Words Vs. Deeds: The Theology of Supporting the Troops

03/19/2007 07:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's now a bomb-resistant vehicle called an MRAP that protects our troops far better than up-armored Humvees do. Evidently, no soldier has ever died in one. But, surprise, surprise, the Bush administration is willing to pay for a mere fraction of the number needed. United Press International:

"The U.S. Army is only buying 700 bomb-resistant vehicles this year, a number the service's top general said was driven by finances rather than manufacturing.

The service has identified a need for $2.25 billion in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected combat vehicles -- each of which costs about $1 million, according to Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomacher -- but has only asked Congress for $770 million to begin producing them this year.

MRAPs offer ground troops more protection from improvised explosive devices and mines than standard up-armored Humvees can, in large part because of its V-shaped undercarriage, which distributes the blast away from passengers.

In 2004 the Army and the Pentagon were assailed by Congress and the media for failing to maximize production on up-armored Humvees. Some 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq continue to be caused by IEDs and mines.

Schoomacher told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the rate of buying the vehicles was determined by available funding rather than a maximizing production."

Will there be an outcry? Not from the Republicans, I'm sure. Since the war began, Democrats have demanded better protection for our troops, including up-armored Humvees and modern body armor. Indeed, most Democrats have said we never should have gone to war in the first place without the number of troops needed to win both the war and the peace. And now, Democrats have made an issue out of the appalling medical care that troops are receiving at Walter Reed hospital when they return from Iraq.

Republicans, despite their constant demand that Democrats do more to "support the troops," have largely been quiet. Bush's abysmal approval ratings have emboldened a few Republicans lately, but not enough to demand real accountability.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is political: Republicans are the ones who bear responsibility for the Iraq debacle and don't want to undermine their own president or themselves. But I think there's a theological component to the issue as well -- namely, that conservatives tend to be about words, and progressives tend to be about deeds.

Religious conservatives tend to focus on the parts of the Bible that demand professions of faith. They ask, are you "Bible-believing"? Do you accept certain doctrines? Regardless of how you live your life, do you believe?

Those are perfectly legitimate questions. People can choose whatever they like to be the core of their faith. But those of us who are Democrats not in spite of our faith but precisely because of it tend to frame the issue differently. Our first test of faithfuness is not words, but actions. Are you loving your neighbor? Are you living out Jesus' instruction to protect the vulnerable? Are you more interested in promoting the common good than in satisfying your own greed?

When Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor, progressives don't see a dichotomy between the two. To a large extent, you love God by loving your neighbor.

You won't hear most conservatives quoting James that "faith without works is dead," or Matthew 25 that the nations will be judged by how they treat "the least of these" in our society. That's not their concern.

And so it's natural that, to conservatives, the phrase "I support the troops" signifies a profession of faith -- faith in the mission that the troops are undertaking. It means avoiding saying things that might, in the short-term, be construed as demoralizing. And it means pretending -- eternally, one suspects -- that this war is still winnable.

To progressives, supporting the troops means something far more profound. It means treating them with the love and respect they deserve. It means doing what we must as citizens to protect them. It means honoring the sacrifices of generations past by enjoying our liberties at home and refusing to spill more blood abroad unless it's truly necessary.

I hope that as more and more Christians view the Bush administration for the cynical and hypocritical bunch that it is, they'll learn this theological lesson. For as Jesus says in Mark 7:6-8:

"Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."