Religion is not the problem, but it can help ease the pain
Q: What is the proper role of religion -- and personal religious belief -- in the U.S. armed forces? Should a particular religious affiliation disqualify someone from active military service? How far should the military go to accommodate personal religious beliefs and practices?
Almost twenty years ago, Auburn Seminary was asked to train military chaplains on aircraft carriers off the coast of California. Way before 9/11, the military realized that its chaplains had to be ready for the challenges and opportunities related to the growing religious diversity among its enlisted personnel and hired us to help. As a chaplain in the military, you find yourself counseling the distraught and comforting the dying from a range of religious traditions other than your own. In this regard, having faith and understanding other people's religious beliefs is a great asset for a strong military.
Religion is not the problem at Fort Hood. Being the adherent of a particular religious tradition should never qualify or disqualify someone from serving in the U.S. military.
In light of the recent shootings at Fort Hood by a Muslim sergeant, also a psychiatrist, some are suggesting that Muslim military personnel may have particular problems choosing between their allegiance to the United States or their co-religionists in Iraq and Afghanistan; the moral choice may be too complicated when there are competing loyalties. But it is clear from history that, as far back as the Revolutionary War, Muslims have sacrificed their lives in military service to the United States (see Colin Powell on Larry King). In many of our wars, soldiers have been drafted or volunteered to serve knowing they would have to take up arms against citizens of their countries of origin - from Italian Americans in WWI to German Americans in WWII, not to mention the Civil War in this country where brothers fought against brothers, sometimes literally.
But heroic stories of patriotic military personnel who happen to be Muslim are less familiar to us than stories of those on the religious fringe with aberrant personalities whose actions are extreme and violent. Yet such acts know no religious bounds and can be found in all groups on the face of the earth.
Earlier this week Gedalia, a sixteen-year-old Orthodox Jewish teenager from Israel, came to New York City to speak about his experience as a student in Auburn's Face to Face I Faith to Faith program that trains young people from conflict-ridden countries to communicate across their religious differences. Gedalia told us that before the program he had been cynical about the power of dialogue. His skepticism had grown out of the violence he'd known all his life. After a particular incident where, back home in Jerusalem, Arab youths had taken his yarmulke, ripped it, thrown it to the ground and roughed him up, he wanted nothing to do with Arabs or Muslims anymore. Yet at Face to Face, he learned to talk to a young Palestinian woman, Sireen. He learned that he didn't have to try to erase their differences, but only to accept them and build upon them in search of their common humanity.
In a few short months Gedalia will begin his military service in the IDF--Israeli Defense Force. He will carry a rifle which may be pointed at another human being--or even used to kill. Gedalia said that his experience of Sireen will change how he looks at the "enemy" at the end of the rifle--not as less than human, but as another child of God.
Some of us are working for the day when the divided loyalties under scrutiny will not be whether to defend one's nation or to kill a co-religionist, but whether to kill or not kill another human being at all. In the meantime, barring people from the military on religious grounds is not the answer. Intelligence and vigilance that surface terrorism, extremism and psychological instability are.
And thank God the U.S. military has been working hard for all these years to equip chaplains who can help people of all faiths face the tragedies of war. Those grieving at Fort Hood (and all of us who care to turn to chaplains and clergy) need religious leaders who work to respect religious difference and restore the core values of healing, compassion, community, and love everlasting.
Posted by: MNtoBK | November 16, 2009 9:59 AM
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