A Pacifist and A Good War Story

In full disclosure, I wrote this a few weeks ago now. It just happens that it feel to the top of the pile as the next in line to go from my notebook to the light of day on my blog. It just so happens that today is Veterans Day. So far I have found my sisters and brothers rather quiet in the interwebs about this day. It is hard to say anything meaningful about peace making on Veterans Day that does not sound trite, simplistic, or even demeaning of soldiers and veterans.

I don’t come from a long line of pacifists. In fact, three of my grandfathers have served- stateside, Korea, and Bastogne in WWII. I love these men. As one of them ages, and memory loss becomes more pronounced, talking to him of his battle experience at the Battle of Bulge is the one thing that is still vivid for him. I will sit for hours asking him questions, allowing him to touch some memory that isn’t vanishing. And I love him all the more when we are done.

So today, a day originally set aside to commemorate an armistice , I write as a pacifist who values war stories.

Not long ago a portion of my sermon on peacemaking was shared in a newsletter for the Church of the Brethren called eBrethren. I was pretty clear that non-violence is central to my theology– based in both Christology and Ecclesiology (my understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the Church).

At 18 I was forced to make my decision whether or not to sign up for selective service,  just as every guy is at that age. Actually it wasn’t much of a choice. If I wanted any chance to go to college I needed to register. And since there is no way to sign up as a Conscientious Objector, I found a little corner of my card to write it as plainly as possible.

Nevertheless, just a few months after my birthday I got the famed call from an Air Force recruiter. It was a fun conversation, mostly because I was waiting for him to “pop the question.” Actually, it never came. We were on the phone for 30 minutes talking about school and decisions. He did ask where I was planning on attending and I told him Manchester College- since I had just sent my deposit. Of course, he had no idea what he was about to step into. “Never heard of it,” he said, “what’s with choosing them.” So I told him about the Manchester’s affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. “Oh, who are they?” This was just getting better and better! “A small denomination known as one of the Historic Peace Churches.” A new silence came over the phone. “So what are you going to study.” There it was, the moment of truth: “Peace Studies.” More silence, this time colored with a bit more discomfort. “So…. I guess that means you are CO then.” “Yes it does.” And with that, and a short good-luck, the call was over. I don’t think I got another recruiter call the rest of that spring.

The odd thing is, I watch a lot of war movies. I’ve read Tim O’Brien’s excellent book “The Things they Carried” about his experiences in Vietnam and was entranced by every page. Just the other night I watched Mel Gibson’s violent, graphic, and yet poignant movie “We were Soldiers” for at least the third time. I even read the book it was based on in order to get the story as the soldiers told it. I wouldn’t say I love war stories. In fact, when the movie ends or the stories concludes, my gut turns and I sit in silence for a long while, eventually finding a simple question coming to mind- Why do we do this? When the book is closed or the screen goes black, I am even more committed to my convictions about peace.

But it is an odd combination. Not many of my peacemaker friends would say the same thing. In fact, the horrors of war are a major reason they find non-violence so appealing. I don’t think you would ever catch most of them flipping through the “Military Dramas” on Netflix.

Yet, for me, there is something about understanding that drive to combat, the unknowable sense that what binds soldiers in battle is not their ideals but the very need to survive and care for the guy beside them. As O’Brien says, there is an unspeakable beauty and attraction to the lights, sounds, and valor of the fight. I don’t find any of that to be a glorification of violence. In fact, for me, it is a reminder that war is hell- literally, a deep separation from God.

I would say my commitment to non-violence, my continued affirmation of CO on my selective service card, is not an ideological one. All the same, my understanding is clear- All war is sin. Others may say that is the exact definition of ideological pacifism.

But really, I get it. I get the drive to defend, to fight, the hope that we can change something in violent conflict. I know all too well my own ability to hate and do harm. Even as I watch my kids grow I know the greatest temptation to violence would come if anything were to happen to my kids. I know, deep down, that there is a thin red line between my commitment to non-violence and my ability to harm another if something were to happen to any of them.

I get the paradoxical beauty of fireballs and tracers, and the extraordinary heroism of soldiers doing what they can to save one another. Unlike some of my peacemaker friends, I don’t look at a soldier as a bad person, or some kind of evil in human form. I see a someone in even greater need of God’s grace, love, and healing. In fact, I see a person who needs the healing act of confession- not as a trite “thank you for your service,” or an attempt to re-live someone else’s war story, but as an act of hearing the hurt and offering the vocal affirmation of God’s already present grace.

I am a Contentious Objector. And, yes, I watch war movies. I am a realist when it comes to the violence we are capable of inflicting and I am committed to non-violence regardless of the cost. I am a pacifist that values the grim stories of war.


Filed under Discipleship, Peacemaking

3 responses to “A Pacifist and A Good War Story

  1. Scott Holland

    Nice Veterans Day reflection, Josh.

    As you might know, almost all of the Church of the Brethren young men of draft age in our old home town of Canton, Ohio served as combatants in WWII. This was a sizable number. Nationally, in the denomination, about 80% of the draft age and eligible men in the denomination served in the Second World War.

    I’ve heard many in the institutional power base of the CoB dismiss these veterans as those who simply conformed to the culture of Empire and thus lacked the moral conviction and spiritual will to follow the non-violent teaching of the denomination.

    I’ve buried many of these veterans in the past two decades and talked at length with others at John’s Bar.

    They tell a different story. According to them, the prohibition of military service was not presented at church within a thoughtful theology of non-violence but rather as a cultural marker to separate the Brotherhood from their neighbors. One now departed old veteran stated the politics of conscientious objection as he learned it in Sunday school at the Maple Avenue Church of the Brethren like this: “We don’t drink, smoke, dance, go to Hollywood movies or kiss Marilyn Dameio and WE CERTAINLY DON’T GO INTO THE ARMY.” He continued, “Hell, most of us fellas did drink and dance and kiss the girls. Our buddies from high school, Carl Orphanides and Dave Lonbardi, had to go resist Hitler so why not us?”

    Resisting religious sectarianism and cultural separatism, they put on the uniform as an act of solidarity with their neighbors and, they confessed, also in great curiosity of what world might exist across the oceans.

    Although I affirm the Christian and pragmatic confession of the WCC that war has now become obsolete for those who are seeking a Just Peace, I nevertheless salute these old veterans today.

  2. Resonating with a lot here, Josh. I think we share a lot here (as our past conversations have born out, too…)

    Yeah, Scott, a “cultural Brethren” case for non-participation in war devoid of any sound theological reasoning (which seems to be a terrible, terrible habit of Brethren) would have turned me off, too. (It does turn me off now, btw…just not w/r/t this particular issue…)

    Somehow, mysteriously, I came to pacifist convictions in adulthood even though my Brethren home & congregation never once uttered the word. And this didn’t happen because I’m naturally a peaceful person. Stanley Hauerwas basically voices my own nature & convictions quite well: “I am a pacifist so that others will keep me from killing somebody” because I, too, am “a mean son of a bitch.”

    So the ambiguity and messiness you both point to is something I also try to internalize and grow accustomed to. Like when I buried a Korean war vet this past summer, I did so without hesitation, and I had a hoot talking to the honor guard guys before and after the ceremony. It’s like Dana said somewhat recently (I’m paraphrasing): We Brethren have our convictions, but we’ll shelve them in a heartbeat in the service of loving our neighbors in what ways we can.

  3. Scott Holland

    I too have had many funerals in which the honor guard participated and after which we shared lunch together. [Some since I’ve been a peace studies professor at the denominational seminary]. Some have asked quite critically, “How can you do this?” The answer? Gracefully, peacefully, artfully and with a lightness of being.

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