Let me begin by pointing out (yet again) that I speak for myself. These are my opinions and reflections. I do not speak for the military or the government. Okay, ready?
This week I read an article saying that Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is once again up in arms about a Christian in the military expressing his faith. This time his furor is directed against an Army Colonel who shared a story about his grandfather’s faith and encouraged Service Members to work on spiritual fitness through prayer. Weinstein’s statement says:
Apparently, Colonel Thomas Hundley can’t figure out whether he’s an active duty senior Army officer or an evangelical Christian missionary? Further, DoD can’t seem to, likewise, decipher whether they are paying him to be one or the other. Where the hell is the adult supervision for senior, active duty officer, Constitutional compliance at DoD?….
Colonel Hundley has absolutely no business or authority under American law to be conflating his Army officer rank, title and position with his professed evangelical Christian faith.
Let’s break down what’s really happening, okay?
1. The military recognizes that spiritual fitness is an important component in overall health. The Army defines spirituality:
Spirituality, as defined by Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, is strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength.
Did you see the part in there that defines spirituality as Christian faith? No? Because it isn’t there. What we’re talking about is the general concept that healthy and fit Service Members have a healthy spirituality WHATEVER THEIR PARTICULAR EXPRESSION LOOKS LIKE.
For the Colonel, his spirituality takes the shape of Christianity.
2. The Colonel did not tell people that his background needed to be everyone’s background. He related a story about his grandfather to share about his own journey, but there was no proselytizing – he wasn’t trying to convert anyone. Sharing personal stories isn’t the same thing as actively trying to convert others.
3. Calling people to prayer is really the least offensive way of talking about spiritual growth. All the major religions have a form of prayer and/or meditation. I can encourage Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Atheists, EVERYONE to engage in spiritual behavior through prayer/meditation. It’s not a behavior unique to Christianity.
Let me give you some personal examples from my own ministry as a military chaplain. My job as a chaplain is NOT to walk around finding people to whack on the head with my Bible and yell, “YOU NEED JESUS!” No, my job is to see to the free exercise of religion for ALL of the Service Members I come across.
Not too long ago I was asked about facilitating a need for Islamic prayer. Easy day! I acquired a Muslim prayer rug for the Religious Ministry Team (RMT) and gave the Service Member space for prayer. I have also given out copies of the Koran, the Book of Morman, Jewish prayer books, and yes, even Bibles, when Service Members let me know they have a need.
So no, the Chaplain Corps is not about making converts. Christians in the military are not hell-bent on making converts. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable for senior leadership to suggest Service Members engage in some form of prayer/meditation as a means to strengthen their spirituality.
On a final note, it is possible for us to hold to our own beliefs while still supporting the rights of others to have their beliefs. This is where we get to the biblical behavior lesson for the day. As Christians we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are also called to treat people the way we wish to be treated. We don’t have to argue the rightness/wrongness of faith. We can be faithful to our own spirituality and still respect the faith and religions of those who disagree with us.
As the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.