Thursday 12 July 2007

The witness of chaplaincy

I posted a link recently to Scott’s critique of military chaplaincy. My friend Cam has now responded with a post defending the legitimate witness of chaplaincy. He writes:

“Whether or not one believes that the exercise of violence is ever legitimate, … the presence of violence in any culture does not preclude the possibility of legitimate Christian witness…. The vocation of chaplains is integral to the formation of witnessing communities in the military which legitimately use its particular language and culture to demonstrate and proclaim the shalom of God’s kingdom.”


Jonathan Marlowe said...

Is the military chaplain permitted to say publicly, "this war is unjust for the following reasons...." ?

Anonymous said...

It's a tough one, and I can't remember the film where the character explains that for another to be able to not fight others must to preserve that 'right' but this is where real faith must be displayed in saying no, violence is never an option for the Christian, and just because yo multiply the numbers doesn't stop it being murder, but hey I'm in the West enjoying a comfortable standard of living and it's just a horribly inconvenient truth that for this to be so others must be robbed and wronged, countries and their people ravished to sustain the intolerable appetite that I an online consumer junkie must satisfy, so keep on killing and praise the Lord them bombs aint falling on me, and let's face it it's their own fault 'cause as Don McLean sang it 'no land is beyond my claim when the land is seized in the peoples name, if war is hell well I'm not to blame, now everybody loves me baby so come on and treat me like you should.'
I forgot you prefer Dylan's inchoherency, must be that theology thing, now if you want to listen to a good lyricist try Paul McMahon. 'Walking in the Days of the Prophecies'.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the whole "chaplains as witnesses" idea, even from a Just War perspective, much less a pacifist one, is that a chaplain is supposed to be simultaneously a minister of God and an officer in the military of a nation-state. Jesus' saying about not being able to serve two masters would seem to apply here.

I have been a soldier and my chaplain tried to talk me out of becoming a conscientious objector. I have talked to numerous veterans in organizations like Veterans for Peace, especially the ones who saw combat. They told me of coming to chaplains with moral questions when asked to bomb civilians, etc. and that the chaplains NEVER gave them good moral advice. The approach of the chaplain is to help the soldier survive psychologically--but not to deal honestly with the moral problems. This is why very few soldiers, Christian or not, have any respect for chaplains.
They simply DO NOT GIVE the witness that they claim to be in the biz. for--which would certainly cause problems for their careers if they did.
Should Christians minister to soldiers (sailors, marines, etc.)? Absolutely. But to do so with integrity, one has to be outside the military structure--serving God alone.

Bruce Yabsley said...

These are extremely strong statements. Words like "never" and the surrounding ideas should not be used lightly. So to clarify this with a specific example:

Suppose someone is considering serving as a chaplain to the Australian armed forces: let us say the navy. Are we arguing that this is illegitimate work for a Christian?

If so, are we really arguing that it is illegitimate in all times and in all places to do this sort of work? Because this is absurd on its face. (The counter-examples are hackneyed: please do not ask me to go there.)

If not, then maybe the point is rather "I claim that military chaplaincy in the United States at this time is broken, and one should steer clear of it". Maybe this is so --- certainly I can't speak to it. But this is a much more limited point, and if this is the point, then let's have it plainly.

Anonymous said...

In August 2002 I took the funeral of a Welsh soldier killed in Afghanistan (shot dead by a fellow soldier, I should add, drunk, in the aftermath of a fierce argument, who then turned his weapon on himself - unfriendly friendly fire, a bloody mess). After the service, over a beer, I spoke with the army chaplain about his vocation and ministry. That conversation - and the chaplain had respect for my pacifism - convinced me that Michael is almost certainly right.
Clearly an openly prophetic ministry is out of the question, because at some point it is bound to come into irreconcilable conflict with the "war effort", "undermining morale", etc.

However, unease with just war theory as such is not the problem for a pacifist chaplain to exercise a ministry in the armed forces. Yoder himself never dissed principled just war theorists, rather he encouraged them to be true to their theory's criteria, and he always looked for practical common ground. The problem, as Michael says, is the impossibility of serving two masters in the armed forces themselves.

Having said that, in principle I can see a forces chaplain exercising, as it were, a ministry of amelioration, being wise as a serpent in circumventing protocol, cannily influencing moral restraint, and, at the cost of his own integrity, accepting personal guilt on Bonhoeffer-like grounds. In practice, however, it would take a Bonhoeffer-like character. Pretty rare.

