Military must tune in to other faiths
Who ya gonna pray to?
The military services have been wrestling with just this question, and now the House of Representatives has weighed in on it as well. Navy and Air Force rules are that chaplains can pray in the name of Jesus only in settings where participation is voluntary. In nonvoluntary settings they must use nonsectarian prayers or silence.
In an amendment to the recently passed defense authorization bill, Congress changed those rules so that each military chaplain "shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."
Several evangelical groups want chaplains to be able to pray "in the name of Jesus" under all circumstances.
It is curious to contemplate what sort of military necessity might dictate the use of nonsectarian prayer language. We're losing, and the military wants all bets covered? Or it might be that sectarian prayer is inherently divisive, and cohesion in multifaith units has military value. But that might be too logical. "Military necessity" is one of those nicely ambiguous terms like "national security" that can mean whatever leaders want it to mean.
The culture wars aspect aside, the issue raises a number of interesting theological questions. Does God, or Jesus, require that all prayers be correctly addressed? Without a correct "G-mail" address, will your missive fail to go through like an e-mail with a bad ISP? Presumably any higher power capable of responding to prayer knows the intention of the one who is praying. Otherwise prayer is reduced to a magical incantation.
Clergy colleagues of mine who have declined to use generic language in civic gatherings have told me that any prayer not "in Jesus' name" is not in fact a prayer, and they won't do it. I guess one must respect that, although Jesus was probably never called that by his contemporaries, the word Jesus being the translation of a transliteration. However, it raises the second theological issue.
For whose benefit is a public prayer? Is it simply a cultural patina to give the occasion an aura of solemnity? Is it intended to invoke (to call forth) in those assembled an awareness of a presence in their midst that will influence the behavior of those present? Do we assume that presence will not be there unless correctly invited?
Too often, it is a spirit of division that is invoked in a multifaith gathering when it is subjected to a sectarian prayer. The benefit of the prayer is only for those who already agree with the faith of the one praying. And the implication is that the rest had better convert! It was just that circumstance that produced the Navy and Air Force rules after very coercive behavior by some officers and chaplains at their respective military academies. Some believers simply cannot resist the temptation to coerce captive audiences and vulnerable people.
For chaplains, both military and hospital, the best practices guideline has long been that clergy are first tasked with addressing the spiritual needs of those they are serving, and in the language and style of those being served. In this spirit, I comfortably prayed and counseled with patients of very differing faiths from mine when I was a hospital chaplain. I think of the priest on the old "M*A*S*H" series on TV. Any chaplain who cannot in good conscience do that probably shouldn't be a chaplain.
Father Dennis and I used to refer folk to each other, much to the surprise of our colleagues from other churches. When someone in my church's religion classes clearly spoke "Catholic" as their preferred theological language, I sent them to him. When people said "Father, I can't believe that," he sent them to me. We both assumed that if God exists, God is surely multilingual. Which is a good thing, since biblical Greek and Hebrew are pretty hard to learn.
My theological school systematic theology professor said prayer was standing utterly naked as if in the presence of God. That's probably a good spiritual discipline even for an atheist. And it's worth remembering that Jews "lost" the vowels from the ancient Hebrew name for God so that people wouldn't be tempted to try to manipulate God or each other by invoking the name.
But then, maybe this is all just about the culture wars hassle after all.
The Rev. Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.