Liberty for church, chaplain & state

(system) #1

An Adventist Peace Fellowship conversation with Alexander Carpenter, Ryan Bell, Johnny A. Ramirez and Monte Sahlin


I find it immoral to have military chaplains. While they don't actually kill, they are involved too closely in the machine of war to lay claim to the Adventist tradition of "objection." Or anything resembling the non-violent witness of Christ.

Having tax paid chaplains in these mostly "symbolic" roles in the legislature and the military allows religion (and its prophetic voice) to be co-opted to spread a symbolic patina over the proceedings. A Hindu or Atheist tax payer should not have to fund Christians or religious work in governmental institutions. I think that Christopher Hitchens is right to point out that this is offensive in a liberal democracy, and counter to the non-establishment clause. In addition, certainly not having a chaplain does not preclude free exercise. Any church that wants to hold services should pay for their own chaplains to accompany soldiers into battle. And while they are on base, they can always worship at local (off base) churches.

There's no way that the military can have a chaplain for each faith represented in a fighting unit and so we get a watering down of religion or conversion pressure like this report posted by a Buddhist chaplain about a Jew and a Pentecostal. (Not a joke set up.)

While there may be an arguable good for Adventist PR to have Adventist Senate chaplain Barry Black paid to pray over politicians and some chaplains praying with soldiers before they kill to ease their conscience or fears, tax-paid religious leaders run counter to American principles of "separation" and the Adventist practice of "conscientious objection." Not that I don't cross a few Adventist principles myself, but work for peace and keeping religion and government apart seems like core ways to keep faith free and prophetic.

Chaplains exist in the chain of command, they are not autonomous, but employees of the Pentagon. As every chaplain I have talked in depth about this acknowledges, they function as morale boosters. As Bush et al keeps emphasizing, this (contra cut and run rhetoric) morale is necessary for the war machine. The presence of chaplains in the military adds to the moral authority of the Bush administration and the military-industrial complex.

The bottom line: chaplains should not be funded through taxes. it is a violation of the establishment clause.

- Alexander Carpenter studies critical theory, visual culture, and religion at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA.. He is a member of the Adventist Peace Fellowship.


I think there is a difference between mingling with, eating with, befriending and ministering to people who do any manner of contemptible things. But military chaplaincy is part of the military institution. I think if we can give serious thought to this it will more than the denomination has done in a long time. There was never a question in the Seminary. It was just assumed that military chaplaincy was an unqualified good. From talking to military chaplains and reading various articles and websites, I would have to conclude at least two things bother me deeply.

1) Military chaplains serve the role of asking the blessing of God on the military campaign. Chaplains do not get to decide which campaigns to support and which to protest. As a member of the armed services you are expected to follow orders. That includes asking God to bless the efforts of our military as they head off to wage preemptive, immoral and unjust wars as well as those that might pass the "just war" tests.

2) Military chaplains serve the role of helping the soldiers manage their emotions. If a soldier is all messed up because they had to kill a child who had a gun pointed at him, the commanding officer can't have that guy on the sidelines. He needs him ready to go back to war the next day. The chaplain has to counsel him through that and get him read to do some more killing.

If a military chaplain became convinced that a certain war were immoral and a soldier came to him or her and expressed their conviction that the war was immoral, that chaplain cannot counsel the soldier to follow his or her conscience.

I think when you really see what the chaplains are required to do, it pretty atrocious. Can there be civilian ministries to military men and women? Absolutely! I think this is a must, in fact, and if an Adventist church were located near a military base (there must be dozens like that) I would say this is a primary mission field. How would that ministry be carried out? I have no idea!

Ryan Bell pastors in Hollywood and is a member of the steering group for the Adventist Peace Fellowship.


In my opinion there is a difference between endorsing a war state and ministering to troops. I believe that this line is best walked by the chaplains themselves who are working a hard job in hard situations.

Is there an industry that our clergy should avoid? Is there an institution where our clergy shouldn't minister? I talk about my fear of becoming a compromised pragmatist but I don't think we're helped by absolutist positions either. In my humble opinion having clergy ecclesiastically endorsed serving in the military says more about our commitment to the salvation of the troops than our approval of war or armed conflict. The notion that we should abolish the chaplaincy within the military is not worthy of our great commission church- I believe that yes, politicians and soldiers are worthy of our ecclesiastical attention.

It is pretty obvious when we look at the job done by military chaplains that their position is morally compromised. But when I look at Adventist parish pastors I also see plenty of moral compromises- I don't think that chaplains have a monopoly on morally compromised clergy.

