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

Ministry and the Moral Implications of Combat

As I was researching for a speech I am giving this weekend, I came across thisYes, that's me, on the top of the wall to the left. short essay I wrote on my theology of war and of military ministry when I was at the Chaplain School.  It is an attempt not only to define where I stand on the moral implications of Combat, but also to explain a theology of war in language that my more conservative Christian colleagues could understand.  I don’t usually share such essays on Celestial Lands, but I felt called to share this one. 

I imagine a soldier, weary and tired, tears buried just below the surface, coming to me asking one of many different questions.  “They killed my battle-buddy, why can’t I hate them?”  “Will God accept me now that I’ve killed so many people?”  “Do the terrorists go to hell when they die?”  Behind all of these questions and many like them are deeper questions about the morality of war, the theology of war, the theology of good and evil, and the responsibility of the individual within war.  I believe the basis of any counseling of soldiers on the moral implications of combat must begin long before they ask even the first of these questions.

In counseling these soldiers from the background of my ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition, I first need to understand my own theological base.  I have in my heart the primary motivation of helping the soldier learn to survive through the hell that is war.  Everyone else in the military focuses on training and equipping that soldier to be a killer, it is my place to help that soldier be a survivor.  For one day the wars will end, and the soldier will return to carry the burden of war for the rest of their days.

As a Universalist, I do not believe in a metaphysical hell.  I do believe that hells exist in this world, such as the hell of drug addiction or of depression.  One of the worst of these hells is war.  The beauty of the human being is that even in the worst of hells we can still find beauty, compassion, hope, courage, and love.  Through these, we can find our way through this hell toward home.  Some soldiers are unable to leave this hell behind when they leave war.

I believe that at the heart of every person is a spirit that is capable of both good and evil, but which will tend toward the good.  I do not believe that humankind is inherently sinful and fallen.  The grace of God falls on us all; it is up to each of us to decide how that grace will affect how we live our lives.  I do not believe in any metaphysical nature to the ideas of good and evil.  They are each human attempts to make meaning out of life, but the love of God transcends these concepts.

I believe that Grossman is right in “On Killing” when he discusses the need for us to take ownership of killing as the profession of the soldier, but for different reasons.  I am less concerned with it being a “combat multiplier” and more concerned with the points that he makes that taking ownership of the reality of war is one of the first steps in being able to survive its emotional generic sumatriptan succinate aftermath.

Simply accepting the reality of the necessity of killing in war is not enough.  In modern combat, we have reached a point where a corporal can be in the position of making decisions that will affect national policy, the “strategic corporal”.  We must have greater ethical and moral training for the privates and corporals we place in that position.  An understanding of the in bello principles of Just (Justifiable) Warfare would be a minimum.  The modern soldier needs to understand not only what “right looks like” but why it looks like that.

They need to understand why we limit damage to civilian structures and lives, not just that we do.  They need to understand why we abide by the Laws of War, even and especially when our enemies do not.  They need to understand why it is important to us as an Army to be under secular governmental control, no matter how important faith is to each of us individually.  This and so much more is the necessary basis for the decision making needed for a corporal called on to make the kind of decisions once reserved for field grade officers and higher.  I believe the chaplain is uniquely suited to this training.  I hope I would have begun to explore with my soldiers the moral implications of combat long before we reach the battlefield, providing a basis for pastoral counseling.

I believe that behind each of the questions and the many like them with which I began this essay are deeper questions, and my first step in any counseling on the moral implications of combat will be to get at these deeper questions.  I will do this by exploring with the soldier why they are asking each question, and what the experiences are behind them.

I believe God is always speaking to every one of us, but we often cannot hear.  So in part I will work to help uncover the answers God is giving that soldier.  In exploring the soldier’s own religious beliefs (for we all have them, just sometimes we name them differently) I believe the answers God is giving them will become apparent.

Sometimes there will not be time for this kind of exploration, and so I will answer from my own personal faith, and hope that in their reaction to that answer they will hear the voice of God in their own heart.  I believe that the soldier is an instrument of the state.  I believe that we each hold the capacity for good and evil.  I believe that God gives us this time, on this earth, with these hands to make a difference in the lives of our fellow humans.  I believe that what comes after will take care of itself and is in the hands of God, who sees our hearts.  I believe that the soldier is required to act justly in war;  it is the politician and the citizen who are required to insure that the war in itself is justifiable.  I believe that the soldier’s job in war is first to the mission, second to their buddies, and third to survive.  It is that survival that is at the forefront of my call to this ministry.

Yours in Faith,


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