When Chaplains Protest

[Originally posted in 2016. I wrote this when I was debating resigning. I finally did so at the end of February 2019, inspired by these examples.]

You don’t often hear of military chaplains engaged in political protest or resigning in disagreement with policy. But it does happen.

Charles Liteky, recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam, returned his medal in 1986 in protest of Reagan’s Central America policies, laying it with an explanatory letter at the Vietnam Memorial. (See also his book, Renunciation).

Chris Antal was another. On April 12, 2016, he resigned his commission in the US Army Reserve, posting his letter of resignation on the webpage of the Unitarian-Universalist Church he pastors.

April 12, 2016 …

Dear Mr. President:

I hereby resign my commission as an Officer in the United States Army.

I resign because I refuse to support U.S. armed drone policy. The Executive Branch continues to claim the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, for secret reasons, based on secret evidence, in a secret process, undertaken by unidentified officials. I refuse to support this policy of unaccountable killing.

I resign because I refuse to support U.S. nuclear weapon policy. The Executive Branch continues to invest billions of dollars into nuclear weapons, which threaten the existence of humankind and the earth. I refuse to support this policy of terror and mutually assured destruction.

I resign because I refuse to support U.S. policy of preventive war, permanent military supremacy, and global power projection. The Executive Branch continues to claim extraconstitutional authority and impunity from international law. I refuse to support this policy of imperial overstretch.

I resign because I refuse to serve as an empire chaplain. I cannot reconcile these policies with either my sworn duty to protect and defend America and our constitutional democracy, or my covenantal commitment to the core principles of my religious faith.

These principles include: justice, equity and compassion in human relations; a free and responsible search for truth; and the inherent worth and dignity of every person.


Christopher John Antal

Elsewhere on that same page, he posted an opinion piece, first published in the Middletown, NY, Times Herald-Record, on 12 February 2015, describing the development of his views while deployed to Afghanistan in 2012.

While deployed, I concluded our drone strikes disproportionately kill innocent people. As a military chaplain, I preached a sermon questioning the morality of such warfare. After my commander read it, he said “the message does not support the mission” and had me investigated, officially reprimanded and released from active duty for “retraining.”

He said he finally got that “retraining” at the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare at Princeton Theological Seminary in January 2015.

In March 2016, Chris was one of the speakers at the Inside Drone Warfare Symposium at the University of Las Vegas. His presentation is available on YouTube.  In 2012 he was deployed with a Signal Battalion to Afghanistan.  They had no operational connection to the drones, but he counseled service members who were involved.  He noted the contrast between the anonymity of the victims of drone strikes and the respect and honor given in ramp ceremonies he conducted for US and allied dead.  He raised questions with senior Air Force chaplains at his base, and was rebuffed, told to “mind his own business.”  He reviewed the publicly available information on drones, including a report published the month he arrived in Afghanistan, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic of NYU School of Law).

Antal concluded that US drone strikes were killing and harming innocents in a disproportionate way, and decided to openly question US drone policy in a sermon on Veterans Day at a Unitarian service on post.  He gave the text of his remarks (A Veteran’s Day Confession for America) to the Unitarian-Universalist Association, and to friends; a congregation posted it on their webpage, along with a picture of him in uniform (while he was still deployed).  Next thing he knew, he was called by the JAG, who told him he needed to see the commander. He was told, “Your message doesn’t support the mission.” The commander initiated an Article 15-6 investigation, at the conclusion of which he received a General Officer Letter of Reprimand, and was released from active duty.

At that time, he observed, the Army Regulation on chaplains (AR 165-1, 2009) said, “Chaplains, in performing their duties, are expected to speak with a prophetic voice and must confront the issues of religious accommodation, the obstruction of free exercise of religion, and moral turpitude in conflict with the Army values.”  This important statement from a key Army Regulation was ignored by the military process, he says, as were  statements of support from congregational members and denominational theologians, as was his defense that he had a right to freedom of religion and freedom to speak the teachings of his denomination in a denominational service.

Nevertheless, in April 2016 he tendered his resignation from the Army Reserve and currently pastors a congregation and speaks at conferences on drone warfare and on moral injury.

The remarks that got him into trouble were not a protest, really, but a confession. And this was not for the base or a general service, but for a small gathered community of a specific liberal Protestant faith tradition, and then shared with others of that faith tradition. Chaplains are supposed to have the freedom to act according to their endorser’s guidelines, especially in a denominational service.

A Veteran’s Day Confession for America

On this Veteran’s Day Let us confess our sins before God and neighbor.

Most Merciful God
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed
by what we have done, and what we have left undone.

We have become people of the lie,
out to tame the frontier wilderness
while the beast within lurks hidden in shadow
paralyzing us in a perpetual state of denial.

We have made war entertainment
enjoying box seats in the carnival of death
consuming violence, turning tragedy into games
raising our children to kill without remorse.

We have morally disengaged,
outsourcing our killing to the one percent,
forgetting they follow our orders
the blood they shed is on our hands too.

We have insulated ourselves from the painful truths veterans carry.
Our bumper magnets proclaim, “Support our Troops,”
but for too many, suicide is the only panacea.
Our insulation is their isolation.

We have made our veterans into false idols,
blood sacrifice on the National Altar of War.
Parades and medals perpetuate the hero myth,
glorifying those who kill and die on our behalf.

We have betrayed the dead,
saying, “They will never be forgotten,”
yet how many among us can name
a single war casualty of the past decade?

We have sanitized killing and condoned extrajudicial assassinations:
death by remote control,
war made easy without due process,
protecting ourselves from the human cost of war.

