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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

TEXAS FAITH: How should chaplains deal with Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal?

TEXAS FAITH: How should chaplains deal with Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal?

The possible repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has had Washington in a stir. The Pentagon released a report last week that showed that 70 percent of service members thought the repeal would have a negligible impact on their work.

Many military chaplains echoed that view. Only three of 145 chaplains who took part in a focus group said they would quit or retire.

But, as this Washington Post report indicates, some chaplains saw a repeal of the military's policy towards gays and lesbians as condoning a practice they consider sinful. The article quotes the Rev. Douglas Lee, a retired Presbyterian Army chaplain, as saying:

"There's a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn't be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you."

So, with this situation in mind, here's this week's question:


How should army chaplains handle a situation that contradicts their religious convictions, whether it's about gays in the military or some other issue? They, after all, are called to minister to people of all faiths.

In answering this, I hope you all can reflect upon your own experiences or approaches in counseling people whose values you do not share.

MIKE GHOUSE, President, Foundation for Pluralism, Dallas

Let us resist the temptation to become the moral police of our nation. We have led the world in innovation, science, technology, medicine and just about every aspect of life and it is time we consider moving from restrictive religious convictions to universalizing our God who loves his creation. It's a new paradigm in broadening our moral compass.

Some of the restrictive moral convictions are a product of insular religious or cultural traditions. Indeed, they were practices with narrower applications.

Let's follow the path of Jesus by embracing the whole of humanity and lead the world in respecting the "otherness" of others and setting the model of co-existence for nations like Ghana, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan to emulate us and not vice-versa.

Once upon a time, white man made nearly all of our military brass but that is not the case today. Our military is served by both men and women and by people of different races, faiths, ethnicities and nationalities.
We have come a long way since the declaration of our independence to believe and live up to the full meaning of the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." It took us nearly 150 years for our men to feel secure enough to treat women as equals to vote. It took us 50 years to honor our World War II hero Jesse Brown, a black man. Three years ago, we finally came to grips with our smallness in denying a Wiccan symbol in the Arlington Cemetery. We still have a long ways to go in fully accepting that all men (and women) are created equal. Together as Americans we have to be inclusive in serving and be served equally.

When an individual opts to serve our country to defend our freedom, we must honor that individual to the highest degree and treat him or her with dignity. We should never forget that they are defending every American and not just an exclusive club. Those of us who serve them ought not to forget to reciprocate them with equal enthusiasm and unrestrictive honor.

The Army Chaplains are employees of the nation to serve the men and women who defend our nation, and they ought to serve every defender of our nation regardless of their sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, faith, language or appearance.

KATIE SHERROD, Progressive Episcopalian activist and independent writer/producer, Fort Worth

Since when is one's sexuality a "value"?

As a straight woman, I don't share the sexuality of my gay and lesbian friends, but I DO share many values with them -- among them a belief in the importance of God in our lives, of the desire to be a faithful and loving partner to the person I love, the desire to live out our belief in God in our daily lives and relationships, the desire to honor "that of God" in every human being.

Likewise, I have many friends with whom I disagree on many issues, but we share many core values that transcend our disagreements. One's sexuality is only one of the many things that make up who each of us is. I am not defined solely by my heterosexuality. Why should LGBT folk be defined solely by their sexuality?
As to the military chaplains, how do these pastors handle the conflict between "Thou shalt not kill" and the often open and widespread killing of innocents during modern warfare?

Seems to me that's a much bigger contradiction than dealing with someone who is attracted to and/or loves someone of the same gender.

Who we love is not a sin -- how we act on that love might be. Instead of concentrating on the genital aspects of love, these chaplains should focus on the more important part of relationships, whether they are dealing with straight or gay soldiers. Are they treating the object of their love with respect? Are they faithful to that person? Are they seeking a holy love in the relationship or simply seeking selfish satisfaction of their desires?
Secondly, how do these pastors deal with other "sins"? I suspect ALL the women and men who come to them for counseling are sinners just as all of us are sinners.

Singling out one particular class of sinners as being worse than all the others is a dangerous road to travel.
Most of all, I hope our troops have access to a wide rage of chaplains, especially to chaplains who will remind them that they are loved by God beyond their wildest imaginings -- no matter what.

CYNTHIA RIGBY, W.C. Brown Professor of Theology, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

I found a position description for an army chaplain at goarmy.com. Requirements include holding some kind of "ecclesiastical endorsement," including verification that one is "sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army."

While many of us hope that all members of the clergy will be sensitive to religious pluralism, such sensitivity is not a stated requirement for most pastoral positions. Because military chaplains are called and charged to minister to persons from diverse faith traditions and with a range of convictions about a range of issues, they must be able to counsel without condemning, to render judgments without being judgmental.
Chaplains who believe homosexual sex is sinful are not being asked to change what they believe. They are, however, being asked to honor the fact that not all people of faith think the same way by listening, understanding, counseling, and leading worship in ways that model compassion and welcome into fellowship those who strongly disagree. If a clergy person is not gifted at honoring others' positions, he or she is not called to the particular vocation of being a military chaplain and should seek a ministerial calling elsewhere.

