Guest Blog Post: A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy


[Colin’s note: My good friend the Rev. Ian White Maher wrote this piece in response to the Rev. Rebekah Montgomery’s 2014 sermon for the UUA’s Service of the Living Tradition. We have decided to post it here in the hopes of starting a much needed conversation within our shared religious tradition.]

“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…”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I walked out of this year’s Service of the Living Tradition in order to play with the cute two-year-old sitting next to me. Like my young friend, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ceremony, and finally I decided that playing with this bundle of joy was more in line with where my life is these days. Although I really love playing with children and will take just about any opportunity to do so, this was not a decision I took lightly. I believe in the ministry and, more specifically, I believe in our ministry as Unitarian Universalists. Serving as a minister in our tradition is one of the great honors of my life, and I am proud to stand in what I consider a beautiful and noble lineage.

Each year, as we welcome new colleagues into the fellowship and say goodbye to those who came before us, the sermon outlines a vision for Unitarian Universalist ministry. No single sermon can hope to capture the depth and meaning of the ministry of our movement and every preacher will always encounter criticism for what they say (or don’t say) during the service. We accept this limitation when we get up to proclaim a vision. However, this year’s sermon, mostly through omission, normalized a vision of a nation at war that is inconsistent with who we say we are as a religious movement.

As Unitarian Universalists, we repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery—the ideological justification for colonialism, feudalism and religious, cultural and racial biases—as it relates to the indigenous people of this hemisphere[1]. But, as a nation, we are presently engaged in two (potentially three) massive wars of colonialism and feudalism that were perpetrated using religious, cultural and racial biases. As Unitarian Universalists, we made a commitment to the prevention of gun violence,[2] but, as a nation, we are one of the greatest offenders of worldwide gun violence. As Unitarian Universalists, we condemned the racist mistreatment of people of color by the police[3] and are trying to divest ourselves from the fossil fuel industry,[4] but, as a nation, we continue to participate in wars of aggression to protect our access to fossil fuels and police the world while condemning whole nations of people of color to poverty and chaos through the use of military colonization. We have been working to find a space for military chaplains within our movement, an effort that I think is worthwhile because there are people in the military who desperately need us. But we cannot allow this effort to subvert our prophetic mission as peacemakers in the world.

The United States military is not a defensive force and our lack of criticism of the endless war agenda of our nation runs contrary to what our mission is as people of faith and conscience. The Service of the Living Tradition (despite a reading titled “There Must Be Religious Witness”) was silent on the impact of military aggression. And while no sermon can cover every angle, the absence of even a nod to our repeated aspirations to be peacemakers left me gutted and frightened as a minister as we seemed to willingly collude with the normalization of the use of the military to advance imperialism.

The war in Afghanistan is now the longest American war in history. The war in Iraq will pass Vietnam as our second longest this December. Washington officials have admitted that the current is strategy is not working when it comes to defeating al-Qaeda, and yet we are still there some 13 years after we first invaded. In the meantime, we have spent over 1.5 trillion dollars on these two wars alone, a number that has lost any sense of reality.[5] Our politicians weakened the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 which explicitly forbids the use of government-made media (propaganda) upon domestic audiences in order to manipulate us into war.[6]  They have undermined our moral fiber as a nation by legally justifying torture and indefinite detention as an extension of our global military strategy. Some 2.5 million soldiers have now served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, many of them serving multiple tours, with an estimated 14-20% these men and women suffering from PTSD.[7] And, perhaps worst of all, we just don’t seem to even notice that we’re at war any longer. Children who are now entering high school have only known our nation to be at war. This is what is normal to them.

The Unitarian Universalists I know resolutely reject this military spending, use of domestic propaganda, justification of torture, abysmal and inadequate treatment of our soldiers, and the normalizing of war. As people of faith, we know that these actions run contrary to our worldview and our understanding of the holy. But these wars are more than just a domestic nightmare; they are an extension of U.S. imperialism that has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Iraqis and Afghanis. Yet the Service of the Living Tradition made no mention of these people. Not one. 

I knew that it was time for me to leave the Service to play with my young friend after hearing Rev. Rebekah Montgomery preach:

“Often the most remarkable thing would happen. I would stop our vehicle, push open my heavy door and step outside—take off my Kevlar helmet and brush the sweaty hair off my brow. The villagers would gather around us and kids would peek from behind older children, just watching us. After a few minutes, the one or two villagers around me would swell to 5 or 6—then 9, then 12. The thing is—out in some of these areas—Afghans had never seen a female Soldier. They’d especially never seen a female soldier driving a Humvee. The reception I received a handful of times is sort of like landing on a strange planet where you think you’re average and nothing out of the ordinary—and everyone else perceives you as a purple dinosaur with green spots and yellow feathers. Then in a hot minute, the Afghans’ worldview would completely shatter when the interpreter explained to the amassing crowd before us that I’m an officer and a chaplain, or like one interpreter insisted, ‘a female mullah’ or religious leader in Islam.”

