Peace through Religious Expertise: Strategic Peacebuilding and the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps

by Anna S. Page


The United States Military will continue to need expert peacemakers even as our strategy pivots from an emphasis on unconventional and irregular warfare to a focus on great power competition. In particular, the U.S. Military needs expert peacemakers trained in religious and spiritual language, beliefs, and practices. Thankfully, the military already contains a group of religious experts embedded in its ranks. These are chaplains.


Given that the military operates in distinctly religious environments, chaplains can leverage their unique skill sets to enhance the peacebuilding, or stabilization, process. Indeed, U.S. Army Chaplains are uniquely positioned to act as strategic peacebuilders for two reasons. First, joint operations doctrine communicates that the Army already conducts strategic peacebuilding in the context of stability operations. Thus, chaplains’ participation in this framework aligns with the Army’s overall mission. Second, chaplains profess key skills that can be instrumental to peacebuilding in religiously characterized operational environments.


Peacebuilding and U.S. Military Doctrine

Many definitions of peacebuilding exist. What appears to be true across the definitions is a desire to rebuild societal foundations and transform conflict in order to avoid conflict relapse. Take, for example, the definition of peacebuilding from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The Kroc Institute defines peacebuilding as the “development of constructive personal, group, and political relationships across ethnic, religious, class, national, and racial boundaries…to resolve injustice in nonviolent ways and to transform the structural conditions that generate deadly conflict.”[1] Thus, the practice of peacebuilding is an art which demands intentionality and coordination. This is particularly true of strategic peacebuilding, which looks at systemic violence and embraces complexity to transform oppressive conditions into ones which allow for flourishing.[2] Strategic peacebuilding nurtures constructive and cooperative human relationships, strives for social justice, and ends violent conflict.[3] Achieving these ends requires attunement to social conditions and human interaction. It requires experts dedicated to these ends.


These experts, or potential experts, may already be within the Army’s ranks. With a little creativity, parallels between stability operations and peacekeeping operations can be seen. Stability operations doctrine lists the requirements for stabilization. Like peacebuilding, stabilization occurs across the conflict continuum, requires relationality via an interagency and partner approach to conflict, and works to eliminate drivers of violence through “security, justice and reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and social well-being, governance and participation, and economic stabilization and infrastructure.”[4] These stabilization principles resemble those expressed in the definitions of peacebuilding. Namely, they appear focused on building societal foundations and structures which support continuous peace. Thus, the case could be made that readers and practitioners of stability doctrine have a base understanding of some principles which inform peacebuilding processes. The question remains, however, regarding who specifically could provide the needed expertise to achieve peace.


Gerard Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the University of Notre Dame, further nuances this question. Writing about the role of religious persons and institutions in peacebuilding, Powers argues that the “unique spiritual and religious resources available for peacebuilding” deserve attention in the peacebuilding process.[5] This is true because religion plays a role in both conflict and peace. Consider the U.S.’s main competitors according to the National Defense Strategy. The U.S. Military is currently concerned with China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and transnational terrorist organizations. While we fight throughout the Middle East, tensions rise in Eastern Europe and we closely monitor the actions of China and North Korea. Meanwhile, violent extremism continues to be a major national security concern. Though not all these 4+1 challengers profess religious ideology – some even denounce religion for secularism – religion influences each potential area of operations through culture, governance, or motivation. Thus, the U.S. Military cannot overlook religious factors in conflict if it is to achieve peace.


The doctrine on Civil-Military operations (CMO), a component of stability, highlights the necessity of religious awareness. CMO are conducted to “establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relationships between military forces and indigenous populations and institutions (IPI).”[6] This doctrine explicitly advises CMO to “incorporate civil considerations,” including religion.[7] Thus, this doctrine stresses including the religious makeup of the battlespace in planning processes. Ultimately, CMO recognize that religion is a central part of the societal fabric – the very fabric into which the Army weaves itself when we conduct an operation.


