Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: the military & religion

The Fort Hood shootings have raised questions again about how the military should handle the personal religious beliefs of its soldiers, whether they are evangelical Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, and so on. What is the proper role of religion -- and personal religious belief -- in the U.S. armed forces? Should a particular religious affiliation disqualify someone from active military service? How far should the military go to accommodate personal religious beliefs and practices?

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: the military & religion

Ever since the beginning of the first gulf war in the early nineties, derogatory terms like “hajji” and “raghead” have become part of the US military vocabulary in order to dehumanize enemies in the middle east. However, the result of this technique is that not only is the enemy dehumanized, but so are the soldiers themselves. It is the role of religion in the military to humanize the soldier.

Humanity is defined and exists in as much as we are in relationship; with other humans, with creation, and with God. Christians within my tradition confess that humans are created in the image of God. In particular, humans are created in the image of a God who is always in relationship with itself, with the world, and with humans.

And so, when we dehumanize the enemy, we end up dehumanizing ourselves. Yet, militaries around the world are always tempted to dehumanize the enemy and soldier alike in the pursuit of military objectives. But it is the task of religion and faith to keep both the soldier and the enemy human. Doing so, religion forces the military to recognize the full humanity of its service people. When religion humanizes the soldier the military is confronted with the fact that service people’s theological convictions and faith cannot be partitioned off from their military tasks. Rather they are whole people who must deal with both the congruency and incongruence of their faiths and the work they are called to do.

This must be of great concern with a humanized military. The stresses we all face in determining whether our actions and vocation are consistent with our understanding of God are only amplified in a military context. The military must take seriously the significant psychological and theological stresses that its service people endure. Let me be clear here, the heinous actions of Hasan at Fort Hood cannot be understood or blamed on any single factor, let alone the particular stress of rectifying faith convictions with military service. But in the wake of this incident, increasing cases post traumatic stress disorder and military suicides in Iraq the military must take seriously these extreme stresses by providing appropriate treatment and its decision making on all levels.

But a humanized military can be one of our society’s greatest assets. A military filled with soldiers who are in relationship with the other is a military that is truly empowered to stand on the side of the oppressed and defenseless. And when the military does this, it is in right relationship with religion and faith.


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