This final line received laughter and cheers. And on one level, I can understand why. Women should be able to serve in the military. Women should drive cars. Women are brilliant faith leaders and interpreters of the Divine. But the subtext of this statement also reveals the very cultural and religious bias that was used to start the war in Afghanistan and has been used in our battle with Islam for a very long time. A hundred years ago these soldiers would have handed out Bibles to these “backwards” people. Today we just cheer along in patriotic smugness.

Rev. Montgomery received a standing ovation at the end of her sermon. People were genuinely moved by her words. But what exactly was moving us? This sermon did not tell the real story of what happens in war. It was a glorified retelling of America bringing light to the “backward” people, those who held worldviews that did not cohere with modern times. It was absolutely uncritical of our behavior, our motivations, and our responsibilities as people who believe in the sacredness of life.

The standing ovation was incredibly frightening to me. It seemed to mean that thousands of people who I consider faith partners could be swept up in a patriotic fervor that tells only about the glory and nothing about the real horror of what we are doing to people and the propaganda that we spread to diminish the worth of others and justify our own behaviors.

The estimated death toll of Iraqis and Afghanis varies widely, with the military taking the official position that it doesn’t track deaths (documents released by Wikileaks revealed this to be false). The deaths related to the war in Iraq range from 195,000[8] to 461,000 (civilians and combatants).[9] Enemy combatants amount to somewhere between 50,000 to 65,000 of these deaths.

But the story of what is happening gets lost in the abstraction of these numbers. “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” as the saying goes.* The reality is that the American military is a brutal and terrifying force. The stories that reach us tell of the constant fear our soldiers encounter—one such story made it into the sermon, while the fear that our enemies feel remained unspoken—but these stories are told in a way that makes it seem like we meet our enemies as equals on the field of battle. This is not true. The American military is the best trained, the most skilled, the best funded, and the best educated fighting force the world has ever known. From a patriotic perspective, this sounds great. But if we want to engage from a human perspective, we must wrestle with the impact of the death and destruction that we bring with us. For every American soldier killed in conflict, somewhere between 14 and 19 enemy combatants is killed.[10] Or, stated more graphically, for every American soldier killed in conflict, 3 to 5 families worth of enemy combatants die. But it is also estimated that coalition forces are responsible for somewhere between 12%-35% of the civilian deaths.

I understand that Rev. Montgomery and the other chaplains likely are not in a position to talk about this atrocity. Being in the military means that you agree to a certain degree of censorship. Being in the military means, at least in public spaces like the Service of the Living Tradition, that it is not appropriate to criticize the direction of your superiors and our President. You do not talk about the impact of the five years of drone strikes in Pakistan and the children who have been killed by a practice that seems to have a 2% success rate against strategically important targets.[11] You don’t talk about it because ultimately the purpose is not to defeat al-Qaeda. It is to defeat the people.

As a nation we are engaged in reprehensible behavior, and we should be much more ashamed of what we are doing abroad than we are. Many of us have taken actions—attending marches, meeting with politicians, donating to anti-war and veterans’ programs, working with returning vets, trying to support Iraqis and Afghanis struggling with the consequences of the war, and many other important measures—but like the Confessing Church of the 1930s and 1940s Germany, I fear that we, as people of faith, will be judged for the horrors that are being committed by our nation because we have not done enough.

I am not a pacifist who believes that the worst peace is better than the best war. But in our rush to support the career decisions of our military chaplains we seem to have lost sight of the daily murder that is being carried out in our name by the U.S. military. There absolutely is a role for Unitarian Universalist chaplains in the armed forces, but it is not to normalize war, or even necessarily to promote a UU worldview among the soldiers. We have a faith obligation to minister to everyone, including those in the military, but as a faith movement we have not given our ministers the proper support and guidance to effectively serve the disenfranchised.

While it is not appropriate for the chaplains to speak out against the endless war agenda of our nation—that is our job—the chaplains absolutely can serve those 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.

The pressure to meet enlistment numbers for our wars overseas pushes military recruiters to engage in dishonest behavior with high school students and underprivileged Americans in order to meet their quotas. The “prospecting” techniques of recruiters have been compared to the predatory grooming behaviors of abusers.[12] Not everyone, of course, who enlists does so because they see no other option for their lives, and many do see real opportunities in a military career. But to suggest that the military does not explicitly target the poor and underprivileged in our nation is beyond naïve. It is a manipulative system that traps the American poor into conflict with the poor of other nations, leaving them with few resources and little support when they do finally manage to get out.

These people need chaplains who can stand with them as they come to grips with the moral injury that has taken place in their lives, both for what has been done to them and what they have done to others. If the ministry of our chaplains is to those who have been trapped by this system, I am in absolute support of it. If the ministry is to champion American imperialism and colonialism, I do not believe that this is consistent with the moral and ethical vision of Unitarian Universalism. Military propaganda does not serve the living tradition to which I have given my life.

There is a more beautiful world out there. I know it is possible. I can see the promise of that world in the innocent joy of the child who sat beside me. And I pray that the denomination that I call home is willing to help our chaplains become who they need to be and do the spiritual work required to reject the violence and murder that is carried out in our name.

*Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though this is probably apocryphal.

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