I would argue that we are all compromised at some level by the world and that our lives are, if anything, a series of inherent inconsistencies and compromises. I would say that is true of our personal lives, the lives of our clergy, parish clergy, evangelists, chaplains and beyond. I do not believe we can be entirely sanctified or perfected until Christs second coming. Until then we will continue to have institutions in need of continual reform and people in need of continual renewal.

My question is not if the system is good but if we should be present in it. In Nazi Germany Adventist nurses did pretty atrocious things. It is the best example of compromised pragmatic Adventist relations with the state and serves as a stern lesson to us as we discuss how deeply our clergy should be embedded within the state today.

I do believe that we should strive to perfect our institutions and protect the integrity of our clergy in its relations with the state and its institutions as we should strive to consistently side with right against might. Speaking truth to power is a Christian duty we should never abandon.

In one of my favorite shows, Yes, Prime Minister, there is a statement that in today's world politicians want to talk about faith and parsons want to talk about politics. Well I am a Christian first and an activist second. When we see the military we should see them as Christ does. And I can't believe that my Lord would not cavort with politicians, soldiers or military. Call it my evangelistic impulse. Yes, even they deserve the good news.

Military people involved in armed conflict overseas need salvation too and the status quo is that you have to join up to reach them. And we should be there in Iraq amongst the troops. I don't envy the chaplains who have to confront these dilemmas we've outlined day in and day out!

- Johnny A. Ramirez, is starting an M.Th. in Christian Ethics & Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen. He is a member of the Adventist Peace Fellowship.


Let me try to re-frame the debate here. I am a pacifist and believe that the worst case of "lowered standards" in the Adventist Church is the way in which we have moved from being a Peace Church in the beginning to one that (like most American Protestants) teaches that killing in war is such an inconsequential moral decision that, unlike whether or not to attend the cinema or wear earings, the church leaves it up to the individual to decide. But, having spent a lot of time interacting with a number of chaplains (Adventist and others, military and others), I don't think their role has a whole lot to do with the institutional witness of their denomination toward war or even their personal stance on the matter.

This may surprise you, but when they feel free to share with fellow clergy whom they trust as close friends, some military chaplains are not at all supportive of current war policy. The role of a chaplain (military, brothel or hosptial or prison ... or industrial?) is very much like that of an noncombatant battlefield medic. It is a slightly counter-cultural presence, not at a decidely counter-cultural presence. It is paying the price of ambivalence on some moral issues in order to be right where people are hurting and in need of immediate care.

After 40 years as pastoral worker, I am acutely aware that in almost every instance in which I provide care for someone, I must pay that price of some moral ambivalence. When I go to the bedside of a many dying from lung cancer after decades of smoking, it is not the time to talk to him about his smoking habit. Nor, do I rightly represent the compassion of Christ by having a personal policy of refusing hospital visits to people who inflicted their disease through long years of bad health habits. When I go into a prison to lead a worship service, the men singing hymns with me are almost all people who (a) have committed violent crimes and (b) are not completely honest about accepting responsibility for what they have done. They will all tell you a story that puts them in a positive light. And that is human nature.

Almost no one I talk to as a pastor is ready to plead guilty to all their sins, open their minds to the moral implications of their lives that go beyond their understanding and radically change the entire tenor and character of their lifestyle and social position. We would all like to think that we regularly have such 100% conversion stories, but that isn't reality. The nature of pastoral ministry is not just to accept people where they are, but to go to them where they are and bring the presence of Christ into their lives; to do otherwise is to deny the character of God who loves us in our sin and continues to extend patience to us for a lifetime as we continue to sin no matter what he does to help us grow.

Thankfully, the ministry of the Christ is not all pastoral. It is also prophetic! Any wholly-formed clergy person has in his/her heart and mind both the image of Barry Black and the image of Jim Wallis. I have marched for peace and civil rights as well as sat at the deathbed of an unrepentent murderer. I am the same clergyman both places, but in one context I function as prophet and in the other I function as pastor. This is entirely consistent with the full character of God; he loves us and hates our sin. He hates our sin for what it does to us, as well as what it does to others. If this is too complex andcompromised for you, then that is because the character of Godis that complex and compromised.

- Monte Sahlin is the Director of Research & Special Projects for the Ohio Conference and chairman of the board for the Center for Creative Ministry and a member of the steering group for the Adventist Peace Fellowship. He is also a part-time teaching as associate faculty at the Campolo School for Social Change at Eastern University and adjunct faculty for the DMin program at Andrews University. His next book, "Mission in Metropolis," comes off the press in July.



This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13) #2

Not new, but a fantastic, thoughtful conversation. I wish it were longer & that thereā€™d be more like it. Our involvement as Adventist Christians w/ the state & military requires constant appraisal.