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WORLDVIEW: Christians & the spiritual ‘Vietnam Syndrome’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War brought countless replays of the news footage showing American helicopters lifting off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city on April 30, 1975.

Those helicopters ferried the last official American personnel to ships waiting off the Vietnamese coast. The choppers left behind most of the hundreds of South Vietnamese who had streamed into the embassy compound in a desperate attempt to escape the victorious northern forces. They -– and millions of others –- were left to face their fate under communism.

The U.S. evacuation that grim April day also left behind the smoking wreckage of the consensus Americans once shared about their role in the world. The unity forged by the shared struggles of World War II and the Cold War was gone -– along with the confidence many citizens once had in the truthfulness of their political leaders.

Few Americans at the time –- whether they strongly supported the war, fiercely opposed it or fell somewhere in between -– felt good about the way it was conducted or the way it ended.

Americans born since the war have grown up in an age of irony, cynicism and “Question Authority” bumper stickers. They can’t imagine the pain and disillusionment inflicted on the national psyche by the Vietnam debacle. More than 58,000 Americans died there; another 304,000 were wounded. When the war finally ended, the nation retreated into an isolationism that reflexively opposed any international military involvement. Even the Pentagon brass quite understandably questioned foreign ventures that didn’t have overwhelming public support — and the promise of overwhelming victory.

This national withdrawal came to be called the “Vietnam Syndrome.” It’s still with us, despite the 9/11 attacks and the military actions that have followed.

In the political and military spheres, such hesitation carries clear risks and benefits. It can cause near-fatal consequences, like the earlier isolationism that kept America out of World War II until its forces were directly attacked at Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, it can prevent hasty commitment to foolish, unjust or unwinnable wars.

The spiritual version of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” however, has no upside.

The last generation has seen some of the greatest mission breakthroughs in the history of Christianity: the opening of China, the downfall of Soviet communism, major movements toward Christ in the Muslim world, the epochal push toward taking the Gospel to all remaining unreached people groups.

Many American churches have responded with enthusiastic and even heroic obedience to God by seizing these historic opportunities to help spread the Gospel around the world. Many others have stifled a yawn — or shrunk back in doubt and fear.

“Is this the time to send our best and brightest, when everybody seems to hate Americans?” some Christians ask, as international chaos and terrorism continue. “Let’s focus on the home front. We’ve got enough need and lostness right here.”

Churches that turn away from the world, however, seldom pay much attention to their own neighborhoods, either.

History teaches that every major opening for the Gospel brings with it the guarantee –- not the possibility, but the guarantee –- of spiritual warfare. Spiritual forces of darkness will not surrender territory they have long ruled without a fight. Victory is assured, but not without a heavy price.

Let’s not pass on a sense of spiritual defeatism or isolationism to our children. They may not be sure what they want, but they surely don’t want that. Nor do they want the kind of narcissistic faith many Christians of the baby boom generation have wallowed in for too long.

Young people aren’t interested in religious entertainment; they’re interested in purpose.

“They don’t want form. They want substance,” Passion movement leader Louie Giglio recently told Baptist Press about the college students flocking to hear his call to worship and service. “They want to be challenged with a cause that’s greater than anything else they’ve ever seen before. They don’t want to show up at something that’s perfunctory and everybody stands up and sits down and we do this and we do that and we call that church. They want something that’s living and vibrant, that reaches into their heart and says, ‘This is going to demand everything you’ve got, but it’s going to be worth it.’”

The use of military terminology in missions often sends the wrong message. But sometimes it just fits. Even a general as gentle as Mother Teresa employed it on occasion to challenge her troops.

“The church of God needs saints today,” she once said. “This imposes a great responsibility on us sisters, to fight against our own ego and love of comfort that leads us to choose a comfortable and insignificant mediocrity…. We are called upon to be warriors in saris, for the church needs fighters today. Our war cry has to be ‘fight –- not flight.’”

That’s the antidote to spiritual “Vietnam Syndrome.” Could your church use a dose?

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges