Spring 2002
Volume 6 Number 3













Chaplains Who Serve the US Armed Forces

For God and Country  |  Section 2: Two Extremes of Love Section 3: The Demands of Ministry  |  Section 4: Two Chains of Command Section 5: A Ministry of Diversity  |  Section 6: Chaplain History  |  Section 7: Theological Boot Camp  |  Section 8: A United Vision

Two Chains of Command

Kibben, in her PTS D.Min. dissertation, is looking at the chaplain’s roles as priest, prophet, and sage as they are enacted in military observances (such as memorial services), pastoral counseling, and the area of core values. Even within these basic duties, such as memorial services, she says, lurks the tension of serving both God and military: “The unit primarily wants a memorial service to eulogize and remember the person, to have closure. The chaplain wants to bring a faith perspective—to, for example, say there is hope in the resurrection. There’s a tension there. Chaplains respond in different ways.” She responds by unapologetically being a Christian chaplain (all chaplains wear their respective religious symbols on their collars), while always remaining sensitive to those in her care whose faith is different.

Margaret Kibben

“The most difficult existential question for military chaplains, as I understand it, is their being under command, yet being separate from command,” says PTS professor of Christian ethics Max Stackhouse, who as an adjunct taught for ten years on just and unjust wars and on pastoral care in times of conflict at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “The really good chaplains realize that they are truly under God’s command first and under military command second. So this means sometimes they must, with prudence, give tough and delicate critique of the military orders that are given.”

This could arise in the need to challenge decisions or behavior, whether in day-to-day life, war exercises, or actual combat. A chaplain might need to question military strategy that does not take enough care with the dangers posed to civilians. Or to voice the necessity that enemy captives be treated honorably—“even,” says Stackhouse, “if you capture them right after they’ve killed some of your buddies.”

As another example, Zust says, “When soldiers come into a unit, the commander will tell them, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ So what happens when a commander becomes so fed up with a soldier’s behavior that he or she ceases to take care of the soldier? That becomes a question of honor and integrity, as the commander wrestles with the obligation to train, correct, retrain, and punish soldiers.”

The military expects the chaplain to play this role of “conscience,” though it may be awkward at times. The army’s UMT Handbook says in the introduction to its section on moral and ethical issues that “…the chaplain is the primary person to provide for moral leadership training within commands. This is the ‘commander’s tool to address moral, social, ethical, and spiritual questions that affect the climate of the command.’”

Affecting this “climate of the command” might include reminding the command of the potential for an erosion of moral decision-making in times of stress or of the cost of battle fatigue on individual service members. (One supposes it might also include, for instance, the need to remind a military subculture that employs the unfortunate phrase “collateral damage” that what that errant bomb in Afghanistan actually destroyed was innocent people.)

“Procedures for dissenting within the military” are also included in the UMT Handbook, which assigns chaplains, JAGs (those in the military’s professional legal corps—Judge Advocate’s General Corps), and the inspector general as those to whom soldiers can report their dissent. Having the soldiers’ trust is central to a chaplain’s ministry. And a vital part of having trust, says Hart, is that “the military chaplain is the only person on any base or deployed location with whom a person can have privileged, confidential communication.”

There’s a strange dynamic of power in the military, says Zust. On one hand, the people he’s ministering to are “not necessarily the oppressed or marginalized in society, because soldiers have the means to do a whole lot of damage to this world.” On the other hand, a large percentage of soldiers are young, enlisted, noncommissioned officers who do not have much choice in many situations. For both of these reasons—the facts that soldiers wield incredible power and that they face very trying circumstances in which much is demanded of them—Zust believes that chaplain presence in the military is crucial: “Just seeing the things I’ve seen, I can’t imagine what that situation [of war] would be like if the gospel weren’t there at all.”

“Chaplains must ensure,” says Stackhouse, “that the military’s people have their internal morality under command, because of the extreme conditions they are sometimes in.”

For God and Country  |  Section 2: Two Extremes of Love Section 3: The Demands of Ministry  |  Section 4: Two Chains of Command Section 5: A Ministry of Diversity  |  Section 6: Chaplain History  |  Section 7: Theological Boot Camp  |  Section 8: A United Vision