Magazine article The Christian Century

A Chaplain's Place

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Chaplain's Place

Article excerpt

In the documentary film Chaplains, Buddhist chaplain Karuna Thompson offers an unusual--to me--theological foundation for the compassion she shows to the men she works for at an Oregon prison. All of us have countless past lives, she says, and in one or more of them we could have been prisoners. We could also be imprisoned in a future life. This recognition sparks compassion.

That belief is more compelling than her repeated insistence that people are essentially good. The men interviewed have murdered and robbed and don't seem ready to speak of themselves as trusting their inherent goodness.

Yet I found myself moved by Thompson's work, as when , she helps a Wiccan-observant former U.S. Army soldier trying to prepare for life outside of prison after nearly a quarter century. Will he reoffend? The state of Oregon is paying Thompson's salary in hopes that he will not. The investment may be paying off--the film reports that Oregon's recidivism rate is only 23 percent, compared to a national average of 43 percent.

Chaplains, produced by Martin Doblmeier (who also made the film Bonhoeffer), raises a fundamental issue for Christian chaplaincy: What is its ecclesiology? When a Catholic or Baptist serves as a chaplain for the U.S. military, he or she is a soldier no less than any other person wearing a uniform. Sure, the church ordains and nominates chaplains, and they are noncombatants. But they work for the United States government, not for any specific faith community.

A chaplain's job is to serve the spiritual needs of everyone in his or her care. A Buddhist chaplain in Oregon has to provide amplifiers for evangelical praise music, drums for Native American circles, and a priest and wafers for mass. When a chaplain for Tyson Foods insists that the job isn't just to patch people up so they can go out and make more money for Tyson, one has to wonder: Would Tyson pay for a chaplain if the chaplain's presence weren't profitable in some way? Would the army, the hospital, or the prison pay for chaplains if they didn't serve their respective causes? Shouldn't the local church minister to its members and communities rather than outsource personnel to secular institutions?

One military chaplain in the film tells of soldiers in Iraq coming to him to ask if their souls are endangered. We can only imagine what sorts of things they've done in our name. He reassures them that their souls are not in danger: if they've followed lawful orders, the culpability for giving those orders is on the head of those who issued them. …

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