I am often asked why I chose military chaplaincy and, in particular, how I can reconcile my Christian faith with participation in the armed forces. In this short article I seek to articulate my motivations. Click "Read More"!
Having been commissioned in the US Navy Chaplain Corps I am, with some regularity, asked about my career path. In particular, many Christians are interested in how I reconcile my faith with service in the armed forces; a body of organizations which exist for the purpose of war fighting and strategic deterrence.
Many perceive working within - and being compensated by - a military force as being tantamount to embracing or endorsing violence. After all, the military is empowered to engage in potentially significant acts of violence as a result of their war fighting readiness. This, of course, is no secret. How can it be that a member of the Christian clergy would voluntarily involve themselves within such an organization? Certainly, it is argued, Christians are called to turn away from violence.
These are important considerations, especially for one who seeks to live a life of faithful witness to Jesus Christ.
It may come as a surprise to some to hear me say that I do believe that Christ promoted a non-violent approach to living in the world. Certainly, we see him instructing followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and to lay down their weapons (John 18:11). Likewise, rather than resist and fight against those who were to crucify him, Jesus instead chose to endure suffering, humiliation, and death: he died not in conflict with Roman authorities but nailed to their cross.
Certainly, some have chosen to cite particular passages from the Old Testament to justify armed conflict. Such verses exist, but one must question whether they override the new covenant that we find in Christ. Others choose to cite Jesus' flipping of the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21:12), suggesting that this act demonstrates that Jesus is not a passive pacifist but, instead, someone who is comfortable engaging in acts of aggression when necessary. While this is, perhaps, true there is certainly a distinction be drawn between expressing anger at immoral actions and engaging in killing.
The debate about Jesus' relationship with conflict has spurred a wide spectrum of Christian thought ranging from absolute pacifism to theories around just war - the idea that armed conflict may be agreeable if certain moral conditions are met.
However, my motivation to serve in the armed forces had very little to do with my understanding of conflict, and much more to do with the human realities that conflict imparts.
Whether we like it or not war is a reality of the human experience and has been for all of recorded history. Sadly, it seems unlikely that we'll be able to forecast an immediate future free of conflict as well.
To me, one of the essential components of Christ's life and ministry was his service of those in difficult situations. He served the poor, the sick, the hungry, the rejected, the grieving. He ministered to prostitutes and tax collectors. This tells me that the Christian witness must necessarily be brought into places and contexts which are imperfect. While we wish that poverty did not exist, the reality is that it does and Jesus ministered there. While we wish that sickness did not exist, the reality is that it does Jesus chose to minister to the ill. And so forth.
Today, we find societal examples of racism, discrimination, sexism, ecological harm, and many other ills. My suspicion is that if Jesus were here today he would be ministering directly to those impacted by these perils, not pretending as though they didn't exist or removing himself from them in such a way as to limit has ability to care for those impacted by these situations.
I tend to view war in the same light. War is not a good thing. It is a symptom of humanity's failure to love one another, and failure to live in accordance with the gospel message. Nonetheless, it is real. And as a real experience, it carries with it many challenges including various types of trauma, ethical questions, death, injury, separation from loved ones, separation from religious communities, fear, uncertainty, and so much more. Likewise, the context of war brings about many positives: the joy of recovery, the ability to build cross-cultural bridges, a focus on cultivating peace, teamwork, bravery, heroism, an acknowledgement of evil, and a focus on family.
War, then, is an apt context for Christian ministry which should not be ignored or rejected. Those impacted by war - and their families - are human beings who should not be forgotten or under-served: the impacts of conflict are most acute within military families. As a chaplain, it is precisely in this environment where I feel there is a strong need for the provision of meaningful pastoral care, worship, and the administering of the sacraments.
It is equally important to note that chaplains are non-combatants. Navy chaplains do not carry weapons, even when deployed to hostile areas, in the course of their duties. They do; however, serve their Sailors, Marines, and Guardsmen wherever they might need to go - even if that means journeying with them into areas marked by combat and hostility. This ministry of presence allows chaplains to serve where and when it is needed most, with their focus being squarely on their service.
I did not decide to go into the military to serve as a cheerleader for war or violence. But I did go into with the recognition that war is painful, complex and real: and it is is exactly in these situations where the peace of Christ is most needed.