Thankful for this distinct perspective from Clifton Hanson.

At the beginning of Advent, I found myself leading a tree lighting ceremony. I’ve been part of tree lighting ceremonies before—this was no ordinary one. Sure, we did the usual stuff: important people addressed the crowd, we read the Christmas story from St. Luke’s Gospel, and of course, we lit a tree. Nothing unusual about any of that. If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say that what made this ceremony unusual was that one member of our community read the Hanukkah blessing in Hebrew, while another read an explanation of each candle of Kwanzaa, and still another read a pagan blessing for Solstice. As a Lutheran pastor, these elements all fell somewhere outside my normal experience (and apart from the Hanukkah blessing, just as far out of my comfort zone). As an Air Force chaplain, however, the whole thing was just another holiday at the factory.

When I decided to become an Air Force chaplain, I heard all the horror stories. One parishioner in the church I was serving warned me that I wouldn’t be allowed to preach about Jesus. Another told me that chaplains couldn’t carry Bibles. An internet search into these matters brought up blog after blog claiming that Christian military chaplains are systematically silenced. Of course, none of this is true. Still, it doesn’t come from nowhere.

Military chaplaincy is an interesting animal, and it raises an interesting set of challenges for a Christian pastor. As a chaplain, you are called to represent your particular faith. At the same time, you have another calling: to be a guarantor of the religious freedoms of every person who dons the uniform. It’s that second calling that presents a challenge, not just for Christian chaplains, but chaplains from nearly every faith, because it requires a certain kind of pluralism.

Now, there’s a dirty word. In my mind, it generally evokes images of White people playing in drum circles and hippies singing “Climb Every Mountain” to … Someone? Pluralism, in my experience, is the thing we embrace when we don’t embrace anything in particular.

A few months ago, I sat in class with fifteen other new recruits listening to a senior Air Force chaplain—a Muslim imam—talk about religious diversity: “If you’re a Christian, be a Christian. If you’re going to try to be something you’re not, I don’t want you on my staff, because I can’t use you.” My whole class was a little surprised. We’d expected the conversation to revolve around sensitivity to other religions, and of course we did talk about that, but this was different. He was talking about diversity and pluralism, but there were no visions of Caucasian drum circles dancing in my head. He wasn’t flattening the particulars of anyone’s faith, but demanding their full expression, which made sense; there’s nothing “plural” about watering down everyone’s faith to the point that no meaningful differences remain.

That’s simple enough. I can be Lutheran and preach Christ crucified and raised all day long—just try to stop me! And as long as I have breath I’ll believe and confess that Jesus is the Savior, not just of me or of people in the West or of the people who choose to associate with him, but of all people. But when an airman comes to me wondering if there’s a Wiccan group they can connect with, or looking for a religious accommodation allowing them the space and time to kneel toward Mecca and pray? I’ve been called to help them, too. So, how can someone who believes that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” actively assist people in the worship of other gods?

Good question. The answer: because someone has to.

The freedom to worship and believe as one chooses is arguably the most fundamental right Americans enjoy. The Chaplain Corps exists to ensure that military personnel can enjoy that right no matter where their country sends them. You’re a Roman Catholic from Spooner, WI, who’s just been sent a thousand miles from the nearest Catholic church? We’ve got you. You’re a Buddhist from Los Angeles who’s just been stationed in Altus, OK? We’ve got you, too. It’s a weird job.

Martin Luther famously (and probably apocryphally) said that he’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. At the heart of that fake but true quote is that God has established civil authorities on the Earth to see that civic life flourishes. The reason that theocracies are always so inherently oppressive is because even the most well-meaning and virtuous person—whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist (the Soviet Union was a theocracy, though an atheistic one)—when given state power over the consciences of others, will by necessity become a tyrant. Look at the divisions that exist in our country today and try to tell me that if one faction held that kind of power over the other they wouldn’t wield it to devastating effect. That’s just what sinners do. This is why the Kingdom of God is not of this world.

What God does establish in this world is vocation, and vocation always deals with what’s real and here and now: broken relationships, clogged-toilets, political fights, flooded fields at harvest time (my brother can fill you in), and people who aren’t very much like me. These concrete vocations can be very counter-intuitive, cutting against our moral and religious ideals, precisely because they aren’t ideal at all. For example, not many people would argue that divorce and custody battles are good and godly things, and yet God calls lawyers and judges into the vocation of reordering broken relationships. And so we assign chaplains this dual task: provide the religious needs of those who believe as you do, and provide for the religious needs of those who do not.

