Chances for Chaplaincy in the Past and Future*

*.Presentation to the annual Norwegian Military Chaplains Corps meeting, Oslo 23rd October 2003

It does not automatically go without saying that I, as a German, should be asked to give the main lecture on the occasion of your moving ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the chaplaincy in the Norwegian Armed Forces. I know that many terrible deeds and crimes were caused by Germans in your country and in other European countries during World War II, and that, as a result, we Germans still today carry a great guilt. For this reason I feel particularly honored to be allowed to speak to you here in Oslo today.

The topic that you have suggested to me is about chances for chaplaincy in the past and future.

Chances that military chaplaincy has taken in the past that have in turn influenced chaplaincy

A wooden crucifix with a special story stands on my great-grandfather’s secretary, which serves as my desk in my office. This crucifix was given me by an older friend of mine, a bishop, shortly before he died. The story of this crucifix is as follows: this bishop was a military chaplain during the Second World War and, at the end of the war, was taken prisoner by the French, along with thousands of German soldiers. The conditions in the camp were miserable, and many of the young men died. The Catholic priest and this Protestant minister, who lived together ecumenically in a tiny tent, were stretched to their limits. Among the prisoners there was a man from Bavaria who carved wood in honor of God; with the simplest tools he created this impressive crucifix, and in every service this crucifix was placed on the altar and witnessed endless human suffering, guilt, fear, and hopelessness. Now it stands in my office and silently represents the misery of war and the confusion of the postwar period of 1945 and 1946.

Sisters and Brothers, thus we can describe our responsibility as chaplains as an opportunity and an assignment, regardless of the army in which we serve or the country of which we are citizens or the side of the front line on which we find ourselves. We cannot statistically describe the blessings that have resulted and still result from our work. My friend, the old bishop, learned only by coincidence that because of his influence and that of his Catholic colleague in the camp one man became a Christian and another studied theology after the war and became a minister. Indeed, many of these men later understood the Christian ethic in a totally new manner and put it into practice in their own lives and in those of their families. The Norwegian chaplaincy has certainly had a similar influence on Norwegian soldiers in past centuries and also in the past 50 years. The blessings that have resulted from this work have influenced the lives of many soldiers and their families, but they cannot be measured, so that we, in the words of Martin Luther, cannot and may not “praise” ourselves.

As in the case of the German armed forces, you too have seen the increase in the necessity and importance of our work as chaplains in the past 20 years, especially due to the foreign assignments of the soldiers, whom we regularly accompany. These young men and women are often affected in their personal existence by the particular burdens brought on by foreign assignments and by the images of destruction, violence, and poverty surrounding them.

They need us to work out these experiences with them and to help them in their yearning and search for inner strength and a new system of values, in which the spiritual dimension takes on an ever more important influence. We have seen, for example, an increasing number of adult christenings among the soldiers on foreign assignments. Many soldiers come, as I myself do, from that part of Germany that was governed by communists until the fall of the Berlin Wall, where, because of the atheistic ideology in society, the media, and educational policy, a majority of the population were “religious illiterates”. In the eastern part of Germany only 20% of the population belong to a church. Many of these so to speak innocently atheistic soldiers have never been in a church, not to mention having not the simplest religious knowledge. Thus it was a complete surprise that a scientific poll taken among these non-religious soldiers on assignment showed that 90% of them wanted a chaplain to accompany them on their assignment, even though in their civilian lives they had had no contact with any church.

This leads us to the question of the chances of chaplaincy in the present and future. But before I talk about this second aspect, let me take a quick look at chaplaincy in the past.

As long as there have been military units in the western world, regardless of the kind of states, rule, or power blocs, chaplains have always accompanied the soldiers. The inner reasoning was often because the rulers saw themselves as God-given persons and thus felt responsible for their armies’ relationship to God. Even Adolf Hitler never dared to alter this great tradition of military clergymen in the German Army. It was only the communist party dictatorship in East Germany that, following the example of the Soviet Army, forbade any kind of chaplaincy in the barracks. The church then found other methods of serving the soldiers.

In his very informative book, “From Military in Church to Church in Military”, which has just appeared in honor of this 50th anniversary, Nils Terje Lunde has described the fast thousand-year old history of the accompaniment of soldiers by the Norwegian chaplaincy. In his book he also discusses the critical phase of the 60’s and 70’s of the 20th century, which many of us experienced and which, in many western European countries, was characterized by sharp criticism of existing social circumstances on the part of the younger generation. In West Germany this even extended to terrorism on the part of a few leftists. Chaplaincy was seen, according to Nils Terje Lunde, as an “unholy alliance between church and military”.

In this respect it was easier for the West Germans than for you here in Norway. When, following World War II and after very heated discussions, the German armed forces were established, the fathers of the new army, very conscious Christians who were willing to accept the consequences of German guilt, determined the following rules for military chaplains, which are still in effect: they are independent of military subordination and they wear neither rank insignia nor uniforms. They wear camouflage clothing only during exercises and foreign assignments. The shoulder insignia show no military rank but only a Christian cross. They are not allowed to carry weapons. Their assistants, the so-called ministry assistants, work during exercises and assignments with the medical corps under the symbol of the Red Cross.

