Just Like Starting Over
David Peters’ life was supposed to be one continuous arc of piety and service. But for the U.S. Army chaplain, it’s ended up a more circuitous route. Peters lost the very faith he was supposed to embody for his soldiers — but has also found his way back.
Peters grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical church in Pennsylvania, served as youth minister and then went to war in Baghdad as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in 2005. At the age of 30, he was serving as a chaplain for the 62nd Engineer Combat Battalion, a unit that built guard towers and repaired roads. “So they were operating all around Baghdad, at night, in the streets, in the neighborhoods — and it really exposed [them] to an incredible amount of danger,” he says.
Peters’ duties included administering last rites, grieving with survivors and listening to soldiers lament their broken marriages back home. After 12 months in a combat zone, it was time for Peters to go home. But when he arrived back in Texas, Peters realized that he had changed. “I found that going to war was really pretty easy and it was kind of exciting, and there was a lot of energy around it,” he says. “But when I came home, I really fell apart emotionally and spiritually.”
He had symptoms of PTSD, and his own marriage had shattered while he was away at war. His homecoming was not unusual, it turns out. Former Army Capt. Kurt Stein, the signal officer in the engineering battalion, grew close to Peters in Iraq. “The real crisis,” he says, “is when we were deployed, we were always told, ‘When you guys get back, December 2006, all your problems are gonna be over. You’re gonna be a hero, your families are going to be glad to see you.’ I found that going to war was really pretty easy and it was kind of exciting, and there was a lot of energy around it. But when I came home, I really fell apart emotionally and spiritually. For David and for a lot of us, that just wasn’t the case.”
Peters says it was his lifelong relationship with God that suffered the most. In fact, the God he had taken with him to Iraq — the benevolent deity who loves everyone and rewards the faithful — that concept of God died along with a whole bunch of brave soldiers, he says. He had a hard time even going to church anymore.
“The church was asking me to confess my sins, when I felt like God had done far worse things than I’ve ever done,” he says. Like “standing by and not really doing much for the world that’s full of war and conflict and despair, loss. I looked at my own life and I felt that way. I’d just gotten divorced. I was just really angry at God for disappearing on me when I needed him most.”
Peters wound up working as a chaplain in the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., meeting with veterans whose troubles seemed to dwarf his own. He also worked in the psych ward, where, he says, “there was a thin line between the patients and me.”
Outside of work, his life had imploded. Newly single, he dated a succession of women because, he says, sometimes they “can take the pain away.” His younger sister, Sarah, visited him in D.C. and noticed a dramatic change. “He was drinking a lot. I just remember him being very angry at people — just things that were so out of character for him,” she says.
Last year, Tactical 16, a small veteran-owned press, published a slim, anguished memoir that Peters wrote about his journey. In the book, Death Letter: God, Sex and War, he writes, “I went into the business of religion to understand death.” Since the book came out, he has gotten emails from others — “Army chaplains who have experienced real transition like I did when they came home,” he says. “And yet, they were religious people — they weren’t allowed to have problems.”
Peters had to start over. Because he was divorced, he had to leave the Bible Fellowship Church that had endorsed him as a military chaplain. He eventually found a home and became ordained in the Episcopal Church. He also remarried; he and his new wife are expecting a child next month. “To start over, to start a new marriage, to start a new job, to start in a new church — all those things took a great deal of, just, patience,” Peters says.
The trauma of war and divorce deepened his spiritual self, in such a way that he can now connect, as a priest and chaplain, with others who are living through a dark night of the soul. Now 39, Peters is on the staff at Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown, Texas, outside Austin. He still serves as a chaplain in the Army Reserve up the highway at Fort Hood. And he started a weekly veterans ministry in Austin that meets to talk, drink coffee and pray for one another.
Jonah and Walking Away
There are times that we simply don’t want to do what we know we should do. The story of Jonah is about someone who knows what he should do and tries not to but eventually does it. To the best of our understanding, Jonah was a prophet during the time of Jeroboam according the text of Kings, about two decades before the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity. In 2 Kings 14:23-25, the story says,
23 Jeroboam, the son of Israel’s King Joash, became king in Samaria in the fifteenth year of Judah’s King Amaziah, Jehoash’s son. He ruled for forty-one years. 24 He did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes. He didn’t deviate from all the sins that Jeroboam, Nebat’s son, had caused Israel to commit. 25 He reestablished Israel’s border from Lebo-hamath to the Dead Sea. This was in agreement with the word that the Lord, the God of Israel, spoke through his servant the prophet Jonah, Amittai’s son, who was from Gath-hepher.
As was common in the time before the captivity for both divided kingdoms of ancient Israel, the kings had forsaken God and as it says, “did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes.” Prophets were sent to speak to kings about their error of their ways and often were regarded as annoyances at best and enemies of the state at worst. Jonah, apparently, went before Jeroboam II and delivered this message to the king. We don’t have the record of what was said, but given that Jeroboam refused to change, I imagine the king continued in his ways and Jonah continued in his.
