Conscientious objection

Conscientious objection to war is a long-standing and central conviction for the Anabaptist groups who constitute MCC’s core supporting constituency. Rooted in a commitment to Jesus’ way of peace, nonviolence and love of enemy, conscientious objection is a dynamic and courageous practice that is always adjusting to new contexts and pressures.

The term conscientious objection came into prominence in the early twentieth century. It is generally understood as the principle of refusing to participate in military service because of moral, ethical or religious convictions. Conscientious objectors (or COs, as they are frequently called) refuse to perform military service on the basis of this principle. Historically, conscientious objector status has been considered in the context of military conscription, but there is growing recognition that individuals who voluntarily join the military may also develop a stance of conscientious objection.

Early Anabaptist confessions—and most Mennonite and Brethren in Christ confessions today—uphold a commitment of refusing to “bear the sword.” Over the centuries, Anabaptists suffered persecution, imprisonment and even death for their adherence to this principle. Those who live in Canada and the U.S. today find legal acceptance of their CO stance and options for alternative service in the event of conscription. This development, coupled with the rise of volunteer armed forces, means that the issue of conscientious objection has lost some of its urgency in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.

Today, the cutting edges of the CO movement are found in settings of conflict around the world; among those who withhold the military portion of their taxes; and within the U.S. and Canadian military structures where young objectors often face rigorous examination and intimidation. In many countries, conscientious objectors also face potential jail time and/or harsh treatment for their refusal to use violent force. In a number of these contexts, MCC seeks to provide encouragement and support to those taking a stance of conscientious objection.

This issue of Intersections explores conscientious objection from numerous perspectives. It includes some of the history of conscientious objection within the Anabaptist family in Canada and the U.S.; stories of individuals and communities struggling for legal acceptance of conscientious objection elsewhere; reflections on the role of gender and race; information on evolving international norms; and suggestions for resources that will aid more in-depth learning. We hope you will be inspired by the faith and courage of those who have withstood—and those who withstand today—the powerful legal, cultural and economic pressures to enlist in military service.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office. She has also served with MCC in the Philippines and with the peace programs of MCC Ontario and MCC Canada. Titus Peachey is coordinator for peace education for MCC U.S. He formerly served with MCC in Laos.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

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