Listening to a military chaplain

Yesterday at church a military chaplain spoke about his work and I’m still feeling upset.

The slideshow had photos of all the chaplains in army fatigues, and of soldiers they were ministering to posing with large guns. Then a photo of a group in army fatigues praying, presumably before going out to do their duty.

I tried to keep my mouth shut, but I spoke up during the talk when he brought Jesus into it, relating how he was giving a sermon to military chaplains during the Iraq War about how they needed to follow the way of Jesus – including, he said, loving your enemy! I don’t understand how you can be giving solace and support to an invading army and talking about loving your enemy.

I think from his perspective he sees chaplains as a restraining hand on soldiers, keeping them comforted and in good mental and spiritual health so they don’t commit war crimes or atrocities, so that in the heat of the moment they don’t shoot civilians.

But I think war crimes and civilian deaths are not an aberration but an inevitable consequence of giving people guns and trying to take over a country or even trying to ‘keep the peace’ by eliminating insurgency. (Try separating insurgents and civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan anyway.)
The chaplain was gracious, and let me ask a question at the end. I asked how, even standing in the just war tradition as he must, he can embed himself with a military force which is fighting wars which do not meet the just war criteria. (And, I wish I’d added, have killed one million people, between the Iraq and Afghanistan War, according to some estimates.)

He said that under the Geneva Convention he is a non-combatant.

I find this unconvincing; you’re in military uniform and you’re supporting troops, meeting their spiritual needs, and thus lending legitimacy to what they’re doing.

I think all disciples of Christ should refuse to co-operate with the military, in every country.

I hate making a show of myself these days  – but I couldn’t let this pass without comment.

I thought that I’d found a church which would be broadly pacifist in outlook. Someone told me that it is important to the church to hear different viewpoints, and hence have a military chaplain speaking. But support for the military gets heard at every church in Perth. I don’t know of pacifist churches in Perth, except the Quakers and perhaps Wembley Downs Church of Christ. And the Peace Tree Community, who are sort of a church. There should be at least a few churches in Perth where non-violence is a non-negotiable, where it’s seen as integral to discipleship. Where we don’t just politely say helping troops is a good ministry to have, but where we say that’s not what Jesus wants.


17 thoughts on “Listening to a military chaplain

  1. Ouch, I feel your pain Nathan. I’m not sure if support for the military gets heard in every church, none the less I’m sure it’d be a lot. If I can encourage you to being a voice of descent where ever you are. Peace.

  2. Hi Nathan,
    Well said! We need more voices like yours for an alternative Christian perspective that makes the vision of Jesus on peace making central to our discipleship.

    John Arthur

  3. Hey Nathan,

    Fascinating post. Can I suggest you read:

    Oliver O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited.

    It may help you understand better the other side of the argument.

    Every blessing in Christ,


  4. A word from Ephesians 6

    10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
    19Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

  5. Good on you, Nathan, for raising the question in that service. Where, once upon time, one might have expected the burden of proof to have fallen upon those arguing for Christian involvement in warfare, it feels like somehow we have to make an uphill case against a Christianity that has ‘made its peace’ with war. In one respect, perhaps that’s not a lot different to the one going up a certain hill to declare “blessed are the peacemakers” and command “love your enemies”.

    Things seem so bleak that William Cavanaugh says he does not even bother with arguing for pacifism when we are finding it difficult enough holding Christians accountable to their declared adherence to ‘just war’ criteria. John Yoder’s ‘When War is Unjust’ was an earlier move to do the same. Daniel Bell’s recent ‘Just War as Christian Discipleship’ is at least an attempt to ground this discussion in the Christian community rather than the nation state.

    The exchange between Nigel Biggar and Richard Hays recently (I think it was in ‘Studies in Christian Ethics’ journal) illustrates quite well the differences in reasoning and hermeneutics.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. Like those luminaries, I decided there wasn’t much point in asking ‘Why aren’t you a pacifist?’. But the just war tradition has plenty enough scope to call into question things about military chaplaincy in the ADF today, I’m sure.

  6. Errmmm exactly Matt. Is not the point of the armour of God precisely that it does not contain any conventional weapons but rather the peaceful non violent “weapons” listed here?

  7. Hi Nathan,
    thanks for your speaking up in the service. I think it voiced the concerns of many people there.

    I think the organisers of the speakers at our church see that part of the role of speakers is to get under our skin and make us think (hopefully), rather than just to provide a ‘taken for granted’, background drone to assist sleep :o)

    I’m glad that you responded and presented an alternative approach. On sunday night I was reminded of Gandhi’s words around there not being a way TO peace, but rather that peace is the way.


    1. Thanks Tyson – who can complain about being stirred to think? Although I sometimes wish I could feel comfortable in church, and I too often can’t – although more often at MHCC than the rest. 🙂

      1. Nathan! Can I recommend one or two of our comfortable recliner chairs that I am sure you could have installed amongst the pews.


        Could not resist.

        Great post and responses by the way.


  8. Chris S, maybe you should click through to my blog! Before trying to interpret in any case. If you knew me and knew of my commitment to pacifism you’d understand the Ephesians 6 quote is intended as a word of encouragement to Nathan, not criticism.

    Take particular note of verses 14-15: “Stand firm then … with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” This passage rightly belongs to the peacemakers, not the warmongers.

  9. Hi Nathan,
    I can’t imagine what a war chaplain would have to say to a congregation for about twenty minutes, but I guess I thought the same of the guy who walked across Australia (uh, web-search for references).

    I tend to agree with you, but recognise that there are a couple of approaches to a person with whom one strongly disagrees: On one hand, let your disagreement be known, discuss at length if you both will, but keep yourself outside their sphere of influence. Alternately, turn your enemy into your friend; invite them into your home (or church), learn from their view, and discuss at length.

    I still don’t feel very comfortable applying the latter to this situation because I think a speaker at the front of a church service gains some implied authority, but if any church service I’ve ever attended blunts this then it is MHCC.

  10. A wise comment, Greg! I think we do all need to have conversations with people we don’t agree with. What better way to convince or be convinced?

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