Conflict & Justice

The 'Empire Chaplain': This Army clergyman quit over the US drone program

Chris Antal - Princeton Theological Seminary.jpg

Reverend Chris Antal at the first interfaith conference on drone warfare, Princeton Theological Seminary, January 2015. He stands before a quilt, constructed by members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern, to lament innocent deaths from armed drones.

Credit:

Philadelphia Inquirer/Bob Fernandez

A chaplain has quit the US Army in a very public way, with a letter of resignation to President Obama. "I refuse to support US armed drone policy," he writes. "I refuse to support this policy of unaccountable killing."

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Chris Antal was a seminary student and a pacifist when he first felt a call — to military service — following the 9-11 attacks. "I wanted to carry my fair share" says Antal. "And I thought I could do that well as a chaplain."

While Chris was studying, the United States was launching its first weaponized drone program, with CIA airstrikes against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. By the time he joined the New York National Guard as a chaplain candidate, drone war was expanding into 24/7 search-and-kill missions against a growing list of militant groups operating in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and later in Syria, Iraq and Libya. These programs, conducted mostly in secret, target people identified as terrorists. But they kill local civilians, too.

Antal became aware of the extent of drone warfare when he was deployed to Afghanistan, serving as chaplain for the signal corps at Kandahar Air Base.

"I was doing my duty as a chaplain to honor the dead at a Dignified Transfer ceremony," he recalls. "We would gather on the flight line whenever a service member was killed. As the casket was transferred onto a C-17 cargo plane, there is 'Taps,' there's prayer, and we salute as the casket is carried up the ramp. It was while I was standing on the flight line in those ceremonies that I saw the drones — surveillance and also armed drones — on the flight line."

Antal says these solemn ceremonies bring up emotions. "And my heart was opened to the pain of the loss of these American lives," he remembers. "But to hold that with the drones... to stand there wondering who we were killing, who their families were, and how they were grieving... it just created a break in my soul."

Antal knew that many of his fellow soldiers shared those feelings. And as Army Chaplain, he felt compelled to put them into words. His Veterans' Day Confession for America, delivered in Kandahar, and shared around the world, explored the depths of a soldier's moral quandary. Here's part of the message:

Most Merciful God
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed
by what we have done, and what we have left undone...

We have made war entertainment
enjoying box seats in the carnival of death
consuming violence, turning tragedy into games
raising our children to kill without remorse.

We have morally disengaged,
outsourcing our killing to the one percent,
forgetting they follow our orders
the blood they shed is on our hands too...

We have sanitized killing and condoned extrajudicial assassinations:
death by remote control,
war made easy without due process,
protecting ourselves from the human cost of war.

We have deceived ourselves,
saying, "Americans do not kill civilians, terrorists do,"
denying the colossal misery our wars inflict on the innocent.
The national closet bursts with skeletons...

The sermon did not go down well with Antal's superiors.

In 2013 the Army sent the chaplain back to the US and separated him from active duty. He returned to his stateside job as a Unitarian/Universalist minister in a small upstate New York town.

Back at Rock Tavern

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern, NY has fewer than 100 members. When they first hired Antal to lead them in 2011, they knew their new minister was also a chaplain in the New York National Guard — he'd joined in 2008  — and that he might be called up for active service at any time.

They also knew him as a man on a mission — to promote peace.

"He was the best preacher I had heard in the pulpit. We could see he was really a social activist, and would push us in that direction of being a more activist congregation," says Mike McGinn, current president of the UUCRT. "He awakened a lot of people," McGinn adds, "and he brought the celebration of spirituality back into the congregation."

Reverend Antal had been leading the Rock Tavern Unitarians for less than a year when the Army called him up.

"We had a special service before he deployed," says McGinn. "We were very concerned. Kandahar is not a good place to be. But Chris reminded us that those who fight for us deserve our religious services."

