Ever since the beginning of the war on terror, I have been hearing some version of the following prayed as a petition during mass:  “for the safety of our troops.”  Sometimes, the prayer has also identified “our” troops as those fighting for “our freedom.”  This phenomenon has not been limited to just one parish or even one city.   I have heard this prayer in small town Ohio, in a supposedly liberal parish in big city Chicago, in the basilica at the University of Notre Dame, and in several parishes in the Boston area.

Such a prayer has no place in the Christian community.

First of all, who is the “we” behind the “our” in this prayer?  Clearly, it is the United States military.  Even if the various wars and bombing campaigns associated with the “war on terror” were just, which, at least according to Christian just war theory, they are not, the church, which is the body of Christ, should never claim one nation’s soldiers as their own.  When the church claims the United States military as its own, we are effectively saying that the United States military is the military of the Body of Christ, fighting as and on behalf of Christ himself.  In so doing, we essentially recite a deformed version of St. Teresa of Avila’s beautiful “Christ Has No Body” in which she writes,

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

When we pray for “our troops,” and claim them as ours, we basically say

Christ has no body but yours,

No tomahawk missile, no armored tank but yours,

Yours are the surface to air missiles with which he doles out

Punishment and death on this world,

Yours are the hands with which he waterboards our indefinitely detained enemies….

Moreover, how would an Iraqi Christian feel entering a Catholic church in the United States in which this prayer is uttered—especially when such a prayer is read against the backdrop of an American flag?  How would a Salvadoran, Panamanian, Guatemalan, or Chilean person who lost loved ones to American military power feel in a church that identifies itself as one with the U.S. military?  This is not to say that everything the U.S. military has ever done, either as body or by its individual soldiers, has been immoral, but only to point out two very obvious facts: one, the U.S. military as a military is not a part of the body of Christ and I find it strange that Christians in the United States have such a strong desire to claim the U.S. military our own; and two, in claiming the U.S. military as “ours” we do sanction, indiscriminately, whatever the U.S. military does by saying that it acts in our name.

Finally, we should also note that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus command or even permit us to pray for those who kill in our name.  However, Jesus does explicitly tell us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  It would be tempting to then conclude that the solution would be to begin praying for “Al Qaeda.”  However, if we continue to let “Americanness” set the agenda for our identity as the body of Christ, in praying for Al Qaeda as “our enemy,” we would end up crystallizing not only the identity of those gathered in the church as United States citizens loyal to the prerogatives of a given nation state, but also reify the status of “Al Qaeda” as “enemy” and in so doing legitimize war against them.

However, when we begin to think and speak of ourselves as the body of Christ, something different occurs.  If, after learning to think of ourselves as what we really are—the body of Christ—we continue to identify “Al Qaeda” as an enemy for whom we pray and seek to do good to, we will see them as an enemy not because they seek to kill United Statesians or because they oppose U.S. hegemony or political objectives, but because they seek to kill human beings, some of whom are “innocent.”  When we condemn violence and defend life not on patriotic grounds, but because we are the body of Christ, we are then liberated to be similarly critical of and opposed to the violence that the United States government does in our name.  In fact, we will resist even the United States’ attempt to claim us as its own.

24 thoughts

  1. This is excellent. Thank you so much for this. As usual, I would like to distribute it to every parish in this diocese.

  2. Amen, and amen. Thanks, Katie. I’ve had to battle (no pun intended) this in my own congregation, and I try to pray against it whenever I’m called to do the congregational prayer. You sum up my thoughts exactly.

  3. Did you know that there is a Trident nuclear attack submarine with the name the USS (City) of Corpus Christi ?
    The City part was added when objections were rightfully made to its planned original name of Corpus Christi.

    1. It’s actually a Los Angles Attack Submarine (dosen’t carry the BIG missles)currently in Pearl Harbor. It was named after the fine city of Corpus Christi Texas. It’s interesting that the whole fleet of attack submarines are named after the “City of Angles”.

  4. I appreciate where you’re coming from Katie, and I agree that the Church certainly ought not to adopt one military or another as its own. However, I wonder if praying for “our troops” actually does such a thing– on its own, I mean. Many parishes I have visited who pray this petition have members, or members’ children, in the military, and view it not immediately as an adoption of the entire military into the cause of Christ, but as a petition on behalf of their loved ones. It is true that there are historical examples where placing certain entities in (or out) of liturgical prayer has been a sign of Church approval (or disapproval), but I’m not sure such a logic is necessary in every case. For example, praying for “our troops” feels a bit ambiguous to me, in that it leaves open the possibility for Christians to pray either for their victory or their conversion, or both.

    Basically, I wonder if there is a way to charitably read this petition, without making the claim that it baptizes military action. Such a reading might indeed not work, but I’m hesitant to criticize so strongly a petition that might not necessarily include the “my country, right or wrong” mentality.

    Altogether though, I very much enjoyed your work here, as I always do. Thanks!

    1. I would like to see parishes revise the common “for our troops” along these lines:

      (1) Instead of saying, “our troops,” why can’t we pray for the enlisted people by name? In huge churches this might not be feasible, but I’ve been in some sizeable congregations (500 folks) where the time was taking to name those we were praying for. It would usually take about 3 minutes to say all the names, and it almost sounded like a litany, which was beautiful.

      (2) In parishes that are too big for the enlisted to be prayed for by name, maybe we could either pray generally for the safety of “those enlisted in the military” (thus dropping the problematic pronoun), or we could balance a prayer for “ours” with a prayer for “theirs,” even, as Katie said, praying explicitly for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or whoever else the enemy of the day is.

      1. Yes. It is incredibly important to pray for the “enemy” in the same way as we pray for “our” troops. I often hear prayer for “our” troops to be safe and for the “enemy” to come to know Jesus. Because, of course, that help “them” see the errors of their ways and would put them on “our” side, i.e., respectful of America.

    2. Hey Ben!
      I think you are right about giving this prayer the most charitable interpretation when it comes to evaluating/understanding the motivations/intentions of why many people don’t find this prayer problematic. In other words, I would not at all want to claim that the vast majority of christians consciously intend what I outline above.

      Instead, my purpose is to get us as Christians to realize the implications of what we are saying–to slow down and be more intentional about our language, realizing that we shouldn’t always speak like “everyone else” speaks.

      and I do not have a problem with people in church communities who have loved ones deployed receiving pastoral/communal support. I like the suggestion of praying for people by their name. Are we praying for a given parish member because we love him/her and do not want her to be harmed or because said person is a soldier fighting a war we want them to “win?” Also do we pray not just for these soldiers’ physical and psychological well being but also for their moral integrity? Do we pray that they not kill unjustly or not cooperate in an unjust war?

      I also think context matters. Are we preaching against military injustice? Are we educating each other about the just war theory? Do we also mention by name the Afghan dead? These things make all the difference.

      But again, my experience is limited to Catholic parishes–so your experience of how such a prayer actually functions might be different because it might actually be functioning differently in ECLA communities….

  5. Katie! Thank you so much for articulating what drives me crazy to no end. And thanks to all the others who left comments here. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. The War Prayer will be something I will refer to often now. I hadn’t heard of it before but find it very compelling.

  6. Very well said. I wish we would pray for peace from the Prince of Peace, and the end of war from the King of Kings, rather than nationalistic victory. We fall into this “us-against-them” trap all too easily.

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