body of Christ, modern nation-state, quote

R. Niebuhr Quote on Military Chaplaincy

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

What makes me angry is the way I kowtow the chaplains as I visit the various camps. Here are the ministers of the gospel, just as I am. Just as I they are also, for the moment, priests of the great god Mars. As ministers of the Christian religion I have no particular respect for them. Yet I am overcome by a terrible inferiority complex when I deal with them. Such is the power of the uniform. Like myself, they have mixed the worship of the God of love and the God of battles. But unlike myself, they have adequate symbols of this double devotion. The little cross on the shoulder is the symbol of their Christian faith. The uniform itself is the symbol of their devotion to the God of battles. It is the uniform and not the cross which impresses me and others. I am impressed even when I know I ought not be.

I think he puts it well, despite the distance of time. In fact, the ability of this quote to continue to speak true tells us even more about a similarity between Christians then and now, as well as the tension and incompatibility between the State’s violent arm and Christ’s body has always existed.


12 thoughts on “R. Niebuhr Quote on Military Chaplaincy

  1. Steve says:

    How am I to read this quotation? Is he claiming that a military chaplain is automatically part of an imperialist order? I don’t think it’s fair to say that a chaplain is, simply by virtue of wearing a uniform, “mixing the the worship of the God of love and the god of battles.” Even the chaplain in M*A*S*H could be cited as an argument against that. :P

    Or is he saying that being impressed by a uniform is always automatically wrong? Of course a uniform does not imply a better person. But it usually implies someone who has trained and disciplined themselves and endured situations that I encounter only in dark dreams. This implication evokes respect. Should it not?

  2. d. w. horstkoetter says:

    He is kind of saying both, but the focus is more on the former as opposed to the latter.

    I think its rather fair actually. Chaplains are prohibited from telling “congregates” that they shouldn’t kill, among other things. In fact, it seems that the chaplain in M*A*S*H actually proves Niebuhr’s point rather than refuting it. The chaplain is probably my favorite character in the show (and I really do like the show) and I think maybe my favorite episode is when the chaplain attempts to create a safe, social space within the war. The chaplain claims the mess tent, where he on Sundays preaches, as a place of sanctuary for a deserting soldier who is anxious not to return to war. However, it is the military that takes the soldier from the space and tells the chaplain to accept the Army’s rule.

    The point is, that the Army demands first allegiance and while I whole heartedly want to see Christ moving into a war zone and creating peace, the Army refuses to accept the Christian intervention. I would say that it is the indigenous people, the korean people and in particular the orphans, that are truly his flock. In camp he gives the last rites and attempts to comfort wounded soldiers (which is very important) but it is the orphans to whom he is funneling money, supplies and even a great deal of his own time. He even opts to stay in Korea if I remember right. Interestingly it is outside of the Army camp where the Kingdom of God really begins to take on its radical nature. Throughout the series it seems that the chaplain is hamstrung by the Army and it seems likewise no different in reality; while chaplains help those in the Army, they are also used to calm the conscience of those who kill so the Army can continue its job.

  3. Pingback: M*A*S*H, War and Theology « flying.farther

  4. jSpangler says:

    Don’t forget that soldiers are “souls for whom Christ died.” They have religious rights and needs that in the combat environment only a chaplain can provide for them.
    I think what Niebuhr is struggling with is the power of symbol. The combined symbols of cross (christian faith) and uniform (military) can be very influential. I think he struggles with the military symbol because it is the one he is least familiar with and represents a temporal power – the state – which has an immediate influence. What he should respect about chaplains is that they are actively risking their lives in order to minister to men who are engaged in a fight with life and death. However you judge the morality of their cause, don’t forget that they are souls fighting for their lives both temporal and eternal.

  5. jSpangler,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I would shy away from saying religious rights. Generally when it comes to Christianity – as opposed to the Enlightenment – rights language tends to not really exist much. I would say that soldiers are part of humanity and therefore part of a group for whom Jesus came to.

    I also acknowledge the special needs of a combat environment, however, this cuts both ways. Certainly in such a time of trouble, spiritual care is needed, but on the other hand, this spiritual care is subjected to the will of the army and not to the specific need. For instance, a chaplain cannot speak against a combat action. A chaplain is essentially there to listen and bless the soldiers. Thats not right. That silences many other traditions in Christianity and turns Christianity into the service of violence, keeping the machine well oiled as we assuage the conscience of those fighting.

    This is a very complex situation, but is ultimately determined by the army, not the church and so Christianity finds itself in a lose/lose situation if only to minister to the poor in the Army. Because that is what the Army is turning into – the people with experience and privilege go to Blackwater where they get all the body armor they need. Quite simply we are seeing the armed forces stratify by class in front of our very eyes.

    You’re right that Niebuhr struggles with power and symbol. This is one of Niebuhr’s key themes, despite the many changes he makes over time. However, I do not think that he is unfamiliar, or only partly familiar with military power. In one of Niebuhr’s last turns as a theologian, he sanctioned the American military as a force for doing the good he wanted, because Niebuhr had no ecclesiology – America became Niebuhr’s church and that, that is a problem.

    In the end, I do admire Army chaplains for working in a very dangerous and complex situation, however, in my mind, that doesn’t justify that parts of the gospel are sacrificed, because people of different color are sacrificed for our “freedom.”

  6. Gator says:

    I came late to the party, but never the less I feel I must say, that none of you have the first clue what you are talking about. You are using a fictional TV character to form your theological debate. How ridiculous! Have you served in the Army? Are you an Army Chaplain? Than how can you discuss such things as how an Army Chaplain functions? Get a clue, or stick to talking about stuff you know.

    • Did you not even read the comments?! The fictional character came up to make a point (brought up by someone else no less), not to be used as a case study. If you must know, I myself know much more than was let on. I “have a clue”. Although, after that comment, I seriously doubt your ability to listen well. Nevertheless, if you really want to measure “credentials”, watch this debate on chaplaincy, which will actually reiterate a lot of the points I mentioned above from a rigorous, academic view, minus the use of fictional characters to make a true point (which is the point of good literature and cinema):

    • And perhaps you aren’t listening. And also confused — since when did one have to experience something before one could say something true? Handbooks and regulations for conduct are written down and codified for all sorts of reasons: one reason is to make plain what a person is to do, while another is for others to review and determine whether the job is appropriate — the word oversight here would also be applicable. Perhaps this will make sense for you: the fog of war is not allowed to rule people’s actions, even though it is a recognized environment where decisions are difficult. The fog of war does not allow for war crimes and people are allowed to judge with some notion of hindsight, even though they weren’t there, precisely because rules and roles are codified. Maybe this is all too much, and I should put it much simpler: I do not claim to have been on the receiving end of a gunshot in a warzone, but that doesn’t mean one can’t seriously question it for all sorts of reasons, like say, from the right’s ideology, the left’s ideology, or for religious reasons.

    • Informed opinion? Psh. Totally illegitimate.1

      1. I’ve learned this from Gator. I must say this has revolutionized my thinking, and indeed my life! I will not speak about anything I have not experience first hand. Shutting up now! Just like Gator wants.

  7. Pingback: Testing the Tiger: Reflections on military chaplaincy — Spirited Crone

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