Why I am a Conscientious Objector…

12.4.2009: from Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim altarpiece, 1512-1516, Musée Unterlinden, Colmar

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim altarpiece, 1512-1516, Musée Unterlinden, Colmar

I recently watched the Movie Hacksaw Ridge, about Desmond Doss, the first American conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Despite his religious convictions that killing was wrong—and despite suffering great persecution by his company for refusing to carry a firearm—Doss displayed bravery his fellow soldiers never imagined he possessed as he single-handedly saved 36 wounded men from certain death as they were pinned down on an Island in the pacific, wounded and in need. In the movie, Doss flashes back to a time he had nearly killed his alcoholic father with a gun after standing up for his mother during domestic violence. Doss had subsequently sworn to God he would never again touch a firearm. Like Doss, my convictions about conscientious objection share roots in traumatic personal experience with violence, but they are also shaped by my faith in Jesus, specifically my convictions about living out his teachings… especially the radical ones like loving one’s enemies and praying for those who would persecute me for my service to Jesus.
Like many young boys, I will admit to my swashbuckling fantasies. I admit, for a committed pacifist, I know a lot about war history and weaponry. I have also done my share of backyard boxing. I have a strategic sort of mind that would lend itself well to warfare, and I suffer from PTSD for abuse suffered as a child. While I admit a natural tendency toward violence, I also know in my heart an earnest struggle not to succumb to its temptations. Despite all of this, I have a sincere desire to take Jesus at his word, to not just dismiss the parts of Christianity that are radical. When I read the sermon on the Mount in Mt 5-7, and ponder how Jesus contrasted that with the views of many of Jesus’ fellow Jewish people, the Zealots for instance calling others to take up arms, or the Pharisees trying to cling to their Jewish identity after experiencing their 8th occupation in 400 years, I can’t help but feel convicted that Jesus is right. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and Jesus I believe, in disarming Peter, gave an example that we as Christians are not to bear the sword, but are to do as Jesus did and bring healing even to those who attempt to persecute us. When I read about Jesus disarming Peter, I felt God’s conviction that he also wanted to disarm me.
It is not my intention to call into question the sincerity of those who have served in the military. I am from a military family, and know many who have signed up for the armed services because they want to make the world a better place. At the same time, the example Jesus alluded to when he said “greater love has no one than this, that one would lay down one’s life for one’s friends” was the example of the cross, not the sword of a Zealot. When Jesus told his disciples to buy swords in Luke 22, it was a prophetic sign about the nature of Jesus’ death pointing to his identity as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, not a prooftext for the 2nd Amendment. To force these interpretations back into the bible is to miss what the bible has to say about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Jesus gave his life for us, but he was not willing to kill for us. Moreover, Jesus’ vision of liberty was not limited only to freedom for the oppressed from the oppressor. Jesus laid down his life for the oppressor too, for the sins of the whole world not just the weak at the mercy of the strong.
Jesus wanted freedom for the oppressor, and the oppressed. He was well acquainted, as an Israelite, with the all too human examples of those who rose up to take power from their oppressors only to become oppressors themselves. Jesus demonstrated a third path, a way to avoid an endless cycle of violence by refusing to contribute toward its continuation. Rather than looking at examples and bravery only through the lens of violence, I think we should also look at those, like Jesus or MLK Jr, who transcended violence and sought peace using the tools of peace. Who strove for God’s vision of peace like we see in Micah 4. I think the biblical example of what one should hope and strive for is what we see in the story of the apostle Paul, a religious terrorist coming to know Jesus as Lord and leaving his days of persecution in the name of religion behind him. As Shane Claiborne once said, “If we as Christians believe that terrorists are beyond redemption, we can throw out a third of our New Testament because it was written by a former religious terrorist.” Rather than praying only “for our troops” as it were, how about praying God would awaken countless “apostle Pauls” for the Muslim world in our day? That seems to me more the authentic expression of biblical Christianity than the blind patriotic version of civil religion that is often celebrated on a Sunday morning in many churches across our great land.
The truth is, being convicted about being a conscientious objector is not cowardice, any more than Jesus taking up his cross was cowardice. It is not being unwilling to serve our country, it is being unwilling to put our country up on the throne of God, thus saying with our lives in response to a call to service, “I will serve you only this far, until the point my faith starts to conflict.” I wholeheartedly support the full participation of Christians in government service, as long as they are willing to bring their Christian values into that service. A word of caution though, when we act for the crown, we should recognize the crown also acts on us. I believe democracy is a wonderful gift to the world, yet I realize Jesus died for more than democracy’s limited vision and values. Like many, I was swept up in the flood of religious patriotism after 9-11. Like many, the anger I felt as I watched that act of terror play out over and over on the TV screen eventually had to have a Damascus road experience, as Jesus got a hold of my life.
That is why I am a conscientious objector. I take very seriously those red words of Jesus in the bible. I take very seriously the impact of violence on my life, and have carefully considered the ways I choose not to let it echo through my little corner of the world. I look at the damage my family has experienced from the aftermath of war: PTSD, addiction, child abuse, divorce on both sides of my family tree… and I say the cycle ends with me through God’s grace. Jesus said love our enemies. To me that means others can see me as their enemy, but I have to die to my claim that other people can be enemies of mine. You are free to disagree, to “carry your sword as long as you can” in the words of George Fox to William Penn. But to me, God’s love has driven out my fear. I see no value in carrying a weapon only to regret using it in a moment of weakness. I have spent enough of my time rehashing situational ethics about under what precise circumstances it is morally acceptable for me to forget what Jesus said and justify taking a human life. I hope this doesn’t seem like arrogance to you. It is intended in a spirit of humility, an earnest attempt, and a sincere invitation for you too to wrestle with those red letters in the bible, and their implications for how we are to live out our faith in a violent world.

Agape,

James Tower