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Chaplaincy in a Pluralistic Society

James E. Hightower, Ed.D., BCC

Vice President, Chaplaincy Services

The McFarland Institute, a division of Baptist Community Ministries

It is no secret that the United States of America is a pluralistic society. So as chaplains, how is it that we do our ministry, maintain our integrity and provide ministry to all? Benedict of Nursia and the life of Jesus help provide answers to these questions. Benedict was born around 480. Benedict lived the monastic life and developed The Rule, which helped to guide monastic community in ancient times as it does today. In the 53th chapter of The Rule, Benedict writes instructions for the guest master of the monastery. In this 53thchapter he says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” (1)

This ancient rule is very important because in the day of Benedict there were no hotels and it was imperative that people be in a safe place by the time nightfall came. As chaplains who are Christians, it is very important for us to receive all persons in the same manner that Benedict instructed the guest master to receive strangers who knocked on the door of the monastery.

In the Gospels we have a very theologically sophisticated lawyer who asked Jesus the question, “What commandment in the law is the greatest?”(2) Jesus knew that the religious leaders had counted no fewer than 613 commands in the law of God. There were 248 positive commands that were linked to the number of the parts in the body and there were 365 negative commands corresponding to the days of the year. Which single commandment could possibly be the greatest in that context?

Jesus’ answer was stunningly simple and absolutely brilliant, “Love.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind.”(3) He reminded them by quoting a line from Deuteronomy(4). “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”(5) Then he reminds them that on these two commands hang all of the law and the prophets.(6)

Benedict, talking to the guest master who often acted much like a chaplain does today, must have taken his cues from Jesus. Love is the key. It’s the key for interpreting everything that God has revealed to us, not only in the law but in the prophets also. Instead of hatred, Jesus offers us love. In chaplaincy it would be an arrogant stance to believe that God must hate the same things that we hate and that God is afraid of the same people that we are afraid of.

But that’s where the rub is. The problem with love is that it is a tough game to master. Hatred seems to come easily to the human heart. We find an easy hatred between the Israelites and the Palestinians. We find an easy hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, although thanks be to God, that hatred has diminished over the years. We find hatred between Americans and al-Qaeda. We find hatred between some persons in Christian quarters and those who are homosexual. And in the midst of the hate, we find a great deal of fear.

It seems to me that hatred is easy. The corollary of that is that love is an enormous challenge. Chaplains are sent into the world to love people as they find them. What makes love even trickier is that Jesus commands us to love not only our neighbors, but also our enemies. “You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”(7)

As a chaplain, if we had to love only those people who were just like us, what would the big deal be? Even members of hate groups hold in high regard and love other members of their same hate group. What makes the followers of Jesus distinctive is they love not only their friends, but also their enemies and they pray precisely for those who persecute them. It is hard to imagine anything being tougher. However, when we live in a pluralistic society we will always rub shoulders and care for those who are not like us.

The kind of love that Jesus calls us to simply has too many hurdles and barriers in the way. Self-interest keeps us from loving others because we fear that another person’s advantage will create a disadvantage for ourselves. We are resistant to leaving our own cultural, political, religious and racial comfort zones. Our distrust of people who are not like us is a huge hurdle. Somehow we feel that if we love people who are different than us, we will be diminished.

To make these hurdles even higher, we are often held back by our dislike of people because of their hair style, their clothes, their music, their foods, their work habits, their sexual habits, their attitudes and their accents. We have a misguided sense that religious purity would be threatened if we loved those who aren’t like us. However, that is precisely what Jesus calls us to do. Left to our own personal preferences we would perhaps never leap those hurdles and obey the love command of Jesus.

Fortunately as Christian chaplains Jesus never leaves us alone. He makes it very clear that the command to love God can never be separated from the much tougher command to love our neighbors. We cannot first love God and then when we get really good at loving, take on the challenge of loving people around us. To love God is identical to loving one’s neighbor, the scripture says.

When we love a neighbor we not only fulfill the great commandment but we act as a channel for God. We experience a truly indescribable joy and we discover the very meaning of human existence. Best of all, we meet our Lord Jesus in a powerful, profound and personal way.

Chaplains feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. All without regard for who they are except for the fact that they are a child of God. For chaplains living in a pluralistic society this means breaking down barriers that keep us apart.

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