Diggers meet ‘Faith Under Fire’

From East Timor to the Middle East, in barracks and on ships, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is encouraging soldiers, sailors and airmen and women to start asking tough questions about their own spiritual beliefs and challenging them to learn more about faith.

A new voluntary course called Faith Under Fire, sponsored by ADF chief General David Hurley is being rolled out across the Defence Force. The DVD-based course comprises eight defence-tailored episodes based on the Centre for Public Christianity’s Life of Jesus DVD.

“Faith Under Fire is… an opportunity to test the strength of our personal spiritual convictions. Will what we believe about right and wrong, life and death, be enough to hold us up when the pressure’s on?” says Army Chaplain Tim Booker in the DVD’s introduction.

Faith Under Fire Project Manager, David Doust says that while it may come as a surprise to some that the ADF would publicly endorse a course on faith with a Christian
focus, the spiritual health of Australia’s armed forces is a high priority.

“Spiritual fitness is important,” Doust told Eternity this month. “There is research and experience that shows people who have a strong faith or belief system often survive combat and captivity better than those who don’t. I know that’s a generalisation, but spirituality is obviously an important element that makes us who we are and helps us cope in life-threatening situations.”

“Defence prides itself on having good uniforms and equipment, and excellent training—doing what needs to be done to go into combat. What we’re saying with this course is that people also need to consider their personal preparation and ask themselves the big questions about life and faith before things get tough.”

General Hurley agrees. In an interview that forms part of the DVD series introduction, Hurley says, “From a military perspective, we are about building strong, fit people who can do the job that the government has asked them to do. The spiritual dimension of that is really important.”

But why Christianity? The course material argues that Christianity has had a profound effect on western civilisation, strongly shaping Australia and influencing its laws and values. This includes ADF values and tradition. “If we don’t understand [these beliefs], we’ll struggle to understand not only ourselves but the people from other cultures that we’re likely to meet,” the DVD explains.

Although Faith Under Fire focuses on the Christian model of spiritual fitness, the influence of other religions and beliefs is also acknowledged by the ADF. But Doust says that Christianity is the most-ticked box right now, and it has had the greatest impact on Australian culture, “so it makes sense for the course to explore it.”

Air Force Chaplain Tim Hodgson ran the Faith Under Fire course last year in East Timor with about 70 men and women on deployment.

The Timorese people, according to Hodgson are a “very spiritual, very religious people”, which challenged some of the soldiers about their own beliefs, particularly around Christmas time.

“Australia is a safe place, it’s secure,” says Hodgson. “When you go overseas on deployment, you’re in a very different place, you see people impoverished, struggling day by day to put food on the table.

“Through that type of experience, soldiers saw the Timorese, how happy they were in their situations, and they start asking ‘why are they so happy? They have so little and we have so much, yet we’re not happy’.”

Hodgson says the course has “really opened up the place of faith within the ADF”. He’s currently mentoring a man soon to lead a group of airmen to Afghanistan, using the Faith Under Fire course to get him thinking about the bigger issues.

“This guy is thinking, as he’s doing the course, about how he’ll lead his troops, how he’ll interact with the local people—the ethics behind why we do what we do.”

Grant Dibden, an Army Reserve Chaplain serving at Headquarters Forces Command in Victoria Barracks, Sydney, says the course makes conversations about Jesus easier.

“I think it’s pretty true, the old statement that there’s not many atheists in the army,” says Dibden.

“We’ve been an army at war. You see poverty, and are faced with the possibility of your own death—these guys have to think more deeply.”

Dibden has a different perspective from talking to soldiers on the ground. He spent 33 years rising to the rank of Colonel in the regular army before he chose to take a reduction in rank to Captain to become an Army Chaplain.

“I’ve been a commanding officer, so I have that perspective. And soldiers will ask me about that—it’s not usual to take a reduction in rank. But I can tell them that Jesus gave up everything to die on the cross for me, so giving up my Colonel rank is a pretty small thing in comparison. That usually surprises them.”

Dibden says the course is smoking out those in the ADF who are open to hearing and talking about faith. “We’ve had conversations, through the course, about who Jesus is, what it really means for us to call ourselves sinful people, how to get right with God. Army chaplaincy is all about relational evangelism —and this course is an opportunity to do that in a more structured, focused way.”

The Centre for Public Christianity’s John Dickson, who assisted in the course’s development, says in a promotion that ADF members will find it “incredibly relevant”.

“They, after all, more than most people in society are confronted with issues of self sacrifice, the importance of family, of loyalty, of mateship, of service. And these themes really crystallise in the figure of Jesus; these are the themes he spoke about in such a dramatic way,” Dickson says.

Since the course was introduced in mid-2011, over 2,000 course packs have been sent out to interested ADF members and chaplains.

Project Manager Doust says that’s an impressive number. But the biggest impact is reported by the chaplains around the ADF who are running the course in their barracks, on their ships and on deployment overseas.

According to Dibden: “There’s more talk in the Army about Jesus now than there has ever been before.”

Photo credit: Department of Defence, Commonwealth of Australia