The Power of Narrative to Shape Chaplain Professional Identity

Chaplains are religious ministry professionals whose expert knowledge and skills are defined solely by their endorsing bodies. They are also Army professionals who share the professional identity, ethos, and knowledge base of the profession of arms. The Army chaplaincy, however, also has its own unique identity and ethos which shape the profession.

The professional identity of the Army chaplain is also shaped by the stories which the chaplaincy tells. Stories tell us who we are and they provide the lens through which we look at life.

Story and logic work on different levels. Narrative reaches people in a way that logical discourse does not.

Post-modern philosophers label identity-bearing stories as “meta-narrative”. Meta-narrative is not simply a collection of facts or legends; it is a selective telling of a connected, multifaceted story built around a more-or-less consistent theme. The typical telling of the American story, for example, includes stories of pilgrims seeking freedom on uncharted shores, the founding fathers standing up to tyranny, the great abolition movement with its resulting civil war and the civil-rights movement that ended segregation. The story tells us who we are: we are the people who value freedom.

The same events can be spun into a multitude of different narratives, each with their own implicit meaning. Post-modernists point out that those with the ability to shape the community’s narrative often use that power to retain their positions of privilege. The power of a story to shape identity, however, is not a bug; it’s a feature. Leaders can use the power of narrative for good or evil.

For most of history, there has been a close relationship between religious faith communities and the sacred stories on which they were built. With the coming of the enlightenment and the rise of nationalism, new ways of shaping the narrative have stepped forward to control the culture’s self-understanding. In the post-modern world, an even broader range of narratives are competing to find an audience and shape the culture.

On a smaller scale, narrative functions in the same way in the Chaplain Corps. When I attended the Chaplain Basic course, I daily walked past the burned chaplain kit of Charles Watters and learned the story of his selfless service on the battlefield.

Charles Watters Chaplain Kit
Chaplain Watters chaplain kit, burned in the battle that took his life. On display at the Chaplain Corps Museum. US Army Photo.

Within the stained glass windows of Army chapels I’ve seen the image of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains on the Dorchester. They linked arms on that sinking ship and gave their lives for the sake of others.

Four Chaplains window at Fort Leavenworth’s main post chapel. Photo by the author.

I heard the story of Emil Kapaun who stayed with the wounded in North Korea even as his unit withdrew, and then endured abuse in a communist prison camp when he took care of his fellow prisoners.

Chaplain Kapaun aiding wounded
Chaplain Kapaun aiding wounded in Korea. US Army photo.

I learned about Francis Sampson who parachuted into Normandy in the first dark hours of D-Day. He landed in water and had to search through the river in darkness to find his chaplain kit. His story is the inspiration for the British chaplain portrayed in the movie “The Longest Day.” And he is the one who ministered to a soldier in Normandy after learning of the loss of his four brothers. Chaplain Sampson worked to insure that the private return home to be with his mother (i.e., “Saving Private Ryan”). Father Sampson was involved in D-Day, Market Garden and Bastogne. He was taken prisoner twice. When captured at Bastogne, he and his fellow prisoners marched 185 miles into Germany, where he then spen a week in a rail car with no food or water. When he finally arrived at a Prisoner of War camp, he served as the only priest for the 26,000 people held in captivity. He later jumped into North Korea during the Korean War, and served as the Chief of Chaplains during Vietnam.

Chaplain Sampson POW
Chaplain Sampson as POW. Prison-camp ID photo.

These stories, and others like them, tell the members of our profession that the chaplain is the one-for-others and the one-for-all. Chaplains don’t put their own needs first and don’t serve only their own flock.

Narrative not only transmits and reinforces norms and values, it creates a sense of belonging to the chaplain community. These stories are significant because they are “our” stories. I am not a disinterested bystander. The chaplain story only becomes “my” story as I identify with the group.

As the Chaplain Corps retells these stories to new generations of chaplains, it shapes how newcomers to the profession see themselves as chaplain professionals. Among existing members of the chaplaincy, these stories reinforce their professional identity.