As an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving as a military chaplain, I inhabit a position with numerous built-in tensions. In his recent essay, “A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy,” my colleague, the Reverend Ian White Maher, helped to bring some of these tensions into sharp relief.
Maher speaks with an important and convincing passion of the need to preserve key Unitarian Universalist values, to stand against “colonialism, feudalism and religious, cultural and racial biases.” But he worries that these values may be lost in “our rush to support the career decisions of our military chaplains.”
After mulling over Maher’s challenging critique, I found myself stuck on a basic question: if we minister eagerly and enthusiastically to college students, why is the project of ministering to our young people in uniform so easily taken as suspect, as a challenge to our most hallowed principles?
College students are—just like service members—caught in institutions with troubling dimensions and legacies.
As a 13-year Naval officer, as well as someone who feels at home on college campuses, I understand well how military and university life differ. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that colleges and universities have legacies of racism, colonialism, and sexism (to name just three linked oppressions) that continue to reverberate. Elite universities are primarily sites for the reproduction and extension of class inequalities. Evidence of a sustained sexual assault crisis on college campuses is mounting—along with evidence that survivors’ interests have been systematically ignored or underplayed. Though military recruiters are periodically deemed unwelcome on college campuses—Wall Street recruiters are almost invariably embraced with open arms.
Indeed, colleges and universities increasingly court partnerships with major business interests, carrying out their research agendas and, all too often, grafting their rhetoric and ideals onto university life. Meanwhile, let us not fail to recall, numerous colleges and universities thrive on funding from the Department of Defense (DoD).
Do military chaplains have to be politic in how they broach their responses to military policy? Absolutely. College and university chaplains must be politic as well. So must those of us who minister to the 1%—another aspect of institutional entanglement and complexity that we fail to recognize at our moral peril.
American corporations have, over the past several decades, assumed an ever more rapacious and ruthless stance, causing their own vast forms of devastation and dislocation, both domestically and abroad. Yet how often do we stop to ask whether we are compromised—whether our ideals our compromised—if we minister to either the “footsoldiers” or “generals” of corporate life?
The simple truth is all of us are caught in webs of institutions that render us complicit in terrible harms. There is no escaping that truth, only a continual process of recognizing how the institutions around us operate, and defining our roles with regard to them.
Ironically, military chaplains at least have a defined position vis a vis military institutions. We have certain guaranteed protections that we will be able to minister according to our consciences and faith. We wear insignia to show we minister within these institutions but are not fully of them. Where else, I wonder, is the distinction made so clear?
Maher rightly cautions us against thinking of Afghanistan’s citizens as helpless, backwards people waiting for America to bring them enlightenment and hope. Yet, curiously, he comes close to portraying military recruits in just this manner, suggesting that it is only appropriate to minister to them as:
“Americans who have been preyed upon by recruiters and now find themselves in desperate situations, fighting people who never intended to hurt them, and often ending up with lifelong debilitating injuries, both physical and mental.”
Some of us in the military have been just that: prey. Nevertheless—more often than not—we also are justifiably proud of our choices. If some have been victims of unscrupulous recruiters, many also have become heroes of unimaginable scope, rescuing comrades from snipers and IEDs, erecting hospitals at ground zero of the Ebola pandemic, serving as global first responders in the aftermath of catastrophic natural and/or corporate disasters.
At all times—even when one might believe US policy to be tragically misguided—we are the most visible bulwark of national defense. We are the people who have pledged to put our lives on the line to ensure others can live without ever once wondering whether our nation is about to be invaded or our government overtaken by coup. It is an historically unparalleled luxury, one built largely on the backs of servicemembers’ service. So if, as men and women in uniform, we are sometimes victims of US policy, we are never only that.
Does this mean that we can overlook military policies that run counter to the Spirit that Unitarian Universalism seeks to make ever more manifest in the daily world? No. Never.
But it does mean that the men and women who choose military service are, pretty much like every other individual, navigating a tough and complicated world and making the best choices we can, within institutions that are deeply entangled with mechanisms of power, status, and profit.
Maher quotes a haunting passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”
We cannot afford cheap grace, and we must vigilantly seek its opposite: extensive grace, uncompromising grace, grace that does not only celebrate the easy high points, but admits to uncomfortable truths.
Yet so must our moral politics be extensive, uncompromising, and willing to admit to uncomfortable truths, unwilling simply to ponder obvious targets of critique removed from our own experience.
May our grace be extensive, and may our moral politics be as well.
We are all of us caught in systems of oppression, all of us both victims and potential heroes, all of potential agents of positive change.
Some of us just happen be those things while wearing our nation’s uniform.