Perhaps chaplains who are more socially conservative would be helped by seeking counsel from their more liberal counterparts, who are well practiced at negotiating the space between their own convictions and military policy. Military chaplains who do NOT believe homosexual sex is a sin have, for decades, been expected to be careful about how they represent their views, especially in the face of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. While the repeal of the policy will be a challenge for some chaplains, it should be remembered that it would be a burden lifted from the consciences of many others.

As a minister and teacher, I have had the privilege of counseling those with whom I disagree. Generally speaking, these people of faith come to me well aware that we disagree on certain issues. But this does not stop them from coming.

In contrast to the implication of Douglas Lee's quote (see the question posed to us), they do not come to me to get the "information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you." Rather, they come to me with a problem they want me to hear, with a hurt they want to discuss with a sister - a sister in Christ, or a spiritual-seeming human sister. And - by the grace of God at work in us both - what they have to say, and what I have to say back, goes deeper than simply what 'position' we take on issue x, y, or z.

DANIEL KANTER, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas

Perhaps Rev. Lee missed something in his training. A colleague of mine who is a military chaplain told me that he is never forced to do anything with regards to religious rites, sacraments, or proclaiming his faith that would conflict with his ordination.

If a chaplain's faith tradition restricts gays from sacraments or other religious rites, he's under no obligation to do anything different. No commander will force him to do anything he wouldn't do in his home church.
Military chaplains are also protected by the confessional and are under no obligation to reveal something said to them in confidence with regards to 'Don't ask, Don't Tell" or any other spiritual struggle they are present to.

My personal approach, and the one I learned as a hospital chaplain, is to meet people where they are to address their deepest needs and struggles. I know that it is possible that my beliefs can get in the way of the healing that can take place in a counseling setting. As clergy we first must aim to make room for people to be who they are as children of God and only in a distant second do we introduce our personal values into the room.

We never enter counseling without our values or beliefs but it is likely a mistake to try to assume all people will or should agree with us all the time.

JOE CLIFFORD, Senior Pastor, Head of Staff, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas

At the heart of the question is the primary role of chaplains in the military. According to the Department of Defense's Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with Repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' the Services are "to reiterate the principle that chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members."
Contrary to the Reverend Lee's assumption, chaplaincy is not primarily a ministry of proclamation, but of pastoral care. Chaplains are present to meet the spiritual needs of the service men and women who request their ministry. Pastoral care cannot be conditional, nor can the aim be to convert the person in need of care to the caregiver's way of thinking.

For evangelicals, care and conversion tend to be intertwined. This exposes the inherent tension for evangelicals working as chaplains for a branch of the government.

If chaplains paid by the government feel they cannot proclaim what their faith believes, then perhaps they should not work for a government that prohibits establishing any one religion.

JAMES DENISON, Theologian-in-Residence, Texas Baptist Convention and President, Center for Informed Faith

"Never discuss religion or politics in public," my mother warned me. Today's essay probably proves the wisdom of her advice.

The First Amendment is clear: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Baptists have long been proponents of the separation of church and state.

George Truett, the venerated pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, spoke for us from the east steps of the U.S. Capitol on May 16, 1920. He envisioned the day when "in every land, whether great or small, the doctrine shall have absolute supremacy everywhere of a free church in a free state."

While churches should not engage in politics, Christians should be extremely involved in political and public service. I am convinced that God is calling more Christians into public service than are answering his call.
In this context, how are military chaplains to serve both their God and their nation? Christians are to obey civil authorities wherever possible (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). If we feel that we cannot obey the state and obey God, we must obey our highest authority. Peter and Paul taught us to obey the rulers, but both were executed by Rome for refusing to stop preaching the gospel.

At the same time, military chaplains are commissioned to serve people of all faith commitments and none, whether they agree with their beliefs or not. They can serve alongside and counsel soldiers who do not obey biblical teachings without endorsing such behavior. The same seems true regarding sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual.

As a pastor, I never required those I counseled to believe everything I believed, or felt I endorsed their actions by trying to help them. The darker the room, the greater the need for light.

LARRY BETHUNE, Senior Pastor, University Baptist Church, Austin Texas

The religious liberty of the troops and their protection from discrimination when seeking spiritual care is at least as important as the protection of the spiritual liberty of the chaplains.
A simple truth: belief cannot be coerced. Behavior, speech, even pretended belief may be coerced by threat of censure or violence, but genuine belief is a matter of inviolable conscience. Therefore, nothing can coerce a change of beliefs by military chaplains.

