“Learning in (Perpetual) Wartime”
Seminary of the Southwest, Matriculation 2016
In the fall of 1939, just a few weeks after Germany had invaded Poland, C. S. Lewis stood in the pulpit of the University Church of St. Mary in Oxford, England and preached a sermon titled “Learning in Wartime.” He asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: how could they justify continuing their studies when there was a war going on around them? Surely any activity they undertook needed to have a clear payoff for the war effort, but this was precisely what was lacking in the study of Milton, the work of mathematics, and the pursuit of the arts. How can we “take an interest in these placid occupations,” Lewis asks, “when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”
This question might seem irrelevant to us this evening as we sit safely inside Christ Chapel preparing for the new academic year. There are no planes flying overhead, no threats of carpet bombing, no air raid sirens. We do not experience ourselves as being at war. But if Rosa Brooks is right, we are profoundly self-deceived.
Rosa Brooks is a journalist, a Georgetown law professor, and a one time pentagon employee, who has written a fascinating and disturbing book titled, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. She begins her analysis by noting the ways that various cultures throughout history marked and ritualized the dividing line between wartime and peacetime, between the battlefield and civilian space. This strong boundary was crucial because it allowed us to create and enforce different rules for different circumstances. In wartime one could kill the designated enemy soldier without further justification; in peacetime unjustified killing would simply be murder. In wartime, one could detain enemy combatants without charge and without trial for the duration of hostilities; in peacetime, one was required to present charges and provide an opportunity for the accused to prove innocence. Yet today, as the line between war and peace has become blurred, the United States routinely targets and kills adversaries outside of war zones and without trial. We detain suspects indefinitely without requiring any evidence of wrongdoing. And all of this at a time when there is no declared war.
Brooks argues that we have entered a state of perpetual war and that there is no going back. I’m sad to say, her case is quite persuasive. Distinctions between war and peace, soldier and civilian, now make little sense. Everything has become war. As a corollary, the military has become everything. “We’re trapped in a vicious circle,” Brooks writes, because the more we ask our military force to take on tasks once performed by civilians—such as foreign diplomacy, humanitarian aid, disaster relief, or domestic social programs—the more expensive our military becomes and so we slash the funding of civilian agencies in order to pay for the more expensive military. This creates a devastating cycle in which civil society is gutted while the military continues to grow and expand into non-combat roles for which they were not trained.
When all you have is a hammer, they say, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is the military everything looks like a security issue. Believing that there is no going back, Brooks adopts a stance of resigned pragmatism, arguing that we can “manage the paradoxes of perpetual war.” She proposes, for instance, trading in the language of “the military” and replacing it with “national security” thereby justifying the use of the forces formerly known as “the military” to engage in civilian operations such as education, health care, and infrastructure. What holds them all together is the overarching umbrella of security. If we want to fund housing and urban development, we need to show that it makes us more secure. If we want to fund health care, we need to show that it makes us more secure. If we want to fund education, we need to show that it makes us more secure. National security is not just our hammer, it’s the only tool in our tool belt.
Now I am not oblivious to the fact that this sermon so far has the potential to have a dispiriting effect on this joyful evening. Please know that is not my intention. But one of the gifts and callings of the Christian community is to tell the truth. And such truthfulness need not be threatening, because we understand that difficult truth-telling is the very nature of the courage we are called to embody.
And so we are brought back to Lewis’ initial question, shaped slightly differently—in a time of perpetual war, how can we justify education, specifically theological education, except by spinning it as a matter of security?
In our reading from Matthew this evening, Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matt 11:25). Surely Rosa Brooks represents the wise and intelligent ones of our day. She has legal training, insider knowledge, a think-tank fellowship, and a university position that situates her as an expert in her field. And yet, Jesus praises the hidden things revealed to infants—the knowledge that may look childish and unrealistic to the experts but is the path of faithfulness for God’s people.
Here we begin to get an answer to the question of learning in perpetual wartime. For now, perhaps more than ever, we need places where the hidden things of God are explored and made known. We need places where the words of Jesus that challenge the world’s lust for domination are studied and received. We need places where students are formed in the practices of prayer, conversation, intellectual inquiry, and reconciling community.
Indeed part of what is so valuable about seminary formation is that here we refuse to construe education as a tool to make us safer. Even in an unstable world, we know that there are more important things than security. Following the path of Jesus involves risk and fortitude. Our very life together becomes a way of enacting a contrast to a world that accepts perpetual war and construes civic life through the lens of the security state.
While the situation of perpetual war may keep us up at night skimming news stories and scrolling through our Facebook feeds, we have an alternative to the desperation that could easily paralyze us or leave us in despair.
As God’s people, we trust that we have the time necessary to follow the slow and steady path of God’s redemptive work. We trust that there will be a tomorrow and that the one demand upon us is to be faithful to our call. We believe that the misguided injunction to turn everything into a security effort will finally undermine the very goods we are trying to protect. We trust that God will sanctify the ordinariness of our days whereby we refuse to let everything become war.
As C. S. Lewis told his congregation back in 1939, “war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. … If [people] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”
The hidden things which have been revealed to us end up being quite simple: that God is love, that we are called, and that through our search for knowledge and beauty in this place, at this time, we participate in making God’s peace real for the world.
And so this evening, I welcome you with joy to the slow, unassuming, and incredibly profound journey of learning and formation upon which we embark this day. Amen.
 C. S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1949) 20.
 Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016).
 Brooks, 20-21.
 Brooks, 345.
 Brooks, 360.
 Lewis, “Learning in Wartime,” 20.