Were I to reach into my Lutheran theological lexicon, I could pull out labels for each of these callings. The first calling would be a right-hand kingdom calling—that is, a calling tied exclusively to the Gospel, given in preaching and sacraments and received in faith. The second would be a left-hand kingdom calling, having to do with civic life and its various institutions. Within these two kingdoms are two distinct kinds of righteousness: in the right-hand kingdom is the righteousness of faith, which avails before God; in the left-hand kingdom is civil righteousness, which serves the neighbor. Both are godly, but in very different ways. God calls some of his preachers into things like multi-faith tree lighting ceremonies, because they allow civic life to flourish, and God has an interest in that kind of thing, which means, once again, that someone has to do them.

Civilian pastors experience this in different ways: the creation of a church budget can be a decidedly left-hand kingdom matter. The hard difference between a civilian pastor’s left-hand kingdom work and the military chaplain’s is that the chaplain’s involves directly helping people as they exercise their faith in something other than Jesus Christ. Isn’t that a bridge too far?

For some, it may be just that. There are traditions, denominations, and individual chaplains for whom making particular accommodations is simply not possible. Thankfully, God in his wisdom has called a diverse labor force to this work, and when one chaplain is prevented by conscience or denominational restriction from providing an accommodation, another can be called upon. We’re seldom alone, which means that one chaplain’s vocation will, by necessity, be different from another’s—we could not adequately serve our people if it were otherwise.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. For a Christian pastor, isn’t it beyond the pale to facilitate religious freedom if that freedom will be used to worship other gods?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows wheat in his field, but while he sleeps an enemy sows weeds among his wheat. When the sabotage is discovered, the farmer’s slaves suggest weeding the field, but the farmer replies, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (13:29-30).

This parable usually isn’t included in collections of Jesus’s “hard sayings” but it ought to be, because when I’m asked by a commander to give a spiritual resiliency talk to a room full of airmen, I want nothing more than to tell them that Jesus is the only true source of hope in this world, but in that moment I can’t; everyone is being forced to attend, and the Air Force can’t require people to listen to me preach. Sure, I can talk about how I practice my own faith—what gives me hope—and I can invite people to talk to me about that, but I can’t tell them where they should place their own hope. Not in a mandatory formation. So I talk about connecting to “faith, family, and friends” in those settings, and it feels like I’ve brought the cattle to the barn and failed to give them any hay. Faith, family, and friends are all good things, but they aren’t Jesus.

“Let both of them grow together,” Jesus says, as if that were easy, as if I don’t get anxious about Paul’s self-admonition: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” But if we refused to accommodate airmen’s varied beliefs, we’d have to refuse to accommodate their Christian beliefs, meaning I wouldn’t get to share Christ in this setting, period. If there’s to be harvest, the field must be watered, and the field is mixed—everything grows up together, or not at all (this holds largely true in the world at large, as well).

I think the reason that Christian chaplains like me struggle so mightily with all of this has everything to do with our refusal to let God be God. We don’t trust the word of God to take root and grow in human hearts when alternatives are allowed to grow and flourish. We still believe the individual is some sovereign diner at a great religious buffet, and if they’re given options, they may choose poorly (spoiler: humanity’s problem is that we’re already gorging ourselves on the wrong stuff, and eliminating bad options won’t stop us—we’ll just invent new ones).

We also do a poor job distinguishing between ourselves and our pastoral vocation: I am a pastor, and as a pastor, it’s my job to “pastor” people to Christ. But this blurs the line between myself and God. There’s only one who can be called The Pastor (pastor and shepherd are not really different terms in the New Testament), and he doesn’t lead astray. I think that means that my anxiety about accommodating religious beliefs I don’t share is more about my lack of trust in Christ as The Pastor than it is about my conviction that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

In my brief tenure as an Air Force chaplain, I’ve been asked for advice on accommodating people from a surprisingly diverse set of religious traditions. The most interesting of these, so far, concerned a young devotee of the Norse gods, and he wanted his commander’s permission to grow a beard. That’s right, a religion that went unpracticed for nearly a thousand years is alive and well in the Air Force. Like I said, it’s a weird job. At the same time, I’ve had more occasions than I can count to hand Christ over to young men and women—in chapel, in counseling, in conversations at the Dining Facility. The word is getting out there and doing what it does, in spite of the competition. Go figure.

After all, if Jesus Christ is truly the Way, if he’s really the Good Shepherd, if he is in fact the Salvation and Life of this old broken world, then I can do both kinds of work into which I’ve been called—the preaching of the Gospel, yes, but even the work that isn’t overtly Christian, but which is godly. So, what of saving lost souls? Well, someone has to do that, too. Thankfully, I think the One who’s been called to that work can handle it well enough.

Clifton Hanson is an active duty Air Force chaplain endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is currently stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD.

Disclaimer Clause: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This article has been cleared for public release by Air Force Public Affairs.


Image credit: The photo of the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is by Ruggero Turra.