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I see LKU as a liberating and very important area of activity for church welfare and social work

By Martin Jürgens

What does ethical education for military personnel in “Lebenskundlicher Unterricht” mean to you?

Following Eilert Herms, I see it as a fundamental task of the church to be the “mediator of religious communication” – of communication between systems of meaning. This is exactly what happens in Lebens­kundlicher Unterricht (LKU), without the pressure to be a successful denominational preacher. Nevertheless, the church does have the opportunity to put its own points of view across. So I see LKU as a liberating and very important area of activity for church welfare and social work.

What attitude do soldiers have to LKU, in your experience, and how open are they to the themes of LKU? Have you noticed any changes in this respect?

Attitudes and openness completely depend on the person attending class. Since this is the second time that I have worked in the military chaplaincy, I can see that this has not changed. Soldiers generally bring along a mixture of cautious interest and a certain skepticism. To respond to both, you have to be authentic, professionally competent, and use suitable methods. I often receive positive feedback both from those with a higher intellectual level and from those who are supposedly uneducated, and find they already have an interest that can be developed.

How do you work and what methods do you use? How do you tackle the curriculum? Do you respond to requests?

Since I work at a school where I usually see learning groups once only and for a fairly short period of time, I have adopted the “infotainment” or “edutainment” format, a bit like Eckart von Hirschhausen (a physician and talk show host) has done in the field of medicine. For teaching materials, I use images and short video sequences such as those provided via the zebis online teaching portal. I never show long movies or use conventional PowerPoint slides, as the soldiers have more than enough of those as it is. For the lesson topics, I listen to their spontaneous suggestions (since the participants only have a short time to prepare before class, it is rare to receive explicit topic requests) or use topics in current ethical and political debates. Once I have found a theme, I check to see if it fits into the curriculum. I have discarded ideas before because they do not fit.

Discussing and reflecting on ethical issues can emotionally affect those involved. What experience left the greatest impres­sion on you – or was most difficult for you – in your (teaching) role as a military chaplain, and why? 

In a class about the difference between being a good person and being a do-gooder, I started by asking who thought they were a good person. A young soldier said that she did, and that triggered a storm of indignation. The room split into two groups, who started threatening each other with legal action, and the female soldier was one of the most vocal ringleaders. Together with my trainee, who had a Masters in psychology, I interrupted the lesson at that point, and after a brief consultation the two of us continued it as a crisis management session. At any rate we managed to calm everybody down, finish the course together, and avoid any legal action being taken. But also impressive, in a pleasant way, was a class discussion with a female Muslim Hauptfeldwebel who was co-director of ZASaG (Zentrale Ansprechstelle für Soldatinnen und Soldaten anderer Glaubensrichtungen), the central point of contact for soldiers of other faiths in the Bundeswehr. This meeting led to two wonderful interreligious retreats. 

What are your wishes for the future?

For the military chaplaincy, I simply hope that this good work can continue in the proven way, and be extended to other faiths. Soldiers greatly appreciate our work. But both church and political discussions about the military chaplaincy – the criticism of which I consider to be totally unfounded – are a burden on this service, which is most importantly a social welfare service. For the soldiers, my wish is always for political leadership that is aware of the value of the Bundeswehr, but also of its limits in terms of its capacity and the tasks it can be expected to perform.

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Martin Jürgens, a member of the Protestant military chaplaincy since 2010, Hannover site