Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    a Navy chaplain conducts prayer on a ship

    Peacemaker in a War School

    What’s it like to be a pacifist serving as a chaplain with the US Navy?

    By Israel Steinmetz

    March 11, 2024
    • Sean Whiting

      Powerful testimony. Thank you!

    “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war zone.” I hear this proverb from time to time, often from Christian friends. But I disagree.

    I’d rather be a gardener in a war zone. That’s what Jesus was, and it’s what he calls his followers to be. These convictions only grew during the months I spent as a gardener among warriors.

    “Hey Chaps!” the voice called over the crowd. I hadn’t been called Chaps in a while. I turned and there was a chief petty officer from my days with the US Navy.

    “Hey Chief!” I yelled back and we embraced. The next few minutes were filled catching up and swapping “sea stories” from working together at Fort Sam Houston’s Navy Medicine Training Support Center (NMTSC) in San Antonio, Texas. I had been gone a year, but when I saw Chief it all came flooding back.

    We had worked together closely during the nine months I spent as a civilian chaplain at NMTSC. Fort Sam is the home of military medicine, and NMTSC is the training center for Navy medical personnel, called corpsmen. Most of the sailors there are fresh out of basic training. Ten weeks into the military, they came to us for fourteen weeks of medical training.

    a Navy chaplain conducts prayer on a ship

    A chaplain aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts prayer at Catholic Mass. Photograph by Matthew Bookwalter.

    When they graduate Corpsmen Basic, they go to “the fleet,” stationed anywhere the Navy has a presence. Others remain to attend one of twenty “C-schools” to learn a more specific medical trade. C-schools also train corpsmen who have served in the field and are returning for additional training. These “fleet returnees” have experienced the “real Navy” and are usually a few years older.

    There are roughly 1,700 students at a time rotating through training at Fort Sam, overseen by five hundred officers, senior enlisted, and instructors. For these 2,200 people there was one chaplain. Like many military positions, the chaplain corps is severely undermanned. A facility the size of NMTSC should have several chaplains (officers) and five or six religious program specialists (enlisted). NMTSC had one chaplain and two RPs. So, as the military does, they hired a civilian contractor to assist.

    In this role I was quickly deployed into the four pillars of Navy chaplaincy: they provide religious services, performing various rites; they facilitate the work of the Religious Ministries Department, overseeing the day-to-day operations of all religious programming; they care for the sailors and their families, providing counseling and support; and they advise the command on religious, spiritual, ethical, and moral issues. I spent about half my time in one-on-one counseling with sailors and the other half providing religious services, facilitating programs, and advising the command.

    I had no military background. My entire adult life had been spent in church ministry and theological education. The level of culture shock I experienced resembled my experiences on the mission field, except those trips were short-term. This was nine months of feeling like I was stepping onto another planet forty hours a week. But God was gracious to this stranger in a strange land. I formed deep relationships and served thousands of sailors, including nearly two hundred in individual counseling. I taught resiliency and cognitive behavior classes to hundreds of students and helped strengthen the morale and spiritual health of the command.

    My title was Pastoral Support Services Provider, but that was a nonstarter in a culture that abbreviates everything. Then came my first meeting with the commanding officer. At the end she stood, shook my hand, and said, “Welcome aboard, Chaps.” Once she said it, the command followed. Thanks to her, for the rest of my life, whenever I see anyone I served alongside, they call me Chaps.

    Sailors often asked me if I had served previously or intended to become a military chaplain in the future. These conversations opened the door for me to share that I am a Christian pacifist. If I ever did serve, it would only be as a chaplain, the one position in the military in which I would not receive weapons training, not be required to carry a weapon, and not be expected to harm other humans. While many pacifists would not serve even in this noncombatant capacity, refusing to play any part in an organization premised on violence, I prayerfully considered it for a time before deciding to move on to a job teaching in a seminary.

    As I shared my convictions, I noticed an interesting pattern. The younger and less experienced the sailors were, the more likely they were to object to my convictions regarding nonviolence. They looked on peace as something naive and utopian. War was the way the world worked. Not so with the older and more experienced sailors, particularly those who had seen combat. They typically responded with knowing and sorrowful silence. Sometimes, they would share their own concerns about the terror of war, the toll it takes, and the trauma it leaves. They understood and respected my convictions, even if they didn’t share them.

    The horrors of war rarely infringed directly on NMTSC. Yes, there were those who had seen combat, whose PTSD, substance abuse, and fractured relationships plagued them. Yes, there was the “hundred-mile stare” that accompanied some sea stories. And yes, there was even the fleet returnee who confessed a war crime to me through bitter tears and gritted teeth.

