Through Thunder and Flame: Thoughts on the Military Chaplaincy

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By Bill Cork

In recent discussions about the appropriateness of Christian pastors serving as military chaplains, I have heard some suggest that a chaplain is someone who just serves the status quo, serving as a sacred sugar coating of an activity that is antithetical to the kingdom of God. I disagree with that negative assessment.

I served in the Army Reserve and National Guard from the mid-80s to the early 90s as a chaplain candidate and chaplain (endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I’ve taken the title of this essay from the official march of the U. S. Army Chaplain Corps, “Soldiers of God,” which includes chorus: “Soldiers of God, we serve him faithfully, and march in his name through thunder and flame wherever the call may be.” That’s the essence of the chaplaincy—to follow the call of God wherever it may lead.

The role of the chaplain as understood by the U. S. Army is prescribed in Army Regulation 165-1, “Chaplain Activities in the United States Army.” Here are some selections:

Army chaplains have a dual role as religious leaders and staff officers. … Chaplains are noncombatants and will not bear arms. … Chaplains are required by law to hold religious services for members of the command to which they are assigned, when practicable … . Chaplains provide for religious support, pastoral care, and the moral and ethical wellbeing of the command. Each chaplain will minister to the personnel of the unit and facilitate the “free-exercise” rights of all personnel, regardless of religious affiliation of either the chaplain or the unit member. … Chaplains are authorized to conduct rites, sacraments, and services as required by their respective denomination. Chaplains will not be required to take part in worship when such participation is at variance with the tenets of their faith. … Military and patriotic ceremonies may require a chaplain to provide an invocation, reading, prayer, or benediction. Such occasions are not considered to be religious services. Chaplains will not be required to offer a prayer, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith group. … Chaplains will provide religious support for confined personnel and Army personnel in foreign or civilian confinement facilities. … Chaplains will advise the commander and staff on matters of religion, morals, and morale, to include—(1) The religious needs of assigned personnel. (2) The spiritual, ethical, and moral health of the command, to include the humanitarian aspects of command policies, leadership practices, and management systems. (3) Plans and programs related to the moral and ethical quality of leadership, the care of people, religion, chaplain and chaplain assistant personnel matters and related funding issues within the command.

The military expects chaplains to be men and women of conviction, and underscores this in their training, as I experienced at the U. S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, in the summers of 1986 and 1990, when I did phase one and two, respectively, of the Chaplain Officer Basic Course.

As prescribed in the Army Regulation just quoted, chaplains are expected to be faithful to the tenets of their denomination and to do nothing that would compromise that standing. They also have a role as members of the commander’s staff, advising the commander on matters of ethics, morality, and morale, and facilitating the free exercise of religion by all members of the command.

We were carefully instructed in the morality of war, both jus ad bellum (what criteria are necessary to declare a war) and jus in bello (criteria regarding the conduct of war). We were told there might be times when we would need to confront commanders over violations—and that we would need to expect to suffer consequences for sticking to our conscience.

Classroom instruction on this point was reinforced in other activities, including physical training, when the drill sergeant might start us in a cadence call that said, “One, two, kill a commie, that’s right, kill a commie.” In a Command Post Exercise, an officer might have a sign on his desk reading, “No prisoners,” or something similar. When we raised an objection, we were commended (though the officer might yell at us and throw us out of his office at first). If we said nothing, we were hauled on the carpet during the After Action Review and the point was underscored—we as chaplains must be prepared to speak out, regardless of the professional consequences to ourselves.

My army instructors were aware of the tension inherent in our role and did their best to prepare us for it, so I was not surprised when I experienced that tension in the years that followed.

