MARCH 10, 2003
Editorial Note: Many of you who have followed Sightings over time may recall the recent tenure of Jonathan Ebel, former managing editor of Sightings. This week, we have learned that Jon has been recalled and will be stationed in Germany serving under the Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe.
Martin E. Marty
When war comes to Iraq, count on military chaplains to be on the front lines (if there are front lines). Rod Dreher in the National Review ("Ministers of War," March 10) calls attention to the roles clergy historically have played at the side of soldiers. His testimony about the ambiguities they face, the courage they demonstrate, the interpretations of war they help provide, and the solace they offer is eloquent. He mars his account with gratuitous slaps at the "effete sentimentality" of civilian clergy, primarily in the U.S., for their questioning of the case for this war. In fairness, he admits that some of this is based on legitimate differences over "just war," but he and some of the chaplains he quotes are dismissive, even sneering at such.
Dreher knows that the role of the military chaplain has always been complex and can be seen as compromising. How should we think of chaplains this time around? I have hung around chaplains and worked with the chaplaincy since 1949 (when the Lutheran Armed Service Commission recommended me for Navy Chaplain, not knowing that some day I might be afflicted with some measure of "effete sentimentality"). That "hanging around" has led me to try to deal seriously with the issues chaplains face. Theologically, they wrestle with having strong Christian, Jewish or Muslim (or, now, other) convictions that they must internalize and not allow to violate the religious commitments of those they serve. That is not always easy.
Much of their other wrestling has to do with their dual commitment: they take ordination vows and they take military oaths -- allegiances that often pull them in conflicting directions. The more I have dealt with chaplains, with civilian clergy, with my own understanding of human fallenness, I observe that all vocations are complicating and compromising. Every pastor who reads this column knows that; we academics, protected by tenure, had better know it. Business people, when reflective, are aware of it. How one "lives out" the vocation is what matters. Every believer who is not a complete pacifist, who recognizes a need for national defense, and who allows, therefore, for the military calling, has a heavy burden of proof if he or she would argue that the citizenry should withhold spiritual comfort to those who kill or will die in combat.
Uneasiness comes when Dreher points to the role that some chaplains have right now of arguing for the "just" character of this war. So what else is new? Christians have regularly fought Christians; can one think of a time when both sides did not declare that theirs was the just one? Chaplains who fulfill their vocation by just plain ministering are doing their job, and don't need much ideology.