Chaplain-General the Reverend Jonathan Woodhouse is the head chaplain of the British Army. Recently interviewed for a news article, he had an interesting response to a question about the movie-stereotype that chaplains tell troops “God is on your side.”
In war films, chaplains traditionally reassure soldiers that God is on their side, but logically he can’t be on everyone’s side? What’s your take?
I don’t think that God is on anyone’s side. It’s up to us to be on God’s side and seek out the way he wants us to live. In certain circumstances soldiers are allowed to use lethal force as a last resort but there are very clear rules of engagement. We minister to people who may be called on to use lethal force and that brings a creative tension. War is always the last resort.
It’s not a bad answer, necessarily, but as some other chaplains pointed out, it lacks the “simplicity” that Soldiers often desire. The Mad Padre, a Canadian chaplain (Padre) who linked to the article on his blog, said
I would say that there are times when God wants soldiers to stand with the good against evil, and that some wars are necessary…Of course there is [right and wrong in war]. A [chaplain] has to find a way to say that while acknowledging that even just warriors must fight penitently in the awareness that the world they fight in and for is a fallen world and that the greatest enemy is sin.
As has been discussed here before, the souls of most men recognize the moral tragedy of war — and it can tear a man apart to lack confidence that his actions are “right” when he takes life in war. When some seek out chaplains for reassurance that “God is on [our] side,” they’re not looking for a theological pep talk extolling them to take over the world for religion. They want to know that their conduct in war is “right.” War and combat are not morally neutral. Most men inherently recognize that if their actions in war are not morally right, then they probably shouldn’t be taking them.
While some may struggle in their attempts to reconcile their faith with their profession of arms (and the lethal combat it necessarily entails), with proper help and mentorship it is actually a growth and maturity-inspiring struggle. For lack of a better way to say it, the growth in character that can occur as a result of the moral tension is a “good” thing. Conversely, the moral callousness war can breed in those who cannot (or choose not to) understand the moral consequences of their conduct can be a very, very bad thing.
If anyone is to be the object of concern, it is those who go into combat without the slightest moral consideration toward taking another human life.