During Operation Desert Shield, in the fall of 1990, I served for several weeks with the 82d Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC. One Wednesday prayer meeting I gave a talk about just war, looking at our reasons for going to war at that time in light of “The Law of Land Warfare.” I candidly expressed my reservations from the pulpit of the 82d Airborne Division Memorial Chapel, with the Assistant Division Commander, a Brigadier General, in attendance. He came up to me afterwards and expressed his appreciation—he said he expected his chaplains would assist him in working through the moral issues, even challenging of assumptions and policy, and was grateful for what I had shared.

During that same period I got some grief from the Acting Division Chaplain, a Christian Scientist, who expected me to co-lead a communion service with him for the General Protestant Service. I told him I could not, because my denomination could not accept his as Christian. He thought I was trying to shirk my duty, but I told him I’d lead it by myself. He thought I didn’t understand his church’s teaching, and gave me a book to read. I thanked him, told him I would read it, but I had to stand firm. It was a heated conversation, but he backed off (and a chaplain on post who was senior in rank came to my defense). He also had the sense to realize he wouldn’t be a fair rater when it came to evaluation time, and so had another chaplain serve as my rater who he knew would be more objective.

When I was chaplain of a tank battalion in the Vermont National Guard my commander was insistent that I do my job, ask questions, teach morality, and tell soldiers of their obligation to report immoral conduct. When I preached a sermon on this latter point, some soldiers looked nervously around at their commanders—who looked back at them, nodded, and said, “Listen up.”

Chaplain (CPT) James Yee was not as fortunate. You may recall the story. He was a Muslim chaplain assigned to Guantanamo. He did exactly as he was supposed to according to army regulations on chaplains and prisoners of war. He gave briefings for new personnel on understanding religious needs of prisoners (based on material developed at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School). He raised concerns to the command about treatment of prisoners. He ministered to fellow Muslims on staff and among the prisoners. Chaplain Yee did exactly as he was trained to do—exactly as I was trained to do—but his actions raised suspicions in the mind of one reserve officer. He reported Yee and accused him of espionage, and Yee was clapped in irons and thrown into solitary confinement. False charges were stacked up against him and rumors were spread in the press, but the Army eventually had to drop all charges and release him. But the damage to his character had been done.

This was exactly the kind of retaliation my Army instructors told us to expect if we did our jobs properly during times of war. But they—and we—felt it to be worth the risk.

The role of the chaplain is to “march in his name through thunder and flame” (and sometimes that’s friendly fire) “wherever the call may be.”

Yes, there are struggles and temptations. But these temptations exist in any ministry. The question here is the same as for any other minister—will you do what you’re called to do, even in the tough times? Will you be faithful? Will you love the people of God, wherever they may be found?

Yes, the military has its share of pragmatists, careerists, and people with anger and authority issues. But it also has men and women of the highest character. Part of my role as a chaplain was to strengthen these, so that they would have a greater influence, so that they could shine as “men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”

Chaplains don’t sit on the sidelines debating hypothetical situations. They go into the trenches with their flock. They minister to people in the face of death. They put their own lives on the line, walking into fire without protection. Yes, they are “chaplains of the culture,” but I don’t see that as a pejorative. Chaplains live in a specific culture, and from that space they are able to speak to it. They take risks, and make themselves vulnerable.

It’s called “incarnational ministry,” and it is modeled on the life of Jesus. It’s a ministry of being salt and light—and it can’t be done from the outside. It’s a ministry I did by hospital beds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, on the top of tanks in the Canadian wilderness, under the stars in the field at Ft. Drum, and in mess halls and motor pools and day rooms at Ft. Bragg. It’s a ministry I did with other men and women of faith, as well as young men and women who never would have thought to enter the door of a church. But I went to them. I spoke their language. I wore the same muddy uniform. I ate the same MREs and SOS. Together laughed and cried; together we wrestled with questions of right and wrong, of duty, honor, country. It was frustrating at times, but it was the greatest experience of my life, that has colored the way I have approached every ministry experience since. I loved it. And I miss it.

William J. Cork, D.Min. serves as an Associate Pastor at the Houston International Seventh-day Adventist Church in Texas.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at