Chaplains and the Bearing of Arms

By regulation, U.S. Army chaplains are noncombatants and do not bear arms. From time to time, this becomes a matter of discussion among chaplains. It’s not an issue for me. My denomination insists on me not using weapons in my capacity as a chaplain. I doubt that my church would endorse chaplains if it were otherwise.

The Geneva Conventions, however, do not strictly prohibit noncombatants from carrying self-defense weapons. Medical personnel are also noncombatants and carry weapons to defend the helpless and the injured in their care. In my work I occasionally meet chaplains from other countries where bearing arms is the norm.

I think the current policy is the right one, though, and here’s why.

During my first combat deployment, many troops were surprised to find that I was not carrying a weapon. They were surprised, not shocked or offended or angered that I wasn’t armed. When they asked, “Hey, chaplain, where’s your weapon,” their questions gave great opportunities to talk with Soldiers about trusting God. Not being armed did not distance me from the Soldiers in the least.

When soldiers later actually did take lives in combat, some of them came back afterwards to talk to me. Things aren’t tidy or pretty in combat. Because the soldiers saw me as in some sense as a “man of peace” in their midst, I played a role that no one else did. I was both an outsider and an insder. I could talk objectively about ethics because I wasn’t having to self- justify my own lethal conduct, and I could talk about experiences because I was there. Although I was with them and one of them, I was a reminder of something beyond the violence and chaos of war.

With regard to Christian theology, the question about chaplains isn’t whether God’s people can carry weapons. That’s an entirely different discussion about the ethics of war and the calling of Christians. God’s people who serve in the military have decided that, at least in certain circumstances, Christians can bear arms in support of a just cause. The Christian sergeant firing his rifle and the Christian private pulling the lanyard on the howitzer are both people of God.

The question for Christian chaplains is this: “What is the vocation of a pastor and a member of the ordained clergy?”The king’s vocation is to crush the oppressor. The church’s is not. While I may serve in the king’s army, my vocation as a pastor is to lead the church.

For Christians in military service, I hope that my unarmed presence also serves as living reminder of the hope we have for the coming of Christ’s kingdom, when the lion will lie down with the lamb and the weapons of war will be fuel for the fire. As those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, we long for the peace of God’s kingdom. That is the day we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.

Christian soldiers must not let the violence that surrounds them, and in which they engage, steal their humanity or distort their vision of what God intends for this world.

If US Army chaplains were armed, they could still not participate in ordinary combat operations. As non-combatants under the Geneva Conventions, they could only use their weapons to prevent violations of the law of war: i.e.killing of the wounded, prisoners of war, civilians, other non-combatants, etc., regardless of whether the violator was enemy or friendly. (Since the chaplains are themselves non-combatants, using them in personal self-defense would also be lawful.)

Chaplains would lose their protected status under the Geneva Conventions if they used their defensive weapons in ordinary military operations. If they still wore protected insignia while doing so, they might turn themselves into war criminals. It would be treachery, akin to launching an attack from an ambulance. The technical word is “perfidy,” an act that includes feigning protected status in order to deceive the enemy.

The U.S. Army has hundreds of thousands of armed men and women to fight the nation’s wars. It has about 1600 men and women to remind the rest that life is bigger – and God’s love is more enduring – than whatever war they happen to be fighting. We would gain virtually nothing by arming the nation’s chaplains; we would stand to lose a lot.