By Rev. Sara Nave Fisher
Excerpted from When Kids Ask Hard Questions, Volume 2: More Faith-Filled Responses for Tough Topics (Coming soon from Chalice Press)
I have a vivid memory of sitting on the carpeted floor of my sister’s basement as she wrangled with her toddler. “Shock and Awe”—the phrase used to describe the United States’ initial invasion of Baghdad in 2002—was on the television, and I knew in that moment that my niece would grow up in a world very different from the one I had known.
My niece doesn’t remember a time when the United States wasn’t at war.
Nearly two decades later, the same is true of my own kids.
My husband is an active-duty Army chaplain, and he left for his first deployment the week after our wedding fifteen years ago. His second deployment began when our oldest was an infant, and his third when all three kids were school-aged.
My spouse and I spent a lot of time and energy discerning how much to tell them; because we had been through deployments before, we had been down the road of communication blackouts, uncertainty, and misinformation. We didn’t want to shield them from reality, but we also didn’t want to scare them unnecessarily. His location was near Fallujah; though his job as a chaplain keeps him from direct combat, danger lurked. We walked a tightrope of giving them enough information to contextualize their experience, without so much that it would keep them up at night.
I do want to note here the privilege that comes from being a kid in the United States at this point in history. We talk about war as a thing that happens on the other side of the world, not out our own front windows. For many kids across the globe, going to school or playing outside is a physical risk, and that serves as the backdrop for how I think, talk, and pray about war and combat violence with kids in the United States. This is unimaginable for many of us, and it’s important to remember this context.
Even still, being a nation at war permeates our lives in ways we might not even realize. Before they could speak, kids in the U.S. were watching commercials with emotional coming-home celebrations and massive flags draped over football fields; they have grown up with “Support our troops” as a ubiquitous call. Though military kids are more aware of it, all kids live under the cloak of war…though we usually name it “patriotism.” Depending on how the adults around them do—or don’t—talk about it, they might not even be aware that we’ve been continuously at war since 2002, but they have experienced some of its effects on how we as a country interact with one another and the world around us.
But every so often, war floats up to the surface of our national awareness. Usually it’s because of an event: an attack, a bombing, a thwarted peace talk. Social media begins to fill with news stories and opinion pieces, followed by hashtags and photo frames and the questions on our collective minds: Will we go to war again? Who will go? What will it mean for us? Why is this happening?
And if these questions are on the minds of adults, they likely are on the minds of our kids, too; when it comes to war, I think the questions kids ask are really the same questions we all ask. Kids might be more willing to verbalize their wonderments, but if you’ve ever looked at your child and not known how to answer their uncertainty, my hunch is that you’re wondering the same thing.
These questions lend themselves to nuanced theological implications about the military-industrial complex, the ways classism intersects with the U.S. military, how we interact with people different from us, whether scripture allows for Christians to serve in the military, and the role of violence in achieving “good” ends. These are questions that many adults grapple with, so how can we even begin to broach them with our kids?
Even when there aren’t answers to kids’ questions, there are still responses. Here are some things we’ve done in our own family, both while their dad was deployed and while we were all safe at home. These are written particularly in the context of a significant military event (such as a bombing or attack referenced above) but can be used at other times as well.
Crafting the Conversation
When there is a military event, learn about the country where the conflict is happening and about the people there. All too often, global conflicts the United States engages in are framed through the lens of U.S. troops or civilians, not the history and society of people and families who call that place home. This is especially true when too many folks talk about people who live in other parts of the world in ways that perpetuate racism and xenophobia, which impacts how Americans treat immigrants during times of violent escalation. Instead, read about their history. Watch videos online of their culture, food, and religion. Find a recipe and make it together! Support a business that is owned by someone who immigrated from the place where the conflict is happening.
Pray for people in that country, for service members, for leaders making decisions. Unlike in previous wars, the United States has not gone to war against a country in the twenty-first century, but against factions and organizations. There are millions of people going to school and work and the market in the midst of a war zone. Pray for them. Pray for people in harm’s way, regardless of allegiance or uniform. Pray for all leaders making decisions that impact the lives of so many.
Process your own anxiety and fear with other adults, not with your kids. This is true for most things in life, and something that has been particularly important for me when my husband is deployed. My kids need me to be honest but steady, and not project my own stress onto them. Research responses to your own questions instead of wondering them out loud. They’re looking to you for security,
Lament together. Discussing war in our household also always includes the scriptural idea of lament. We can name that we don’t have “answers” to why there is war, but war is. And we lament it. Kids understand grief and injustice, so we frame war through that lens. There isn’t always a “pretty bow” to wrap suffering and injustice with, and this is no different. When we don’t have answers, we lament. We name our sadness and fear, we name our anger and anxiety. Try to use feeling words such as “sad,” “scary,” and “angry” to share what you are feeling and to model naming emotion.
