Excerpted from the article "Embattled Faith," by Neil Shister, which appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of UU World. Used with the author's permission.
The Naval Surface Warfare Center, three thousand acres of expansive wetland and scrub bordering the Potomac at Indian Head, Maryland, is where smokeless gunpowder was invented a century ago, a landmark event that transformed "fog of war" from the literal description of a battlefield to a strategic metaphor. These days propellants and pyrotechnics are manufactured at Indian Head, explosives for rockets and missiles, "things that go fast and boom." But on the morning after the war in Iraq began in March, it was worship that brought together some hundred members of the base community. And it was a Unitarian Universalist Navy chaplain, the Rev. Cynthia Kane, leading them.
The occasion was the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual armed forces event that traces its origins to the Continental Congress's call for a day of "public humiliation, fasting, and prayer" in the early days of the American Revolution. For Kane, presiding in the dress uniform of a Navy lieutenant, the setting was replete with special symbolism. The guest of honor was the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, invited at her behest. The presence of the UUA's "top brass" impressed the rank-conscious audience, especially when Sinkford announced that besides being a minister he was also the father of an Army Ranger in the elite 82nd Airborne Division recently returned from Afghanistan.
Rising to speak after pancakes and scrambled eggs, Sinkford embodied the dual and, for many, contradictory strains that characterize the relationship between Unitarian Universalists and, if not the military itself, then the exercise of military power. "I come here with a great sense of gratitude," he began. "Thanks for the work you do, the protection you afford us, the democracy that you help us preserve." But, he continued, he was also "one who stood the peace vigil," one whose fervent position was that "the United States should operate only with the blessing of the international community," which at that moment it clearly did not have.
Sinkford celebrated the United States as "a work in progress" built around the dream of a community of equality. For the sake of promoting such a dream, he concluded, many Unitarian Universalists, himself included, were willing to go to war. He qualified his stance with a somber proviso, given the events that were just beginning to unfold: "War is not our first choice and, in some sense, it always represents a failure."
Most Unitarian Universalists would likely resonate with Sinkford's words, as well as the emotionally charged paradox he finds himself living: troubled by his government's actions and fearful for his son, yet supportive of the troops. In the first weeks after the Iraq campaign began, the dominant sentiments I heard in my conversations with other Unitarian Universalists were variations on a theme of resigned ambivalence. There were, to be sure, voices of unqualified dissent, like that of the Rev. Robert Hardies. "I will not allow myself to be counted among the coalition of the willing," he told his congregation at Washington's All Souls Church, Unitarian, on the first Sunday of the war. "I will not allow myself to be counted among those in whose name innocent lives are taken. I will not allow myself to be counted among those who call the loss of innocent life 'collateral damage.' ... I will not allow myself to be counted among those who fall in line just because hostilities have begun." But even Hardies, like so many others opposed to the politics of the war, said he respected the men and women charged to wage it and prayed for their safe return.
"Am I in favor of this war?" said the Rev. David Hubner, director of ministry and professional leadership for the UUA and a Naval officer before entering the ministry. "Hell no! Do I want to support the people who are fighting it? Yes. We don't want to demonize them and render harm like we did to the people who fought in Vietnam by turning them into outcasts."
What I began to experience, as I kept hearing responses like Hubner's on my reporter's journey, was a gnawing sense of a disconnect. What does it mean to say that the war was bad, but our soldiers good? Can a war be unjustified but its actors blameless? How bad does a war have to be before the soldiers themselves are wrong to fight it? In my conversations I was looking for the foundations that helped other Unitarian Universalists decide whether to support the war and support the troops, but I felt precariously balanced on a moral tightrope with no margin for misstep. Wasn't there, I kept wondering, a Unitarian Universalist point of view that provided more solid footing, one that could ground the choice between war and peace in something other than a provisional answer? I presumed that other religious traditions offer authoritative doctrinal guidance, but how do Unitarian Universalists find their way out of this dilemma?
