Conscientious Objection to War

John ArmstrongEthics, The War on Terrorism

n324366294921_5771 The history of Christian response to war and service in military combat is one filled with twists and turns. Every person must realize, if they exercise a modicum of thought, that this issue is deeply painful and troubling. Early Christians did not always serve in the military, though Roman soldiers were numbered among converts to the faith. Most of what we know about the early church suggests that, at least generally, Christians did not serve in the military. Over time the church developed what is called a “Just War Doctrine.” This doctrine is rather complex and has been carefully thought out over the course of centuries. But this doctrine is not of one type or expression. There are variations within it and every single Christian should think carefully about what they believe and why.

Modern complexities often create new challenges to traditional just war thinking. I have retained a modified just war position but I admit it is sometimes hard to retain. I have admitted, in public and private, that I have a great deal of respect for those who wrestle with this issue and embrace a different viewpoint than my own. The stance of Christian conscientious objection is not the way of cowards or of anti-Americans. Whole traditions of Christians respect and hold this point of view. Other churches have adopted modern positions that do not reject all combat but challenge the development of a  “war mentality” that predominates so much of the world we live in today.

A fatal mistake, often made by many evangelicals, is to assume that only liberal, or politically left leaning, Christians embrace these positions about war. This is a gross over-simplification. When I was at Wheaton College in the late 1960s pacifism was embraced by more than a few students and some on the faculty. At first I found this shocking but I began to read the literature and ask some hard questions. As I say, I am still not a complete convert to pacifism and doubt that I ever will be. But I am persuaded that the current U.S. position on conscientious objection is not right. Our government allows for conscientious objection to all war but not to particular wars. I discovered this in 1968 when I began to question the moral rightness of the Vietnam War. I soon realized that I had to oppose involvement in all war or I could not take a position against this one war. I still feel that stance of our government on this matter is morally wrong. I understand “why” it has been taken, and how it evolved, but I simply do not think that it is right.

What if you hold to just war thinking, and you enter the military, and then conclude that the war in Iraq (assuming you were in the military before it began) was against your conscience and, for sake of argument, you felt the war in Afghanistan was not. This is not a trap question. There are Christian soldiers who have come to this precise conclusion. But it is illegal to refuse deployment to any war zone if you are in the U.S. military. Refusing deployment, because of conscience, leads to sanctions, possible court martial and even imprisonment. What happens to a soldier who enters the military, comes to know Christ or renews his or her commitment to Christ, and then comes under conviction that they cannot kill in this particular context?

Selective objection to some wars, even if you agree with just war theory, should be an open question. We need to have this kind of conversation in the church. Sadly, few or no conservative churches will ever have it. For starters, multitudes would leave in protest if they heard such a discussion. In fact, I have been in many mainline churches over the past ten years or so and the dominant position there seems to be “Lord bless our troops and the USA.” We just do not think about this issue until we are forced to do so or if it is our son or daughter who is the person in the context of such objection of conscience.

On Sunday, March 21, a Truth Commission on Conscience in War will be convened at the famous Riverside Church in New York City. The hope of those who have planned this event is to generate a national conversation on current CO regulations in the military. Is this such a hot-button that we who are more conservative theologically than those who lead historic Riverside Church cannot at least enter into this important discussion and listen? Watch the video on this event and decide for yourself. The least you can do is encourage a deeply Christian conversation that does not degenerate into who is anti- or pro-American. Sadly enough, even this blog will likely cause some friends to wonder what happened to my convictions as a Christian. This is the very response that I hope I have challenged, generously and carefully in the spirit of Christ.