Unitarian Universalists are almost always surprised when they see me wearing the Christian Cross on my Army Chaplain uniform. Perhaps they should not be, given the Christian ancestry of our two founding denominations, but they are. Reactions have ranged from mild curiosity to outrage to some deep pastoral need. On several occasions, those reactions have led me to do some significant pastoral care for congregants and others once I had taken the uniform off.
Recently, I’ve been reading the articles on NPR, Huffington Post, as well as on some conservative Christian websites and blogs, about the effort to endorse the U.S. Military’s first Atheist Chaplain… and it has had me re-thinking my support for UU Military Chaplains continuing to wear the Cross, and not the Chalice. I have not changed my mind yet… but I’m torn.
There are a few things I need to say first. Foremost among them is that I am speaking only for myself. There remains significant support for wearing the Cross among the UU Ministers currently serving as Military Chaplains. I would even count myself among those UU Ministers serving as Military Chaplains in supporting our wearing of the cross… and yet my support is not as strong as it once was. Second is that such a decision would not be up to me… it would be between the U.S. Military and the UU Military Chaplain Endorser (the Director of Ministries and Faith Development at the UUA). Third, this is an area where our congregations have only limited say, as most military chaplain ministry is non-congregational, and military chaplains are directly responsible to the UUA, through the Military Chaplain Endorser. And lastly, UU Military Chaplains are gathering with UUA Staff for a retreat this January… and I would be surprised if this is not on the agenda for discussion.
The basic arguments for UU’s continuing to wear the cross when they serve as military chaplains are in three parts. The first is that wearing the cross, we are included in the largest faith group in the Chaplaincy… protestant Christianity. Though we are by far the most liberal part of that spectrum, we remain on the spectrum, and therefore other protestant denominations have to make room for us. This room is psychological, spiritual, and practical. Psychologically, we remind our colleagues that Christianity is broader than any single interpretation, and that many have been inspired by the teachings of Jesus in different ways than they themselves. Spiritually, it often means we are not as easily dismissed. I have had many conversations with conservative Christians about my faith because I was wearing the cross and not another symbol. It has also meant that I’ve been able to connect with and serve soldiers in their faith, without them having to overly worry about mine. Practically, it has meant that opportunities given to other protestant Christian Chaplains should (theoretically) be offered to us as well.
Sadly, that last part has not been my experience. There have been more than a few times that I have been discussing something with a senior military chaplain… in one case a possible assignment, only to have their position on it change when they find out I’m a Unitarian Universalist. Usually it is not as blatant as that time, but it is often there. Now, there have been just as many times though were a senior chaplain has offered an opportunity to me in part because I was a Unitarian Universalist, so I think in the end it has worked out about even. My being a UU has been both a help and a hindrance in my time as a chaplain, depending often on the perception of our liberal faith tradition.
The second part of the argument for UU’s wearing the cross is that our faith tradition does arise from Christianity. Both of our parent denominations, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America began as Christian denominations. Approximately 15 percent of current Unitarian Universalists identify as liberal Christians, myself among them. Many of our current military chaplains also identify as Christians, but not all. All of our current military chaplains have had to decide they were comfortable wearing the cross, not something all UU ministers could do.
Yet, our liberal faith tradition has grown to be more than Christianity. Our faith tradition is bound together less by specific beliefs, and more by how one’s beliefs call you to relate to yourself, to each other, to your communities, to the world, and to the divine. I often say that my beliefs rest between Christianity and Buddhism, but my religious practice is Unitarian Universalism. How I relate to the world, how I find religious meaning, how I encounter myself and others… that is all Unitarian Universalism. People of many different beliefs can choose to relate to the world with the same kind of religious practice… To me, that is the core of our liberal faith.
I wonder if there are UU Ministers who would consider wearing the uniform of a military chaplain if it included a Chalice, and not a Cross? As I listen to NPR discussing the need for Chaplains for the growing population of Humanists, Atheists, Deists, and “Spiritual but not Religious”ists in the U.S. Military, I wonder if the cross is what is preventing Unitarian Universalist Ministers from being able to fill that role?
The third part of the argument for having UU Military Chaplains wear the Cross rather than the Chalice is that the symbol of the Cross is well recognized as meaning “Chaplain”, while the Chalice would not be recognized as such. The Chalice is simply not well known enough to play this vital role of identifying to soldiers, often in times of stress and duress, that the chaplain is with them. So much of the role of the Chaplain is symbolic, and the cross is the symbol that is known.
Now, I’m aware there is a “Chicken and Egg” argument to be made here… how will the Chalice become known as meaning “Chaplain” if we are not wearing it? It is a valid point. I’ve long thought that at some point the UU Military Chaplains would have to transition to the Chalice… the question was one of timing.
Leaving that argument aside, there is another one of import… and that being the growth in the other three symbols. There are now four symbols for military chaplains: the cross, the tablets, the crescent, and the dharma wheel. As there have been increasing numbers of Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist Chaplains, the military has begun to be aware of different symbols as meaning “Chaplain”.
So, I don’t know. Perhaps this is more of an issue for me than some of our UU Ministers serving on Active Duty, in that as a Reservist I spend most of my time in a congregation where the symbol is the Chalice, and not the Cross. I will also admit that, in my personal Christianity, the crucifixion is not as important to me as the teachings and ministry of Christ… and so if I have a personal symbol for my Christianity it is the Fish of Love, not the Cross.
I just see this call for Chaplains to serve those who are Humanist, Atheist, Deist, Agnostic, and Spiritual but not Religious… and am wondering if this long running tension between the wearing of the Cross or the wearing of the Chalice is what is getting in our way of being those chaplains.
Yours in faith,
I am going to limit discussion on this article to Unitarian Universalists, as this is primarily an internal question of faith and practice. I understand that some non-UU’s have some strong feelings on this issue, and I invite you to email me if you wish to share those. I will only approve comments to this article from Unitarian Universalists.