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Why I'm Not a Conscientious Objector

I can't condemn war in the way my Anabaptist friends so quickly do.
Why I'm Not a Conscientious Objector
Image: Justin Connaher / Flickr

This June, CT drew attention to veterans’ experiences in the cover story “Formed by War.” To continue the discourse sparked by that story, alongside the Centurions Guild, CT is hosting an online series called Ponder Christian Soldiers. (Read the introduction to the series here, and the following installments here, here, here, here, and here.)

On March 20, 2003, I watched a handful of countries invade Iraq under cover of American air power. I was both horrified and mesmerized—the strange mix of emotions a 19-year-old experiences at the sight of war. Three days later, standing at attention at the Air Force Reserve recruiter's office, I took the oath of enlistment, beginning my journey as a citizen airman.

Nearly 10 years later, in 2012, I leaned against the living-room wall of a house in Gloucester City, New Jersey, surrounded by 30 or so tattooed hipsters from the Philadelphia area. They had gathered to discuss war and what they called the “American military industrial state.” We were Christians, part of a growing community within the New Anabaptist movement, and the house was the hub of the intentional community in which I lived.

I loved that community, and some there were among my best friends, but I struggled that day. As each person took turns denouncing the evils of militarism, I realized I was the only veteran in the room. I felt ashamed for participating in the "war machine," but also annoyed with friends who were oblivious to their own complicity. While they talked about how to resist "war taxes" and frustrate the service system, they didn't mention their contribution to an economy that drives countries to war—not only through fossil fuel consumption, but also through purchasing goods in a system dependent on foreign oil for trade and transportation. Mostly, I was frustrated by my friends' seeming lack of empathy for military service members and for their sense of moral superiority.

Love Your Enemies...Then Bomb Them?

I remember thinking then, as I do now, there are many admirable qualities exemplified in military training and service. Sacrifice for a cause greater than one's self, serving others first, and courage in the face of great personal danger are all virtues valued in the kingdom of God. They were virtues drilled into me during my time as a citizen airman.

During basic training, Sunday was my favorite day of the week. The chapel was the only building on base where training instructors weren't allowed. One week, 1,000 of us trainees packed into the chapel for the evangelical worship service. We watched a video set to Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)" that showed Air Force warplanes discharging their payloads into Middle Eastern landscapes, delivering fire, smoke, and destruction. Seeing that video in a Christian worship service troubled me. How could I love my enemies, as Jesus calls me to do, and also bomb them?

Because I never deployed, and because I didn't have a flight line job in air combat operations, it was easy for me to abstract my own involvement in the war, to believe that I wasn't directly involved in death and destruction. But the Air Force KC-135 in-air refueling tankers I was tasked with protecting were what allowed long-range fighters and bombers to dispense their payloads to the intended—and sometimes unintended—target. So the simple fact is that whatever my job, I was, however indirectly, delivering death.

Some Christians, upon drawing such a conclusion, are so overcome with moral friction they feel they have no choice but to apply for "conscientious objector" status. This is a term for those already in the military (or those drafted into service) who, due to sincerely held beliefs, refuse to bear arms while in service. Many of those who have received this status have gone on to serve bravely in non-combatant roles, such as medic and chaplain, in nearly every major US conflict.

I understand and respect their decisions, but that wasn't me. I would have gone had I been activated, I would've carried a weapon, and I left the Air Force as a combatant with an honorable discharge. Call it ignorance, naiveté, or callousness, but I lived with that friction as a citizen airman, and I live with it as a veteran today. I have a hunch that's part of what it means to be a Christian: to live with a friction between who one is called to be and who one is in reality. I'm called to love my enemies, but I don't yet do that very well.

Glimpse of the End of War

Luke 5 records a moment in Jesus' life when, after sitting down to eat with a group of tax collectors, he and his followers are confronted by a group of Pharisees. Why did he consort with tax collectors, agents of death who left trails of poverty and ruin behind them? They were servants of the Roman Empire—not the Hebrew God—and thus bore the mark of Caesar.

But Jesus replied that it isn't the "healthy" but the "sick" who need doctors. The "sick" are the enemies of God and humanity, agents of death and destruction. Jesus says we must love our enemies, even the ones who don't love us, even the ones who don't repent, even the ones who continue to kill us. As an Air Force veteran, I bear the mark of Caesar, and for that reason I'm an agent of death. Jesus, however, did not come to call the righteous but the unrighteous. Jesus doesn't gather to himself a pride of purity. He runs out to meet a raggedy bunch of sinners, a horde of broken humanity leaving behind death and destruction.

For this reason I'm a member of Centurions Guild, a group of veterans and servicemembers that exists for neither organized despair nor blind arrogance. We want to help Christian communities have constructive, informed, and embodied conversations about war and military service. Perhaps the church can learn from servicemembers and veterans like myself—not from our successes, if we have any, but from our failures. After all, we all wear uniforms in this life. Some of us wear dress blues and others wear blue jeans, but, consciously or not, we all bear the marks of living under an empire not of God.

Perhaps the best thing we do is to follow Jesus' example: to sit with those who have been agents of death to share a meal, because this meal just might be a glimpse of the end of war. It is a bold and idealistic proposal, to be sure, but if all of us who claim to follow Jesus invited our enemies to dinner, instead of yelling at them, writing hateful things about them, shooting them, or blowing them up, perhaps there would be a bit less bloodshed by the end of the evening. Our enemies expect us to fight them and to hate them, but if we followed Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we might begin to absorb some of the violence directed toward us, instead of perpetuating it.

As a Presbyterian church educator, I teach faith to children and youth. High schoolers nearing graduation often ask me whether they should enlist. As a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, I cannot in good conscience tell them to overlook the financial benefits of military service, but I can tell them war is a terrible thing, and we shouldn’t aspire to it. Any decision to serve mustn’t be made lightly. I can tell them killing people is wrong, and that though we have a military and can’t opt out of empire, we can choose to be more thoughtful about how we perform military service and engage in armed conflict. In this way, I hope to present a view of national defense that moves away from war and toward the kingdom.

Until then, I pray the lyrics of singer-songwriter Joe Pug:

Do not bother with Congress
With the rich or with the rest
I fought their battles in this world
But I'll not fight for them in the next

Do not find me justice
Just find me a grave
And then bury me far from my uniform
So God might remember my face.

[Image credit]

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Why I'm Not a Conscientious Objector