17 July 2014

The Strange World of Military Chaplaincy

Since 2004 I have served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force.  For ten years I have been exposed to our Air Force subculture generally and to its chaplaincy specifically.  All this time, I have served in the roll of the reservist.  However, I've received the same training as active duty and step into the roll fully when on duty.  The greatest challenge as a reservist is staying current on changes and not forgetting what I've already learned.

When I step from my full-time ministry of a pastor into the role of military chaplain, I must concede I enter into a strange land, filled with much greater diversity, different ministerial opportunities, and tensions in regards to my personal faith.

Like many people, my existence has primarily been within homogeneous settings.  Those who I grew up with, have worshipped with, and continue to hang out with today tend to be people relatively like me.  This is not by my intentional design; it's just what naturally happens to most of us.  Air Force chaplaincy affords me the opportunity to exit my homogeneous existence occasionally and enter a strange world of diversity.

Over ten years of reservist duty, in both training and work, I have rubbed shoulders with fellow chaplains who are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and Protestants from many different denominations.  Diversity like this just doesn't happen in my Southern Baptist pastorate in a small town in eastern Kentucky.  I get to meet real people from different traditions and belief systems, not just the impersonal caricatures of them.  This is a good thing.  It makes me more knowledgeable and discerning about true similarities and irreconcilable differences.  For example, just recently a Jewish Chaplain invited me to her home to a Sabbath meal with her family.  I welcomed the opportunity and had a great evening discussing the Apostle Paul's understanding of the Law with her husband.  This interaction makes me think more deeply and critically about what I believe and why I continue to hold to those beliefs in the face of so many competing beliefs. 

Military chaplaincy is a unique and strange opportunity.  As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I take my ministry of preaching, teaching and pastoral care into a military setting and receive compensation for it from this country's tax payers.  That in itself with today's cultural assumptions is truly strange and unconventional.  Where our society has gradually untangled religion from public money (e.g. public schools), the military still maintains this unique sponsoring of certain personnel for religious purposes.  The military contends that this arrangement doesn't constitute an establishment of religion, but provides military members with a resource for the protection of their rights to the free exercise of religion.

I realize, with my historical perspective, that Christianity in the past has been established in our country in formal and informal ways.  The Founding Fathers intentionally chose not to establish a national church, yet religious convention and assumptions persisted for a long time.  Gradually, the secular foundation they established coupled with the true American "religion" of individualism, forced Christianity out of the public sphere and into the private.  For most of our history those two spheres overlapped in significant ways (e.g. public prayers, displays, traditions, and observances).  Today, those spheres have been almost completely separated.  However, military chaplaincy constitutes a strange exception that has persisted.  Being that it is, the result is a ministry/profession that comes with unique personal tensions for me.        

When I bring my faith in Jesus with me into the chaplaincy I encounter a context that becomes strange for me personally.  From the beginning, I have observed a pervasive tendency within the Air Force chaplaincy towards the generic and universal that cuts directly across my belief in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The American motto of e pluribus unum (from many one) appears to me to apply just as easily to religion as it does to the reality of ethnicity in the USAF Chaplain Corps.  Within this unique environment for ministry there is much talk of God, but it's often unclear of who's God.  For example, when a chaplain offers a public prayer at an official function (e.g. retirement ceremony, change of command, dinning in/out, etc.) the expectation is that any reference to God be generic and inclusive.  In other words, the expectation is that a Christian chaplain will not mention the name of Jesus.  Also, when chaplains converse about God in any official capacity, it always begs the question of who's God, especially when a diverse bunch of chaplains gather.  I understand the importance of showing respect to others that do not share my faith tradition, but I must admit that this causes me personal tension since I believe earnestly that there is no other name (Jesus) under heaven by which people must be saved. 

Because of the diversity within the chaplaincy itself and in the broader Air Force, I understand the tendency toward the generic.  However, I find that I have difficulty sometimes personally accommodating it in some settings.  For example, I can't in good conscience leave the name of Jesus out of my public prayers and I won't.  But this has put me at odds with command structures.  Chaplain Corps guidance instructs us to keep the public praying inclusive.  In other words, don't mention Jesus.  At my last base of attachment I shared my personal convictions with my boss (Wing Chaplain) and he decided that I should opt out of offering invocations at official functions. I don't begrudge him in any way.  Under the current guidance, he made the right call.  I just find the situation sad.  In some ways we have become so oversensitive to diversity that we are beginning to infringe on the Christian chaplain's right simply to be himself - particularly the evangelical chaplain.

Another area of tension on the horizon is going to be in regards to the enormous culture shift in attitude and policy making concerning homosexuality.  With the repeals of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA and the growing number of states making same-gender marriage legal, the obstacles from homosexuals integrating fully into the military have been removed. (It's just a matter of time before we have a federal law in regards to homosexual marriage)  Of course, my endorsing agency (NAMB) explicitly forbids me to counsel or marry homosexual couples, like the vast majority of endorsing agencies.  This is another one of those tensions of military chaplaincy.  Every chaplain is bound by the decisions of his or her endorser while at the same time attempting to work with the guidance of the Chaplain Corps.  Currently, their has been no problem in regards to this.  If a chaplain is forbidden from serving communion or marrying homosexuals, the Air Force respects those convictions.  I hope this will always be the case, but I can see us on a trajectory towards greater tension on this issue, especially when we have homosexual chaplains.  The door is now wide open.  It is inevitable.

I consider it a great privilege to don the uniform and serve my country as a chaplain.  I bring my calling and training as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a unique sub-culture.  I respect completely the military's concern for discipline and good order.  I respect the priority of mission.  But in regards to Christianity in general in our country and within the unique context of military chaplaincy, once held cultural assumptions are rapidly eroding.  I still contemplate occasionally in what directions military chaplaincy may evolve, or if there will be a future for it at all.  As the culture becomes more secular and antagonistic toward biblical Christianity, I ponder the impact ultimately on military chaplaincy.  Regardless of the outcomes, I always want to represent my county well.  But I am constrained by my faith to never let that commitment compromise my allegiance to Jesus.  He alone has authority over my conscience and with the Apostle Paul I have to assert that "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."                         

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