Citizenship Confusion: Peter Berger’s Thoughts on Religion in the Military

Peter Berger raises some interesting questions in a recent blog post about religion in the military. Specifically, he considers the role of chaplains in the military and how their function as clergy can come in conflict with their role as military personnel.

He tells a fascinating story at the end of the post about his experience in Germany in 1950. He attended a conference on the challenges for West Germany as it formed its military post-World War II. He says that an American chaplain was brought in to give a presentations on how American chaplains function in the Army:

One of the Americans gave a lecture on how chaplains helped to maintain the morale of the troops. The Germans listened with some bewilderment. After the lecture, during a coffee break, one German leaned over and asked the lecturer: “How does an American army chaplain differ from a politruk?” The term referred to Communist party officials attached to units of the Soviet army with the purpose of political indoctrination.

The whole post is worth a read, but that quote in particular resonated with me as I have begun to seriously question the role Christians can have in the military without compromising their faith. The German’s reaction in this situation suggests something about the way Christianity is often used to legitimize state violence. The Germans were in the unique position to see the dangers of treating chaplains as tools to boost morale. I wonder how long it will take for us to come to the same conclusion?

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

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---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://business.baylor.edu/scott_cunningham/home.html scott cunningham

    I think Hauerwas is worth reading on this. He’s talked a little about it before. He’s a pacifist (Catholic tradition, Mennonite traditions, and Methodist traditions kind of inform his overall theology, but I think the Mennonite part is where he mainly got the pacifism).

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com/ Jared

    I started a major multi-part series that was meant to be a Christian defense of nonviolence over a year ago, but it’s been dormant since I started serious work on my thesis. I’m getting more and more anxious to return to it. Only tangentially related to what you’re doing here, but the reason I bring it up is because some of the reading I did for my series led me to Hays’ “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” and I posted a rather lengthy excerpt that you might find interesting (and relevant): http://www.shadowcouncil.org/todostienen/archives/006541.html

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    This is an interesting subject. I certainly need to give this more thought.

    I knew some guys in Seminary who were going into the chaplaincy, I knew them well enough to get a sense that they were genuinely committed to entering into that role as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Would you say that their position would legitimately compromise their mission (as in Christian mission)?

    I think Berger brings up some important things for Christians entering that world to consider and perhaps even be prepared to make a stand against, however, my understanding of the chaplaincy is that is a good bit different from a politruk or at least it affords the freedom for one to not merely be an arm of the state to boost troop moral but to individually minister to people in dire circumstances (who are often willing to listen to the gospel as their lives are on the line). A Germans soldier perceiving an American chaplain to be a politruk does not make him so.

    Of course, I am sure that often American chaplains are called upon to go against their Christian faith in various ways–I could have a misguided view of what they are doing. Assuming Berger is right and Chaplains are increasingly being called upon to compromise their faith, then I would say yes–Christians should withhold from serving in this capacity or at least determine to face consequences for not doing so. I guess having read the article, I would admit there are probably instances where believers should consider their involvement but I think we also want to say this is a massively important mission field that Christians shouldn’t shy away from considering thoughtfully.


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