Endorsers are a pretty special lot. Retired military chaplains for the most part, they are the gate keepers: they vet chaplain candidates and instruct them on how they are to behave in order remain accredited as a representative of their faith group. Part of the vetting process includes making sure candidates know what to expect when they join the military and that they understand the constraints of ministry in a pluralistic setting. Needless to say, not everyone agrees on exactly what this means, but they are willing to discuss it and hash it out. On Tuesday afternoon, the organizers used Chaplains Under Fire as a way to channel that discussion. They showed two excerpts plus a short we recently developed mostly with footage not in the film.
The first excerpt showed the First Amendment debate in the film and asked endorsers to think through whose rights came first — those of the troops or those of the chaplain? Mostly, I heard endorsers underscoring the importance of upholding the troops’ rights to exercise their faith, but there were some who felt that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell changed the game: they worried that chaplains’ rights were getting shafted. The second excerpt focused on the emotionally draining work military chaplains conduct in hospitals and during notifications. The question here was how endorsers could best prepare and support their chaplains. The response was pretty straightforward: offering chaplains occasional retreats, staying in touch them, lending them an ear…. There was also an interesting bit of information that came up: according to one group of endorsers, churches used to discourage chaplain candidates from getting much clinical pastoral training — that has changed. They now highly encourage it.
The third piece they showed was an experiment that, I am glad to say, worked. It is was a short we made with footage not in the film to explore the question of how far a chaplains can or should go in terms of providing religious ministry to troops of other faiths. “Perform or Provide” is the motto: perform those religious sacraments and services that your faith group allows and, when something comes up a chaplain cannot do then he is to provide the troops with someone who can. The problem is that in many combat situations, a Protestant chaplain cannot summon a Jewish colleague or a local Rabbi to meet the needs of Jewish troops or a Roman Catholic to give last rites to a dying Catholic soldier… So what then? The discussion seemed very animated with opinions ranging from “I’m a generalist — I say give the troop whatever he needs” to those who drew a firm line at performing a sacrament.