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UU Military Chaplains and the Cross

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,

Rev. David

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. 


9 Thoughts on “UU Military Chaplains and the Cross

  1. Interesting topic of discussion. I think your various comments demonstrate that there’s no one right answer in this case. For me as a lifelong UU, I don’t consider the chalice to be a symbol of my faith. It’s just a cup that we light at services, and we probably already overdo it with the chalice, frankly. It’s too bad that UU chaplains don’t have the option of choosing for themselves which symbol they think is appropriate. After all, we have a strong Christian minority in UUism, there is a rapidly increasing number of Buddhists in our denomination, and some folks would probably prefer a chalice (in a few cases, maybe even a crescent or tablets). Ultimately, I think the arguments you present for the cross are more important than the arguments against it (and I don’t claim a Christian label for myself, though it’s part of my UU heritage and I value the Christian-derived elements that have been bequeathed to me). If I were hypothetically going to wear a symbol of our faith, I’d probably choose the Universalist cross, which is offset in a circle. It signals a Christian connection, yet if you get to talking to someone about it, you can point out how Christianity is moved off center and the circle encompasses the range of human spirituality.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Jeff. At one point I too wished that the military would let UU’s choose between the symbols, but the military likes standardization too much for that!

    I wanted to share an addendum. Someone “In Authority” wrote me an email to let me know that there is currently a conversation “at the highest levels” about the Chaplain Corps going back to a single symbol for all Chaplains. Historically, this was true… all chaplains, regardless of faith, wore a Shepherd’s Crook from 1880 to 1888. Prior to that there were no particular authorized symbols. In 1888 it was changed to the Latin Cross.

    The current conversation is around a symbol of a pair of cupped hands.

    While I would personally support this change, and think it would be a healthy one for the Corps… it would cause a firestorm. I can just imagine it being portrayed as persecution of Christians to require them to take the crosses off. I honestly believe it would make the conservative Christian reaction to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell look like a pleasant conversation between respectful colleagues.

    I wrote back that if that is the direction that this goes, then I will make some popcorn and sit back to watch the fireworks…

    Yours in faith,

    Rev. David

  3. An interesting question of identity and perception, that’s for sure! I know that for many in Unitarian Universalism, or those who would lean our way if they knew we were here, the Cross has become a symbol of oppression, or of a specific interpretation of religion that often includes bigotry and small-mindedness.

    A dear relative of John’s gave me a beautiful jade cross on the occasion of his ordination, and I couldn’t help my initial gut reaction of dismay at the sight of it, knowing I would never be able to wear it, even with understanding the beautiful intention with which it was given. For me, the Cross is a symbol of death, fear, and guilt, one very difficult for me to get past.

    As much as we might wish them away, these kinds of initial reactions to symbols are very real and sometimes impossible to overcome. I wish there was some kind of universal symbol for religion that could be used to identify chaplains that did not carry this kind of baggage, but I suspect one would have to be invented whole-cloth and even then would not find consensus.

    And as much as I love our chalice, particularly the “classic” version you have posted here rather than the new UUA logo, it’s not even close to the level of universal recognition really needed for this purpose.

  4. I also have never related much to the chalice as a symbol. It wasn’t part of Unitarian culture when I was a kid. I see it as part of the German medieval mystical tradition which is so iimportant to German Unitarians. I associate it with Richard Wagner, whose religious ideas have always been popular with German, and some American, Unitarians. The final scene of his opera Parsifal is a spectacular chalice lighting.

    Personally, I prefer Monty Python’s take on the holy grail.

  5. I can’t say I support the use of the cross. As UU clergy raised post-merger in an atheist/UU/Hindu household, the cross feels foreign to me–not comforting, and not something I am comfortable wearing, even as standard insignia. To me we are not Protestants, although that is our lineage, just as most Christians don’t identify as Jewish, although that is their lineage. I have only as much identification with Jesus as I do with other world religious leaders. And for me, the flaming chalice within the circles is the symbol of our faith. It’s true, the more diverse the symbolism, the more diffuse its impact. So while I like the idea of a single emblem, I’m equally unconvinced that a shepherd’s crook is the appropriate single symbol, coming as it does out of a single tradition. Perhaps something terribly obvious like a letter “c” signifying “chaplain” would be more appropriate?