Thus, the “critical solidarity” that Nils Terje Lunde calls a consequence of the discussions of the 70’s has found its inner and outer form in the German armed forces since the 50’s. I know that we are viewed by our colleagues in other western armies as too civilian or even as some kind of “bird of paradise”, but if you look at it from the basic premise of “critical solidarity”, it makes sense. Thus a German military chaplain can only dream about seeing himself in a fancy navy uniform.

The reason for this internal and external distance of the army chaplains lies of course in the terrible realization of many responsibly thinking Germans after World War II of the extent of German crimes against the people of other countries, especially against Jewish people. In order to prevent such crimes, including those committed by the churches, from ever appearing again in Germany, this separation of church and military has been extremely firmly established, just as appropriate consequences were taken by the military side. The instrument of “inner leadership” has eliminated the idea of non-thinking obedience and conscienceless dependency on command and obedience and has replaced this in its very essence with the concept of the soldier as a “citizen in uniform”. For fifty years now the personal creativity of the individual soldier has been considered exceptionally important.

Thus I can well understand the developments in the chaplaincy of your armed forces during the 90’s, especially the view of the chaplaincy itself, not as a unit outside of the military, but as an ethical authority, rooted in the armed forces themselves, that wishes to support the soldiers as they look for answers to the questions of “good and bad”, “right and wrong”, “war and peace”, questions made ever more complicated by globalization.

It goes without saying that this theological work can only be carried out in close cooperation with our churches. As chaplains we can only be as effective or ineffective as our churches are.

But to go back to the concept with which we started, the “unholy alliance between church and military”. The real problem lies deeper and is based on the tension between the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament with its radical command to love and the prohibition of any kind of violence and the option, also to be found in the Bible, of using force in particular situations, summarized in the classical terminology of a “just war”. In a detailed theological essay Martin Luther himself wrote about this tension and the conditions under which the use of force and its limitations are possible. This essay was published in 1526 in the form of a letter to a soldier, Assa von Kram, a military colonel and conscious Christian. This Colonel von Kram had been deeply shocked as a witness of the blood bath of Frankenhausen in the province of Thuringia, when, in a battle with rebellious peasants, the latter, militarily badly inferior, were massacred in the hundreds. To understand how modern Luther’s thoughts still are, we, in our day, need only to consider names like “Srebrenica”, “Afghanistan”, or “Iraq”.

Thus it is a very positive development, when in the Norwegian armed forces the potentiality of the integrated chaplaincy, beside its connection to the church, is recognized more and more as an influence that is not only involved in pastoral help for the civilian and military members of the armed forces, but is also an important advisor in questions of ethics, of war and peace within the complicated context of a globalized world.

The Protestant Church in Germany has faced up to this challenge and in 1994 published “Steps on the Road toward Peace”, basic principles about the ethics and politics of peace. In this essay the classical concept of a “just war” was replaced by the leading concept of a “just peace”. This is also the title of a corresponding essay of the German Catholic Church, which was published in the year 2000. These ideas definitely had an influence on the political decisions made in Germany not to participate in the war in Iraq. Both churches are now considering how these principles can continue to be valid even after the changes in world security caused by the terror attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

The view ahead of chaplaincy in the future

What is waiting for us in the future, in the Norwegian, indeed, in all of the western armed forces? Our armies are going through an ever more radical reform process. This is characterized by a to date unique military paradigmatic change from highly armed forces of the cold war that were trained for a defensive war against communist aggression to armed forces that now have to be strong in totally other ways, for example to prevent and eliminate war, genocide, and extreme injuries of human rights on a worldwide basis, and, in cooperation with the United Nations and with other peace-keeping forces, to help build new and just structures. Of course our home countries will continue to have the defense of the country in mind, but at the same time our barracks and exercise areas will become more and more obviously training camps for the special capabilities that these international assignments require. For the chaplaincy this means that, beside the duties of ethical responsibility described above, we have to develop further our abilities to communicate with other religions, cultures, and armies.

In light of the not yet completed extension of the European Union toward the East, I would like to describe a phenomenon that involves the problem of the “soldiers without religion”. We are going to meet these soldiers increasingly in other armies and will learn from them a great deal about the quality of our work in the future. These soldiers are really among the tragic heirs of an atheist ideology that on the far side of the Iron Curtain has led to a shocking intellectual and spiritual deprivation in all areas of society – and carrying the particular poison that these people often view themselves in relation to religious people as the better and intellectually more highly developed persons.

To understand this better, allow me to tell you a few biographical facts. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 11, 1989, I lived in East Berlin as a Lutheran theologian and leading minister of my church. As I later discovered when reading my secret police files, the parsonages in which I lived were all “bugged” – even in our bedroom. The reason for these measures by the dictatorial system was that well-known representatives of the opposition met in my house. This had been the way ever since, to the horror of many friends and family members, I decided to leave secure Scandinavia and return to East Germany a few days after the Berlin Wall went up in August, 1961. Churches and parsonages were taboo zones for the East German state, and they could only get into these refuges with secret police methods.