The only solution would be a forces chaplain who is not subject to forces discipline. And that ain't gonna happen. So we are left with chaplains whose witness is ineffectual, inviting scorn, or downright perverse, bringing Christ into disrepute. Nevertheless, inconsistently I admit, I am troubled about the church vacating the armed forces altogether. The image of rocks and hard places comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

The whole issue of war essentially raises the issue of one's own moral culpability, because as taxpayers we support financially any conflict our particular country becomes embroiled in, the whole coin and fish episode serves to illustrate the absurdity of attempting to answer the problem as every country has the means to ensure compliance with its revenue raising means, but as Michael states the chaplain is effectively dishonouring Christ by symbollically indicating that Christ would legitimise any conflict when of course he is above every pricipallity and power. The horrid thing is who isn't grateful for Augustine and his 'Just War' defence because it's served to keep the West free of Islamic dominance, although cycling around Birmingham there seems more Mosques than Churches so if Islam finally triumphs will it have been predestined?

Anonymous said...

I imagine our chaplains do about as well 'witnessing' as our kids do in public schools being 'salt and light'. Indistinguishable, ineffectual, compromising their integrity, limited by institutional constraints etc., it all fits. That suggests to me the problem is somewhat larger.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to be so blunt, but this is dangerous nonsense. Anyone who thinks it's possible to faithfully witness to Christ's subversive message of nonviolence, reconciliation, downward mobility, and forgiveness as a military chaplain either misunderstands Christ's message or misunderstands what it means to be in the military.

Anonymous said...

Oh maiden give it a rest. This "subversive message of nonviolence, reconciliation, downward mobility" that is trotted out incessantly in blogdom with such self-assurance but with so little Scripture or history is tiresome. If anyone wants to be a "soldier for Christ" they can rely on the teaching and example of the entire OT, John the baptist, Jesus, Paul, and Peter. All of them confront military figures and in no instance is a soldier or political figure even mildly confronted or told to stop their career. They are confronted with the presence and message of God (perhaps) but as that apparently leaves the social situation intact in every situation, I'm sure it would leave Yoder cold. So in judging the ethical merits of chaplaincy you must do more than assert your opinion against all available evidence (note I didn't say textbooks).

The military isn't going away without technological and political advances, and even then there will be police units that must practice violence in their trade. Chaplains preach a message much like Jesus' to the centurion. It seeks to build or discover their faith while leaving their slave whole yet still enslaved, and the centurion faithful yet commissioned.


Anonymous said...

'This "subversive message of nonviolence, reconciliation, downward mobility" that is trotted out incessantly in blogdom with such self-assurance but with so little Scripture or history is tiresome.'

Bif--3 quick points.

(1) Whether or not the message is "trotted out incessantly in blogdom" is quite irrelevant to its truth-value.

(2) Perhaps the reason that the message is so infrequently accompanied by scripture and history is that the historical and scriptural authority for it has been so often cited that it seems rather needless to repeat it yet again. But I'm more than happy to do so if you're really innocent of it. I suspect, though, that you're not.

(3) I think you'll find very little condemnation on Jesus' part of any number of people involved in shady practices and professions. Jesus doesn't seem to operate in that sort of way. It's dangerous to take this as approval. He does, however, roundly and enthusiastically condemn pharisees, in part because he sees them twisting scripture for their own purposes.

I shouldn't be so contemptuous were I you of what you call "textbooks," nor so quick to disdainfully presume that people with whom you disagree are bookish types with little practical understanding of the world. "Textbooks" can be useful, and loyalty to Christ's gospel of peace can be hardwon from realworld--including military--experience.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Yikes. This argument has been proliferating while my back was turned. Although the way it has proliferated into an argument about soldiering itself is a propos ...

Kim: most of your points about chaplaincy turn on your (and others') pacifism. I accept that chaplaincy is problematic for a pacifist. But Michael's argument was cast wider, and it's this breadth that I was objecting to. Having said this, however, I'm now forced to admit that the defence of chaplaincy quoted by Ben was likewise broad: "Whether or not one believes that the exercise of violence is ever legitimate...". Hmm.

A pacifist case for chaplaincy, or a non-pacifist case for chaplaincy being intrinsically illegitimate, would seem difficult to make: certainly much more difficult than the positions which are more naturally aligned. But you tend to acknowledge this in your own post, so I'm not claiming to tell you anything new here.

Anonymous said...

A pacifist rejection of military chaplaincy is easy: Do we appoint chaplains to brothels in order to "bear witness" to the staffs and customers? Of course not.

