Monday, January 15, 2007


“James J. Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was suspected in 2003 of aiding terror suspects imprisoned at the facility, but the military’s espionage case against him soon collapsed.”

This was the lead story in the New York Times on Sunday. It reveals a crucial contradiction in the role of clergy in our culture, in particular that of the “chaplain,” who is understood to be comforting and advocating for hospital patients, prison inmates, soldiers, legislators, or sometimes even factory employees. But unlike other clergy, who are paid by and responsible to either their congregation or their denomination, they are hired and paid by the hospital, prison, military establishment, politicians or factory owners. Though the formal idea is that they are responsible to a Higher Power than any institution, the plain fact is that they are often held to account by the guy who cuts the paycheck and are sometimes expected to be subversive towards their believers, to rat them out, or at least try to keep them under control.

There are two kinds of congregations: “gathered” which means they have assembled because they hold certain beliefs, goals or styles in common (in the early days because immigrants spoke a different language) or “parish” which means that it is assumed that all right thinking people in the area will belong to the same church (Catholic in early Europe or Anglican in post-Henry VIII England) so the territory is simply divided up. A chaplain ministers to people who have been gathered for other reasons than faith, but who share a situation.

There are also two kinds of ministers: “learned” who have been to college and divinity school to formally study theology and history of religion or “inspired” who have had some emotional connection to a belief system and pledged allegiance to it.

Chaplains can serve either kind of congregation -- in fact, a chaplain in a hospital or on a battlefield may be called upon to pray for believers in quite different traditions than their own, though usually theist. And chaplains can be either “learned” or “inspired.” The clergy’s certifying denomination sets the standards. But no one can identify a chaplain with integrity until he is actually exposed to the terrible collision between the individual believer and the institutional controller. In this case, James or “Yousef” (Joseph) Yee came through more than two months of harsh confinement and accusations. (Dare I say with Confucian restraint and wisdom? Or is that a stereotype? Or is it a cultural heritage?)

It’s easy to imagine the stupidity of the people who originally hired Yee. No doubt there was pressure from nations, faith communities and justice-seekers to provide a chaplain for these captives, not least because of constant rumors of prejudice and abuse, to say nothing of the puzzle of why they were confined in the first place. So the authorities wanted the appearance of a chaplain without worrying about that person’s loyalty to the captors. They might have done better to hire a nice Quaker lady, who might alarm Muslims as much as the guard dogs did.

Yee had converted from Christianity to Islam in 1991, taken four years of academic study in the Arabic language and traditional Islamic sciences in Syria, and married a Middle Eastern wife with whom he has two children. Though he had to be aware that in the US many Islamic converts come from the Black community -- and even the prison community -- as a way of staying religious without having to accept the White Christianity which is so entwined with governmental power, he must have seemed “different” since he was Chinese. He didn’t LOOK like Louis Farrakhan. He was one-of-a-kind, so how much power could he have? (They should have consulted a Lutheran.) A West Point graduate, he’d been a Patriot Missile Fire Control officer after the first Gulf War, so he was bound to be loyal to the military, right?

But the point of a chaplain is to transcend earthly affiliations, to aspire to higher laws, to stand -- if necessary -- as a lone sentinel for justice. In our culture a chaplain is allowed confidentiality and is expected to respond with compassion and understanding. To have it otherwise is to make it impossible to minister, especially to this group of teens-to-grandpas who speak different languages, come from different backgrounds, committed an assortment of offenses, represent no single nation, and (in growing numbers) are psychotic to the point of suicide. No doubt the government was hoping Yee would figure them out for THEIR purposes, rather than responding to their needs.

Many people go into chaplaincies assuming that demands will be light: no need to raise money, wrestle with the Sunday School committee, maintain the building, or produce a stirring sermon every Sunday. They do not expect to be thrown into solitary confinement, nor do they expect their finances and communications to be secretly investigated. But it is still an occupation that may demand extreme dedication and not to any bureaucracy. (My view is somewhat influenced by the Navy chaplain who came to the Rez to be the local Methodist minister: he didn’t last six months outside the protection of a military base. Or consider the married hospital chaplain who was sleeping his way through my congregation, assuring the women that his job was as secular as that of lawyers, therefore put no restrictions on his sex life.)

Many of us formed our ideas about what a chaplain does and is like from WWII and Korean movies about combat. They were, well, rather like Quaker ladies: quick to pray and comfort, brave in the face of danger, believers in a Higher Order.

Put Yee’s story alongside the news about Polish priests who collaborated with the Nazis in WWII and hinted afterwards that they were brave, if covert, defenders of the innocent and faithful. Now documents have knocked them off their sainthood pedestals and may have seriously damaged the entire Polish church in the same way that sexual scandal has dogged Catholic priests in other countries. Not that scandal is always bad. For instance, in Ireland such disclosures finally broke open a country that a corrupt religious establishment had gripped by the throat for generations.

There’s no doubt that Yee’s integrity has been a rock that breaks another hole in the hull of the Bush/Cheney ship of state, before its prow thrusts even more deeply into our private business. Yee probably doesn’t rise to the level of sainthood (he merely did his duty), but he is a role model to many chaplains who are taking the easy way by collaborating with the institutions who employ them. Yee takes religion seriously: therefore, we must take HIM seriously.

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