The People Who Made Me A Pacifist

Pacifist

I grew up in a military family. My father was an Air Force pilot, as was his father before him. I always admired them both. So it made sense that, when it came to deciding on my future, the military held prominent appeal.

I entered college with a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship; my goal was to earn a college degree then begin my career as an Infantry officer. I woke up for physical training at 4 AM. I ran extra miles on the weekend. I dreamt of going to Ranger School.

I was always aware that there were some people who viewed my choice of profession as immoral, even anti-Christian. And I had no problem publically disputing such claims. I wrote editorials for the school newspaper. I cited Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Augustine as support. And I appealed to Biblical notions of justice, wrath and even Christ’s demands for selfless service.

But then I underwent a transformation. Through conversation, research, and prayer I adopted pacifist beliefs. This change of heart did not occur in isolation; I was deeply influenced by numerous writers, friends, co-workers and mentors.

Here’s a few of those people:

  1. Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a radical character. His father was a Vietnam veteran and died when he was young. He attended college and seminary, during which he developed a firm conviction for Christ’s calling to nonviolence and radical love towards others.

During my junior year of college- my third year of Army officer training- I picked up a copy of Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution. C.S. Lewis once said that a young atheist couldn’t be too careful with what he reads; the same should be said for a young Army officer.

In his book, Claiborne tells of how he journeyed with a group of like-minded Christians to Iraq during the United States “Shock and Awe” campaign at the beginning of the Second Gulf War. While there, Claiborne witnessed the pain, horror and aguish brought about by American bombs. He saw hospitals destroyed, churches annihilated, and children orphaned. Such tragedies weren’t necessarily news to me. But American media reported them callously. They were “collateral damage”: a necessary evil for a greater good.

But Claiborne pulled bodies from wreckage. He cried and worshiped with scores of Iraqi Christians, huddled in bomb shelters and church basements. During this time, he had a conversation with Iraqi Christians who wondered why American Christians were bombing them. Claiborne tried to explain that the Christians who dropped bombs believed that, in doing so, they were doing God’s will.

This story had a profound impact on me; it prompted me to realize that the enemies of my country are not necessarily enemies of mine. More troubling was the thought that they also weren’t enemies of Christ.

  1. Sergeant Jones

Shortly after encountering Shane Claiborne, I participated in a day of weapons training. I was waiting in a line of fellow officers at the range, preparing to practice firing an M240 machine gun. A sergeant was inspecting all the officers, ensuring proper wear of our flak vests and earplugs. He was a grisly character, vividly wrinkled and scarred. He had about half a container of chewing tobacco stuffed in his bottom lip.

As he went along the line of officers, he asked each of us: “why did you join the Army?!”. It didn’t matter what the answer was, Sergeant Jones always responded with: “WRONG! You joined the Army to kill!”

Sergeant Jones may have had the appearance and demeanor of a Dostoevsky antagonist. But his philosophy is neither unprecedented nor rare in military ranks and training. Army running cadences unite soldiers with cries of: “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot to kill!” All soldiers- regardless of their duty description- are required to qualify at the weapons range. The Soldiers Creed- also memorized by all- states that members “… stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States.”

Sergeant Jones opened my eyes to the poignant reality that engagement in the military demanded forfeiture of personal convictions to those of my nation. If my nation said: “kill!” then I had sworn to kill.

But I’m a Christian whose sole allegiance is to Christ; Christ who tells me to love my enemies, pray for those who would do me harm.

How then can I serve?

  1. Adolf Hitler

The history books of my youth shied away from one vital lesson: the villains never believe they are villains.

Adolf Hitler is a good example. A simple reading of Mein Kempf reveals a conscience who: “believes today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.” Vincent J. Donovan, in his book Christianity Rediscovered, tells of how Hitler always prayed for the blessing of “Almighty God” upon his troops. Donovan recounts a conversation he had with a Nazi doctor who told him how the nuns and students in German schools were sure to pray for blessings on the Nazi endeavors.

Adolf Hitler believed he had a duty to “be a fighter for truth and justice.” To such an end, Hitler said, “It matters not whether these weapons of ours are humane: if they gain us our freedom, they are justified before our conscience and before our God.”