But my argument IS broader. Assume Just War Theory is true. The military chaplain is still prevented from being an authentic Christian minister by also being a military officer. S/he cannot say, "I don't care what your commanding officer says, mate, you have to disobey order x or refuse to be deployed for mission y because they violate the teachings of the church concerning just and unjust wars." Even if the chaplain is theoretically able to that, the military culture, heirarchy, career concerns, etc. prevent him or her from doing such--except in rare, heroic moves that end careers.

Let me give a parable that illustrates the point. (The parable happens to be drawn from actual history, but pay that no mind.) At the beginning of the 20th century, textile mills spread throughout the Southeastern U.S. They located in the Southeast for several reasons, but one was cheaper labor--unions were not plentiful or strong in the South.

The mill owners built towns for the workers. They also built the churches--sometimes a Catholic church, or Episcopal or Presbyterian, but always a Baptist and Methodist one. (Baptists and Methodists were the dominant denominations in the Southeast until well-past mid-century, when Catholics and Pentecostals began to catch up.) The owners also built the parsonages for the minister--AND PAID THE SALARIES of the ministers.

So, when union organizers came along to try to get some decent wages and working conditions for the textile workers, the pulpits of the mill towns denounced the unions as tools of Communism. Nor was a single word about economic justice heard from most pulpits in the area--if it was, that minister was promptly replaced with one whose message was more pleasing to the mill owners' ears.

Just as it was impossible for ministers to have ministries with integrity in churches built and paid for by the mill owners, and while taking the mill owners' money, so it is impossible for military chaplains to minister with integrity. Their identities as military officers compromises far too much their identities as ministers of Word and ordinance/sacrament called by God.

Another way to see how impossible a legitimate military chaplaincy is, is to look at its history. Military chaplains arose after Constantine's mass baptism of his army. Originally, they were priests who marched with the troops (first Roman and then those of Medieval lords) and blessed them in their killing--but there were rules against the chaplains' killing (so they were hypocrites). Then military orders of priests, like the Knights Templar, arose in which their chaplains strapped on armor and weapons and killed, too. These were less hypocritical, but all the farther from gospel norms. Soon chaplains were blessing crusades, pogroms against Jews, the torture of Inquisitors, etc.

It's not a pretty picture. The pilot, bombadeer, and crew of the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, were all practising Catholics. So was the chaplain who blessed their mission and asked God to help them be successful and bring them back safe! Then, when Nagasaki was bombed, ground zero was the largest Catholic church, monastery, and convent in all Asia.
Not once did the chaplain say, "Whoa! This violates the Church's teaching on Just War Theory. We can't do this."

It later got to that chaplain, though. He resigned his military commission, became a pacifist, and is still one of the most outspoken Catholic voices for a return to the nonviolence of the Gospels and the early church. His name is Fr. Gordon Zahn.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Michael thank you for returning to the discussion in such detail. The nature of the point being made is clear enough, although I still don't buy it and I'm afraid that (to my ear) the argument sounds like a proxy for pacifism vs just war, your "Assume Just War theory is true" opener notwithstanding.

I wasn't going to raise WWII (because hackneyed as a defence of the justifiability of war), but since you do so yourself via the two most notorious civilian massacres by Allied forces --- and of course this is a fair point in itself --- I feel free to respond:

If faithful chaplaincy is impossible and chaplaincy is illegitimate tout court and you really do mean that, then you also mean it regarding the Normandy invasion, and all the rest of the European theatre. This is a much harder argument to make, and since we are arguing ostensively (with a rogues' gallery from Christendom) I claim that the liberation of Europe counts on the other side. A lot of men put their lives on the line in that campaign, and a lot of them died (or part of them did). One can't minister to those men with integrity? Really?

And I'm afraid I must return to my own test case: chaplaincy for the Australian navy. I wish to be clear that the job of the navy is still (as one of its defenders ably described it in an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald) the promotion of Australia's interest by the threat and use of state-sponsored violence at sea. But it cannot be mapped onto some Crusading chamber of horrors with any credibility. How much less can a chaplain's role within it be dismissed by the arguments you've advanced?

Moving from the examples to the general point:

Even if the chaplain is theoretically able to that, the military culture, heirarchy, career concerns, etc. prevent him or her from doing such--except in rare, heroic moves that end careers.

Hang on. This is the game we are in already, as Christians or merely as people of goodwill, if our times or our workplace be corrupt. There are all manner of straight cops in bent squads, honest people in dishonest businesses, women and men who gave up everything for their children, and whistleblowers everywhere, who would equally have been "prevented" from doing what they did, according to this argument. So this won't do.

scott said...

