On the phone, in between his duties at Schofield Army Barracks in Hawaii, Sergeant Logan Laituri tells me he wants to “live radically for Christ.” Normally I stumble over that sort of fervor – couched, as it is, in terms I would usually consider vague and cliche – but if following Jesus means telling your captain that 9/11 didn’t absolve you of the need to love your enemies, I’ll keep listening.
Laituri came to Jesus, as they say, at a dramatic time in his life. He was back from 14 months in Iraq as a front-liner in the U.S. Army, and scheduled to return. It was spring, 2005.
His new girlfriend’s family welcomed him with a Christian love so genuine he couldn’t resist. He ended up in a New Testament history class at a local college, and was also faced with the incisive questions from his philosophical brother and roommate. Soon he found himself immersed in scripture, filled with the spirit and brimming with passion.
The 25-year-old Laituri grew up the son of an agnostic Vietnam Vet in Orange County, California. In 2000, he joined the Army, hoping for education and travel. After a first term, he re-enlisted for an assignment in Hawaii, looking forward to some good surf. Throughout his six years in the military, Laituri had identified as Christian. “I had all the stickers and stuff,” he says of his earlier faith, but that was about the extent of it.
His conversion brought change. He started heeding his college instructor’s directive to let the Bible shape his opinions, rather than his opinions shaping it. Again, I’d dismiss this as tired religio-garble, if he weren’t talking about his “place in geo-politics” at the same time.
“I realized I had to figure out what it meant to me to be a soldier,” he says. “How do I act in my particular job and still follow the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Ya know, how can I do that when I’m asked to basically lay waste to kinda large scale areas?”
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“We do know [Jesus] preaches peace,” says Major Norman W. Jones, an Army Chaplain whom Laituri consulted at one point, “but it did not mean [Jesus] was against a nation going to war.” Major Jones– whose tone is open and entirely gracious– tells me the “sticky point is where [Jesus] says ‘do not kill,'” and that’s where Just War theory comes in. Though Jones sees faith and military service as compatible, he says he would have sympathy for a soldier whose faith convictions led to the conclusion that the U.S. war in Iraq is not just. “I’m here to support the soldier,” he says, convincingly. Jones, who studied at Dallas Theological Seminary, points to the Biblical command to obey the government as the bottom line, though he adds that obedience to God trumps duty to one’s nation.
Laituri– who punctuates conversation both with Bible verses and mini-rants about the sins of nationalistic ego– also looks to the good book as the source of “absolute truth,” though it leads him in a different direction. When it says love your enemies, he says he “can’t kill someone in love.”
As his infantry company started gearing up for a return to Iraq, Lairturi was busy asking people about faith, war, and the decisions he faced. In response, he got a lot of Just War theory, and rationalization for the the necessity of violence. People told him it was morally wrong to do nothing about the nation’s enemies. One commander, who is also a Baptist preacher, assured Laituri that since he was a Christian, Jesus had died for all his sins, and therefore he was already forgiven for whatever he would do on the battlefield.
The people who had welcomed him to the faith did not welcome his questioning of military morality. His then-girlfriend’s father told Laituri he was part of God’s hand in bringing judgement to Muslim extremists. The views he heard didn’t fit with the convictions he felt, and his company was set to leave for a training session in California before heading back to Iraq.
Logan Laituri sat in the bus, he and his colleagues headed to Honolulu airport for their flight to California. It was April 20, 9:40 in the morning. Headphones on, local Christian band Olivia playing a song called “Heaven,” and his thoughts on what in the world to do about his beliefs. Then, for a moment, heaven itself seemed to open.
“I felt like somebody was showing me something,” he says of the “short video clip” from above that followed.
“I saw myself in the Middle East, I’m pretty sure it was Iraq,” he says, describing the emotionally vivid experience. “What struck me were two things: number one, that I did not have a weapon.” The second thing was a feeling of “confidence;” the confidence that he was “doing what was right.”
It was his calling. He would go to Iraq, but without a weapon. At first he thought he might be able to do that as a non-combative member of his company. So after prayer and consideration, he applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, as per the Army regulation allowing a soldier to request discharge for reasons of conscience, as long as military officials deem the applicant “sincere” at the end of the stipulated process. He was ready to go to prison if need be, which, in today’s for-us-or-against-us climate is a real possibility for CO applicants. Major Jones says the majority of CO applications are denied.
At that point Laituri was not actually trying to leave the Army, because he saw the human anguish within military ranks, and didn’t think it was Christ-like to just abandon people in need. He just wanted to have the right to refuse to bear arms.
But the military is not going to send someone to war without a weapon, and, as it turns out, it may not treat you very well if you make such a request. With re-deployment looming, Laituri’s superiors dragged their feet on the CO process, missing stipulated procedural deadlines without explanation.
Laituri talks of theological discussions with commanders, hostile rumors, and bureaucratic tangles. One superior berated him, saying his actions benefitted the enemies of America– an insult Laituri took as affirmation, given Jesus’ invitation to love the enemy.
Military command seemed determined to stall his CO application, but they didn’t want him in the battlefield either. Eventually, with his term of service drawing to a close, he was re-assigned to a detachment that would not deploy overseas. He surrendered the CO process in favor of simply letting his term of service expire.
As of October 19, Laituri became a private citizen.
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Major Jones says debate about the morality of war seldom comes up in his work, and CO applications are rare. However, according to the United Church Observer, 8,000 members of the U.S. military have deserted since the Iraq war began. During World War II, nearly 43,000 Americans refused to fight for reasons of conscience, and during the Vietnam War 170,000 COs were formally recognized. In addition, 25,000 to 30,000 so-called draft dodgers fled to Canada in the Vietnam era.
Currently there are about 175 U.S. military “deserters” living illegally in Canada, hoping to escape repercussions back home. If Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board starts sending them back to the U.S., Canadian churches will have to decide whether or not to grant them sanctuary – a custom whereby churches allow certain failed refugee claimants to live on church premises where law enforcement officials are hesitant to forcibly enter to arrest someone.
Logan Laituri doesn’t have to worry about fleeing his homeland now that he is out of the Army, but he does have his eyes on distant lands. He feels called to be a missionary to the Middle East. So, last Sunday he left for Israel/Palestine on a delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams, the violence-reduction organization now famous for the four of their members abducted in Baghdad a year ago.
Not sure what someone who sounds like a cross between Noam Chomsky and an evangelical youth pastor means by “missionary,” I asked what me
ssage he wants to bring to the Middle East.
“Jesus loves you. I love you,” he says, proclaiming his desire to “radiate love” even if he doesn’t convert a single person.
So off he goes, back to the front lines, disarmed and disarming, an “attitude of active compassion” at the ready. With the courage of a warrior and the love of God, he’s living radically for Christ.
Will Braun is editor of Geez magazine (http://www.geezmagazine.org/). A version of this article appears in the current print edition of Geez. For more information, see http://www.cpt.org/ and Laituri’s blog: www.xanga.com/courageouscoward . Laituri can be reached at courageouscoward [at] gmail.com. Braun can be reached at editor [at] geezmagazine.org.