Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Military and Religious Freedom — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached November 3rd, 2007

This is my first Sunday morning back here at the Great Lakes Recruit Training Center in over four months.  You see, this past summer I was in Basic Training myself.  It was my second time going through basic.  My first time was in 1991, at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Sixteen years later, I was back in Basic training, this time at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, for the U.S. Army Chaplain Officer Basic Leadership Course.
Now, it was a lot of the same kind of stuff that you all do… well probably more of the Army kind of putting on a heavy pack and running around in the woods than you all do… but even as an officer I had NCO’s yelling at me and making me do pushups and run long distances.  We did do the CS gas chamber, and we did learn how to march, and we did have to rappel and work as teams to get over and through obstacles.  Now, I used to be an NCO myself, so most of it was refresher for me… but it is a wonderful experience being back with you this morning, after finishing my own “basic training”.


Now, it is true they treat Chaplains a little better than most other people in the military.  But a lot of the experience has been the same, even those that might not be so great.


I am a Unitarian Universalist seminary student.  I am only about a year and a half away from being fellowshipped and ordained as a Unitarian Universalist Minister, and fully becoming a U.S. Army Chaplain.  I am a liberal Christian, a Zen Buddhist, a Deistic Theist, and most definitely I am a dedicated and committed Unitarian Universalist.   And wouldn’t you believe it, I kept running into people in the military who wanted to convert me to their religion!


Now, admittedly, I was in a basic training for preachers, priests, and ministers.  Most of you will never find yourself surrounded by 170 chaplains!  But I would have thought that if there was anywhere that I would be allowed to practice my religious faith without question it would have been at the place where Chaplains are trained.


Let me just say that I know there are a few problem people in any bunch… and that almost all of my chaplain and chaplain candidate colleagues were wonderful.  Most of them did not try to convert me to their religious faith, and quite a few were even willing to have wonderful and respectful discussions about our faiths.  I also want to say that all of the training we were given as Chaplains is supportive of those of us in minority faith traditions in the military… and even of those of us who do not claim any particular religion at all.  The staff at the school went out of their way to allow the Buddhists, the Rabbis, the Catholics, and the Unitarian Universalists all the resources and support we needed to practice our particular faiths.


And yet, I still found there were some people who tried very forcefully to convert me to their religion.  I still found there were some people who used their positions of authority to push their own religious views in inappropriate ways.   I still found that there were some people who bluntly stated that, with the religious views that I hold, they did not think I should be allowed to serve in the military, much less to be a Chaplain.


I bring this up because I want to say something directly to each and every one of you… you have the right in the United States Military to not be evangelized to in ways you don’t want.  You have the right to hold whatever religious views you feel called to hold, even if that means you don’t have any religious views at all.  You have the right to attend the worship services you choose, and to not attend those you don’t want to.  You have the right to practice the faith of your choice either alone, or with others who feel and believe as you do.  And, you have the right for your religious faith to in no way help or hinder your career as a Sailor in the United States Navy.


This Chapel, right here, is a great example of that.  Over 25 worship services, from a variety of traditions and beliefs, all available each and every week.  Amazing!  As a Unitarian Universalist, it warms my heart to see it, and to be a part of it.  This is a great example of what it means to have a religiously pluralistic military… a military in which many different religions are provided for and respected.  Every chaplain I have met here has understood that their role is to protect your right to practice your religion, not to evangelize their own faith.


For many of us, it goes back to that oath we all took, where we swore to protect the constitution of the United States.  You all remember that, right?  Well, the first amendment to the constitution protects the right to practice your religion… and protects the right of your shipmates to do the same.


For me, and for many of my fellow Unitarian Universalists, it goes a bit deeper than that.  You see, our religious faith itself calls us to protect the right of each and every person to practice whatever religion they are called to.  Much of the ideas and thoughts that went into the U.S. Constitution came from the Unitarian and Universalist churches of the time.  Many of the founding fathers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin attended Unitarian and Universalist churches, and the Chaplain who was with George Washington in the first battles of the Revolutionary War was a Universalist named Rev. John Murray.


Protecting each person’s right to their individual religious beliefs is one of the founding principles of the religious movement of Unitarian Universalism, dating back almost 500 years.  In a debate in the 1500’s, Transylvanian Unitarian minister Francis David said “If I win, I will defend to the death your right to be wrong”.  While it sounds a little funny to our ears now, at the time what he was saying was that no one person or one group has the right to impose their religious thoughts and ideas over anyone else.


Today, we have enshrined this idea of the importance of religious freedom within several of the principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  We covenant, or make a sacred agreement together to “accept one another and encourage each other to spiritual growth”.  We covenant together support one another in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and we also covenant together that we will solve our problems and come to decisions democratically, and not allow any one view to dominate us all.  This is why we have no doctrine or creed, but are bound together by covenant… or a sacred promise.


