Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: The secret to the SEALs |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: The secret to the SEALs

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

Gifted musicians sing choral music in parts. Its impact on listeners counts as more than the choristers’ individual talents.

This same dynamic of working together to achieve a greater good comes into focus among strong families, too. What molds relatives becomes more than what family members each contribute.

“Synergy” describes what happens when an outcome adds up to more than the sums of its parts singing choral music or melding a strong family.

Navy SEALs practice synergy in their grueling drills. Military teams aim for common good. This goal trumps a sailor’s personal achievements. Communal strength gained through practicing synergy towers above individual credits.

When President Obama met with helicopter pilots and some Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden, our commander-in-chief didn’t learn the names of these elite troops. Such information isn’t classified only to protect their identities. That they are SEALs is what’s important. SEALs train to sacrifice personal identity for these special forces’ larger goals.

Biblical historians trace how synergy formed ancient Hebrews’ collective identity. They organized themselves into families and tribes. Biblical Jews introduced themselves as “sons of” and “daughters of.” Their identities folded into tribes made up of families.

W. Robertson Smith, in “Lectures on the Religion of the Semites,” describes why biblical people practiced synergy. “The members of one kindred looked on themselves as one living whole, a single animated mass of blood, flesh and bones,” writes Smith, “of which no member could be touched without all the members suffering.” Kin collected themselves into tight-knit tribes.

Such synergy motivated biblical patriarch Jacob who, near death, wanted his identity rooted in his family and extended through ancestors. What’s Jacob’s death wish? To be remembered for his personal achievements? No. Rather, Jacob roots his soul in a tribe whose identity spans the ages. He announces, “I am to be gathered unto my kindred (tribe); bury me with my Fathers (ancestors)” (Genesis 49:29).

Modern American Christians don’t grasp how synergy animates Christian faith. Jesus didn’t teach a religious version of Yankee capitalism that thrives on individual conquests in the marketplace.

Our nation’s identity is rooted in stories of rags-to-riches loners who started with nothing and succeeded in building Fortune 500 companies. Worshippers expect to hear sermons about Jesus, the motivational guru, who helps us get ahead.

Don’t we find it surprising, if not downright insulting, that the Bible doesn’t applaud Yankee individualism? Aren’t we offended to learn that American capitalism can’t be superimposed on the Gospel as a secular version of what Jesus taught?

Acting like a Navy SEAL, Gen. George Washington rallied continental soldiers to strive for the nation’s good, even when their individual needs weren’t met. His troops camped at Valley Forge, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, in the harsh winter of 1777. Washington joined them, traveling an icy road, where blood from soldiers’ bare feet stained snow.

From cozy homes in Philadelphia, some public officials criticized Valley Forge as the choice for winter encampment. Washington rebuffed their cheap shots, declaring, “It is much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireplace than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and snow without clothes and blankets.”

His ragtag army adored him. Addressing know-it-alls living in their warm homes, Washington wrote, “However, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, distressed soldiers, I feel superabundantly for them and from my soul pity those miseries which it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent.”

“This was a new voice for Washington,” concludes Ron Chernow in his Pulitzer prize-winning biography, “Washington: A Life,” “reflecting a profound solidarity with his men that went beyond revolutionary ideology and arose from the special camaraderie of shared suffering.”

Though his rank and stoical demeanor created distance from foot soldiers, they realized Washington wasn’t in the war to earn medals. His rapport with depleted troops came through sharing their heroic sacrifice.

We learn from Washington, who identified with soldiers shivering in a Valley Forge winter to help those impoverished. We learn from Navy SEALs, who temper individual success so group achievement succeeds.

We learn from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication to Christian faith and service through government. “If, as our Constitution tells us, our federal government was established among other things,” said FDR, “to promote the general welfare, it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends.”

Our SEALs go to war uniting strength through shared dedication to a mission. Some sacrifice their lives for the nation’s benefit and our freedom. The synergy such joint efforts produce is a source of our military’s heroism. It inspires devotion to noble causes that supersede individual effort.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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