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.

Conscientious objection: a U.S. veteran’s perspective

Since the U.S. military moved away from a policy of conscription, several generations of Mennonite pacifists have become somewhat apathetic on questions of conscientious objection and military service. The issue of conscience in war—once a key ethical matter central to the Mennonite faith—has lately been labeled as political, a marginal and somewhat irrelevant distraction from the other pressing needs of an active congregational life.

The challenges of war and conscience in war, however, are still very real to many Americans. Many soldiers are struggling and suffering for their new-found beliefs against war and military service. The Mennonite community should not be indifferent to their struggles. Not only does the pacifist church have an opportunity to unmask the ideology of militarism by standing with recent COs, but in helping to secure the rights of supposedly-volunteer soldiers in the present day, Mennonites will be securing those same rights for a time when the draft once again comes knocking to take their children off to the army camp.

The plight of the Iraq War CO

In late 2006, my friend Amy was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. army. She was a sensitive and educated person, but she was also a good soldier and a professional linguist. While in Iraq, Amy experienced the soul-crushing violence of military occupation and war. Like many thousands of fellow soldiers in the supposedly “all volunteer” U.S. military, she began reading in her spare time, and she knew deep down that the occupation she was participating in was wrong. In 2007, Amy wrote an essay on why she was considering herself a conscientious objector to war, and turned it in to her commander in an attempt to be recognized for what she was: a CO.

Because Amy had never once loaded her weapon in the war, and because it was a prop required for passage on the base, she did not immediately turn her rifle in to the commander, who then used this fact to deny Amy her conscientious objector status. In effect, the military told Amy that her deep convictions against war and militarism were just passing feelings. She was then punished for daring to waste the army’s time with her frivolous feelings. The day Amy’s unit returned from the war, she was told that she would be re-deploying in six months for another year-and-a-half in the occupation. Soon Amy showed up at the peace center where I was working, AWOL: a fugitive from the military. Based on my own assessment as a soldier in the war, the vast majority of the soldiers who applied for conscientious objector status between 2004 and 2008 were turned down like Amy.

Pacifist appraisal of modern conscientious objection

So what does it mean for Mennonites that during the middle stages of the occupation of Iraq, hundreds or even thousands of American soldiers were ready to jettison their careers and explore the nuances of conscientious objection? A lesson to religious pacifists who want to monopolize conscientious objection: that someone like Amy should come to a world-altering conclusion about violence and militarism without a traditional religious conversion demonstrates the universality of nonviolent truth. The nonviolent God moves in a theodicy of grace through the experience of brokenness, war and violence to renew the covenant of wholeness. By failing to engage those soldiers who struggle in a conceptual language different from ours with the transcendent truth of God’s nonviolent way, Christian pacifists share in the guilt and sin of the world that forces young people to do violence against their will and better judgment. War is, after all, really a failure of human imagination. Human violence is a demonstration of humanity’s unwillingness to trust the will of God the Creator, to suffer-with and to love enemies.

Comfortable Mennonites, whose children go unthreatened by conscription and war, sometimes talk of peace as if it were some distant eschatological fairy-tale, and not an urgent, vital need. To people like my friend Amy, peace is tangible and present, what some pacifist theologians have called the “moral grain” of the universe. My deep and abiding hope is that Mennonites will embrace veterans and military personnel in the spirit of Christian love and peacemaking, partnering with us to explore the realities of the God of peace. Together, let us worship the Lamb who reigns nonviolently, and let us proclaim God’s peace.

Evan K.M. Knappenberger is an Iraq war veteran and a Philosophy and Theology major at Eastern Mennonite University

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

For a timeline of peace church and broader efforts to obtain provisions for conscientious objector discharges from the U.S. military, see: http://civilianpublicservice.org/storycontinues/hotline/advocacy

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Lettini, Gabriella. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Center on Conscience & War: http://centeronconscience.org

GI Rights Hotline: http://girightshotline.org

International law and conscientious objection

Laws providing for conscientious objection to military service vary from country to country. Both the U.S. and Canada have traditions of allowing recognized COs to perform an alternate service in lieu of military service. In many countries, however, individuals who identify as COs may face persecution, prosecution and imprisonment. For this reason, some have sought refugee status in other countries.

Over the decades, however, advocacy at the United Nations (UN) has resulted in growing recognition of conscientious objection as a right under international law. In 1998, for example, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution urging states to consider granting refugee status to COs who leave their country of origin out of fear of persecution due to their refusal to perform compulsory military service when no appropriate alternatives are available. The decision acknowledged that individuals may develop conscientious objections while performing military service.

In 2013, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution affirming that conscientious objection to military service is recognized in international law as derived from the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to this resolution, states are under the obligation to make laws and implement procedures to provide for conscientious objection to military service. They are to make information about conscientious objector status and how to apply for it readily available to conscripts, volunteers and those already in the armed forces. Moreover, they are to allow for selective objection—a situation in which a CO objects to participation in a specific war but not all wars. Also in 2013 the UNHRC released guidelines related to the protection of individuals seeking refugee status in countries other than their own because of fear of persecution. As these developments indicate, the status of conscientious objection within international law and practice continues to evolve.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

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

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.