The Rock Tavern Unitarians had kept in touch, sent him supplies, and learned about his controversial Veteran's Day sermon delivered in Kandahar. They were not surprised to learn he was being sent back from Afghanistan.

"I'd say his conscience was getting in the way of the Army," observes McGinn, who expresses his own doubts about the US role in the Middle East. "I speak as a man who lost a brother on 9/11, in the North Tower. And I think now that instead of going to war, we have gone on a war of revenge."

Chris Antal drone sermon

Reverend Chris Antal delivers his Drone Sermon to his congregation in Rock Tavern, NY, December 2014

Credit:

John Kinney

Reverend Antal's antiwar activism has widespread support among the Rock Tavern Unitarians. "I'd say that he is a humble man but also someone who recognizes the importance of his actions," says Rock Tavern UUCRT member Keith Jordan, who was on the search committee that hired Antal. "He gives a lot of deliberation to what he's going to do," observes Jordan, "and he realizes that some things that he does could have a major impact on other people, and on the way things are done."

Antal hopes his actions can encourage a change in US military policy. His high-profile exit from the Army is just one expression of his ambition, and of his impatience with the Obama Administration for its continued reliance on drones.

"I'm pretty outraged with the lack of progress," Antal says, "and before I took this step I personally advocated through my elected officials, engaged the members of my congregation in Rock Tavern in legislative advocacy, and even tried shareholder advocacy. I became a stockholder of Honeywell, just so I could confront the CEO, David Cote, on their profiting from armed drones."

In his letter to President Obama, Antal lists three major reasons why he can no longer serve his country in good conscience: the secretive drone program, America's continued development of nuclear weapons, and its policy of what he calls 'preventive war, permanent military supremacy and global power projection.'

"I resign because I refuse to serve as an empire chaplain," Antal says in his letter to the Commander-in-Chief.

Antal's resignation is still waiting for approval. "I cannot speak for Chaplain Antal and his reasons for wanting to resign his commission," writes US Army Captain Eric Connor from Fort Bragg, where Antal's resignation is under review. "What I can tell you is that is a part of the ongoing review process into his particular matter. The U.S. Army Reserve is a volunteer force. It is a personal choice to serve."

The fallout

Chris Antal, by resigning in this fashion, forfeits benefits that otherwise would have accrued to him through his eight years of service in the US Army Reserve.

Antal's story has made the rounds of the military press, with articles in Military.com and Army Times. Reader comments online have been pretty brutal.

"I've been called a heaping pile of sh--, a traitor who should be put in prison. And I think somebody said I should be executed," he says. "But most of the responses I have seen have been very supportive."

News of Reverend Antal's resignation resonates beyond the military community.

"He is doing something remarkable," says former Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois. "People like Chris … they struggle with conscience and they realize that they have to make a decision." Bourgeois was himself called to the priesthood and became an influential peace activist after serving in the Vietnam War.

"Chris Antal's resignation takes a lot of courage because there are always consequences," says Bourgeois, who knows about consequences. He has spent over four years in federal prisons for non-violent protests. His vocal support for the ordination of women priests led to his dismissal by the Vatican, after his more than 40 years in the priesthood.

"You're gonna lose something," Bourgeois says. "Friends, a job, you're gonna get fired, you're gonna lose your pension, but people like Chris, they live on in the lives of others. They really challenge us and stretch us, and we just need more people like that."

Antal says the Army, as it deliberates his exit, is treating him with fairness and respect. "I'm not angry or upset with the Army. This is an issue that I have with our Administration, and I hope that as a citizen I can do more for our armed forces and for the Army than I am able to do at this point as an officer."

Antal looks to the people he serves, and draws comfort from their support. "I could never speak up and stand out without the community around me. My congregation in Rock Tavern has been a critical support, as has the community of Veterans for Peace. The members of my congregation have rallied around me and stood beside me, speaking up about these issues, and without their support I couldn't do this."

A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the town of Rock Tavern.