Faith-based peacebuilding, therefore, can be one component to strategic peacebuilding. In Powers’s formulation, this would include using “distinctively religious and spiritual resources – such as ritual, prayer, and spiritual healing” and leadership by an apolitical, values-based force who can leverage and mobilize governmental assets.[8] Powers’s character description matches the doctrinal definition of U.S. Army Chaplains. Chaplains are leaders in their own faith traditions and serve two primary functions. The first is service as a professional religious leader and the second is as a professional religious advisor.[9] As religious leaders, chaplains must provide for the free exercise of religion for all Soldiers, Family members, and Department of Defense Civilians in their care.[10] This means that they must be apolitical defenders of First Amendment Constitutional rights within the U.S. Military.


Then, as religious advisors, they advise the command on religion, ethics, and morale.[11] Given that chaplains are religious leaders, their advisement is values-driven, both as informed by their own religious beliefs and the Army Values. Moreover, in the vein of ethics, chaplains are the gatekeepers of the Just War Tradition – the philosophical and theological tradition which informs our Law of Armed Conflict (jus ad bellum) and Law of War (jus in bello). [12] Tellingly, Powers says this tradition does not run counter to peacebuilding. He instead says it is a “necessary compliment to it.”[13] Thus, chaplains provide expertise on a subject necessary for planning operations.


From their roles as religious leaders to their roles as religious advisors, chaplains satisfy Powers’s model for an effective peacebuilder. Overall, peacebuilding frameworks run parallel to U.S. Military doctrine, thereby creating space for chaplains to be peacebuilders within a military context. Doctrine may not name the process as peacebuilding; but opportunities exist for peacebuilding expertise to develop within the ranks. Considering the prevalence of religion in the military’s operational environments, chaplains should be considered in this process given three of their unique skill sets.

Skill Set #1: Bridging the Religious-Secular Language Divide

Chaplains have an intimate understanding of religious mindsets and language in the public sphere through study and lived experience. As Staff Officers and religious leaders, chaplains are the Subject Matter Experts on religion for a military organization. It is in their wheelhouse to provide insight and nuance on violence which seems to be religiously fueled. Stability doctrine frequently references religion as a potential driver of instability or mode by which instability is carried out and continued. A “successful” instability narrative may frame grievances as religious in nature, amongst other causes, and emphasize “its marginalization by the host nation government,” including religious leaders.[14]


Though the definition of “religion” could be debated and nuanced, the assessment that religion contributes to violence resembles that of theologian and ethicist Sathianathan Clarke in his book Competing Fundamentalisms. He champions understanding the deep complexities which influence behavior and how religion factors into it. To Clarke, religion is both its own unique phenomenon and something which operates “through and alongside other dimensions of the world.”[15] Clarke essentially asserts that while religion may not be a primary factor in conflict, there is no avoiding its influence.

Therefore, to Clarke, the only way to achieve peace is to be bilingual in secularism and religiosity because “colliding cultures” are at play.[16] By speaking both languages, religion can transcend contemporary culture to encourage peace and be curbed so as to not become fundamentalist in nature. This enables opportunities for “mutual understanding” as well as “shows grace to other cultural and religious worldviews, and honors difference.”[17]


For the U.S. Military, chaplains are the linguists about whom Clarke writes. They simultaneously understand both religious language and motivators to violence, such as complete submission to a school of thought, and the secular language of conflict in which the military is steeped.[18] As persons who pledge allegiance to both “God and Country,” a lived understanding of how religion influences decision making and governance, even in “secular” environments, exists. This is imperative in bridging divides and cultivating cooperative relationships for peacebuilding.

Skill Set #2: Attunement to the Spirituality and Religious Significance of Place

In addition to intimately understanding how religion shapes behavior, chaplains have unique insight on the spiritual or religious significance of places. Geography plays a major role in military operations. The world is divided into Combatant Commands based on geography, missional locations are called “Areas of Operation,” and terrain shapes movement. Geography also impacts religious and spiritual experiences. A country may boast historical religious ties, a city may contain holy sites, or a building may host the Divine.


