. Michael's as well.  One of the things that drew Steve and me to the consortium of which St. Michael's is a part, the Toronto School of Theology, was the opportunity to study theology in an ecumenical context that encouraged us to take courses at universities from a wide range of theological and confessional backgrounds.

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