Sunday, January 9, 2011

What about Military Chaplains?

I recently stumbled upon an article on the Internet titled, “The Unique Voice of the Army Chaplain,” by MAJ Donald W. Kammer. He sees the role of the military chaplain to be more than a minister to military personnel based on their needs and religious preferences. He understands the role to be prophetic in nature, requiring a willingness to live in the tension between international conflict and Christian ethics. He is not unaware or inattentive to the failures of some chaplains in the past to be true to that calling, but he does not allow those failures to negate what he considers to be a significant call to ministry.

I know that not all people are in agreement about the ordaining, commissioning, training, etc., of military chaplains. Some are concerned that to send Christian ministers into the military will lead to an endorsement of war and the killing of human beings, enemy or not, who are made in the image of God. Others see military chaplaincy as an appropriate and patriotic vocation.

I am an anti-war person. In making that claim I am not saying anything disparaging about US military troops, nor am I making a statement about US involvement in any particular war. I’m just saying that, as far as war goes, I’m against it. I don’t know how any sane human can be pro-war. The phrase “war is hell” is not attributed to a 1960’s college radical, but to General William Sherman, who saw his share of hell during the US Civil War. War, I’m convinced, is a bad deal, and I’m against it all.

Having said that, war appears to be a constant global reality. As long as there are nation-states with borders and self-interest (and, of course, sin), there will be war. As Jesus observed, there will be always be wars and rumors that war is on its way (Matt. 24:6 and Mark 13:7). There are tragedies occurring on the earth all the time, but the tragedy of war is the worst that humankind, in its dark creativity, has ever manufactured.

It is into that tragic context that we send military chaplains. If the work of the chaplain is, as some have complained, a work of endorsing armed conflict and the destruction of human lives (as long as they are on the opposing side), then we should never allow the word “Christian” to describe that work. It would be a demonic form of deviant ministry and no Christian should ever go near it.

However (and I think MAJ Kammer would agree), to characterize the ministry of the military chaplain in that fashion would be a caricature of the true calling. Kammer calls it prophetic, and so it should be, with courage and integrity, even when it runs counter to what military leadership thinks is right. Such a prophetic work would be willing to receive the consequences of speaking in that way because that would be the way of the prophet.

There is another ministerial aspect, I believe, to the work of military chaplaincy. A student of mine, who was training for chaplaincy in the army, described his vocation as “a ministry of presence.” He understood the role of the chaplain to be one that was present to people who found themselves in the most tragic context on earth—the place of war. While, like other military personnel, the chaplain wears a uniform, unlike the others is considered a non-combatant. That distinction places the chaplain in a unique role of being among yet distinct from those who are the object of ministry.

I believe that a military chaplain can be both anti-war and a functional pacifist. I believe that because I have come to understand in some way that God, in the person of Jesus the Christ—the God who desires that all the families of the earth will find blessing (Genesis 12:3), who is reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19), who is planning for a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1-5)—has entered into the most tragic place ever. That place is the community of human beings who love, hate, destroy, and create; who stone prophets and kill their own Messiah. Into that place God becomes Emmanuel, God with us. Rather than endorse our sin and our self-created tragic pathways, Jesus brings the fullness of God (Col. 1:19) and enters completely into that tragic, human reality, letting all of the power of evil have its way with him.

I am not a pacifist, but I am pacifistic (that is, I am inclined toward peace) and against war. But I am also against hatred, abuse, divorce, adultery, and injustice. Having been a pastor, I’ve been up to my ears in contexts characterized by those tragic realities. I’ve had to be present to people and situations that horrified and offended me, but the call to ministry has required me to remain in those places, seeking to speak a prophetic word, to be present to both the sinner and the sinned against. Such is the way of Christian ministry.

And, I believe, that includes military chaplains.

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