Monday, February 05, 2007


Among the many dark flowers that have blossomed during the Incumbency, a lesser-known but particularly noxious one is the proliferation of mercenary chaplaincy within the military.

The Fundamentalist Ascendancy within the organized chaplain corps of the Services has already been discussed (see “Bishops Bomb”) as has the increasingly whacky but influential spread of the virulent ‘Dominionist’ strain of Fundamentalistic religiosity (see “American Shin-toe” and “Crazy for God”).

But what we are seeing now is something not quite the same. At least within the Service structures there can be a reasonable hope that when the baleful influence of this Incumbency fades, the Ascendancy – being a creature of it – will fade with it. Some restoration toward balance will almost naturally take place, organizational dynamics being what they are.

But with the spread of so-called Force Ministries we see an extra-organizational, almost extracurricular ‘chaplaincy’. A visit to the website ( for the controlling (whatever that might actually mean in practice) organization is instructive. Apparently its ‘ministers’ are drawn heavily from military ranks, especially “current Navy SEALS whose lives have been touched by Force Ministries”. These operatives are organized into “sky-diving teams”; they are qualified since they “have executed an average of 2000 jumps”; and further qualified because “they are experts in the different and diverse sky-diving disciplines”. If this might seem an impressive yet scant qualification for the provision of religious ministry, we are further informed that these messengers are also proficient in “public speaking”. A photograph purports to show a huddle of uniformed troops in a desert setting, and is set alongside “A letter from an American soldier in Iraq”.

Somewhat vaguely, the site also notes that “The US has a number of military colleges and training programs (ROTC, etc.), which train our young men and women to lead our nations [sic] military. We teach the values that make for strong leadership. Once saved, these values encourage and accelerate growth in Christ.” Whether or not Force Ministries is actually engaged in conducting its operations on young people and military students in such institutions here in the United States is not clearly established.

We see here many of the characteristics of the Fundamentalistic approach to religion and religious ministry. One can become a minister simply by having been “saved” – hard to distinguish from simply declaring oneself to be so “saved”. One is able to speak in public, which apparently is considered a synonym for actual and authentic preaching. One’s credibility is further enhanced not by having any depth or grounding in theology or matters of religious significance, nor necessarily from any wider or deeper acquaintance with the Deity than the afore-mentioned experience of being – or claiming to be – “saved”, but rather by having done something kinda catchy that will jumpstart your creds with your target audience (“flock” seems not at all what they’re aiming for here). So in the military setting this will translate into skydiving and the fact of one’s SEAL-hood, since even among the military these are two achievements vouchsafed only to a very very few. There’s a heavy flavor of calculated marketing in the whole thing, but then again the only serious ‘professional’ effort apparently made by Fundamentalistics is precisely to enhance the marketability of one’s services. And did we mention that there is a ‘Donate’ button right there?

And the content of this ministry? “Leadership” is what they call it. Salvation? Redemption? Forgiveness of sins? The increased capability to ascend the Ladder of Perfection? To understand the movements of the soul? None of the above. Rather, having been “saved”, the individual (we can hardly call these initiates ‘the faithful’ or ‘the believer’) is sent forth to “lead” the un-initiated, which – given the Fundy track record, appears indistinguishable from “lording it over them”.

Not unwisely, the actual content of the ministry is left unspoken. One can imagine exhortations to wage war for “Christ” and to take increased devotion to obeying one’s superiors in the daily round of fighting the war. It is a curiously passive form of “leadership”: one follows the orders of one’s leaders, one might consider onself to be following the orders of this “Christ”. But no clear doctrinal content is discussed; wisely again, so as to avoid creating any adverse-marketing reactions in the form of disagreement with the tenets of the doctrine or doubts as to its validity. Perhaps ‘wise’ is not the term; ‘shrewd’ might be more appropriate.

Of course, it is not the role of individual soldiers to speak Truth to Power; indeed the Army is just now in the process of court-martialing one 1st Lt. Watada for taking his stand. Deciding the legitimacy of a war and of actions ordered in war is not the province of individual soldiers. Thus the military ‘judge’ in the case. That this nation precisely claimed through the person of Justice Robert Jackson at Nuremberg that military personnel are indeed responsible for their obedience to what may be immoral or illegal orders, that our own service-members are required to refuse orders that are “illegal” … these facts – and they are not small – escape the ‘judge’s’ notice, or fail to engage his attention.

