Review: Moral Warriors, Moral Wounds: The Ministry of the Christian Ethic Eugene (Cascade Books, 2016)

[1] It is always a privilege to review an excellent book, particularly a path-breaking one that plows new ground, like Jensen’s and Childs’ Moral Warriors, Moral Wounds. The sense of privilege is magnified when the authors are long-time friends and colleagues, as is the case for me with “Wally and Jim.” The former and I began seminary studies and became friends in the early 1970’s, not long after his return from the Vietnam war. Some of the stories told in the book were first recounted on a long road trip we made together 45 years ago; learning more details this time around heightened my sense of appreciation for the gravitas brought to this timely topic by Chaplain Jensen. While my association with Professor Childs has been of briefer duration, my regard for him is on equal par. My admiration for his theological acumen and personal integrity grew especially during the years I watched him steward the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s process of studying and deliberating the hotly contested and multi-faceted subjects we lump together in the two-word phrase, “human sexuality.” Both these scholars/pastors/leaders have been proven under fire. In full disclosure of the nature of our male bonding, which I don’t believe compromises the objectivity of this review, I share that as were Childs and Jensen, I too was an all-conference high school football player!

[2] Reader, be forewarned: despite its relative brevity, this is a heavy book, which requires time to “read, mark, learn from and inwardly digest.” It deals with one of the most challenging ethical questions that endures throughout human history: war. It offers a deeply theological treatment of the topic about which individually and collectively I imagine we will have the most profound discussions with our Creator when we’re all together in what a dearly departed Episcopal colleague in California always referred to as “the larger life of God.”

[3] The book offers as good a brief treatment of “just war” ethics as one is likely to encounter, thereby rendering it useful in any general introductory course or reading list in the field of Christian ethics. Given that the authors are both Lutheran theologians, it is to be expected they view their vexing subject matter through Lutheran lenses; nevertheless, the broad ethical perspectives proffered render the book relevant for students and ministry practitioners of all theological stripes. In that regard, Childs’s and Jensen’s sensitive treatment of multi-faith perspectives is essential in a work whose intended audience includes military chaplain candidates preparing to minister in the most diverse and pluralistic “congregations” that exist in any context. Central to the ethical approach espoused is “agape love,” which the authors argue “can speak meaningfully even in the situation of war.” (p. 9)

[4] Since military chaplains and chaplain candidates are a primary intended readership, the book begins appropriately with chapters on “The Chaplain and the Challenges of Military Culture.” Especially for those of us who have never served in the armed forces, this is a helpful introduction to a world that may seem as alien as that from which extraterrestrial beings emanate. In this introductory section, Jensen’s personal “testimony” is both engaging and poignantly honest. It takes readers inside the head and heart of a Midwestern farm boy suddenly thrust into the role of “trained killer.” Later vignettes from Wally’s terrifying stint with the infantry in Vietnam draw a reader into the reality of death-dealing combat and how it inflicts moral wounds, if not physically disabling wounds as well.

[5] A brief history of U.S. military chaplaincy (first instituted by Congress in 1791) and its First Amendment moorings offers a helpful apologetics for this unique form of ministry, which is perennially contested by absolute pacifists and others who believe Christians should have nothing to do with military activities or warriors beyond compelling them to lay down arms. By no means do Childs and Jensen gloss over the ethical binds in which chaplains and all peace-loving military enlistees find themselves; rather, they plunge right into the reality that, “Frequently the chaplain must negotiate the ethical tensions which exist between the needs of the military and the teaching tenets of the endorsing ecclesiastical community. For military chaplains, life is lived in the interstices of the military service and the civilian religious community.” (p.15)

[6] For this reader/reviewer, one of the most useful sections of the book treats the challenging matter of “vocational integrity” amidst the current pluralistic multi-faith context. While the authors’ comments are directed specifically toward the military environment, their insights will be no less relevant for “civilian” clergy of all faiths who are increasingly drawn into situations where the “faith of our fathers (and mothers)” cannot be presumed. Their review of Ted Peters’ approaches to engaging with persons of other faiths (Confessional Universalism, Confessional Exclusivism, and Supraconfessional Universalism) constitutes a fine introductory lesson for seminarians and chaplain candidates of all faith perspectives. As noted earlier, so too is the book’s overview of “just war” convictions among the best brief treatment of the subject to be found.

