During an eye-opening discussion about love and faith at Coastal Carolina University last week, Benjamin Johnson wondered aloud why he had been called to shoot babies.
Preston McKever-Floyd, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, had just finished up a presentation that delved into the similar ways the world’s major religions view and talk about love, with the universal form – agape, or unconditional – being the one most associated with how God loves his creations.
His presentation was sponsored by the Jackson Family Center for Ethics & Values, the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.
He spoke about how our presence is a reflection of the universe’s love for us.
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“If the universe was hostile, we wouldn’t be here,” he said.
McKever-Floyd, with whom I co-taught an applied ethics course last spring, reminded the crowd of our common biological beginnings and that we are connected to things animate and inanimate.
“We are separate but we are not separated,” he said.
“You cannot love me and not want justice for me,” he went on.
He wrapped up by pointing out that “the person you love owes you nothing,” not roses and candy on Valentine’s Day, not even a reciprocal show of love and kindness.
He asked for questions when Johnson, sitting in a wheelchair next to his wife on the back row in Lackey Chapel on the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, began speaking up, barely audible.
McKever-Floyd walked to the back of the room and stood quietly and intently while Johnson spoke.
Johnson said he is a Vietnam veteran who remembers seeing Vietnamese women with babies strapped to their back.
Johnson had gone into the war fresh out of high school.
He was 18 years old.
He recounted the first time he killed someone. That was 1966. Almost a half a century later in that small chapel, it was obvious that reality still pained him, still had him conflicted, still wondering how killing in war could be reconciled with the ideal of love.
“The first person that I killed, it was like it took something out of me,” Johnson said. “I was just puzzled why I had to kill the baby.”
He remembers the firefights during which a soldier proudly said “I got 15 gooks.”
He recalled a conversation with a captive asking why they hated us.
“He said, ‘I don’t, you know,’ ” Johnson said.
He said he knew that it was a “kill or be killed situation,” but that he struggled for years with what he had to do, what he saw all those decades ago.
No one knew quite how to respond or how to alleviate the burden he took on as a teenager on behalf of a country from which we all benefit.
“The world needs love,” Johnson said.
“The world needs love,” he said again.
Another audience member followed with a related question. She wondered how it was possible to “knit institutions with love” – CCU, the military, others – when institutional pressures can seem to override the love instinct or require actions that conflict with loving goals even when the institution’s desire is and it was created to do good.
Each of us has within us seeds of anger, love, charity and prejudice, McKever-Floyd said.
“The seeds that grow are the ones we water,” he said. “There is a tension between which seeds you want to grow. If we work towards justice in whatever we do, we are living love. If I can be just to one individual, then I’m loving. And if I can go from that individual to another individual, then I’m loving.”
We must ask ourselves a simple question, he said:
“Am I being just in my treatment of whomever I’m dealing with?”