By Megan Joyner
“The Soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the Soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”― Douglas MacArthur
Today’s generation of Soldier is begging for spiritual connection. They may not name it in the familiar terms of “God,” “faith,” or even “prayer,” but they long for purpose and belonging beyond themselves. We as a progressive Christian community understand this hunger. But, from my foxhole, the military community isn’t one we often engage within our walls. Whether this is because of hesitancy amongst the younger generation to trust Christian churches/leaders or our own advocacy against endless wars and violence, I do not admit to know. But I am confident this is a community that seeks peace as much as we do. And they are ready to be welcomed in, seen as holy, blessed people of God.
- This Generation is Spiritual, Not Traditional. When I speak to my Command Team, I refer to today’s Soldier as the “Why Generation.” This is not a group that will simply jump because they were told to. Simon Says is likely impossible due to the constant “This makes no sense” or “I’m going to need some information first.” As frustrating as this can be for supervisors, I find an immense beauty within it. Many of these Soldiers grew up on traditionally rigid faith, yet that rigidity doesn’t work for them anymore. It simply doesn’t match their lived experience. They are asking questions, challenging religious norms, and demanding acceptance for who they are, not who they are told to be. Many grew up in poverty despite the consistent devout faith of guardians. They have experienced abuse, mistreatment, and judgment from the faiths that were supposed to protect them. Several have zero trust in institutionalized religion. This is where the progressive church has so much to offer. We understand that faith doesn’t eliminate suffering, rather it equips us with the resilience and perspective to carry on. Soldiers today are thirsting for spiritual belonging, but their wells are dry. Progressive Christianity has taken the personalized/inward expectations of faith and returned to the necessary beauty of communal faith. Here is a community patiently waiting for such embrace.
- Grace and Hope. When I was in Chaplain training, each student had to share a morning devotional. I was shocked at the sheer number of “we’re sinners, we’re failures, but luckily we have Jesus” messages. I was depressed listening, and I wasn’t even the intended audience! These messages are supposedly about grace, but it’s not a very exciting, uplifting, or loving kind of grace. It’s more authoritarian, “you’re lucky to have me” type grace. Soldiers (and people) today simply don’t resonate with this message. But they also have serious struggles escaping it. Over the summer, I counseled a couple Soldiers dealing with separation and potential divorce. They, especially as men, viewed themselves as failures to family and to God. They were shocked and emotional when I reminded them of God’s unconditional love and their innate holiness as children of God. These men are not failures, but previous pastors had told them they were. The progressive church begins with grace. But the holy, made in God’s image, ragamuffin disciple of Jesus kind. Imagine if more Soldiers were privy to that message?
- Soldiers Consist of Some of the Most Marginalized Groups. My last unit, the one I deployed with, was majority African American and Hispanic. My current unit is no different. My former unit was surprisingly about 40% women, but my new unit is less than 15%. LGBTQ Soldiers are present in both. The Chaplain Corps typically hovers around 80% white men, even higher for cisgender Chaplains. Point being, the faith leaders that often represent units do not always represent the Soldiers themselves. Visibility matters. North Carolina’s Chaplain Corps is led by mostly older, white, cisgender men. I am the only female and the only out LGBTQ Chaplain in my state. Marginalized groups just aren’t represented physically or spiritually amongst the Chaplain Corps. Progressive Christianity has protested for women’s rights, marched for civil rights, and demanded equality for all. But, from my experience, we have a hard time including the active Soldier in that fight. I wonder if this is because embracing the active Soldier feels much like embracing active combat. But this simply isn’t true. Soldiers desperately need affirmation. If they can’t find it directly within the military, we have the opportunity to provide an outside option. They need to know that grace and acceptance can look like them, think like them, love like them. They need to know that someone truly has their best interests at heart (forget that lip service). The military relies on people seeking consistent income, dedicated housing, and the opportunity for a different life. We can argue the nuts and bolts of those ethics and recruiting methods later. What doesn’t change is the fact that vulnerable, oft-marginalized community members are now serving in the military. We have a moral obligation to care for our community. Let’s get creative in our ministry and engagement with local military (Active, National Guard, or Reserve). Their stories will surprise us.
- Progressives Understand Pluralism. This last one is a desperate need. As I mentioned earlier, Soldiers today are exploring their spirituality. They seek to move away from the “God-in-a-box” faith. The military recognizes over 300 faith traditions ranging from Judaism, to Asatru, to Islam, to hundreds of variations of Christianity. Buddhism is a growing practice amongst many Soldiers I’ve encountered. Numerous traditional Chaplains are struggling with the growing diversity. One of the worst stories I’ve heard is from a Soldier whose Chaplain didn’t deem her “Jewish enough” to need kosher MREs. He pointedly refused to acknowledge her Jewish background both culturally and spiritually, using her unobserved spiritual practices against her. I just don’t see this occurring within the progressive community. We recognize the light of God in each person, seeing faith as a connection point, regardless of religion. We seek to learn and grow from our friends in other faith traditions, encouraging dialogue and understanding. Many Soldiers of non-traditional Christian faiths are nervous to seek out the Chaplain Corps. They are hesitant to trust, fearing judgment, misunderstanding, or worse, evangelism. Soldiers yearn for someone (or some community) to help guide them on a path of spiritual awareness and self-acceptance. We welcome all persons as children of God, made in God’s beautiful and holy image. We are in a prime position to open our doors wide and invite them in.
We are not embracing war when we embrace the Soldier. Instead we are embracing the next generation of military leaders. The ones who will lead us in the event of future conflicts. Imagine this generation, equipped with belonging, grace, and affirmation. How different might future decisions look? How different might future sexual assaults, harassment, and blatant discrimination be handled? This generation of Soldier is longing to be led. But they need to know they can trust us. Trust us with their experience, with their insecurities, with their questions. It’s long been time the progressive Christian faith has answered this call.
Megan Joyner is a Chaplain in the North Carolina National Guard who resides in Morningside, MD with her partner, two dogs, and a random (yet adorable) cat that showed up demanding to be fed. She currently works at the National Guard Bureau and is a doctoral student in Vanderbilt University’s Doctor of Ministry in Integrated Chaplaincy program.