The situation became more dangerous as it did all over Europe and America when at the beginning of the 80’s the rocket rearmament of the great powers began and the peace movement came into being even in East Germany. I gave this group protection and refuge in our church buildings. The state tried to force me to prohibit meetings of this group of about 80 persons belonging to the “silent elite”, because 70% of its members did not belong to the church. I answered with the argument that God’s love is available for all human beings.

The logo of this movement was modeled after the statue put up years ago in front of the United Nations building in New York by the former Soviet Union, called “Swords to Plowshares”, which shows a blacksmith forming a plow from a sword. This image is, as of course you know, taken from the Old Testament, especially the strong passages of the prophet Micah, chapters 4 and 5. Thus from the beginning the politically very effective peace movement in East Germany, which had a great influence on the fall of the Berlin Wall, had Biblical and theological roots. Many people of the younger and middle generations in East Germany wore this logo on their clothing or bags, even after it was forbidden by the state, which saw it as a symbol of the opposition. Some of these people even lost their positions at work or in school because of wearing this symbol. But the meetings of the peace circle in our church buildings were all the more attractive. The external protection was my responsibility; the internal leadership was the responsibility of my colleague, a young, ordained woman minister. At the first few meetings she placed a burning candle in the middle of the group and said a few spiritual words. As she noticed that far more than half of the participants did not belong to the church, she wanted to leave out the spiritual introductions in order not to force them upon the non-religious people present. To her surprise there was a protest; it was indeed these non-religious people who clearly expressed the wish to keep this ritual.

What does this mean for us? It’s very simple. Regardless of whether people have been brought up in a religious manner or not, they need and want rituals that go beyond the individual, beyond a group, beyond the present situation and that point toward other, greater relationships. In that opposition circle in East Berlin during the communist period it was the candle and the brief spiritual word at the beginning of every meeting. It was like the golden background of the orthodox icons. This spiritual word meant quiet security for all of the really involved people, because, beside the unknown and blackmailed members, the state secret police also sent a number of anonymous visitors to the meetings, who were supposed to disrupt the meetings with provocative actions. Thus for the true members of this Berlin circle there was no better training field for non-violence. And the motto “no violence” played a decisive role later on during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thus we can see that rituals like these are essential for our future work with soldiers at home and even more during foreign assignments. Whether it be a candle or a cross, a picture or a word or music, the ritual needs continual repetition, and this gives us the feeling of security in insecure moments, something lasting in fleeting moments. We as clergy need practice and spiritual energy in order to develop rituals for and with the soldiers entrusted to us in whatever position and location in which they find themselves, rituals that reflect the emotional feelings of these human beings in their particular situation.

In addition, an appropriate initiative of the chaplaincies of western oriented nations would be desirable in order to develop together such symbols and rituals for various situations, which, rooted in western tradition, would support our soldiers. Such formulas, developed in various languages by such an initiative, would be a great help especially for the numbers of borderline experiences of human life such as accidents, death, and suicide, that increase during foreign assignments. A year ago in a first attempt for German assignments, we published a field agenda for various occasions in German, English, and French. For the next step it would make sense to carry out an interreligious dialogue with representatives of the three large monotheistic religions to discuss aspects of Jewish, Moslem, and Christian theology and practice in order to develop a canon of religious rituals and symbols that are acceptable to all three religions. This canon could be a tremendous support for members of the various armies in situations of difficult stress.

Who could be better suited to postulate suggestions for this empty field than we?

Chances for chaplaincy in the past and future: A Summary

From the chaplaincy of the past we will keep the passion with which we try to be close to the people in uniform in all situations in order to help them and support them in all their troubles. In this way we remain witnesses to God’s love for all human beings.

For our present work this means that we must now also recognize and accept our responsibility for ethical questions.

For the future we must add the responsibility of passing along knowledge about other cultures and religions.

The view toward the future also includes the following: wherever we act as “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5, 19 ff.) in the sense of Godly reconciliation, whether in military or civilian life, each of us must find for himself a good balance between holding fast to the familiar and letting go of everything that excludes or injures others – in other words, a good balance between “self-assurance” and “humility”.

We are allowed to be self-assured if we are working in a national or international context for the humanity of man with his strengths and especially with his weaknesses. For this we need a solid Biblical-theological background from which only then a good self-assurance can develop and endure.

We must be humble toward everything strange, new, unknown. We must wait patiently until we can and want to recognize our role as ambassadors for Christ.

I am a guest in your Lutheran country and hope that I might remind you that Martin Luther was a grand master in discovering and considering the theological ramifications of apparent opposites such as: at the same time lord and knave, at the same time a sinner and a righteous person, at the same time free and bound, and at the same time self-assured and humble. This can be a contribution to the great interreligious dialogue that awaits us.

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