The Political Chaplain

An image from the Arbor Day foundation: “A rotten inner core … can cause a split trunk. The wounds are too large to ever mend.”

I have a game at home called “We Didn’t Playtest This At All”. It’s a really fun game (to some at least) based on unique cards that people play during the game that change the rules of the game as it’s played. For example, one card simply says “You Win” and when you play that card, you win (but only if you’re a girl in one case). Unless someone has the card that allows them to make someone lose whenever that person just won (but they also lose). My favorite card though is called “Politics”. When you play that card you are told to say “everything is ruined!”, then all players turn in all their cards and pick new ones. Because, as we know, politics ruins everything.

I say this shortly after I left the ACPE Facebook group. I had joined the group some time ago because I hoped to find articles and stories that would further my profession. While those were certainly there, over time I found more and more posts from people about topics such as immigration policy and race relations. The purpose of sharing these articles was often to highlight issues related to those we serve as chaplains, especially minority communities. The discussion of these issues sometimes went south though. One article shared on the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) Facebook page concerning chaplains in trauma departments devolved into a gun rights debate. Articles posted on the ACPE page concerning race relations in some American cities turned into what I can only call “whitesplaining“. Conversations got hijacked, accusations were tossed around, and people left. Issues that were presented in order to unite or inspire action became divisive.

The advocacy and activism of chaplains is not uncommon or unwarranted. Chaplains often work in very diverse populations – more diverse than the churches, synagogues and mosques of traditional faith leaders. Because of this we value inclusivity and mutual respect, even for those faith groups with which we may have significant differences. Many see activism as another way that a chaplain exercises their pastoral authority. Chaplains themselves are a diverse population in terms of religion, faith and belief. The amount of religious diversity just within the Protestant tradition is staggering. In our training as chaplains we are taught to respect and value that diversity, and overall I see that in practice among my colleagues. I believe that we try to approach diversity of faith as something we can learn from rather than something we need to critique or change.

In the same way that we should value the religious, ethnic, spiritual and cultural  diversity of those we serve, we also need to value the political diversity of those we serve. This may at times be a harder proposition, especially as we live in a time where our country has become much more politically polarized as well as politically active, and where political views are sometimes held more tightly than religious beliefs. While we have general norms and boundaries regarding religious speech, the norms of political speech have disintegrated. Because so much speech now has a political ideology either explicitly or implicitly attached to it, the rules about how we talk and what is OK to talk about, from economics to our diets, can be murky at best. And because political speech has become more about “winning” than compromise or understanding, those discussions about our economic opinions and diets can quickly make us defensive and shut down our listening skills.

While this may not come out often with patients and those we serve, I do see it in our interactions among each other, especially on social media. Yes, even among chaplains.

I must say that when I started out writing this I wanted to try and see the problem as “out there” among “us” and something that “we” need to fix. However the more I developed this narrative, the more I had to point the finger at myself. Quite contrary to Dr. Covey, I sought to be understood much more than to understand whenever I entered in to some article or social media thread. I disparaged those who disparaged others and thought I was clever. I confused my being right with being righteous. I thought a well-honed 240 character tweet could provide moral correction to someone I didn’t know and didn’t really want to know.

Part of this for comes from my own need for people to get along and understand each other, which comes from my own feelings of not always being understood. I want to defend those I think are being misunderstood or wronged because it touches on my own past pain. Many of us become helpers precisely because we find that easing the pain of others helps our own. Activism in the same way, even for righteous causes, can become a righteous mask over our own pain and hurt.

So now, rather than think about what “we” need to do, I am thinking about what “I” need to do.

The first thing I need to do is remember what I am and what I am not responsible for. If a colleague is promoting racist ideas or demeaning others in some way, I am responsible for calling it out appropriately. I am not responsible for correcting their thinking though. I’ve found it quite easy to go from “here’s where you’re wrong” to “here’s where you’re wrong and I need to make sure you’re corrected” in my own interactions. A racist may always be a racist and never realize that they’re racist, and I need to be OK with that.

A second thing I must do is remember that anger and rage are addictive. When we feel hurt or attacked, our brains release adrenaline in order to prepare us for fight or flight. That adrenaline rush can happen not only from physical threats but from perceived threats. Furthermore, that adrenaline rush can last for hours or even days, lowering our anger threshold and making us more likely to respond out of anger to perceived threats. My brain longs for those rushes again, and it’s much easier to get them from attacking others than by running. Add to that my propensity to dwell on things and I can understand why I can get locked into never-ending spirals with people for days on end.

Finally, I need to learn when to speak and when to be silent. This may be the most difficult task though of all. Bonhoeffer said that “silence in the face of evil is itself evil”, which is quite true. I cannot be silent in the face of evil. However I must also learn and discern when and how to speak. The best response to a perceived evil may not be a knee-jerk reaction or instant condemnation. Perhaps I’m reacting more to a perception of harm than actual harm. Perhaps I’m reacting more out of my own hurt, or wanting to hurt back. Perhaps in my own rush to be understood, I haven’t understood you. Perhaps I haven’t checked my own heart first.

Oh, and I’m taking a social media commenting break. Unless it’s funny animal photos or suggestions about how to fix my son’s 3d printer.






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