Remembrance Day Reflections


The case for ADF chaplains

Forty five ordained ministers are endorsed by the Assembly of the Uniting Church to serve as Australian Defence Force Chaplains. Eighteen are full-time and 27 are reservists across the three services – army, navy and air force. Two are preparing to deploy overseas and two have recently returned to Australia from operations.  We take our Uniting Church place at the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) through Rev Dr Murray Earl, our assembly appointed RACS member who is himself a former RAAF Principal Chaplain.

ADF chaplaincy is a ministry of the Church through which God has called us, so we base our legitimacy on the Church’s ministry. This is a public ministry in a secular context, which the ADF recognises to be significant and valuable. We serve not because we are warmongers, but because we are being faithful to our calling to exercise ministry to and with women and men in uniform. The freedom of religious practice and the encouragement to practise and observe faith in all situations underpins the provision of chaplaincy for members of the ADF.

The prophet declares: “… and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)  When the day comes that we can disband the ADF and Australia can redeploy the defence budget to education, health care and overseas aid, I for one will be exceedingly glad.

Until that idyllic time, I believe we have a duty to provide the best possible ministrations to ADF members. Under government direction, Australian women and men who have volunteered and trained for the profession of arms sometimes find themselves in harm’s way.  In those circumstances especially, they need the care and support of chaplains.

The duties I perform as a serving army chaplain include:

providing religious and spiritual ministry to ADF members and their families, church parades, memorial services, commemorative events and referrals to other religious leaders as appropriate

delivering  pastoral care to ADF members and their families

conducting character training instruction

advising commanders on religious and moral matters, welfare and morale

providing welfare assistance as part of the unit welfare team

We are non-combatants in the Rules of Engagement as understood by the Geneva Convention. This means we are not engaged in the business of war fighting, but rather like doctors and nurses, we fulfil a speciality role which is clearly understood and well-defined.

Working with the increasingly diverse and non-religious younger demographic of the ADF, spirituality is often presented by chaplains as an invisible weapon. The Psalmist phrased it with different wording but the concept remains the same. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.”  (Psalm 46:1)

If spirituality is an invisible weapon, then we should not store it or safeguard it in a dusty shoebox in the garage or attic.We should carry it with us as a shield of defence and chaplains can be a vital means of helping ADF members appropriate that understanding. 

Defence Chaplaincy is sometimes lonely, raw, challenging, boring and stressful.  Whether conducting a ramp ceremony for the latest casualty of war; performing a baptism for a new follower of Jesus; negotiating a compassionate return to Australia for a member whose mother has died; or waiting under a tree for transport after weeks of training in the bush, we do so under holy orders and only because our church has endorsed this vital ministry.

I find it immensely fulfilling to maintain the rich and selfless century of tradition as a minister in uniform serving alongside others we identify with wearing a similar uniform. This practice of incarnational ministry inspires our duty and delight and we dare not drop the torch.

Incidentally, it is also the most successful and longstanding ecumenical ministry endeavour Australia has ever seen and, as a committed ecumenist, I am deeply grateful for this dimension of ADF chaplaincy.

In this season of remembrance, we honour the sacrifice of those who have gone before us, we abhor the tragedy of war and we faithfully work and serve alongside those who are entrusted by our government to protect Australia and its people.   

As chaplains, we rely on the keen and prayerful support of our church as we serve under our ultimate commander, the God who breathed life into our beings and who loves each one of those with whom we serve. 

Padre Mark Dunn

Coordinator of Chaplain
4 Brigade HQ
Simpson Barracks
Macleod VIC


Forgetting the lessons of the past

Those who forget the dead will soon forget the living (Jürgen Moltmann).

Photographs of the devastation in Gallipoli and France in the so-called Great War make clear why those who experienced the war – both as combatants and as grieving families – declared that this was the war to end all wars.

As I have looked at the landscapes stripped of life, turned into potholes of mud, they bring an eerie similarity to the devastated city of Hiroshima, as if the loss of life in France prepared for the nuclear flash that burns cities in an instant.

Again, that same devastation repeats the graphic prophetic descriptions of war-destroyed Jerusalem where all life has fled. (See Isaiah chapters 2 & 5, Lamentations 2, and Ezekiel chapters 6&7.)

At the end of the century of global warfare, it seems there are some important points to remember. 

The 1914-18 war transpired after imperial attitudes developed over centuries. Modern European powers (in spite of prevailing secular thought) claimed a unity of God, King and Empire. They engaged in an arms race that prepared for the mechanised warfare of machine gun and heavy artillery, as graphically described by Peter Mason in his book Blood and Iron (1984).

As Immanuel Kant observed, the production of weapons is preparation for war.

This is a salutary observation for us now, when Australian government ministers contract to build air fighters, submarines and frigates, seeking to make Australia into a chief weapons exporter.

Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace, identified ‘articles’ necessary for peace. Written in 1795, it is eerily relevant today.

These include Article 3 “Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished” because they are preparations for war which reveal bad faith, cause distrust, and result in an arms race.

Article 6 states: “No state shall, during the war, permit such acts of hostility which would make mutual confidence in the subsequent peace impossible.”

This includes assassins (terrorism); poisons (biochemical warfare); incitement to treason (subversion); and breaches of capitulation (killing or torturing prisoners). These kinds of acts make peace impossible, and a war without the possibility of peace turns into a war of extermination.

Church leaders were active in supporting the push for war, allying with the nation’s imperial war aims, actively encouraging the young to join the war effort.

Not only humans but other creatures and the natural world itself are victims of war. The death of countless horses and other animals is often overlooked.

This conversation could turn into cliché and over-simplification. But Christian scholars and theologians are revisiting the early centuries of the church and the strange allegiance of Christians to a figure executed by the Empire that, without irony, declared itself to be ‘Pax Romana’ – the Peace of Rome. In doing so, the early Christians faced the prospect of death at the hand of the same empire.

The so-called Holy Roman Empire contained within it fragments of that imperial attitude in the form of a supposed ‘just war’. Pacifist movements in the church were largely rejected. Certainly, restrictions were placed on the participation of priests in warfare but (as Martin Luther endorsed) the State has a God-given role and the right to engage in warfare, albeit under certain conditions. Such is the background to the warfare of the 20th century.

Following militarist policy, modern warfare morphed (as described by 19th century German philosopher Carl von Clausewitz) into the aim of utterly destroying the enemy opponent. The battle of Passchendaele, as in the entire military campaign, was no longer based on winning territory. It sought to bleed the enemy dry.

Hence the brutal, inhuman decisions to send troops from the trenches into the relentless machine gunning, the barbed wire and piled bodies in mud.

How can the church endorse this destruction? How can the church appoint ministries to wear military uniform, providing pastoral justification in the practice of warfare? That is the pressing and unavoidable question Jesus puts to the whole church, for he declared blessing on peacemakers, that we might take up not weapons but the cross.

Therefore, on the day of Remembrance, in the crucified One, we are confronted with the God who refuses to justify our violence, but enters the place of violation between ‘enemies’ to release us from murderous madness.

Rev Dr Wes Campbell
Pax Christi


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