Be attentive to what they’re hearing and seeing online or on television. As social media and phone use has increased globally, so has our access to images of violence and trauma. Especially if kids are very young, they might absorb these images or descriptions without the context to know what is happening. For older kids, there are several made-for-kids news websites available (see the Further Reading section for suggestions).
Talk about what’s going on in an age-appropriate way. You know the kids in your life and what they can handle at their age. Allow space for silence and processing and ask them what questions they have. Talking about it as appropriate, instead of ignoring or avoiding it, can give them the tools they’ll need to interact with world events for the rest of their lives. Answer them when you can and be honest when you can’t. Sometimes, “I don’t know why this is happening, but I know that I’m sad about it, and I know that I love you very much” is the best answer to give kids.
How Do We Support the Troops If We Don’t Support the War?
This is one of the most important questions many families face regarding war. Regardless of your personal feelings about war (any specific war or war in general), we can support those who serve. There are many reasons people choose to join the military and wanting to go to war is not often among the top of them. Every person’s story is different, and, regardless of perspective, I think it’s important to pray for and support the people going to war.
Unfortunately, we too often conflate “supporting the troops” with unexamined allegiance to the symbol of the flag and even our nation’s history. Instead, supporting the troops requires us to examine our history and current actions, the conflation of patriotism and Christianity, and what we can expect of our elected leaders. The best way to support the troops in my view is by holding our elected leaders accountable for what we ask of service members.
Of course, there are also organizations that will distribute letters and packages to deployed U.S. service members, though the best way to do that is usually through a personal contact. If you don’t know anyone who is deployed, call a congregation near the closest military installation to ask.
Where Is God in War?
During my husband’s second deployment, the United States reached the milestone of 2,000 service members killed in combat in the war in Iraq. I recall one morning, sitting in a circle of folded chairs at a military-affiliated women’s Bible study, and someone said, “I know God is on our side in this war; if God weren’t, we would have lost more than 2,000 by now.”
I was horrified. I didn’t even know how to respond. And that is when I first realized that I needed a new way to understand my theology of God and war, because I just could not fathom that “God was on our side” in this. God is on the side of love, and that doesn’t nicely align with any particular nation or ideology.
But here’s what I do know about God and war:
God is ever-present.
God is with every person.
God loves every person.
I fully believe that we are called to be people of peace, and that we are called to protect the most vulnerable. Sometimes, those things are at odds—or seem to be. There aren’t always easy answers.
War is always tragic. It is always sad. A lot of people get hurt, and God is with every single person, regardless of their nationality or uniform or ideology. God loves people from all places and cultures equally, and sometimes that feels different from the way leaders in our country talk about who matters and who doesn’t. It’s scary when we think about people we know who might fight in a war, and it’s scary when we think about what the kids might be going through in the countries where fighting is happening. We can pray that God will keep them safe—especially those kids. We can’t control whether or not our country goes to war right now, but what we can do is bring God’s peace to our corners of the world.
Scripture envisions a world in which nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Although there are many war stories in the Bible, I do not believe that they represent the way God intends for the world to live and inhabit this earth. Sadly, there is nothing any one of us can do to end war. Sure, we can vote for leaders who share our values, but it does not take a deep dive into world history to discover that conflict is endless, and humanity suffers because of it.
But what we can do is be people of peace to those we meet, and that is something tangible even kids can do. They can invite someone new to sit with them at the lunch table. They can speak with kindness and love. They can recognize that violence is not a good answer, and that God cares for people all over the world.
While there is no easy answer to any question about war, the reality is that war is. As a parent in a peace-loving military family, who literally preaches against American exceptionalism even while combat boots sit on my living room floor, these are tricky questions. Our faith compels us to wrestle with them, just as we wrestle with tricky stories in the Biblical text. So until swords turn to plowshares, we keep praying. We keep lamenting. And we keep loving.
I have written about related topics on my website https://www.saranavefisher.com, including the following articles:
“Bombs Bursting in Air, Then and Now,” https://www.saranave fisher.com/writing/2019/07/04/bombs-bursting-in-air-then-and-now
“In Fear but Also in Hope: On Ash Wednesday and Going to War,” https://www.saranavefisher.com/writing/2016/02/17/in-fear-but-also-in-hope-on-ash-wednesday-and-going-to-war
“The Fallacy of Patriotic Worship,” https://www.saranavefisher.com/writing/2019/05/27/the-fallacy-of-patriotic-worship
News for kids: CNN 10 (This station is designed for public schools and is a different arm than regular CNN.)
Children’s book: The Invisible String, Patrice Karst
Adult book: The War Prayer, Mark Twain; A Bridge to Babylon: Stories of a Military Chaplain in Iraq by Owen R. Chandler (Chalice Press, 2021)
Rev. Sara Nave Fisher (she/her) is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and is passionate about gender equality and intergenerational ministry. She and her spouse, Jonathan, have three fierce, curious, compassionate kids; and though they live where the Army sends them, Michigan is always home. She writes at saranavefisher.com.
Photo: Afghan schoolgirls. Photographer: David Mark. Source: Pixabay