When I stumbled upon these little tidbits of history, when I compared the rhetoric of my military leaders with villains of ages past, I felt a shiver go down my spine.

What side of history would I have been on? What side am I on?

  1. Jesus Christ

It is not fair to say, as many pacifists might, that Jesus words on this issue were “cut and dry”. Though I hold to the belief that Jesus truly commanded nonviolence, most of his teachings were parabolous and vague. And appeals to a purely literal reading of Christ’s words aren’t helpful to the nuances of this conversation. Additionally, such arguments are easily bypassed or shot down.

But what Christians cannot overlook is the story Christ’s life told. Christ who had infinite power did not use it to subjugate creation to his will. Rather, he submitted to his enemies and suffered as the recipient, not the perpetrator, of violence. As Christians, we are committed to making Christ’s story our story.

NT Wright put it well when he said: “our story is not a power story but a love story.” And I have come to the conviction that I cannot live as a testimony to this story while also accepting employment as a lethal weapon for my country.

Still, it’s easy for me to tout this ethic from the comforts of middle-class America. My family will probably never be threatened and I am unlikely to ever be put in a situation that forces me to choose between my commitment to non-violence and my own personal safety. As such, I hold this ethic humbly and understand the cost it demands is not one I may ever have to pay. I live in a country defended by men and women who bravely (and virtuously) fight for my freedom.

But a necessity for humility does not mean I should abandon a pacifist ethic. I cannot control the times in which I live, but I can control the story I tell. As a Christian, the story of my life should be one that follows closely and fervently in the steps of a crucified Savior. And there is no room for an M16 on the cross; no swords allowed in the hands of his disciples.

It is with such a conviction that I proclaim that I am a Christian. And, therefore, I am also a pacifist. For I truly believe that, as Tertullian once put it: “Christ in disarming Peter disarmed every soldier.”

And so I lay down my sword.

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Between Patriots & Pacifists

Antiwar-demonstrators-tri-001

 

I became a pacifist at the weapons range.

It was the summer of my 21st year and I was swatting mosquitoes off my neck in the middle of Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington. As a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), I was participating in a month-long process of testing and evaluations, the culmination of my training to become an Army officer upon graduating college. On this particular day we were participating in exercises on the firing range.

It was not the first time I had been around weapons, nor the first time I’d done any sort of targeting practice, but as I donned a flak-vest and positioned myself behind a mounted machine gun, something inside of me clicked with the trigger. The notion suddenly pervaded my thoughts that this training, this skill I was learning, was for the sole and singular purpose of learning how to wound or kill another human being.

It was then that a slew of conversations and readings I’d collected in corners of my thoughts began to unravel. I had spent the previous months debating and engaging with the topics of Just War and Christian non-violence. I had read articles by famous pacifists and non-pacifists alike, talked with professors and fellow soldiers. But it wasn’t until that moment at the weapons range, with a squeeze of the trigger, that I began to deeply question more aspects of who I was becoming as a solider and what that meant in my relationship to Christ.

On that day, I became a pacifist.

 

Some of my earliest childhood memories occur in a small house my grandparents owned just outside Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. My father moved our young family to live with them after he retired from an abbreviated career as an Air Force fighter pilot. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap, admiring his model planes, and examining pictures in American history books. In passing I heard my grandfather talk about “the war” and “missions,” but I was too young to really take it all in. Only later in life would I come to know that he was a decorated veteran, let alone comprehend what that meant.

When I started to look at colleges, it was no surprise that the first place I looked was the military. ROTC programs offered full-ride scholarships to students who qualified, plus extraordinary training and the lure for adventure and challenge I had sought since a young age. There was the added bonus that I would be a third generation military officer. Few things compared to the idea of making my father proud. Even more so, upon my acceptance into the corps my father solemnly told me: “your grandfather would be proud, very proud”.

But as my time in college rolled on, I became aware of a running debate on my pacifistcampus concerning the topic of pacifism. I was intrigued. Till then, I’d operated under the misguided perception that pacifism was a drug-induced belief of hippies in the seventies, or perhaps a practice of remote sects of people who also didn’t like to drive cars.