We have deceived ourselves,
saying, “Americans do not kill civilians, terrorists do,”
denying the colossal misery our wars inflict on the innocent.
The national closet bursts with skeletons.

We have abandoned our Afghan allies,
luring them in with promises of safety and security
then failing to follow through with promises made,
using them and leaving them to an almost certain death.

Almighty God, on this Veteran’s Day
help us to turn from this wayward path.
Deliver us from indifference, callousness, and self-deception.
Fill us with compassion for all who bear the burdens of our wars.

Grant us the courage to pay attention, to stay engaged
so we may listen without judgment, restore integrity,
accept responsibility, keep promises
and give honor to whomever honor is due.

Reading those remarks, I recalled another confession recited by chaplains in a time of war–at the end of a war, actually. It was 1974, and in a new Book of Worship for U.S. Forces, chaplains were encouraged to lead their congregation of warriors in a confession that went like this:

In every prayer for peace there is a touch of blasphemy.
It is as though war were inevitable and only God could extricate us.

But we are the warriors, the makers and wagers of destruction.
(Not God. Not even “they.”)
Perhaps our prayers for peace should be for forgiveness.
And perhaps they should be said first to our brothers.

What has changed?  What has made us disdainful of confession?  What has led us to a point where some chaplains who have spoken up “prophetically” are either sent home with a reprimand, like Antal, or locked away in solitary confinement, like James Yee of Guantanamo? Is the chaplaincy to be only the bearer of what Bonhoeffer branded, “cheap grace,” dispensing absolution while denied the right to either confess, or to lead in confession?

This “Long War” has been marked by visible wounds like traumatic amputations, and invisible wounds like TBI and PTSD.   To these has been added in recent years a new term for an old condition:  “moral injury.”  It refers to the shame and guilt that soldiers bear, for things done, and things left undone. Chris Antal suffered moral injury, as he saw how the war was waged, and how this differed from the ideals he had been taught as a chaplain and as an officer.  The treatment recommended by the VA for moral injury includes letting the person afflicted tell their story–confess.  But his commander didn’t want to hear, didn’t want this chaplain to give voice to the cries he had heard from others who had come to him, didn’t want the chaplain to turn those cries of shame and guilt and anger and grief into a prayer of confession.  He apparently only wanted the chaplain to speak of grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and peace, and love.  I think Antal wanted to speak those words–but to the people of Afghanistan.

In the end, Chris Antal chose to resign.  Other chaplains have chosen that path, including, most notably, CH (MG) Kermit D. Johnson, who resigned as Army Chief of Chaplains in 1982 in protest of Ronald Reagan’s nuclear policy.  Interestingly, though I entered the military just four years later as a Chaplain Candidate, attending the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth, NJ, in the summer of 1986, we never discussed CH Johnson or his resignation.  Never in my chaplain schooling since was CH Yee discussed.  I doubt CH Antal will be mentioned.  And yet, when I did that Basic Course, we were told we must speak up. We were told we must be willing to risk career.  We were told we must not let another My Lai happen.  I think we should not only have been taught the principles of prophecy, but given case studies of what happens when the chaplain’s moral authority comes into conflict with a system that stops its ears.

I inquired of the Army Chief of Chaplains Office about that change in AR 165-1 (2015) and was told that the revision was not intended to silence chaplains.  Rather, the desire was to use more inclusive language that could be understood by faiths that do not have a “prophetic” tradition.  I don’t buy it. The revised regulation says, “Chaplains, in performing their duties, are expected to speak with candor as an advocate to confront and support resolution to challenges and issues of the command.” That’s not the same thing at all. It weakened our witness.

CH (MG) Kermit Johnson resigned in conscience, but he didn’t stop speaking.  His voice was heard again in 2006, when he published an article in The Christian Century (April 18, 2006), “No Compromise: A Chaplain’s View of Torture.”  He began:

The historian Arnold Toynbee called war “an act of religious worship.” Appropriately, when most people enter the cathedral of violence, their voices become hushed. This silence, this reluctance to speak, is based in part on not wishing to trivialize or jeopardize the lives of those who have been put in harm’s way. We want to support the men and women in our armed forces, whether we are crusaders, just warriors or pacifists.

Furthermore, those who interrupt this service of worship become a source of public embarrassment, if not shame. The undercurrent seems to be that dissent or critique in the midst of war is inherently unpatriotic because it violates a sacred wartime precept: support our troops.

From the standpoint of Christian faith, how do we respond? I would say that if war causes us to suppress our deepest religious, ethical and moral convictions, then we have indeed caved in to a “higher religion” called war. ….

We must react when our nation breaks the moral constraints and historic values contained in treaties, laws and our Constitution, as well as violating the consciences of individuals who engage in so-called “authorized” inhuman treatment. Out of an unsentimental patriotism we must say no to torture and all inhuman forms of interrogation and incarceration. It is precisely by speaking out that we can support our troops and at the same time affirm the universal values which emanate from religious faith.

That’s what Chris Antal did.  And he stood in faithful succession to chaplains before him who realized that if they must choose between God and country, they must be faithful to God, and to his word as they understand it, come what may.

And though an individual decision, the chaplain who courageously testifies to truth will never be alone.  Like Elijah in the wilderness, the chaplain will be sustained by bread from heaven.  And like Elijah, the chaplain may learn they are not alone; that 7000 others have not bowed the knee to Ba’al.  He or she will join the ranks of those courageous chaplains who serve as examples to all the rest of us when caught between commission and conscience.