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 Extremes of Love


A painting of George Rentz by Roma Christine Harlan that hung aboard the USS George S. Rentz

Of only two U.S. Navy ships named for Presbyterians, one was named for George Rentz, PTS Class of 1909, who dramatically gave his own life after the sinking by enemy forces of the USS Houston, the ship he was aboard as chaplain during the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942 during World War II. After the ship was sunk, Rentz, then 60 years old, boarded one of the small pontoons floating in the sea. Many sailors were left in the water because there were not enough lifeboats and floats. After surveying the situation, Rentz, according to The History of the Navy Chaplain Corps, Volume II, gave up his life jacket and his place on the pontoon to a younger sailor, said a prayer for his shipmates, and sank from sight soon thereafter. He was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously, the only navy chaplain in World War II to receive that honor. His citation included: “He disappeared into the sea sacrificing himself so that another might have better chances of survival.” In 1983 the navy commissioned a new ship called the USS George S. Rentz.

Statistical Snapshot

U.S. Armed Forces Personnel

1.4 million active duty military personnel
63% Catholic or Protestant
1% Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist combined
36% no religious preference or “other”
About 3,700 Presbyterian Church (USA) active duty military personnel
U.S. Armed Forces Chaplains
About 2,700 active duty chaplains serve the military.
94% of active duty chaplains are Protestant or Catholic.
122 Presbyterian Church (USA) active duty chaplains serve the military.

“There’s something to be said for sacrificing oneself for the sake of others,” says Dan LaVorgna, an M.Div. middler who has been in the Illinois Army National Guard since he was 17. “For many, involvement in the military is a sacrificial obligation. It involves a willingness—should the need arise—to give their own lives, in the event of a conflict or war, out of love for their neighbor.”

That willingness is a part of the military that is easy to admire—an embodiment of laying down one’s life for a friend that Jesus said was at the peak of love, which in civilian life and ministry is most often a metaphorical way of speaking. But it’s the other willingness that is harder for many to understand: chaplains are part of an institution that not only promotes the laying down of one’s life for a colleague, but also practices the art of war, which includes taking the lives of enemies. In the best-case scenarios, chaplains support men and women who in self-protection or for justice or on behalf of the oppressed, kill: that’s when love wades into the murky waters of “just war.” This theory might be clear in theological treatise, but it does not necessarily stay so when awash in the horrors of battle.

When I first began interviewing chaplains I thought this question of war must be one that they secretly hoped to avoid and that would make them uncomfortable, at best a naďve assumption on my part. Yet the small sample I spoke with all seemed eager to address the idea of just war. It’s not as though they hadn’t had these questions posed to them many times before—not least by their own consciences. And none offered easy answers; they’ve wrestled more with the problem than have most civilians. “People mistakenly think military service is synonymous with militarism and uncritical patriotism,” says LaVorgna, remembering his discomfort when reading one Christian theologian who claimed those in the military should be banned from taking Holy Communion.

Ministry to men and women—and not occupation with the things of war—is our primary responsibility, most said.

“God’s grace needs to be shared with all people, even war fighters,” says Kibben, the first female navy chaplain and now a commander in the Navy Chaplain Corps, currently assigned as doctrine writer for religious ministry in the Marine Corps at the Marine Corps Combat Development Center in Quantico, Virginia. “Whether God is for or against the war, there are people who need to know that God is there with them. In terms of Afghanistan, no war is clean. Could we be dropping more food and fewer bombs? I don’t know. I’m not one of the decision makers. Personally, am I comfortable with the idea of killing human beings? How could anyone be comfortable with that? As we respond to the September 11 attack, all resources, from diplomatic to economic, need to be exhausted before the military is used. My philosophy on war, though, is in some ways separate from my ministry in the military. And there’s ministry to be done here.”

Yet a personal commitment to the ideals of just war—and not only to ministry in a war context—is for some a crucial motivation for being part of the military.

Dan LaVorgna

Dan LaVorgna

LaVorgna, who is classified as a “combatant” but will lay down his M-16 in the coming months when his military status changes from chaplain’s assistant to chaplain candidate, says this is one of the reasons he serves in the army. “You’ve heard of conscientious objectors?” he asks. “Well, in my case you have a conscientious combatant. People like myself feel a moral obligation to protect and defend, even if this demands coercive force—if it’s necessary and justifiable—on behalf of victims, of those who are oppressed, of those who are in need.”

Some chaplains I spoke with considered war a necessary evil, while others considered it an unsavory but necessary act of love. Yet all are professional members of an organization that drops “daisy cutter” bombs and includes in its ranks those who dismiss prayer as being far from the real world. Mark Bowden, in Black Hawk Down, his account (also now a movie) of the 1993 U.S. military operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, characterized the perspective of some U.S. Special Forces in a rather earthy take on the “just war” version of charity: “Intellectuals could theorize until they sucked their thumbs right off their hands, but in the real world, power still flowed from the barrel of a gun. If you wanted the starving masses in Somalia to eat, then you had to outmuscle men…for whom starvation worked. You could send in your bleeding-heart do-gooders, you could hold hands and pray and sing hootenanny songs and invoke the great gods CNN and BBC, but the only way to finally open the roads to the big-eyed babies was to show up with more guns.”

On the other hand, Christian chaplains are also professional members of an organization that includes a strong pacifist strain and claims a savior who went peaceably to the cross and who is held up by many as the paragon of nonviolence. And chaplains also believe there is real power in the gospel.

“I think I’ve reconciled myself to this tension,” says Kibben, who first went to the recruiter’s office as a 17-year-old high school senior, only to be invited to return in five years after she had a college degree and had matriculated in seminary—which is exactly what she did. “It surfaces, but not daily. And I hope I never blind myself to the reality of the pacifist claim I believe the gospel has on me, and that’s why I don’t mind being challenged about the ethics of military engagement.”

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