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The Chaplains’ Calling

CrusadersI’ve recently been engaged in several online discussions about American patriotism, allegiances, pacifism, Just War and military service. Those discussions have revealed that there are many deeply-held views on the use of violence in the pursuit of peace and justice. There are those from all along the theological spectrum who fervently argue either for the absolute rejection of violence in any form whether for the liberation of others or the defense of themselves or else the complete justification of violence and war as the only way to achieve international peace and safety. I do not doubt the spiritual commitment of most of those in the discussions I have been involved in and believe they only want to follow -and teach- what they believe to be God’s will for Christians today.

Prior to my entry into the Army as a chaplain back in 2004, I studied Just War doctrine wanting to be sure that I could faithfully support a military institution whose main purpose is warfighting without compromising my spiritual values, biblical teaching and God’s will for my life. I determined that not only was war when waged and prosecuted justly not prohibited by Scripture, it sometimes may be the only way to fulfill some of the mandates of Scripture. I know that while the majority of the Christian Church (in the United States at least) supports its nations military and war aims there is a significant minority of Christians who attempt to follow a non-violent path to peace and object to any support of their country’s use of force to accomplish its policies.

Even with the differences that exist within the Church as to its views of war, a world without violence exists only in the realm of the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God which is still to come. The reality of life is that evil is quite present in this world and in order to protect the defenseless (perhaps the widows and fatherless the Bible speaks of), liberate the oppressed (those in need who Jesus declared to be our “neighbor”), proclaim freedom to the prisoner, essentially to love as we are commanded to love sometimes it is necessary to go to war, war that is just; to fight in a just way to achieve freedom, liberation and safety for not only our own citizens but people around the world.

Army FormationRegardless of one’s views of violence, war and military service, there exists in the United States a very large military force of men and women who have accepted the call of their country (and sometimes their God) to serve as a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman or Coast Guardsman. These men and women, unlike Service Members from wars past, have volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States. Most of these people have given much thought to their decision to enlist and are not as ignorant about war, peace, love, violence and the teachings of Jesus as some opponents of Christian military service imply. These brave men and woman aren’t mindless puppets being controlled and used by an evil government for selfish gain, but are -in most cases- educated, intelligent, thoughtful, people who accept the necessity of their nation’s causes along with the urgency of its call to arms. It is to these men and women who chaplains of all faith groups are called (by both their country and their God) to minister to while they serve their country in uniform.

In the midst of my involvement in the aforementioned discussions, the senior chaplain on the Army post where I currently serve as chaplain pointed out to me a thoughtful passage written by an Army chaplain from World War Two (interestingly from a book already in my library!). In it, this author gives the reader a peak into the mind of the chaplain to see his feelings, his motivations and his dedication to the God who has called him and the Soldiers he has been called to serve. I would like to share a portion of that passage with you as a testimony to the ministry of chaplains to the men and woman who also wear the military uniform.

Chaplain Corps Crest

The book from which this passage comes was written after the Allies defeated the Axis forces in World War Two but is astonishingly relevant still today. I have made no attempt to change or correct the writing which today’s standards would render “politically incorrect” or comments which refer to things particular to war of the day, such as the draft, the dominance of male soldiers or the duration of deployments though I have emphasized portions I found to be particularly powerful. Even with the changes in military service, the chaplaincy and religious observance which have occurred over the last 70 years, Chaplain Rogers has tremendous understanding and insight into the mind of the modern-day chaplain and what it means to serve in today’s armed forces. I hope that this passage will give you a better understanding of the struggles, joys and mission of the chaplains who God has placed in our Armed Forces for such a time as this.

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 As the Chaplain Sees Things*

from “Doughboy Chaplain” by CAPT Edward K. Rogers

Doughboy Chaplain“A retired army chaplain told me when I entered the service that I would find that the chaplain is pretty much alone in the army. He is his own boss to a great extent, but he is sometimes forgotten because of that. However, the chaplain just keeps plugging along.

“He and his fellow padres have left parish life to serve the forces for the duration and he may long at times for the duties and joys of the church back home. There will be times when he feels that he could have done more good by staying at home where the congregations are consistently large and the program of the parish reaches through many channels into the homes, those bulwarks of faith and society. He may long at times for the normal life back there where opinion and family relationships keep men somewhat more on the better side of life.

“Still the chaplain goes along with his duties and he realizes that the men about him sometimes feel that they could be more useful back home too.  Many of them rightfully feel that way, for they have been most useful in their professions and trades. It isn’t pleasant for them, as it isn’t at times for the padre.