Take, for example, the city of Jerusalem. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all lay claim to this holiest city of the Abrahamic faiths. It wields both religious significance as well as spiritual significance. Writing about Jerusalem, the Jewish-Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai beautifully captures the role of physical place in one’s spiritual or religious life. He poetically documents his entry into Jerusalem on Yom Kippur in 1967. In his poem, he expresses the spiritual connection between his current experience standing in front of an Arab-owned shop and his memory of his father’s old shop.[19]

For Amichai, experiencing that shop in the Holy City was worship. His pilgrimage allowed him to reconcile, or build peace between, the past and the present. Amichai’s poetry conveys how geography carries spiritual weight. As such, violating these sites would harm someone to their core and jeopardize the mission. Jerusalem is not alone in this category of religiously significant cities. Rather, cities throughout the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or wherever the next conflict erupts will have – at minimum – religious buildings with spiritual significance.


Sometimes, places of spiritual and military importance overlap. Attunement to the religious significance of places impacts the trajectory of an operation. Religious buildings are illegitimate military targets, attacking on major religious holidays would sever relationships, and no one flourishes if the spirit is destroyed. Thus, military personnel must be aware of their physical surroundings if they are to fight and win the nation’s wars and establish peace. When this occurs, guidance is needed on how to proceed in such a way that will respect the local populace while not compromising the mission. Chaplains, given their dual role as religious leaders and religious advisers, carry the insight and clout to provide this advice. This advice helps avoid exacerbating conflict while moving the mission towards peace.

Skill Set #3: Soul Care and Soul Repair

Finally, chaplains are in the business of caring for souls. Though a less tangible correlation to peacebuilding than understanding religious language and how places impact mission, caring for souls contributes to peace on a deeper level. The religious radicalization process is one example of when soul care could make a difference. In “The Psychology of Global Jihadists,” sociologist Farad Khosrokhavar assesses how and why persons are radicalized and compelled to jihad. He argues that internalized humiliation resulting from “losing face” with one’s kin or compatriots inspires one to use a disproportionate manner to try to reverse the feeling of humiliation.[20] The goal is to “humiliate the humiliator.”[21]


Though Khosrokhavar writes primarily of Islam, his explanation knows no geographic bounds. Members of the U.S. Military, civilians, and enemies can all fall victim to humiliation. Humiliation is not a far deviation from shame. Shame is one of the major symptoms of Moral Injury. Moral Injury demands care for a person’s soul as it is a transgression of one’s values and ethics. Chaplains provide soul care and repair. Thus, as long as the United States fights violent extremism, chaplains are integral to the pursuance of peace because they can address the root causes – a person’s innermost pain – of radicalism. This means chaplains either directly partake in preventing radicalization by caring for people, or advise on the extremist mindset thereby enhancing effectiveness for meaningful engagement. An inversion of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates that without internal peace, there is no external stability.


This theory also applies to refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). War, by its nature, disrupts and uproots people. Often, the U.S. Military provides humanitarian assistance in crisis situations. Joint Force Stability doctrine explains that military-provided humanitarian assistance follows a primary line of effort of ensuring the “well-being of the population.”[22] One aspect of this is the “restoration of a social fabric and community life.”[23] Restoring social fabric and community could look like establishing law and order and rebuilding political institutions.


Yet, displacement can throw a state not only into political upheaval, but also persons into spiritual crisis. As scholar Edward Said explains of exiles (by extension IDPs), they occupy a territory of “not-belonging” or otherness.[24] They could be characterized by “willfulness, exaggeration, and overstatement” which, like Khosrokhavar warned, could result in partnering with a “triumphant ideology.”[25] This is particularly poignant given that Said names our contemporary era “the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration” as a result of modern warfare.[26] Ultimately, if potential radicalization is the result of displacement, then the military needs to be equipped to holistically care for people when providing humanitarian assistance. As peacebuilding theorist John Paul Lederach offers, violent conflict necessitates radical healing for society and individuals.[27] What these explanations show is that spiritual crises beget radicalization – crises oft related to conflict. Chaplains, equipped with tools for soul care and soul repair, can prevent the perpetuation of extremism if invited into the conversation by facilitating external peace from internal healing.