What’s more, in the limited interactions I had with some of the pacifists on campus, I encountered demeaning attitudes and less-than subtle condemnation. I heard students joke that the Army only trained people “to kill” followed by the serious proposition that a career in such an institution was sinful, even damning. When attacked with notions of being “trained to kill” or “ignoring Christ’s command”, the very integrity of my faith was being called into question. Even worse, the identity and character of two of the people I admired the most was also on the line. I had few options.

And so I defended my position adamantly, writing articles for the school paper and voicing my pro-military sentiments in class. Meanwhile, I excelled in my officer training courses and, for all intents and purposes, looked as though I had a promising military career ahead of me.

Not Vietnam, this blurry photo is from some training exercises myself and fellow cadets conducted at Fort Lewis.
Not Vietnam, this blurry photo is from some training exercises myself and fellow cadets conducted at Fort Lewis.

But the following year, I had a conversation with a friend that eventually altered my thinking. It began with them telling me how much they respected my decisions and my faith. They pointed out that, while they disagreed, they had no desire to convict or convince me, but simply engage in discussion. And that was all it took. My defense came down; I didn’t feel attacked, I felt trusted, respected, and, most importantly, this trust and respect was extended to those I also associated with the military.

One discussion turned into an on-going series of conversations and, as my defenses came down, I found myself in more and more conversations on this topic. And questions emerged: How can I follow someone who commanded “love your enemies” and yet serve an institution that acts in violence towards actual and perceived threats? Are enemies of America also enemies of God? If not, then is there justification for violence against them? Is there ever justification for violence? What of innocent civilians in the crossfire? What of Jesus’ complete disregard for self-defense? Is my military involvement service to my country or to God? Can it be both?

For quite sometime, my head was like a snow globe of questions, waiting to settle.When it finally did, I found myself on a weapons range in Fort Lewis, Washington squeezing the trigger on every belief I’d previously held so tightly.

 

 

Following my experience at the weapons range, I returned to campus the following autumn in a whirlwind of confusion as to what my next step with the military would be. On the one hand, I had made a commitment to serve my country and, in return, I received a scholarship for my education. To back out of that commitment as a senior would not only equate devastating financial debt but, more importantly, would reflect poorly upon my self-proclamation as a covenant-keeping Christ-follower. At the same time, I was conflicted over whether or not my involvement in the military was even Biblical, and if I was violating the ideals of my Savior by serving in the Army. I felt as though I was caught between two worlds in a vast no-man’s land, and either side of the argument didn’t really feel like home.

Four years later, I look back on those days as some of the more formative in my college career. Eventually I committed to serving my contracted service in the Army Reserves as an officer in the Medical Service Corps. My involvement with the military would be limited and any missions entirely non-combative. Many close to me viewed this decision as a wasted opportunity when compared to other available options. But it satisfied my conscience and abided by my newfound convictions.

A sketch titled "The Deserter" depicting Jesus being executed by a firing squad for his abandonment of violence and war.
A sketch titled “The Deserter” depicting Jesus being executed by a firing squad for his abandonment of violence and war.

I say none of this in any way promoting myself as a hero or even as a role model, either theologically or militarily. True heroes bear a cross much larger and more prominent than mine. And they certainly don’t promote it as such.

But I find that this topic is one that is either ignored, brushed under the rug of more pressing issues like the discussion of homosexuality and abortion, or it is completely divisive, with pacifists on one end and supporters of the military on the other. Yet I have also found that it is possible to stand in the middle, a convinced pacifist serving in the United States Army. It’s a confusing dilemma but I’ve learned so much on this journey that I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I hope my story can open up conversation into a very necessary and prevalent topic for Christians across the country and world.

In the meantime, I am blessed to live in a country such as America; despite all its flaws it is still a country where I can discuss topics like this in freedom. For that I am thankful. And I am willing to give back in what little way I can.

But my true and ultimate desire is to walk in the grace and love of Jesus Christ in every moment of my life. Under His banner of mercy and grace I seek to love not only my enemies but also those who disagree with me and I hope to live out my devotion to Him above family, personal and nationalistic ties.

So help me God.

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