At a functional level, military chaplains are limited already by the setting in which they minister. Like chaplains in other institutional settings (hospitals, nursing homes, prisons), they minister to people of all faith traditions without discriminating against the religious liberty and individual conscience of their clients, without discriminating against individuals or other faith traditions.

Another simple truth: moral beliefs differ between religious traditions. Not all religious traditions regard homosexuality as inconsistent with healthy moral or spiritual life. Not even all Christian traditions regard homosexuality as sinful. Military chaplains should already respect this difference in beliefs if they are honoring their call to minister without discrimination.

Defense Secretary Gates has assured the chaplain corps that safeguards are in place that will allow chaplains to maintain their personal beliefs while ministering to a diverse community. If a chaplain cannot minister to a person because of personal beliefs, the chaplain is required to find another chaplain for the person who can. The Pentagon study shows most chaplains agree, with only three of the 145 chaplains who participated in the study saying they would leave the service if "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" were repealed.

Chaplains will not be required to teach or counsel against their beliefs unless their beliefs compel them to discriminate or disrespect the religious liberty of others, in which case they need to choose a sectarian setting rather than a chaplaincy setting for their ministry. As the U.S. Coast Guard Academy white paper referenced in the Pentagon's implementation plan (page 9) suggests: "...religious plurality is a core American value."

DARRELL BOCK, Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

They have to do the best they can to honor their convictions and yet try to serve those they are called to minister to. This is not always easy, but the military is full of such situations given the mix of faiths that are present.

One can try to help a person have integrity, be moral and yet be true to their faith in communicating how they see issues. This should be done with gentleness, knowing that in the end God holds us accountable for our own actions.

If the contradiction is too great for someone they should be able to refer the person elsewhere when that is possible. Counselors often find themselves dealing with situations where they would act differently. Still, one can always listen and give advice knowing it may or may not be heeded. That is about all one can do.

GEOFFREY DENNIS, Rabbi, Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound; faculty member, University of North Texas Jewish Studies Program

It is well past time for this discriminatory aspect of our armed forces to disappear. Gay men serve effectively in other armed forces, such as the IDF. I know some personally.

As a police chaplain who has worked with people in crisis from diverse faiths, I don't see how the inclusion of gay troops should present any additional difficulty that is not already faced by military chaplains who counsel soldiers, given that many soldiers engage in behaviors that a given chaplain may not morally approve of.
Lots of soldiers, for example, drink alcohol socially. Are the current hard-shell Baptist and Muslim chaplains simply unable to counsel such troops without getting entangled in arguments about liquor?

Somehow I think most of them manage to not make alcohol consumption the pivotal focus of their work, and the same thing will happen working with gay soldiers. They will learn to serve the soldier by focusing on the presenting problem of the soldier, rather than their own problems.

If not, they can simply admit that they are not the right person to provide counsel, and find someone else more suitable. And while chaplains are entitled to pray and worship in the mode of their own denomination and faith, they are obligated foremost to make accommodation for the faith and needs of the soldiers they serve. If ministering to gay troops is simply more repugnant for a chaplain than providing religious support for soldiers of other faiths, then perhaps they are being called to minister in a more sectarian, less pluralistic environment than the U.S. armed forces.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

In my experience with persons who serve in the military chaplaincy, I have been impressed with their capacity to serve as professional ministers across an amazingly complex and difficult set of circumstances. Some are stationed in forward areas, near the front lines of combat. Others work on military bases a long way from battle zones but at the perimeters of life where the stresses of military systems take a huge toll on personal and family life.

Chaplains draw remarkably upon their ecclesiastical authorizations and individual faith commitments in order to provide the services needed by the personnel in their care. Yet they cannot impose either their ecclesiastical restrictions or their private commitments of faith upon the military personnel whom they serve.
One chaplain's ordination credential might be established by a denomination that only allows men to be ordained. Yet he will serve along with, and share duties alongside, a woman who is ordained by another denomination. Another chaplain may have authorization from a denomination that emphasizes the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while collaborating with a chaplain whose tradition relies exclusively upon the infallible word contained in the Holy Scripture. These are significant theological differences. Nevertheless, no individual chaplain can insist on her or his approach to doctrine and discipline as the mandate for Christian belief and practice to be imposed on the persons in the chaplain's care.

Anyone who serves as a military chaplain chooses that career path in ministry. No chaplains today are drafted. Therefore, every chaplain knows that proclaiming the faith and providing pastoral care must be professionally done without insisting that one's own personal or denominational preferences will prevail.
It would be outside the role of chaplains, in a military that allows gay and lesbian personnel to serve, for the chaplain to condemn or deplore the orientation of a uniformed person's sexuality. If a chaplain finds someone's sexual orientation to be offensive or unacceptable theologically, the chaplain must arrange for a less offended colleague to offer ministerial care. Or the offended chaplain must consider finding another venue for exercising her or his call to ministry.

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