Conclusion: Future Research and Curriculum Development

Whether Islam in the Middle East, Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe, or religions represented by internally displaced persons from humanitarian crises, the U.S. Military operates in environments shaped by religion. While religion can inspire or motivate instability, religion can also create connection and build relationships. Religion can enable peace. The military, therefore, needs experts who adhere to its doctrine and speak the language of faith. These people are chaplains. Given their dual roles as religious leaders and religious advisers, chaplains boast unique religious insights and inherent peacebuilding skills.


More study is needed on how the U.S. Military trains and teaches chaplains to be competent in understanding religious mindsets, the spiritual and religious significance of places, and the impact of trauma on souls to ensure that they are prepared to aid in stabilization, or peacebuilding. Moreover, a curriculum on peacebuilding theory and framework must be developed in accordance with contemporary models to be taught to chaplains. Finally, analysis could be done on if different faith traditions or theologies are more apt to peacebuilding than others. The opportunities for future study abound. Even still, as long as the United States engages competitors in areas of operation characterized by religion, the current Chaplain Corps is uniquely positioned to serve as strategic peacebuilders given skill sets and position within both the military and a faith tradition.


About the Author


Chaplain (Captain) Anna Page is a Battalion Chaplain and Episcopal Priest. Chaplain Page currently serves both the 414th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Southfield, Michigan and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Prior to the 414th, CH Page served the 422nd Civil Affairs BN in McLeansville, NC as their Chaplain Candidate while completing seminary at Duke Divinity School. She attended Wellesley College for undergraduate, commissioned through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Army ROTC Paul Revere Battalion, and received Educational Delay to defer her Active Duty service to attend seminary and become a priest. CH Page’s professional and academic interests include the ethics of conflict/warfare, world religions, creating just and inclusive communities, strategic peacebuilding throughout the conflict continuum, and pre-and-postvention techniques for Moral Injury.


End Notes

[1] “What is Strategic Peacebuilding?” Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, https://kroc.nd.edu/about-us/what-is-peace-studies/what-is-strategic-peacebuilding/, last visited 12 February 2021. [2] John Paul Lederach and R. Scott Appleby, “Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview,” in Strategies of Peace, ed. by Daniel Philpott and Gerard Powers, 22. [3] Lederach, 27. [4] Joint Publication 3-07, “Stability” (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army), 3 August 2016, I-1. [5] Gerard Powers, “Religion and Peacebuilding,” in Strategies of Peace, ed. by Daniel Philpott and Gerard Powers, 317. [6] Joint Publication 3-57, “Civil-Military Operations” (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff), 9 July 2018, I-1. [7] Ibid. [8] Powers, 324 and Powers, 328-329. [9] Army Regulation 165-1, “Army Chaplain Corps Activities” (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army), 23 June 2015, 7-8. [10] AR 165-1, 1. [11] Ibid., 8. [12] While chaplains are the Subject Matter Experts on the Just War Tradition and most chaplains do subscribe to this tradition, it is important to note that not all chaplains support the Just War Tradition. Some chaplains within the Army are pacifists and likely would have important thoughts on this concept of faith-based peacebuilding. [13] Powers, 339. [14] JP 3-07, I-12 and I-4. [15] Sathianathan Clarke, Competing Fundamentalisms, 8. [16] Ibid., 13. [17] Clarke, 185. [18] Ibid., 133. [19] Yehuda Amichai, Poems of Jerusalem, 38-41, 44-45, 58-59, 102-03, 134-35. [20] Farad Khosrokhavar, “The Psychology of Global Jihadists,” in The Fundamentalist Mindset, 139-55, 141-143. [21] Ibid., 144. [22] JP 3-07, xiii. [23] Ibid. [24] Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 173-186 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 177. [25] Ibid., 182 and 177. [26] Ibid., 174. [27] Lederach, 28.

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