Unitarian Universalism is not often identified as a martial tradition. At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, which sits almost in the shadow of the Pentagon, church leaders were hard-pressed to name any members who were active military personnel. But, of course, there are Unitarian Universalist soldiers. According to Lt. j.g. Eric Johnson, a Navy Reserve chaplain candidate and founder of Unitarian Universalist Military Ministries, there are approximately 550 Unitarian Universalists serving in the U.S. armed forces around the world.
Johnson, a student at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, asked military personnel on the "UUMil" email list: "Is it enough that most UUs 'support the troops' but do not support the mission?" He reported that many servicemen and women appreciated the gesture—"the older ones say that's such a change from Vietnam"—but did not always feel supported. One soldier left his church, Johnson said, after a fellow congregant told him, "You are an instrument of murder."
In Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters to the Atlantic fleet and seat of the largest operating base in the United States, the Rev. Danny R. Reed of the Unitarian Church reckons that about 10 percent of his 230 members are military personnel. Shortly before war began, Reed convened a gathering of military families who wanted to talk. "They kept mentioning the tension they feel in church," he said. "Nobody said they weren't welcome, but there was discomfort in being in a church where there is so much opposition to what they do. One soldier said he seeks church as a refuge: He takes the notion of sanctuary seriously to be fortified for the week ahead. But as he walks through the door somebody flips him a leaflet about the peace march that afternoon."
Ironically, Unitarian Universalist soldiers can be made to feel like outsiders among their military colleagues because of their religion. "The common assumption service guys share is that everybody is more or less the same when it comes to religion," Reed explained. "So when they ask you about your faith—and bear in mind that common misunderstanding that 'In our churches you can believe anything you want, there are no rules'—the fear is that your patriotism will be called into question, that 'Somehow you're not American.'"
Reed added, "It's taxing on the spirit to always be on the defensive and have to explain oneself."
Indeed, when Cynthia Kane decided to join the military two years ago, she took grief from fellow UUs. "Now I know what it must feel like to be a Republican in the UUA," she said. Base commander Captain Marc Siedband had never even heard of Unitarian Universalists when she arrived. (There are two other ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers serving as military chaplains: Col. Vernon Chandler, senior rear chaplain for the Army's Fifth Corps in Heidelberg, Germany, and Col. William Grace, an Air Force chaplain at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.)
Among Kane's charge of some 500 military personnel and 200 dependents, there is but a single Unitarian Universalist family. When asked what kind of a chaplain she is—Catholic? Protestant? Jewish?—her stock response is, "A really good one!" Now, a year after Kane arrived, Captain Siedband has become an enthusiastic fan. "Unitarianism turned out to be a great match," he says. "Chaplain Kane's message is, 'Reach out to everybody; inclusion; touch people's hearts.' I'm surprised there aren't more UU chaplains in the military." (Eric Johnson and 2nd Lt. Rosemary Frances, an Air Force reservist also studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, hope to join her.)
Kane sees no inconsistency between her faith and her duty. "A lot of my work as a Navy chaplain is no different than when I was in civilian ministry," she says. "People come to me for support and I provide companionship. My job is to affirm and to promote the integrity of the individual and then counsel them to conscience." Indeed, the spiritual truth that led her to Unitarian Universalism, that "God is too big to be limited to one concept of divinity," plays well in adhering to the motto of the Chaplains Corps: "Provide for your own, facilitate for others, care for all."
Kane's journey into the military required fourteen years of what she calls "a circuitous discernment process." Despite being a pacifist, she has long felt a calling to be a Navy chaplain. The logic of her choice still remains unclear. ("It was an argument I ultimately lost with God!" she laughs. "As if I really thought I had a chance!") Her internal conflict seethed over last year when she was a student at the Navy War College studying the military strategist Karl von Clausewitz, famous for his dictum that "war is merely a continuation of politics by other means" and must thus be accepted as an eternal fact of life. Leaving a lecture one evening, she caught sight of the rows of soldiers' graves in Arlington National Cemetery glimmering in the amber light of the setting sun—human testimony to Clausewitz—and began crying. "I threw my hands up to a seemingly impassive heaven and asked, 'What am I doing?'" The answer that soothed her was the acknowledgement that if military conflict is, indeed, etched into the social fabric, then "to do the work of peace, I must understand the making of war."