The prophet’s story, written most likely after the return of the Israelites to their land, is a little different than your usually prophetic book like Isaiah or Jeremiah, when a prophet is sent to the king and the people with a message. Jonah is a story about the prophet himself, a different sort of story, more of an allegory about Israel in the time of captivity. The intent of the story is that of a teaching story, a means of conveying a lesson to the Jewish people in their day and those to follow in later generations. As one theologian puts it, “If a story is skillfully told, the storyteller can use questions to put each listener in the place of the one being questioned.”
In the allegory, the prophet is told to go to the people most hated, most despised by the Israelites: The Babylonians. Ninevah, the capital city of the Babylonian empire, was a God-forsaken place in the eyes of all Hebrews. According to commentator Hans Walter Wolff,
What Nineveh stands for we could only comprehend if it were the goal of a journey of ours today. The narrator characterizes it with two criteria: it is great, and it is wicked (v. 2). From the eighth century onwards Israel had known Nineveh as that huge power-center of the Neo-Assyrian empire, which had subjugated the entire ancient Near East. In its practice of waging war, in its policy of resettlement and its methods of torture, it surpassed all of its predecessors and successors in brutality. Israel had never suffered so greatly under any other world power.
Suffice it to say, Jonah, even as faithful as he had been to this point, had no desire to defile himself by setting his feet on their soil, no interest in a mission of mercy to a people of such hate and vileness, and certainly no interest in delivering a message of repentance that the Babylonians might listen to and respond. So, Jonah does what any self-respecting Israelite would do: abandons his call and runs away.
The prophet tries to run away to Tarshish, a city known for its coastal delights for all the senses. Per 1 Kings 10, Tarshish was a place where King Solomon’s ships, “returning once every three years with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks,” a far sight better than going to the hell of Ninevah. He boards a ship and sets his mind to lands far from Israel and Ninevah.
The voyage, as we all know doesn’t go well. Jonah sleeps below decks and then a storm comes from the very hand of God to frighten the crew to the point that they assume something is supernaturally wrong. The men cast lots and determine Jonah is the problem and at the prophet’s word, they throw Jonah overboard.
Beneath the waves a great fish is waiting for the prophet and according to the story, Jonah spends three days living in the belly of the fish. During this time, Jonah repents or the very least acknowledges his wrongdoing, and God has the fish spit him out on dry land. Jonah begins the journey again, only this time he goes to Ninevah as he was directed to the first time. The message when he arrives is simple, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” When they hear, the people of Ninevah respond just as simply,
“When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” 9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.”
Jonah retreats to the outskirts waiting for the justice of God to fall on the cursed Ninevites. As he waits, God shows him mercy beneath the desert sun and has a bush grow up around the wayward prophet. The prophet’s hatred grows as the plant does until one day God sends a worm to eat the plant. Ninevah repents and God relents. The land is saved from the wrath of God and Jonah is disgusted by it. His hope is running away was that God would visit what should have been justice on the people of Ninevah. His hopes are dashed in the grace and mercy of God. Jonah weeps for the plant that God had sent and God challenges him with what I think is the central message of the allegory.
“You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left…?”
Grace in spite of not because of
One of the things that strikes me about this brief tale from the books known as the minor prophets is the veracity of Jonah’s hatred in the face of God’s mercy. As much as God wants to offer the opportunity of grace to be extended, Jonah wants to withhold it. If you think back to the beginning of the sermon, you can see how Jonah might come to feel as he does. War, torture, resettlement, brutality, in short, “their evil.”
In the face of this why does God offer grace? Why does God offer the opportunity to repent to those who have lived out and visited atrocities such as this on others? To get the heart of Jonah’s question, how is this just?
Because the point of the story is for Jonah to see the Babylonian people as just that, people. Given the same birthplace, the same upbringing of any Israelite, any Babylonian would have grown up with the view of God as Jonah. Jonah is a type of Israel, unable to see that the grace and love God has is for all peoples regardless of their journey. The rulers of Babylon were wicked but did that necessarily make the people wicked? Was the place of their birth a death sentence on their hearts and minds to be doomed to a second-rate life?
I don’t think the Bible teaches this. Consider that the Old Testament, especially the law, gives Jews strict rules on how to treat the foreigner in their midst. Their treatment should be as you would treat an Israelite,
“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
Consider also what Jesus has to say,
“38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
As you can see the Bible is clear on how we should regard the “enemy”, by seeing them as ourselves. We are called to grace and peace as a way of life and there is no enemy in the way that Jesus called us to follow. As Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete” as you show love to all, even those who seem against you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 “These connections with postexilic vocabulary do not prove that Jonah was composed in the postexilic period, but the evidence surely points in that direction.” – James Limburg. Jonah (1993): A Commentary (The Old Testament Library) (Kindle Locations 445-446). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
 Limburg. Kindle Locations 359-360
 Wolff, Hans Walter. “Jonah: the reluctant messenger in a threatened world.” Currents In Theology And Mission 3, no. 1 (February 1976): 8-19. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed November 1, 2016).
 1 Kings 10:22
 Jonah 3:4
 Jonah 4:10-11
 Jonah 1:2
 Leviticus 19:34
 Matthew 5:38-48