Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Chaplains in the Military

There was a very interesting article (well, for me anyway) in the yesterday's NY Times: Evangelicals Are a Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps. I don’t think the fact that evangelicals are a larger presence in the military comes as any great surprise to most of us. The fact is that they seem to be present everywhere else in larger and larger numbers, so it would seem to have been only a matter of time before they made a major move into the military.

During my 20 plus years with the Navy I rarely had much good to say about the chaplain program. That's not to say that there weren't some very good people who were in the corps, in fact people I admired, respected, and who I became friendly with. But on the whole I never quite saw the return on the investment in having the extra body, actually bodies as there’s normally at least one and often two Religious Personnelmen that come with a chaplain, on board that didn’t stand watch and contributed little to the primary mission of the ship.

What do chaplains do? My guess is that a chaplain would answer this question differently, but this represents my impression of chaplains from my time in the service. They tend to the faithful of their denomination, which usually entails holding services and anything else a clergy member of that faith would do; giving advice/counsel, spiritual or otherwise, when called upon; getting involved in different levels of counseling depending on the chaplain in question and his or her individual training; at sea more of the same, and when the ship pulls into port he or she is likely to be very involved in various projects in foreign ports where Sailors are recruited to volunteer for community projects, such as painting orphanages, helping build something in a poor area of a city or town, etc.; the chaplain is usually the one that's most directly involved in setting up tours in foreign ports; and lastly, though not at all least significantly, the chaplain is expected to attend to service members in the midst of battle, which I suppose on some level is the most compelling rationalization for having chaplains --- I want to state that many chaplains have been cited for bravery in battle, not for fighting but for attending to the men in the midst of war.

Ok, so what was/is my problem with chaplains? There are at least three:

1. The good ones avoid this, but too many of them don't, and that is their getting into the idea that somehow God supports death and destruction. Maybe in some faiths he does, I don't know, but there's nothing in the New Testament, which is where the Christian denominations get their marching orders from, that says, "Thou shalt smite thine enemies, bringing death and destruction to them in anyway you can." It doesn't fit for a chaplain to stand there and say "It's God’s will that you destroyed that village, and killed 20 enemy soldiers." Of course all sorts of philosophical tap dancing, going back to Thomas Aquinas, has gone into how indeed the Christian God does accept and support such things, but then a large part of the energy devoted to religion has always been about what you can creatively make of it. Like I said, the good chaplains avoid this, understanding to and in fact focusing their effort on the individual and his or her struggles, not getting up there and giving the modern day version of the St. Crispen's Day speech, going on about how the slaughter is all God's will --- I myself never understood a God like that, or why anyone would want to think that this is the way God works.

2. Frankly I think Sailors, and everyone else in the service, would be better served by someone who was a trained counselor, trained specifically to deal with the emotional problems and difficulties that service people go through, and who should be clearly secular and able to attend to the broad range of issues presented to them on something of an even keel.

3. The reason I used the above picture to depict the chaplains is because they are expected to be a representative of ALL faiths, or rather, he or she is expected to help people from any religious denomination by doing what they can do tend to whatever spiritual requirement that person may have. Unfortunately, and likely to be expected, some chaplains aren't able to separate their faith from their overall duties. A beautiful case in point is the following from the Times article:

Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, of the Evangelical Episcopal Church, says he was warned by commanders that his approach to the ministry was not inclusive enough. When a Catholic sailor on his ship died, Lieutenant Klingenschmitt said he preached at a memorial service and emphasized that for those who did not accept Jesus, "God's wrath remains upon him."

After that and several other incidents, Lieutenant Klingenschmitt's commanding
officer recommended that the Navy not renew his chaplain contract.

The lieutenant is fighting to remain in the military. "The Navy wants to impose
its religion on me," he said. "Religious pluralism is a religion. It's a theology all by itself."


What amazes me is that this person stood there and said to any non-Christian attending a non-denominational memorial service that their existence angers God so much that they're entitled to God's wrath, and he didn't see a problem with that. No, he considers the Navy's religious pluralism a faith unto itself and he doesn't buy it --- interesting argument, but I'm also quite sure he could have officiated at a service for a dead shipmate without relegating all non-Christians to God's penalty box. My assumption is that this is part of a consistent track record with LT. Klingenschmitt and his commanding officer was on target in wanting to see him go away.

The problem with types like Klingenschmitt is that they're merely a tip to the proverbial iceberg. More and more these days we're hearing about non-clergy in the military working to proselytize those working under them, or otherwise inappropriately invoking Jesus Christ (I wish for once one of them would invoke Buddha or the Great Spirit in the Sky --- just as inappropriate of course, but at least a change) in the course of their doing business in one way or another. Faith is an individual matter, and no one has the right to interfere in anyone's faith. That said, no one has the right to interject faith in inappropriate settings, which means any venue that is not comprised of likeminded individuals gathered together as an exercise of faith and fellowship --- that means not in the office, not in the locker room, not in the classroom, not on the drill field, and the list goes on and on.

It's often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I suppose there's likely a lot of truth to that --- when in extremis we do tend to look for comfort where we can find it. Who one shares a foxhole with is their business, but trying to foist that someone on anyone else is a violation of what our Constitution claims this country is about with regard to the freedom to worship, or not as the case may be. The clergy in the chaplain corps need to keep this in mind and a lot of people who take comfort in Jesus need to be less inclined to think everyone else should think as they do.

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