I agree with Kim (who's quite smart): rocks and hard places.

Reading through these posts reminds me of a theme one prominent Christian pacifist has emphasized of late: the fact that authentic witness is about speaking the truth, which is not, of course, separable from doing or being the truth.

I hasten to add that I never claimed it was impossible, theoretically, for Christians to bear legitimate witness as military chaplains. I think Michael's on to something important by reminding us that one litmus test for that, for just warriors no less than pacifists, is the chaplain's ability, when an unjust war occurs, to speak the truth. As that prominent pacifst-theologian has taught me, unjust wars are murder (which makes the case terribly hard for pacifists, since they see all wars as murder), and if we don't have just-warrior-chaplains with enough discerment and courage and fidelity to the church which authorizes them as minsters to call soldiers to refuse to participate in unjust wars, then we have serious reason to question the status of the chaplaincy as a legitimate ministry. That's all I was originally attempting to say.


Bruce Yabsley said...

Scott thanks for the comments. I would be content with that (and with much of your own initial post) on its own terms ...

... but at the risk of stubbornness I want to carp at the statement "unjust wars are murder". This collapses a lot of potentially important distinctions which need to be maintained (against your better judgement if necessary) if people with different perspectives are ever to converse. And I for one want lines of communication kept open.

To make it clear that I don't want this to be a polemical point against persons more pacifist than myself, an example from a different area:

Many thinkers find few if any morally relevant distinctions between late-term abortion and infanticide. And this is my own view. But there is a world of difference between saying "I see no moral distinction between late-term abortion and infanticide", and saying "late-term abortion is infanticide", or even worse "abortion [without qualification] is murder". I would rebuke one of my own moral allies for making the last statement under almost any circumstances, and the middle statement in most (public) circumstances, even though I will freely make the first statement myself.

I accept that this is carping, but I think the principle is an important one. And particularly since you acknowledge the difficulties of your own position, I don't mean to carp.

scott said...


Thanks for the response. I'm just wondering what conception or definition of "murder" you'd want to set against killing in unjust war, or late-term abortion. In other words, what's at stake for you in that distinction.


Bruce Yabsley said...

Hey Scott. Let me stick to war in my clarification, for simplicity:

Along with the previous Pope (I am ignorant of Benedict's opinion) and many other people, I would class the Iraq war as unjust. My own view is that it was unjustifiable because incompetently and recklessly prosecuted, and (essentially) for no other reason.

(I don't ask you or anyone to accept this as true or even defensible; merely that it is a view which at least some otherwise rational people, with whom you might wish to correspond, hold.)

While the recklessness may have been evident in advance, the incompetence was revealed by the event; although I guess it may have been apparent in advance to people with specialist knowledge. (Related statements could be made about WMD.)

From where I stand, it is reasonable to lay the whole sorry spectacle at the feet of Messrs Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, and suppose that they will be sternly ordered to give account for what they have done.

But it is not reasonable to make a swingeing criticism of an American gunnery sergeant tasked with bombarding the Republican Guard during the initial invasion. His situation is different. (And, I mean, the Iraqi Republican Guard!)

The status of an army commander in the current occupation is different again, because (however unjust the war and thus the fact of his presence) he is probably the de facto power in his region; and if I presumed to ask any question about someone with so thankless a role, it would be about his behaviour in this position, not the mere fact of it.

The role of some grunt acting under orders is different again, on my view. (To forestall a likely objection: plainly there are problems with the rules of engagement in Iraq at present, and enlisted men are caught up in them perforce. But I would blame those in authority first.)

All of that notwithstanding, anyone involved in the death under torment of a prisoner is bloodguilty on almost any conceivable view, almost regardless of the cause. (And that would apply in a just war too.)

"Unjust war is murder" collapses all of these individual cases --- which are plainly diverse --- to a point. This is unreasonable.

By contrast, we happily call poisinings, stabbings, revenge shootings, vendettas and all manner of things "murder", because the circumstantial and detailed distinctions do not affect the basic moral outline.

By analogy, in criminal law we distinguish between murder and manslaughter even though the victim is just as dead, and the crime is just as unjustifiable, because there are morally relevant distinctions of intent and circumstance.

I'm sorry if that is long-winded, but I think this sort of thing is easier to answer by example than by (notoriously difficult) definition. Aristotle (as I understand) said of scientific enquiry that nature should be cut at its joints: I think the same holds for moral enquiry. Does that help?

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