When peace church members enlist

In the historic peace churches, when young people choose military service the impact on family and the faith community can be painful. These contrasting stories challenge peace churches to consider the meaning of community when strong disagreements arise.

Who is my neighbor? (Conrad Stoesz)

In 1939, as the Western world edged ever closer to war, Mennonite leaders in both Canada and the U.S. met to discuss what their response should be. They were guided by a belief in non-resistance, an important thread through many migrations and hardships, as well as a strong commitment to community. It was the community that provided the emotional, financial, spiritual and physical help enabling Mennonites to pioneer in difficult new contexts, overcome hardships and help keep people on the right spiritual path.

In the Second World War Mennonite leaders went to great lengths to advocate for a system of alternative service in Canada and the U.S. as a way of ensuring that drafted young men could uphold the church’s pacifist convictions as conscientious objectors. However, some Mennonite men chose not to enroll in alternative service, but to enlist for active combat. To the church which had suffered, migrated and worked hard for conscientious objection, their actions represented a slap in the face and were contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

In southern Manitoba, Peter Hildebrand was one of these men who did enlist. His parents Peter and Katharina were not proud of their son’s decision, but they cared deeply about him. They quickly learned they would need to carry their burden alone. Their friends and family did not want to talk to them and they felt shunned. When the Hildebrands received a telegram saying that Peter was missing in action, Katharina internalized her grief, sitting in her rocking chair for weeks on end ruminating. No friends or family came to console her. In one month she became hunched and her red hair turned white. The faith community that was supposed to care for the vulnerable failed Katharina, as well as others like her, when they most needed support.

The Hildebrands were overjoyed when they learned their son Peter had been found alive in Europe. But the deep physical and emotional scars were with Peter for the rest of his life. Like many Mennonite war veterans, he never did return to his Mennonite church.

A Mennonite parents’ journey with a marine son (Dot and Dale Hershey)

As we were preparing to leave for church one Sunday morning in February of 2000, our son, a high school senior, asked us, “Would you disown me if I joined the Marines?” He quickly made it clear that he had already signed with the Marines and had every intention of following through with that commitment. We were shocked, but sensed it was a time to put aside differences and give him all the support we could find within ourselves. He saw himself being a peacemaker in the Marines, so the day he left for boot camp we together planted a peace rose to symbolize our differing views of peace.

We attended his boot camp graduation as a way of showing our parental support for him. He was then sent for further training just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Our son would sometimes call in the middle of the night because he was also concerned and fearful. He would ask if we would be able to honor and support his sacrifice if he were sent to Iraq. Would we be able to accept the flag from his coffin if he were killed?

Meanwhile, we were not comfortable discussing our son’s military service with our Mennonite congregation, where teachers and pastors taught peace and nonresistance. Children from the congregation went to Botswana, Nepal and Bolivia to serve others and did not train to kill. Despite this, many people in our congregation provided us with love and support. Some sent notes to our son, letting him know they were praying for him and that he was loved and missed.

Once while on leave our son told us he was going to attend church with us. We hoped he would not come in uniform, but that was exactly what he did. He wore his Marine dress blues and was ready with his holy war arguments. He expected things to go badly. However, much to his surprise, two hours later he was still talking to members of the congregation. He was being received with warmth and compassion, hugs and handshakes, and genuine acceptance as a child of the church. This was an important event for him and an important event for us.

Fourteen years later we have a strong relationship with our son and we can agree to disagree on the role of the military in our society. This past year, for the first time, we were able to call him on Veterans Day and let him know we were thinking about him.

Conrad Stoesz is Archivist for both the Mennonite Heritage Centre and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg. Dot and Dale Hershey live in Manheim, PA and are members at Akron Mennonite Church.

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

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