Everyone struggles with stereotypes—expectations of what we are or are not supposed to be and do. Often in the military, chaplains are pegged as cheerleaders, jolly people who go around spreading sunshine. Anyone who knows me knows that my personality is not well suited to this role. I’ve resisted the temptation to be the chaplain who hands out candy and slaps people on the back. I feel more comfortable dealing with people in pain than with those who want me to be a happy, sappy chappy. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the rhyme.)
I just finished reading Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, a realistic memoir of a Marine Corps infantry officer in Vietnam, which has been on my reading list for some time. I came across a fascinating passage in which the chaplain is a thought-provoking, albeit irritating, ethical commentator. It’s is too long to reproduce here, but I’ll share the end of it. The author has just recounted a contentious conversation with Chaplain Ryerson, “who was as thin and cheerless as the doctor was heavyset and jolly,” about the apparent futility of the war and its toll in human suffering.
Leaving the mess, I went back to my desk. It was difficult to work. The tent was stifling, and I felt confused. The chaplain’s morally superior attitude had rankled me, but his sermon had managed to plant doubt in my mind, doubt about the war. . . .
“Twelve wrecked homes.” The chaplain’s words echoed. “That’s twelve wrecked homes. The doctor and I think in terms of human suffering, not statistics.” I thought about Sullivan again. He was one of those statistics, just like the four enemy soldiers killed that morning. The only difference was that they were in different columns on the colonel’s scoreboard. “Twelve wrecked homes.” I thought about Sullivan’s young widow in Pennsylvania and a chill passed thought me. Maybe her husband had died for nothing, maybe for something. Either way, it could not make much difference to her now. (179-80).
The chaplain’s pastoral concern for the families of the dead was clearly a factor in his righteous indignation. His “morally superior attitude” may have been caused by the stressors of war allowing his inner voice to come out unguarded or it may have just been his personality. Whether or not he was tactful, there’s a positive lesson to be learned from his approach to ministry in the role of ethical advisor. As chaplains, we have to resist becoming mere spokesmen for the government—what the Soviets called propaganda officers. Otherwise we’ve sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.