“However, there is joy for [the chaplain] in his duties. Usually he will have the maximum of services that the men will attend. The more that are necessary, the happier he is.

He wants, above all else, to make religion real and God close to the hundreds of men under his spiritual care, who have been uprooted from home in the crucial life shaping years of life and sent off to battlefields or distant posts. That is what he is in the service to do.

“When some come to him to inquire about their religious needs, which they have never cared for, he is happy to try and meet those needs–or show how God can meet them. He will sit down and reason with the soldier and he will spend hours instructing him in the teachings of his faith. In that task he finds his greatest joy…

“…the chaplain is there to help and many appreciate his being there. Others don’t care about him, for they have had no religious faith and contact with the church, or have lost faith and broken those contacts since getting into the army. Nevertheless, the chaplain wants to be where some may need him. If they avoid him and the message of God which he offers, that is their misfortune. They can’t say that the church forgot them when they were called into service and henceforth in their lives they will forget the church.

They may forget the church and God, but the church and God’s pastors or priests did not forget them.

“The psalmist once wrote, ‘If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there.’ The chaplain, I guess, leaves his parish so that when the soldier gets into the hell of war it will be true that God is there, through his ordained ones, to help, encourage, forgive and bless.

“I believe that the chaplains do more serious thinking about the war than any other group. Many men are in the service and don’t seem to know or care why. Their chief interest is getting home. Maybe that even surpasses their desire for victory in many cases. The principles at stake do not bother them much. It is not so with the chaplain.

“He knows more about the principles of right and wrong which enter into the struggle. He wants to see the wrong uprooted and the right prevail. He is thinking about the unfortunate victims of conquest who long for their freedom. The different philosophies of life which [bring] on … conflict are apparent to the chaplain. When there are inconsistencies, he is aware of them, but he believes in his cause. Because of that belief he wants the war to get on and he doesn’t have to fire his boilers of action with hate either.

He wants to see people free to live as they choose, if they have proper consideration for the rights of others and the common good. He may not agree with them in their thoughts and ways, but he would like to see them free to live their lives.

“His thoughts go beyond the hour of conflict to the day of peace. What will it bring? Will men have the principles and wisdom to uproot the evil without pulling out the good? Will reason or passion prevail then? It will be hard to have the former on top, but that is what he hopes and prays will be the case. He looks at his men and scans the news of home and of the Allies for assurance that the war will be really won and that the peace will be stern, but just.”

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*Rogers, Edward K. Doughboy Chaplain. Boston: Meador Pub., 1946, 222-224.

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10 comments on “The Chaplains’ Calling

  1. This is a very interesting post, Chaplain Densford. I enjoy seeing you write in the area of your expertise and you give us much to ponder. As you know, Christian clergy in the early centuries discouraged Christian youth from enlisting in the Roman armies since they carried out ruthless oppression. In recent years, President Obama has repeatedly ordered drone strikes, killing many innocent women and children in order to (hopefully) take out one or two terrorists. As I have read in media sources, Air Force officers sitting in command centers thousands of miles away carry out the attacks like it was a video game. Later, these officers often wrestle with the morality of what they have done and can suffer acute mental and spiritual anguish as a result. Looking at the two scenarios – Roman and American – would one be justified in seeing a parallel? Why should I as a member of today’s Christian clergy not follow the path of my ancient colleagues in ministry, discouraging our church youth from enlisting and participating in these kinds of acts?

    • Greg, thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I always appreciate and respect your thoughts!

      This post wasn’t an effort to speak to every aspect of pacifism, Just War, military service or even Christian’s involvement in war. I was more concerned with sharing what the ministry of the chaplain is like in the midst of these conversations (and realities). But since you brought up some interesting points, I would like to comment briefly on them here with the hope of addressing them more fully in future posts.

      Early Church discouragement of Christian enlistment (as you know) is just like today in that there were a variety of views on military service. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) wrote in favor of Christians in military service in his commentary on Luke 3:14. Origen (182-254) taught that Christians shouldn’t be enlisted to fight but he did urge them to fight with their prayers on behalf of those doing battle in a “just cause” and on behalf of an emperor who is “ruling justly.” Not full support but certainly not a condemnation. As for Tertullian (160-220), my understanding is that he wasn’t necessarily against war itself or even Christians participating in war, but rather their participation in the idolatrous aspects involved in Soldiering in his time. The support of Christians serving as Soldiers being a post-Constantine creation is just evidence of the absence of the idolatrous nature of the military under Constantine removing some of the objections they previously held. Additionally, the “ruthless oppression” performed by the early Roman armies would be opposed by any modern Just War theorist and was mostly abolished with the “Christianization” of Rome under Constantine.

