While in seminary at Abilene Christian University in west Texas many years ago, I had several occasions to visit neighboring Dyess Air Force base. I was particularly struck by one of the immense hangars situated alongside the mid-point of the main runway—not because anything about the building itself was impressive, but because of the massive block letters, inordinately larger than any other sign on the base, words in all caps: “GLOBAL POWER FOR AMERICA.”
Dyess was the scene of a scandal some years ago. Lieutenant Colonel Garland Robertson, chaplain for the United States Air Force, had spent years in the military, winning a Distinguished Flying Cross for a rescue operation in Vietnam. He subsequently commanded a nuclear missile site. Then after leaving the military he went to seminary to study theology, and in time returned to the military as a chaplain. While at Dyess, Robertson had received high positive assessments of his pastoral work.
But that soon changed.
When the first Persian Gulf War began, soldiers began to ask Robertson whether the war was a “just war.” When vice-president Dan Quayle publicly made a speech in which he suggested that everyone in the U.S. supported the use of the military in the Persian Gulf, Robertson wrote a letter to the editor of the Abilene Reporter News, expressing reservations about the war’s legitimacy, and questioned whether the war was actually “just.”
Robertson expected some negative consequences, but nothing like the punitive effects that came his way. The military powers slowly stripped Robertson of all his pastoral duties, strangely charged him with “fraud,” and accused him of “flouting” the authority of the President of the United States. After two examinations found no evidence of psychological disorders—and after apparent pressure on the psychologist who first examined Robertson—he was judged (without another exam) to have a “personality disorder so severe as to interfere with the normal and customary completion of his duties.” Ultimately, Robertson was forced to retire from military service.
During the fiasco, Robertson was counseled by an officer from the Washington, D.C. Chief of Chaplains office, who told Robertson, “compromise [is] essential for becoming a successful military chaplain.” “I suggested,” Robertson reports, “that ‘cooperation’ was the more suitable word, but he quickly confirmed his intentional use of ‘compromise.’ ‘If Jesus had been an Air Force chaplain,’ he told me, ‘he would have been court-martialed.’” Compromise, the officer told Robertson, is necessary “in order to maintain a presence.”
Robertson concluded that chaplains are not on military bases to bear witness to theological convictions, but to serve the military establishment: what was desired was a “morale officer.” Or as Robertson put it, “the chaplain only succeeds in encouraging soldiers to accept the preferences of the state without question.” Following Robertson's bucking of the system, the senior chaplain at Dyess reworded the official statement of the mission of chaplains at Dyess: to the duty of “providing free exercise of religion,” the senior chaplain added the qualifier “. . . consonant with 96th Wing Commander directives.”
Such a tale raises serious questions about “chaplaincy,” and what such a role entails. Is a chaplain merely to offer some “spiritual morale” without questioning the larger agenda of the institution the chaplain serves? Or is a chaplain supposed to speak to some conception of truth that stands over both chaplain and the institution by which the chaplain is employed?
It raises additional challenging questions about the role of Christianity in the western world. Is Christianity itself merely a “spiritual morale” booster, without tangible social, political, physical ramifications? Or more to the point here, does Christianity actually entail some sort of allegiance which trumps all others?
We’ve told two tales in years past that particularly highlight this challenge. One is the story of the Christmas Eve truce during World War I, in which the Germans on the one side, the French and English on the other, were dug into the muddy, vermin-filled trenches of the French country-side. The war had already gone on longer than anyone anticipated, and would become a bloodbath, killing millions. On Christmas Eve, a truce was called. The men—mortal enemies, or so King and Kaiser had told them—came out and played soccer with each other in the no man’s land that separated the warring sides. They shared gifts, chocolates, played music together; and even, on Christmas Day, shared the eucharist together.
Then, the day following Christmas, the killing resumed.
Such a story is not, as it is sometimes used, a feel-good story about Christmas or the Gospel. It is, more simply, a tragedy. It exhibits the “chaplaincy” which Christianity often provides to the powers-that-be: brief spiritual consolation, without challenging the larger structures of hostility.
A similar example, but without the explicit Christian chaplaincy, occurred in the American Civil War, December 30, 1862. Regiments from the Confederate Army amassed on one side of the Stones River, the Union Army on the other, near current day Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In those days of hand-to-hand killing, regiments had their own bands. As the armies set up their camps, the bands of the respective armies got into their own “battle of the bands,” a cacophony of melodies emerging from either side of the river, the bands playing their favorite tunes, longing for their loves at home.
“Aura Lee,” the tune that would become Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” perhaps played by the Yankees, or “Lorena” played by the Confederates. On and on went a battle of the bands, their tunes falling all over one another. Likely “Tramp!” made the song list, which would later become the tune to “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and “Goober Peas”—“peas, peas, peas, peas, eating goober peas, goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!” And undoubtedly the strains of “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie” must have pushed one against the other, wafting up and across the river.
Then—so I imagine it—someone on the Confederate side called for “Home Sweet Home,” and then another band down the line. Not to be outdone, the Union Army bands started playing the tune, too. In a surreal moment of unity, there coalesced between the two sides a longing for “home sweet home… There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”
Imagine a deep hope, the silent tears that fell, the silence of hope, longing for the peace of God, as each man went to his tent, sought to dream sweet dreams of home.
Awakened in the morning from their dreams, they rose to a nightmare, their commanders urging them on. A great slaughter ensued. They fought until January 2, 1863, some 24,000 casualties of war, men longing to go home.
Watch Tokens Show telling of the WWI Christmas Eve truce on YouTube here.
Watch Tokens Show telling of the story of the Battle of Stones River here.
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This latter rewording of the mission statement was subsequently reversed. This story is reported by Ken Sehested, “Loyalty Test,” Christian Century 111 (Mar 2 1994): 212-214. See also the follow-up report in “Air Force Chaplain Loses Case,” Christian Century (Dec 7 1994): 1153f. I originally published this telling of this tale in Mere Discipleship, 2d ed., pp. 46-47.