Jackson was speaking against the military-ism (if I may) of governments aspiring to a ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht’, a grasp at world-power, the concocting of which omelette will require that one’s military be prepared – whenever so ordered – to break a hell of a lot of eggs (preferably those belonging to other people). He was also speaking for the dignity and subsequent responsibility of the American citizen-soldier, Citizen and soldier. This noble and quintessential American conception is gall-and-wormwood to an Executive desiring an ever-ready force of legionaries for deployment anywhere, anytime, to do anything that the said Executive claims is required by ‘national security’.

There always exists the danger that clergy ministering to any military will over-identify with the plans of their national government. Not even the Kathliks with their overarching, transnational (and supranational) Church were able to avoid this in the many wars of Modern Europe, where the priests of that Universal Church willingly donned uniforms either of Kaiser or King to bring their ministry to those leaders’ troops. And absent the deep keel of a comprehensive theological and ecclesial underpinning, the Protestant faiths were always more at risk for heeling hard over when identifying with their particular nation’s cause as the winds of war began to blow. But among the ‘mainstream’ religions – Catholic and Protestant – there was at least some structure and structured thought which served as a check to the unbridled collapse of religion into the vision of the State such as occurred in Japanese Shinto.

But we face a different situation here, with these Fundamentalistic ‘force’ ministries. Not only are these ministries not quality-controlled by any sort of governing body (except, apparently, jump-school instructors) but they are ungoverned even by the military chaplaincy structures. Worse, they offer no consolation or illumination beyond the Saturday football coach’s gut-stoking half-time harangue. Such feelings of ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’, whatever ‘high’ is produced by this type of exercise, is purely the adolescent and primal surge consequent upon being encouraged to act out of your most primal instincts and do your worst to ‘the other side’.

And of course, in this type of harangue, there is no meaning at all unless there very much is some ‘other side’. You can’t stroke and stoke these feelings, achieve this kind of ‘high’, get into this kind of ‘zone’ unless you are atavistically ‘stoked’ against SOMEbody. This type of ‘high’ needs an ‘other’, an ‘enemy’, because it is incapable of, is uninterested in, mastering any of the upper ranges of the interior life: the only ‘mastery’ it seeks is the ability to drown out your fears and doubts by force of raw will, stoke up your violence, and project it outward at that oh-so-necessary ‘enemy’.

That so many people can blithely mistake this kinda primitive ‘high’ for a religious experience is one of the great failures of organized religious life in this country. And into the abyss thus created, the Fundamentalistic collapsing of the Beyond into the Present, of the Vertical into the Horizontal, of the Unknown into the Known, of the Self into its primal passions has poured with an unholy frenzy in our time. And into our times.

And under the intense deforming heat and pressures generated in the cauldron of war, especially a failing yet unend-able war, our young are now in un-clarified desperation vulnerable to the type of ‘ministry’ that will simply ease their descent into a spiritual flame-out that resembles nothing so much as the final ‘blossoming’ of the young Kamikaze.

This is not to presume that all these ‘force-ministers’ (so apt) are hucksters. There may well be – very probably are – well-intentioned individuals of no small military accomplishment, who eagerly and honestly want to bring some acceptable consolation to their fellows. And one can only wonder what state the organized chaplaincies are in after a decade and more of the rootin-tootin Ascendancy.

But the price for such stoke-force ministry is going to be high. The spiritual ‘casualties’ will be enormous, returning to civilian life with a hugely limited – not to say mis-shapen – spiritual capacity. This core deficiency might not be noticeable to Fundamentalists, and is certainly not a loss to ‘lefty’ Theorists whose world-view is as collapsed into the Horizontal as the Fundamentalists. But, as the neocon war-makers are finding out, the fact that you didn’t envision a phenomenon doesn’t at all mean that said phenomenon won’t come at you, and with a vengeance.

Our troops will be – most likely are – coming back to us with deep spiritual wounds. They went ‘over there’ obedient to our word, yet with no Word except the selectively-plucked bible-phrase encouraging war and blood. How able will they be to parent families? To conduct their responsibilities as Citizens? To lead a decent and reasonably fulfilled life? To handle the stresses of ‘civilian’ life, where the overt and immediate response of overwhelming physical force, fortified by a primal ‘high’ is the answer to almost nothing?

Hard rain is going to fall. Not the gentle life-nourishing rain of some of the great Scriptural visions but a life-pounding flood that sweeps away ‘humanity’, human-ness, humane-ness.

We owe them so much more. It is Our word that sent them there. Let Us not make it so that their obedience rises up, cries out from the earth, to reproach Us, and indict Us, and condemn Us.

So many of our ‘leaders’ – politicians, war-enthusiasts and slam-dunkers, even ranking military officers – are now considering how best to salvage their own careers. As The People, it devolves upon Us – given the moral failures of those ‘leaders’ – to ensure care for those who shall have borne the battle. We must not fail them … again.

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