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

[1] For Armed Forces members, “…caught in some of life’s worst heart-rending situations…the practice of the Christian ethic does not operate with the certitude of moral perfection but rather with the assurance of God with us with grace for the way” write the authors of this thoughtful, compact, far-reaching new book (pages 9, 130). Wollom Jensen, retired ELCA Navy Chaplain and Canon to the Episcopal Church Bishop for Armed Forces and Federal Ministries, and James Childs, Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, communicate with appreciation for the depth of theology and provide rich insight into the real-world dilemmas faced by our military.

[2] The text is a broad, enriching inquiry into the calling and tensions experienced within the chaplain’s vocation. It offers a joint focus across Navy, Air Force, and Army Chaplaincy lines. Fresh resources in references and footnotes invite further study. While helpful for the entire Armed Forces and civilian pastoral care communities, this work is especially beneficial to initial entry and career-level chaplains.

[3] The example of dialogue and camaraderie demonstrated by the authors–one an endorsing agent staff member, the other an ethics professor–is particularly valuable. Here is a faith community uniting as one to address complex issues of morality within warfare. In doing so, often isolated Religious Support Teams “in the fight” are encouraged, supported, and offered rich insight into the weighty concerns of their calling. The authors model the vision so capably set forth by Daniel Bell, outgoing General Hugh Shelton Distinguished Visiting Professor of Ethics for Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff Officer College: wrestling with the harder issues of our calling “…is not a matter of isolated individuals…offering their judgments and opinions. Rather, it is the practice of a community; it is a matter not of an individual’s but of the community’s reflection and discernment,” (Just War as Christian Discipleship–Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather Than the State, 2009, p. 15).

[4] Moral Warriors, Moral Wounds offers instructive guidance on distinctly Lutheran themes of “sinning boldly” (in a world “…fraught with uncertainties, inescapably tragic choices and ambiguity…we live by assurance of God’s gracious presence as we seek to do the will of God…” p. 9) and “theology of the cross” (a “spirituality of humility and compassion”) in making ethical pronouncements and providing care, (p. 46). The call to the life of agape, neighbor love–universal, all-inclusive; self-giving, servant-leadership demonstrating a “sacred trust;” and committed to reconciliation, the “reunification of the estranged”–forms the “heart” of the Christian ethic. In doing so, the text echoes themes of theologian Nigel Biggar’s commanding In Defence of War, especially chapter 2, “Love in War,” section V., “Can Love Walk the Battlefield” (pp. 78-90, 2013).

[5] This book will foster spirited discussion. The brief treatment of chaplains and weapons (chaplains who pick up weapons “must of necessity be barred from presiding at the Eucharist” as they damage their credibility and cause soldiers to lose hope, p. 39) goes contrary to my experience with Airborne Infantry and Special Operations units. Saying that Chaplain Assistants and Religious Program Specialists are “there to protect the chaplain but this is problematic for the Christian chaplain” (p. 38) clashes with the confidence I received from my “battle buddy” Chaplain Assistant Staff Sergeant Loic St. Gal de Pons while traveling throughout theater in Operation Enduring Freedom. And, the exploration of opening the door to “selective conscientious objection” (pp. 108-111) may also trigger vigorous debate.

[6] In assessing the authors’ work, three areas of nuanced emphasis arise. Throughout the first part of the book, the chaplain as advocate for “just war theory” (my italics) is set forth. The massive Department of Defense Law of War Manual (2015), authored by the Staff Judge Advocate community, is positively referenced. In treating the just war tradition as theory, some chaplains may “lose heart” as lawyers seem to have the final word. Yet, as articulated so well by David Corey and Daryl Charles, “The just war tradition (my italics) is the only framework that offers a rich, highly inflected language, a storehouse of categories…developed over centuries of reflection, in which the moral particulars of war can be examined (The Just War Tradition–An Introduction, p. 4, 2012). Just war theory implies laws, details, and checklists, the realm of lawyers and technicians. The just war tradition suggests high-minded ethical and religious deliberation, employed throughout the centuries, the domain of theologians and chaplains. Religious Support Teams can “bring to the fight” the highest of moral aspirations and ideals, the values and virtues applied to moral thinking, and the best of reasoned theological insight, when we deal in terms of the just war tradition, rather than theory.

[7] Second, in chapter eight on moral injury, the authors stress the importance of repentance, absolution, and the sacraments; a grasp of “divine solidarity with human suffering,” are distinct aspects of our call. They also emphasize the value of rigorous training and education in critical thinking. This focus might be intimidating for civilian pastors, chaplain assistants, and citizens wanting to aid those with moral wounds. In addition to these helpful skills the authors recommend, a fuller emphasis on the power of genuine listening would be beneficial. Writes my Reformed Church in America colleague and friend, Wayne Van Kampen, “An empathetic relationship begins to unfold when persons sense caring and compassion, as they feel heard, valued and respected…The pastor seeks, by presence and action, in word and deed, to mediate a measure of God’s grace which embraces the pain and unfairness which is so much a part of the human experience…Persons desire more deeply to be heard, valued, and respected than to receive answers which may or may not be helpful in their given situations” (review of The Spiritual Lives of Dying Persons by Scaglione and Mulder).

[8] Third, the impression from the book could be that all returning combat veterans are “damaged goods.” To counterbalance this all too common societal misperception and assumption, reference to or mention of General James Mattis’s “The Meaning of Their Service” (remarks before the fourth annual salute to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans at the Marines’ Memorial Club, San Francisco, 16 April 2015) would provide a worthwhile corrective. For many Veterans, significant growth occurs in moral strength and personal satisfaction experienced through combat deployments. Applauding these positive character and courage-building attributes would add depth and meaning.

[9] Worth the “price of the book” are the illustrations woven throughout; the transparency of Wollom Jensen’s personal accounts of Army basic training and his thirteen month enlisted tour in Vietnam, 1968-69 (pp. 33-37, 84-93); the rich theological insights and context offered by Professor Childs (especially pp. 6-10); and the concluding wisdom and application of Romans 8:35-39 (p. 145).

[10] Endorsers should consider giving Moral Warriors, Moral Wounds to their Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Chaplains as a stimulus to spiritual development and deepening, and as an affirmation of their distinct calling and competence. Chaplaincy tracks at colleges and seminaries, in addition to Chaplain D.Min. programs, will benefit greatly from having this text as a coursework requirement. Battalion and Brigade level Religious Support Teams will profit from the insights and examples of this work as they tap Center for Army Profession and Ethic (CAPE) or the Stockdale Institute rich practical training aides to engage in “dialogical ethics” (p. 118) presentations with their units. Departments of religion and ethics, at the university or seminary level, along with endorsers and chaplains, would do well to follow the example of the authors, uniting in conversation, discussion, and work, bringing readable, realistic insight and products to those in the field. In covenanting to work together, we can accomplish much to foster genuine witness, care, and healing.

Kenneth L. Sampson

Chaplain (Colonel--Retired) Ken Sampson, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, served in the U.S. Army for nearly thirty years.  He recently retired from a part-time position as Military Liaison with Guideposts.