[7] Given that another intended audience for the book are congregational leaders committed to helping their faith communities become places of welcome for wounded warriors, the authors’ summary of “warrior culture” is another good guide. Once again, Jensen’s autobiographical comments take what could be dry subject matter and bring it to life, helping those not steeped in military culture to understand: “Respect for and confidence in authority is one of the essential characters of a warrior.” As a long-time seminary president, over the years I have usually been able to spot former military personnel within hours after their arrival as new students on campus; they’re the ones who call me either “sir” or “Mr. President,”! Gaining a better understanding of the current or former soldiers’ worldview will assist clergy and lay leaders in better ministering with those who have served their country as warriors. In another Jensen retrospective moment later in the book, Wally’s description of inhospitable treatment in his home congregation upon returning from Vietnam sounds a wakeup call for churches serious about extending God’s grace to those who bear the heavy burdens of what they have been called to do.

[8] Moral Warriors, Moral Wounds’ second section zeroes in on “Virtues and Principles” that guide chaplains and others engaged in ministry with soldiers. This part of the book begins with a succinct summary: “The seven core values of the US Army—loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage—will serve as our model for the basic precepts of military ethics.” Among the seven, honor is the prevailing wind that blows through all the rest. In addition to laying solid ethical foundations, Jensen and Childs include a few examples of soldiers who have demonstrated personal moral courage, including as “whistleblowers” challenging deviations from the honor code by fellow warriors and even superior officers. In this segment of the book, I found myself wishing the authors would have expanded their case studies by delving more deeply into the morass we continue finding frequently in the news: the military’s seeming inability to root out and punish the apparent significant number of perpetrators of sexual abuse and harassment. Some forthright acknowledgment of how all branches of the US military have failed systemically and institutionally to embody the honor code, during prior historical eras when official policy was discriminatory against persons of color, women and LGBTQ persons who felt called to serve their country, would strengthen this treatment of virtue and integrity. Childs and Jensen do briefly address “respect for one another in matters of sexuality” near the end of the book (p. 137), in a broader section on maintaining trust as a key to life together in military environments.

[9] The book’s third and final section delves deeply into “The Vocation of Ethical Leadership.” Whereas the whole arena of “emotional intelligence” has received much attention in recent decades, Jensen and Childs herein offer encouragement for greater attention to fostering “spiritual intelligence,” which complements critical thinking, “the intellectual process of gathering, organizing, evaluating, and employing information in a systematic and repeatable fashion as a guide to belief and action.” (p.76) Integrating the “vertical component” into one’s ethical and pastoral praxis, by conscious attempts to connect with the Divine is as essential as giving attention to careful intellectual engagement with the life-and-death matters stewarded by military chaplains and others engaged in spiritual care for warriors and their families.

[10] A compelling case study involving a so-called “mercy killing” in Afghanistan, coupled with Jensen’s haunting recall of watching another human being fall from his shot, are stark reminders that the subject matter of this book is as heavy as will be encountered in a course of study. Still new nomenclature in many an academic setting, the whole matter of “moral injury” is thrust front and center in the book’s knockout punch. While some measure of healing may occur, a warrior who has taken another’s life violently and volitionally never gets over it, as our brother Wally starkly acknowledges: “This part of my warrior experience has been going on inside of me for over forty years now.” (p. 89) Jensen’s final compelling autobiographical section also poses the challenge faced by preachers who feel called to prophetically challenge an unjust war while simultaneously creating safe space for current and former warriors involved in that war. In his case, writes Jensen, the church failed to find that balance: “Today, I am and remain a Christian not because of the church but in spite of the church.” (p. 93)

[11] In further case studies, Childs and Jensen explore topics that are front and center in our current presidential campaigns and public debates. Quoting Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, they acknowledge the new age of warfare inaugurated by development of unmanned aircraft: “The age of drones, unless checked, will be the age of permanent war.” (p. 124) Drawing a line that must not be crossed in interrogation, the authors articulate a compelling stance on human dignity rooted in a solid theological anthropology. And they acknowledge that ambiguity remains: Where is the line crossed between what is described as “coercive but not abusive interrogation”? (p. 130)

[12] A final chapter on “Safe and Sacred Spaces” issues a clarion call to all faith communities serious about signs in front of churches that claim All Are Welcome. Given the reality that more than 1.6 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, every congregation finds itself presented with the opportunity to welcome home those whose vocations include military service in war zones almost guaranteed to inflict varying degrees of moral injury. For military chaplains and for us all, such ministry poses unique and daunting challenges. Childs and Jensen offer a resource that can help immensely in rising to such challenges. An added bonus is an extensive bibliography that offers even more rich resources.

Michael Cooper-White

Michael Cooper-White is President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg A