Sunday 10 June 2007

The witness of chaplaincy

Over at Swords to Plowshares, Scott asks whether military chaplaincy can be a valid form of Christian witness. And he also points us to some excellent online video-lectures by Stanley Hauerwas.


Thuloid said...

A valid form of Christian witness?

Only if you think, and I know this is a real stretch, that soldiers might be actual human beings and therefore sinners in need of the Gospel.

The trouble with Scott's reasoning is that, if one is to be at all consistent about not yielding to "space for conscious participation in "sin" due to its "inevitability" in our lives," then the question is very quickly not just the encouragement given to the powers of this age by the military chaplain, but the same given by the ordinary Christian who holds a job in a local government office, pays taxes or uses government services.

Steve Chatelier said...

I hear what thuloid is saying, though not sure that comparing service in the military (in any form) with other governmental jobs is that simple.
Anyway, for another prespective... Mark Winward - a ThM student at Princeton Seminary an Episcopal priest and a chaplain in the US Navy - writes a reflection in last fall's Princeton Theological

scott said...

Ben: Thanks for the mention.

Thuloid: I agree with you that the logic needs to be extended to the activities and offices you named, and would only point out that the said temptation (to sin) isn't restricted to occupations along militaristic or nationalistic lines, but is real for each Christian in any circumstance.

In the section you quoted, however, I was speaking more about Neuhaus' reasoning about the inevitability of war than about the chaplaincy itself. Of course, holding that war (and Christian participation in war) is inevitable leads quite naturally into an uncritical affirmation of military chaplaincy.

I think you see that same logic clearly in the PTR essay that Steve mentions above (see par. 2: "If we grant the military is an unfortunate necessity...we simply cannot prohibit participation...").

Then problem becomes not with the military chaplaincy itself (where I'm suggesting the debate should be held), but about what those who've already committed their services do when a war is deemed "unjust."

Thanks for the response.

Thuloid said...


Of course war is inevitable. You may say that Christ releases us from this; all well and good, but where are the nations governed by collective faith in Christ? Surely you don't think that freedom in Christ applies to unbelief--well, then, in a world in which unbelief predominates, war is inevitable.

How can we be sure? Because the state, every state, governs itself by violence--this is why people pay taxes (the threat of violence against them if they do not), and what that tax money funds (use of controlled violence to maintain order). Given that, the issue of participation in war isn't any different from the issue of participation in every other aspect of the state. Did Paul err when he insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen? Have Christians everywhere erred in paying taxes to support institutionalized violence? I'm willing to listen to argument on it, but at this point I don't see any scriptural mandate or example for the kind of radical separation and opposition to the state that this line of thinking would require.

We can look at it all from quite another angle, too. War places people in the midst of death and sin; this is precisely where Christ has chosen to meet us, where he saves us. A theology that would keep him clean and above the fray is at best Nestorian; so too for his disciples.

Disclaimer: I probably know more military chaplains (through family connections), than I do people of any other single profession. Given that level of familiarity with their work, this isn't remotely an abstract issue for me.

Aric Clark said...


You ask good hard questions.

I think your logic is correct and the same resistance to participation in the military applies to participation in the state at any level. I think the Gospel witness leads to a kind of covenantal anarchy, something I am eager to begin exploring on my own blog soon.

However, even within an acceptance to the legitimacy of the state and participation within it I think we can differentiate between a military chaplaincy and a pastor in a church serving government employees- the difference is one is within the machinery, one is outside. When you are on the payroll you are bound to uphold the interests of the organization rather than the mission of Christ. Being outside the machinery, a servant of the church, enables the pastor to have the freedom to speak truth.

Thuloid said...


It's an interesting distinction, but I'm not really sure much of anyone is truly outside the machinery. The pastor doesn't lose his obligation to obey the laws of the state, doesn't lose his obligations to family, friends and countrymen, and certainly doesn't lose obligations to the church as institution. The military chaplain does take on more explicit obligations, but it's forever a matter of his own faith and conscience whether he places these first or Christ first, just as it is with the "civilian" pastor. And when speaking the truth is most meaningful (i.e., when the truth is most threatened), I think we find that nobody is really free to speak it (if by free we mean, free of serious consequences for doing so).

Can we assume that some people stand outside the obligations of their society and all the machinery of the state? Perhaps a few do, but not many. The words we routinely apply to those who make a point of trying to do so--criminal, sociopath, hermit, etc.--are informative.

scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scott said...


Thanks for the continued challenges. I simply wouldn't want to say that war is inevitable any more than sin is inevitable.

I'm not sure I can endorse that war is "inevitable" at all, even though you are right to distinguish between what we should expect between those who confess Christ as Lord and those who do not. But I believe God works beyond the church, and thus I cannot ascribe to the view that war is inevitable.

I also think you are right that the "norm" outside Christ is that states govern themselves by violence, but I do make a distinction between "violence" (as sin) and "coercion", or what in the realm of the state we might call the "police function" of the state (you refer to "controlled violence to maintatin order").

I do not see biblically or otherwise why a state necessarily (i.e, ontologically)"governs by violence"; because particular states, in my view, are equal to the functions and activities they perform. Therefore a state "governs by violence" only to the extent that it uses illegitimate force to maintain itself and meet its ends.

I agree that there may be a similarity between participation in war and in other state activities, but I do not think the connection is self-evident in the way you describe.

Finally, I don't see my view as leading to "radical separatoin" from the state. As I've stated, I think states can accomplish both good and evil, and the task of the church is to discern by the Spirit and the Word which is which. Whether or not a particular state function requires acceptance, involvement, or withdrawal and protest, depends completely on the state and what it does.

(Perhaps we should continue this discussion here, so as not to clog up Ben's blog?)


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