Dimensionality of the military chaplaincy

Dimensionality: "An aspect or feature of a situation, problem, or thing" (Oxford English Dictionary). The more dimensions the more complex, e.g., one dimensional, two dimensional, three dimensional. Dimensionality may also speak to the complexity of racial, social, religious, cultural, sexual, gender, class, etc., diversity within today's military chaplaincy.

By Paul Dodd

Perhaps this is a word which might describe, acutely and accurately, the present tendency of the military chaplaincy to avoid the so-called "curse of dimensionality," whereby the multi-dimensional makeup of the chaplaincy becomes increasingly complex and challenging.

Indeed, looking around the multi-cultural landscape of today's military, one might agree with Dorothy: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!"

For some, especially those from more conservative frames of reference, this seismic shift from the familiar and traditional to an emergent and rapidly changing environment is unsettling and threatening. In other words, the dimensionality has expanded beyond their comfort zones, and ministry for them has become virtually impossible.

It was a mere 65 years ago that President Harry Truman ordered the integration of black troops into the military, forever ending racial segregation among America's service members and mandating equal opportunity for all.

Women had served honorably and heroically in the military for many years, but it wasn't until 1970 that my friend and parishioner from the Ft. Myer chapel, Brigadier General Elizabeth Hoisington, became the first flag officer in the Women's Army Corps. In 1978, the WAC was dissolved, permitting both men and women to serve in the same military units.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual service members broke down the closet doors of secrecy and shame with the repeal of oppressive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" legislation in December 2010. Presently, the application of a highly qualified Humanist chaplain awaits approval by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board.

On each occasion, dire prognostications have issued forth from proverbial Chicken Little style critics that, surely, "the sky is falling." And, on each occasion, seasoned, highly trained and disciplined military professionals, and courageous minorities, have stood ready to navigate the transitions with relentless determination and little fanfare.

Now again, the hue and cry of some warns that the military is being used for social experimentation, that recent changes will destroy morale, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, and that the most important First Amendment right of religious liberty is at risk.

Some, led by America's largest and most powerful evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, have issued "stop order" guidelines to their endorsed military chaplains to refuse to carry out their sworn duty of extending spiritual support to all service members and their families. Dimensionality, for them, has become untenable and ominous, rendering their ministry essentially incompatible with military service.

One obvious solution to the dilemma is to reduce the dimensionality and retreat to the simplicity of the past, perhaps to the easily defined and three-dimensional chaplaincy of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish traditions. Simplify the military by returning to a predominantly male, heterosexual and comfortably homogenous force.

Some are proposing something of the sort, as evident in a casual visit to the Internet sites of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, Focus on the Family and the Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty.

They would lock themselves and others into an ossified military chaplaincy of cultural conformity, theistic beliefs and moral absolutes. Not surprisingly, they all aim to be included in whatever remains after their reduction of dimensionality in the Armed Forces. That is not a realistic view of the military, the ministry of chaplains or of the evolving world.

The more likely and realistic solution to this gathering storm of fear and misinformation seems clear — "Nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead."

The landscape is rapidly changing, demographics have shifted dramatically, innovative ministries are evolving and dimensionality continues to expand with breathtaking speed. Agility and resilience are essential qualities for anyone who aspires to care for the spiritual needs of America's disparate military forces in such a pluralistic environment.

New challenges require new ways of thinking. The modern military is faced with difficult but exciting new challenges that will not be solved by a return to the simplicity of bygone times. Yet, one thing remains constant — the mission of nurturing, caring and honoring America's fighting forces, all of them without bias and discrimination, remains unchanged.

Today's challenging chaplaincy is not for the timid and faint of heart. Clearly, it is not for everyone, and possibly not even for some who have served honorably, but who are simply unable to adapt to the rapidly changing climate and accelerating pace of today's military service.

But for the few, the brave, and the proud; for those rare and steely visioned clergy who will answer the call to serve faithfully and courageously in a battle-hardened, ever vigilant and vigorous military, the rewards are immeasurable.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.