      Drone Strikes (and precision bombing) may be the best application of jus in bello as the technology involved (along with advanced intelligence gathering) can ensure, as much as possible, hitting only combatants with a minimum of collateral damage. Obviously, innocent civilians do occasionally become casualties, but these are far fewer than earlier years or if conventional warfare is used to reach these combatants.

      Moral Injury is a consequence of warfare for those on the front lines as well as those operating drones or smart bombs from thousands of miles away. It is definitely an issue for concern and needs to continue to be researched and addressed but likely these same symptoms were suffered by Roman, Greek and other early Soldiers but just not identified as we have today. The United States labors hard to prosecute war justly which is why it makes such a big news story when lone-wolf Soldiers or small units perpetrate atrocities.

      To compare the pre-Constantine Roman Army and the modern American Army comes up with few similarities that would provide sufficient evidence to justify a rejection of military service by Christians today because it was opposed by some Church leaders then.

      • Thank you, Chaplain, for your comments. In one of those posts you write, I would be interested in you addressing the words on the Chaplain’s symbol having to do with allegiance to God and country. My impression is that in reality the order is reversed, that first priority becomes country and God comes second. At that point, love of country could become idolatrous. Just some quick thoughts, and thank you again for your thorough response.

        • That would make a good post, thanks for the suggestion. I will quickly say, however, that the protections built into the military chaplaincy -both in federal law and military regulations- protect the chaplain’s freedom of conscience and exercise of faith and allows for the free exercise of religion and practice (for all Soldiers, as well as the chaplain) which prevents their allegiance to country superseding their allegiance to God when there is a conflict of values or allegiances. All chaplains have a denominational “endorser” who protects that “allegiance” and advocates for them at the highest levels of the military & government hierarchies. Additionally, most chaplains (all that I know) would stand up for right rather than allow their allegiance to country to take them down a path which sacrifices their allegiance to God. Our “job” in the military is second to our “call” to the ministry.

  2. Thank you for sharing your perspective Daryl. This is very well written and provides a viewpoint rarely shared. Chaplain Deana

  3. I am not a Chaplain but I am called of God to pastor. I too have had to advise some of my young men and women in the church as to whether or not to join the Military and I have also had to work with men who have come back from war having had to take life. It is my opinion that there must always be Christians in every aspect of life and this world. What would the Military be like if there was no Christians to influence and temper with wisdom and mercy and righteousness these powerful organizations? I believe that God directs the Christians life and puts him or her where their particular ministries are. I believe every Christian has their calling in the Kingdom of God. Some to War, some to peace, some to martyerdom and some to a life long commitment of service, pastorialship or evangelism. The world and God are too complicated to have a defined doctrine on this subject. We see in the old Testament that those men of God were powerful soldiers. One of the positive proofs that God was with them, and when they disobeyed God he withdrew his blessing of military might. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek but he also took a whip and ran the money changers out of our Lord’s temple. I believe each of us Christians must diligently search out Gods will for our lives. God bless the Chaplains and what they do.

    • Mike,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment! I especially agree with your thought, “there must always be Christians in every aspect of life and this world. What would the Military be like if there was no Christians to influence and temper with wisdom and mercy and righteousness these powerful organizations?”

      When Soldiers come to me struggling with their hesitation to “kill” I encourage them with that same thought, how they can temper the “gung-ho” attitude of others and bring a balance to warfighting.

      Daryl

  4. Daryl,

    Have you ever read any Stanley Hauerwas or John Howard Yoder concerning military chaplaincy? Hauerwas has some especially strong words that often challenged, even angered me. Attended the Chaplain school with you back in 2004. Remember you as being thoughtful and pastoral in a class full of folks that I perceived as mostly wanting to dress up and play soldier. Served with Mike Thomas. He is a good man. Hope you are well.

    Peace,
    Scott

    • Scott,

      Great to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I haven’t read either, I’ll need to. Sounds like it will give me more to write about!

      Yes, Chaplain Thomas is a good man, I really enjoyed working for/with him at FLW.

      Hope all is well with you!

      Daryl

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