Marking an expansive anniversary in American history
Oh, Sen. Marshall: The Pharisees didn't kill Jesus, either

A well-nuanced WWI Museum display explores chaplaincy


Chaplains, whether in hospitals, hospices or other centers of trauma, often are thought of as the embodied hearts and hands of God.

And that's certainly been their reputation in the military, although there the danger of physical and moral injury to themselves is even greater. War, as we know, sets loose all kinds of wandering fires, all kinds of chances to be changed -- either strengthened or destroyed.

A new exhibition about military chaplains at the World War I Museum in Kansas City (the exhibit opened this past Thursday and will be open more than a year) doesn't look away from the miseries and brutalities of war. And it seems especially fitting that on the way to the front doors of the museum to see the exhibit visitors walk by 140 American flags displayed to call attention to the high rate of suicide among military veterans, as shown in the photo above.

Two voices from the World War I era particularly capture the horror of war and the shocking realization of some people at the time that humanity wasn't perfectible.

WW1-faithThe poet Ezra Pound, in his poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," put it this way: "There died a myriad/And of the best, among them/For an old bitch gone in the teeth/For a botched civilization. . ."

And not long after the war, the theologian Karl Barth published his commentary on the New Testament book of Romans in which he called Christians to abandon the foolish idea -- widespread before the war -- that humanity was getting better and better and one day would be almost perfect. That notion, prominent then among people identified as progressive Christians, ignored the biblical testimony that, although created "good" and even "very good," humanity was stained by sin and unable to save itself. Barth was having none of that perfectibility nonsense after seeing the appalling evil committed by humanity in World War I.

The new World War I Museum exhibit about chaplains in the war, called "Sacred Service," captures the moral turmoil through which the world, including the military, traveled. And it makes a good-faith effort to show that even then not all military chaplains were Mainline Protestants, though, of course, the religious diversity among chaplains then was much less widespread than it is today.

"World War I," says Patricia Cecil, a museum specialist curator, "is the crucible where we get this interdenominationalism, interfaith efforts within the chaplaincy, recognizing those of all faiths and making sure they have representation."

Cecil acknowledges that the role of chaplains in World War I "hasn't been largely explored." So the World War I Museum, she says, wanted to investigate "how did they experience the war? How did the war change them?"

Every chaplain, Cecil says, had his (all males) "unique experience of the war. . .So there were those who felt that their experience of the war disheartened them. There were those who lost their faith and there were some who came out with a sense of faith renewed." That latter response surprised Cecil, who found it inspirational that many chaplains came out of the war with a renewed dedication to helping others.

Still, the exhibit doesn't shy away from having the idea of "moral injury" represented among chaplains who served, including in some of the signs that are part of the display, such as the one pictured at left here. The organization "Open Arms," which provides counseling to veterans and their families, describes moral injury this way: "Moral injury refers to the psychological, social and spiritual impact of events involving betrayal or transgression of one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values occurring in high stakes situations. Moral injury is not a recognized mental health disorder in itself, but may be associated with PTSD or depression."

But whatever it's called and however it manifests in individual cases, this new museum exhibit is quick to acknowledge that World War I produced such injury even in chaplains.

Although almost certainly unintentional because of the length of time it takes to prepare such an exhibit, the idea of moral injury and the concept of attending to the spiritual needs of combatants and the victims of war is highly relevant today as the Hamas-Israeli and Russia-Ukraine wars rage on and as people on college campuses and elsewhere judge the morals and ethics of the combatants and the ways in which innocent people have been victimized again by war.

Although I took mandatory reserve officer training in college, I did not serve in the military for two reasons -- first, a student deferment while I was a university student and, second, a medical deferment for what was diagnosed at the time as rheumatoid arthritis. But in a second hand way, I did learn about how long-lasting the effects of moral injury can be.

The pastor of the church in which I grew up served as a chaplain in World War II. Something threw him back to that time while he was our pastor and he simply seemed stuck back in the war in his speech and actions. Eventually, he had to be institutionalized to receive mental counseling. Months later he returned to the pulpit but it was clear to church leaders that he hadn't been healed. So they worked out a way for him to retire early.

It was painful for everyone, especially the pastor's wife. Eventually it became clear to me that this pastor was one more victim of the kind of moral injury that war often produces in people. I hope you will consider such stories as you visit this new World War I exhibition and as you find ways to support military chaplains -- and all chaplains -- doing necessary work today.

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It took several centuries for the Christian church to "canonize," or make official, the books it considered worthy of being included in the New Testament. In some ways it was a messy process, but the New Testament we have today has been with us a long time. But what was going on in early churches before that process was completed? As this article from The Conversation notes, early Christians were reading lots of things, many of which didn't make it into the canon.

An ancient manuscript now up for auction, the article says, reveals "how, before the consolidation of the Bible, early Christians read canonical and non-canonical scriptures – as well as pagan classics – side by side." The canonization process sometimes was political in nature, driven by concerns unrelated to theology -- perhaps not unlike the production of the Nicene Creed, when Emperor Constantine was much more interested in unity than he was in theological consistency.

It detracts nothing from the beauty and inclusiveness of the New Testament to acknowledge that early Christians also read other texts that didn't make the cut. Indeed, some of them are still around and are fascinating.


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