Equip: What Would You Have Done?: Christian Community in the Vietnam Era

What Would You Have Done? ‘The Vietnam War’ Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have produced a searing evocation of the decade of the ‘60s with their documentary on ‘The Vietnam War.’  Twenty-first century cultural and political turmoil since 9/11 have been accompanied by economic stagnation, moral disintegration and a rapid decline in church attendance. But these trends are much less traumatic than the crises that befell families, communities, churches and the nation in a single decade between 1961 and 1971.  Since this is the decade in which I came of age, the documentary raises a serious question.  How was my Christian faith shaped by this era?  I want to ask this question for the readers of this blog to reflect on their own faith.  What would you have done?  

‘The Vietnam War’ juxtaposes the confidence and cohesion of American culture at the beginning of the 60s with the violence and division at the end of the decade.  Just a few of the highlights:

  • Kennedy’s inaugural promise “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny,” was followed by the insertion of “advisors” who fought alongside the Vietnamese Army against the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong). The government of South Vietnam was so corrupt that the administration approved a secret coup against their president Diem.
  • After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, without consulting the South Vietnamese or the American public, sent in the Marines based on a controversial, minor skirmish in the Tonkin Gulf. One episode in the series shows the marines disembarking from their landing craft near Da Nang in full armor only to be greeted by beautiful, young Vietnamese women dressed in white.  Eventually the Army joined the Marines, while the American government covered up the change in strategy.  Private records show that the administration had already concluded the odds of success in Vietnam were 1-in-3, yet they continued to add troops and bomb cities in North Vietnam.  
  • In 1968 17,000 American soldiers died in one year alone, and another 12,000 died next year.  Vietnamese deaths, of course, were far greater.  Meanwhile a universal draft swept all males over 18 into the armed services unless they were enrolled as students with good grades in a 4-year undergraduate school.  This unusual exemption shifted the burden of war to the poor.
  • An antiwar movement escalated into violent confrontation between students and police at the Democratic Convention in 1968.  
  • Racial conflicts starting with non-violent demonstrations in the South had engulfed large metropolitan areas in violence by 1967.
  • Leaders in both these movements were assassinated three months apart—Martin Luther King on April 4 and Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968.  

Would you would you have done under these circumstances?  I had three options as a college student:  1) sign up with the armed services and go to ‘Nam; 2) apply for conscientious objector status or evade the draft by fleeing to Canada; or 3) resist the draft and face the consequences.  My first choice was to resist the draft.  American policy seemed to have misled us into fighting a war against communism which was actually a war for national independence from colonial rule. However, at student demonstrations in Washington in 1969 organized by Students for a Democratic Society, it became obvious to me that anti-war demonstrations were led by anti-American anarchists. I realized war was not the problem.  I was the problem. The same sin that made politician lie and anarchists die was in my heart. I therefore chose the first option as I neared graduation.  Nixon abolished the draft before I was called up. In between, another option showed itself.

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 The fourth option was to experiment with new forms of Christian community.  In 1970 I helped start a men’s Christian residence on the campus of Ohio State named the Fish House and published a student newspaper called, ’The Fish.’  We had no idea what we were doing other than to confront the culture with a different option for a meaningful life.  That was the same year four antiwar demonstrators were shot at Kent State, and Ohio State shut down the university. Our Christian evangelistic activities on campus found a welcomed response. The small beginning at the Fish House has since grown into the Xenos Christian Fellowship (xenos.org).  Many other experiments in Christian community started at that time. Chris Peterson, an elder at our church, was also involved in new experiments with Christian counter-cultural communities.

The way we answered the question of what is required by circumstances may not be the answer necessary for today.  However, conditions seem to be right again for new experiments in Christian community.  Rod Dreher, whose book, "The Benedictine Option," I reviewed in part, makes five suggestions:

  • rediscover the past
  • recover liturgical worship
  • practice asceticism
  • center our lives on the church community
  • and tighten church discipline

His suggestions are based loosely on the Rule of St. Benedict governing the religious communities founded by St. Benedict (480-543).  Dreher gives the following reasons for his adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. We need the past to endure shifting currents of belief in the present. Next month we will explore the lives of four Protestant Reformers in our Equip classes.  When we use liturgy, we are teaching the church that our faith is old and authentic. Simon Chan, a theologian in the Assemblies of God, has written Liturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshipping Community to encourage the use of liturgy.   Asceticism comes from the world of athletic training.  Practices like fasting, prayer, study and almsgiving employ the body in spiritual practice.  Too often, we forget the body is also part of worship. Paul instructed us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice…” as true worship. Focus on church community is the topic of our present month in Equip classes, so I don’t need to repeat those lessons.  Church discipline is the hardest step to implement.  Coming under spiritual authority seems like the last reason for going to church.  It is not that scary if we agree that spiritual authority is authority under God’s Word.  Coming under spiritual authority is the only reasons for church membership.  

‘The Vietnam War’ series is a convenient way to start recovering the past and building for the present by asking ourselves today what we would have done back then.