    But beyond these explicit signs of moral injury, there was the ubiquitous specter of war. It lingered around every corner, reminding everyone of its presence in every tradition, every training, every taboo. It hovered over students training to bandage the war wounds their fellow sailors would suffer and inflict, and over staff members burdened with the dehumanizing work of teaching teenagers how to kill people. It permeated a military culture that strips people of their individuality – and often their moral reasoning – as they learn to assimilate, conform, and above all, obey. It undergirded an entire system designed to use lethal force to deter evil despite how evil lethal force is.

    Yet the moral injury of war was merely a slice of the ravages of sin and death borne by those I met and served. Chaplains enjoy absolute confidentiality with service members – nothing can be reported. Consequently, the chaplain’s office is a confessional for everything these sailors are unable to say to anyone else.

    Did they lie during their intake process regarding substance abuse or mental illness? Are they sneaking contraband onto the base? Were they victims – or perpetrators – of sexual assault, harassment, or hazing? Did they enlist to escape a broken home, a criminal past, or homelessness? Did they attempt suicide last night or lie during their disciplinary proceedings?

    Tell the chaplain. Because the chaplain will listen and care for you. The chaplain cannot hurt you; he can only try to help. The chaplain is a gardener in a warzone. The chaplain’s office is the one place where you let your guard down and express your fears, doubts, guilt, anger, or hopelessness. As I welcomed each sailor into the office, I began like this:

    Hi, my name is Israel. I’m a civilian. When it’s just the two of us you don’t have to call me Sir or Dr. Steinmetz. Everything you say to me, no matter what it is, is completely confidential and I can never tell anyone without your written permission.

    The only reason I’m here is because I care about people, and I want to do whatever I can to walk alongside you through whatever you’re experiencing. So please, relax, breathe, take off the military bearing and, when you’re ready, let me know what you’d like to talk about today.

    And, with the rarest of exceptions, you could see the tension fade, watch the light come back into their eyes, and see them feel safe. In those moments, they became human again. And then they would begin to confess. What was wrong. What was hurting. What was hidden and painful and broken.

    Each day I sat and heard these confessions. I learned the wisdom of being slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to anger (James 1:19). I learned to answer with empathy, comfort, and compassion. Every day as I went “deck-plating,” I sought to bring a little light into darkness, humanity into dehumanization, reconciliation into conflict, hope into an often hopeless place.  

    I learned to advocate. Sometimes this meant helping people obtain religious accommodations and services. Far more often it meant standing alongside the accused during “captain’s mast,” or advocating for sailors to get leave for a funeral, or connecting them with substance or sexual abuse counselors, behavioral health services, or medical care. This is the unglamorous work of a gardener in a warzone.

    I knew nothing about the military when I began. But it turned out that following Christ had prepared me for chaplaincy. As Christians, we enter spaces full of conflict and trauma to speak words of healing and hope. We hear the confessions of people broken by sin and death. We walk into the conflict between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13–14). And there, like faithful gardeners, we work to restore the war-torn earth and its war-torn inhabitants. We advocate on behalf of humanity. We’re citizens of the only kingdom whose ambassadors’ primary mission is to rescue foreigners and enemies (2 Cor. 5:14–21).

    We lay down our swords and take up our plowshares (Isa. 2:4), providing sustenance where death has reigned. We see hundreds of millions of warriors trampling gardens around the world, and say, “No, it is better to be a gardener in a warzone.”

    We were created to be gardeners, not warriors; to be fruitful and multiply, not to be death-dealing and decimating (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:15). War is one of the greatest violations of human calling and one of the greatest deterrents to human flourishing. Cultivating the earth makes life possible and restores our humanity.

    If moral ambiguities regarding war in the Old Testament leave us in any doubt, Jesus does not. Jesus brought life, healing, and hope everywhere he went. He refused to accept coercive power or enforce his will (Matt. 4:1–11), refused to even defend himself or allow his followers to do so in his name (John 18:33–36).

    At the end of his life, Jesus found himself in a garden surrounded by warriors. He refused to become a warrior. Instead, he kept cultivating life, all the way through to his death, resurrection, ascension, and reign (Matt. 26:47–56). In the garden, Peter had tried to defend Jesus by force and was rebuked (John 18:10–11). Later, he understood Jesus’ way, writing in 1 Peter 2:

    To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

    Paul, once a violent persecutor, accepted the way of peace after meeting Jesus. He writes in Romans 12:

    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse….

    Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    Jesus will return to bring an end to war and restore the garden to perfection (Rev. 21:1–7). The Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6) will rule his kingdom of peace with the peacemakers who will inherit his new earth (Matt. 5:3–10). In preparation for this, I’m committed to being a gardener in a war zone. In the words of the old spiritual, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” but I’ll spend the rest of my life learning to make peace. May the Great Gardener (John 15:1–17) teach me to bring forth and cultivate life. May I be “Chaps” to everyone I meet.

    Contributed By IsraelSteinmetz Israel Steinmetz

    Dr. Israel Steinmetz is Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Practical Theology at The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now