  6. Patrick McLaughlin on Tuesday December 6, 2011 at 11:57 +0000 said:

    So many contexts… and it’s clear that no matter what happens, there is a stink.

    What’s the purpose of the military’s chaplaincy? It’s not to push or foster a religion (rather explicitly not, that would be unconstitutional). It’s to care for those under arms, in their spiritual and emotional lives.

    I agree, telling folks to take off the cross would be feeding the beast–the War on Christmas folk. And yes, seeing the cross provides some a sense of “oh, I can talk to you.” It also, as strongly, signals “oh god, you’re the last person I can talk to,” to others. The lessons of CPE rise up for me. It’s not really about the tradition, it’s about being *that* person that someone can trust and talk to. (My own experience suggesting that a goodly number of UUs would recoil from the chaplain wearing the cross… until they’d been informed that the chaplain was a UU. The symbol then creates a problem… no matter what. So what’s the solution?)

    I guess that in the abstract, I’d support a generic symbol–returning to the crook would at least have the benefit of being a return to tradition (not that it would ameliorate the intentionally hysterical reactions). Perhaps the answer–the military wanting standardization–is to readopt the crook on a larger patch, at a slant, and require that the chaplain display the accepted symbol of the tradition that sponsors him or her. I’d propose that it be in the lower right quadrant, “beneath” the crook. After all, the obligation of the chaplain is to the service, and those in the chaplain’s care.

    But it’s political, and will be, as you observe, a cause for dragging out the popcorn, no matter what.

    To that end, I suggest the following scenario–the removal of the faith-only patches as a reaction to the extreme scandals around chaplains (and other officers), to symbolize that the military is cleaning house, and to show that there is a single chaplaincy which is devoted to those serving, and their needs, not to proselytizing. BUT, recognizing that indication of tradition is important, retaining the identification by tradition, just “beneath” the obligation to the military chaplaincy, the oath with all have taken.

    And yes, there’d still be need for popcorn.

    I’ll just observe that the use of the faith patches now seems inconsistent with other military usage. The chapels are interfaith, no? And the fact that there are now multiple patches for what is a *single* element of each service is grossly inconsistent–if you’re Airborne, you wear that marker, not one that identifies you as distinct from someone else doing the very same job in the very same unit. A single symbol makes sense.

    And yes, it will be treated with the utmost hysteria by some. Which is why I wouldn’t actually take away their cross, but in fact would require it as a subsidiary element. One additional benefit would be that you’d be able to see which people you deal with are intent on seeing that small marking before they open up–it’d clue you to that need.

    No matter what, there’s going to be a stir and a stink. So… what’s the military’s need here, and what makes sense–and what’s the political tack that’s most likely to get closest to what the military actually needs?

  7. As I have stated before. I strongly support the use of the chalice as the symbol of UU Chaplins in the Military. Considering the strong christian prostlitizing that currently goes on in the U.S. Military, it would be a welcome symbol to those not comfortable with that pressure.

  8. This is a good point. The proposal for chaplains is for Humanist Chaplains (not atheist chaplains, although the media does like to push atheist chaplains).
    Just 20 years ago, the choice was Christian cross or Buddhist tablets. Added now are Muslim crescent, Buddhist wheel, or Hindu ohm. Soon will be Wiccan star and Happy Human. Why not UU Chalice?
    It’s fair to say that rather than seeing this proliferation, or more specifically the “sullying” of the chaplaincy by non-Christian symbols, the Christian leadership of the chaplaincy will rethink their support for the shepherd’s crook…

  9. I think the answer to this is a universal chaplain insignia with a chalice inside it i.e.


    It would seem to me that UUs and the military (except for the fact that a lot of UUs are pacifists) would be a natural fit since UUs do seem to have universal tolerance (up to a point)

    Yes it is true UUs were once Christians but then again Christ was in fact a Jew. So using your original logic that would mean you should not need a cross, Christians could use the Jewish tablets! In the USA where BY LAW no religion is state sponsored, any religion should be allowed a symbol. Especially since UUs do have the chalice on tombstones already…

    I didn’t understand what a UU was until I had been out of the USAF 16 years ! Wouldn’t it have been nice if I had just seen that symbol at Lackland AFB?

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