But more important than this, I think, is that we realize how much we need many different faith traditions.  You see, there are three other core values and ideas of Unitarian Universalism that I want to bring forth this morning.  The first is that our faith has learned that religious truth, wisdom, and beauty is found not just in one religious tradition, not just in one set of scripture… but in many.  There is much that Jesus has to teach us about love.  There is much that Buddha has to teach us about compassion.  There is much that Mohammed has to teach us about passion.  There is much we have to learn from the many different Hindu faiths about the nature of reality.  There is much Moses has to teach us about commitment.  There is much for us to learn from Humanism about what is required to live an authentic life.  There is much for us to learn from naturalistic faiths like Wicca about respect for the world we are a part of.


The sacred agreement, or covenant, upon which our religious denomination is founded when it says that


“The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:


  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”


Our religious faith requires that we respect, learn from, and grow with the religious faiths of many different traditions.  This is called “religious pluralism”… and it is not only an important part of Unitarian Universalism, but it is also the religious foundation upon which the United States Military rests.


Now, we can’t all become “experts” or go deeply into all the religious traditions of the world.  That would be impossible.  While we Unitarian Universalists tend to know something about many different religious traditions, we often will go deeper in only a few.  For some, it will be Christianity, for others it might be Wicca.  There are many Unitarian Universalists who deeply identify with Humanism, and even quite a few who are Atheists.  I myself am a Liberal Christian and a Zen Buddhist.  I think of it as being both anointed and being awake… for Christian means “one who is anointed” and Buddhist means “one who is awake”.  I find the greatest examples for my life in the lives of Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Sidhartha, the Christ and the Buddha.


But what makes me a Unitarian Universalist is not my beliefs about Christ and Buddha, but rather my commitment to be in religious community with those who believe things other than what I do… to go to church with them, to be their friend and companion, and to learn from them and their ideas and beliefs as they learn from me and mine.  We Unitarian Universalists have made the commitment to “live together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”


But in order to do this, there is something else we Unitarian Universalists have to admit to, and this is the second core principle I wanted to bring forth this morning… our concept of doubt.  Much of our society today looks upon having doubts as a bad thing.  We seek to try to get rid of our doubts, to achieve some kind of certainty.  In essence, this is what fundamentalism really is… the attempt to get rid of all doubt, both of yourself and of others.


Now, I don’t think that is really possible!  I think all people have doubts, some just try to hide it.  As Unitarian Universalists, however, we seek not to remove our doubts, not to hide our doubts, but to cherish our doubts.  I know, it sounds weird… but for us, doubts are sometimes the most important thoughts you can have.  If you have no doubts about your own beliefs, then you cannot honestly listen to and learn from others… and they will be unlikely to listen to you.  Having some healthy doubt about your beliefs is vital to being able to grow as a spiritual human being.  If you have no doubt, you have no room to learn… and if there is any one thing that going to seminary has taught me it is that God is much larger, much more amazing, and much more than all of the ideas of God from all the religious traditions put together.  God is bigger than any one book, any one scripture, or any one person’s view of God.


And this brings to us the third core idea of Unitarian Universalism for this morning… and that is the idea that revelation is not closed, but open… and it is open to us all.  That revelation continues today.  This is the idea that there are still things to be discovered about religion, about God, about the universe and our place in it.  Such revelation can occur not just to ministers and priests, not just to saints and saviors, but to any of us.  It tells us that it is important to engage thoughtfully with our own spiritual journeys, and to share those journeys with others.


This is part of the reason why we Unitarian Universalists come together in churches around the world… to share what God, what nature, what the divine, what our own lives have revealed to us… to share with each other our own individual truths.  From that sharing, we each learn, we each grow, and we each become more than we were before.


This is the true nature of religious freedom… and why protecting that freedom, not just in the military but around the world, is so important.  We need each other, not each holding the same religious beliefs, but looking at the world and communing with God and the divine and coming to different beliefs and ideas.  We need each other coming together in loving respect, sharing those different ideas, and learning from one another.  We need each other to be different, and to respect those differences.


So, if anyone ever tries to force religious beliefs on you that you don’t want, in the military or not, I challenge you to have the courage to tell them no.  If it is within the military and you need help with that, find a Chaplain, and if that doesn’t work, contact the Unitarian Universalist Association and ask them to find you a UU Chaplain.  By saying no to unwanted forceful evangelism, you are not only standing up for yourself, but you may be helping a shipmate who feels as you do but is afraid to say anything.  But, it is more than that… it is standing up for the religious pluralism that is at the heart of who we are as citizens of the United States, at the heart of who we are as the American military.


And if you find yourself willing to become a Unitarian Universalist, showing the courage to stand up and say no to such forceful evangelism is at the heart of the faith of a Unitarian Universalist.  So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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