In June, 2002, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack, 25-year-old Pat Tillman abruptly left a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted in the US Army. He declined all interview requests, asking to be looked upon as any other soldier. Nevertheless, the news turned him into a national phenom overnight.
Two years later, he was shot and killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. At his memorial service in San Jose, CA, carried live by major media outlets, a US Navy Seal, a friend of the family, gave a moving eulogy. He told how Pat had died in a heroic attempt to rescue his platoon brothers from an enemy ambush. “Pat sacrificed himself so his brothers could live.” He was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest honor awarded for valor in battle with enemies of the United States. The public memorials were ceremonies befitting a hero.
But Pat’s family soon began to suspect there was more to the story than what they had been told. Pat’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, started poking around, and over time the story changed. Meanwhile, as investigations unfolded, the media outlets would cut, paste, and package the story to suit their editorial objectives. Pat Tillman became even more of a news phenom, exactly what he did not want to be. His wife Marie began to wonder, Where was Pat the person in all this?
Eventually, it came out that Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire. It hadn’t even been in an enemy attack. His death had been the result of (at best) a string of poor decisions on the part of military personnel.
Death by friendly fire, while always tragic, is a known risk of deployment. But, “Why, then, award him the Silver Star?” Pat’s father, Patrick Tillman, Sr., wanted to know. What was going on, and why had the family and the public been lied to? A wartime death was one thing, but administrative obfuscation and deception was a whole different matter. Eventually, family pressure resulted in a Congressional hearing which included testimony from top brass all the way up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. All denied knowledge and culpability, and with that, the “case” was closed.
The Death of Understanding
Well, “closed” for everyone but Pat’s family. They’re now convinced that Pat’s death was used as a propaganda tool – by the administration and military to promote the war effort and by the media to sell news. The family’s story is told in the 2010 film, The Tillman Story, directed by Berkeley producer Amir Bar-Lev. It’s a sad and troubling account, but not just because of the war, the death of Pat Tillman, or the propaganda angle. Those are troubling, of course, but there’s a deeper, wider, and more lamentable loss on display over the course of the film. It’s the death of understanding.
The Tillmans have eliminated God from their thinking. Pat’s youngest brother Richard made this clear at the memorial service. “Make no mistake, he’d want me to say this: He’s not with God, he’s f***ing dead. He’s not religious. So thanks for your thoughts, but he’s f***ing dead,” he repeated it for emphasis. This leaves them with no transcendent context from which to understand death or injustice. Yes, they know something about death and injustice, but beyond feeling anger and then taking the story to the public, they have no framework from which to understand it, to understand how it can be made right, or to even understand that it can be made right.
Naturally, they’re grieved over the loss of Pat. But they have no way to process their grief. Naturally, they are angry over the indignity of his death being deceitfully used for war PR and then being lied to. But they have no way to process that anger. Yes, life goes on and they seem to be coping, but still they evince the anguish of unresolved and (worse) unresolvable grief and anger.
And there’s something beyond that. They have no explanation for grief itself. After all, if human beings, including Pat, are nothing more than collocations of matter and energy – no soul, no spirit – there’s really no loss to speak of. The matter decomposes and the energy gets spent some other way, and that’s that. I’m not saying the Tillmans don’t feel legitimate pain. I’m sure they do. I’m pointing out that they have no explanation for their pain. Their pain sits at odds with their worldview.
It’s the same with their feelings of injustice. The Tillmans are angry, and rightfully so, assuming the story as told is accurate. Anger is a legitimate emotion because lying and using people – for any reason – are wrong. Again, I’m not saying their emotional reactions are illegitimate. I’m saying that they have no explanation for them. Their anger and sense of injustice also sit at odds with their worldview.
Because, according to the Darwinian paradigm, which is still the going metanarrative for all non-theistic worldviews, natural selection knows nothing of ethics or morals. It is perfectly consistent with Darwinian evolution, then, for the powerful to use the weak and then dispense with them. What happened to Pat is to be expected, really.
What’s my point in all this? The Tillmans’ very souls cry out in painful testimony to them that something is wrong, very wrong. Their emotions are pointers to God. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in Mere Christianity. He carefully explained how his arguments for atheism broke down because of, not in spite of, his sense of injustice:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
The grief over death proves the value of life. The sense of injustice proves the reality of justice. The darkness proves the light. Or, as you may have heard it more recently from Switchfoot, The Shadow Proves the Sunshine.
But the materialist worldview does not allow its adherents to see through to any of this. So materialists get stuck in anguish, unable to make sense of their emotions. They cannot understand. Isaiah the prophet wrote of those who’ve turned away from God. They “hope for light, but behold, darkness; For brightness, but we walk in gloom. … We stumble at midday as in the twilight, … We hope for justice, but there is none, For salvation, but it is far from us.” (Isaiah 59: 9-11)
But none of them will “fix” anything, if they do not begin from the right foundation, which is God, the fear of whom “is the beginning of wisdom” and the knowledge of whom “is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)