On Conscientious Objection

Whether or not conscientious objection is a valid and therefore necessary action of the Christian in response to the draft is one of those questions dealing with religion and politics which, after long and diverse discussion, is never completely answerable since it deals with the individual conscience. It is one of those questions that are scrawled on a cement wall with a charred stick, and, although the writing may be obliterated by repeated washings of words, the wall still remains. Nevertheless, the question does not appear to be as concrete and defined as a cement wall might be, since it is shrouded in the ivy of various political, theological, and practical ramifications. Therefore, I will try to find those considerations which I view as basic to the question and which can be established by the Bible and to outline a course of action from them.
The statement in the form for exemption which the objector must sign to is as follows: “I am, by reason of my religious training and belief, conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form. I, therefore, claim exemption from combatant training and service in the Armed Forces…” I Think the first question we encounter is whether a government has the right to engage in war in any form, or, more generally, to sue violence in any way to attain any end. Many C O’s hold to the belief that violence in all contexts in wrong. I will certainly agree that all violence from a personal propagation is wrong; but, reading Romans 13:4-5, “…for it (the government) does not carry the sword without reason; it is God’s agent to being deserved punishment on the evil doer. It behooves us, therefore, to be submissive not merely because of punishment, but also for conscience’ sake,” we find that the government can and must rightfully use violence as God’s agent in the pursuit of justice.
Now we must examine each aspect of our first basic statement. First, to use violence rightfully is to use it only in the circumstances necessitated by one’s obligation of authority and to use it in the least cruel and inhumane way possible. For instance, adherence to such methods as are outlined in the Geneva Conventions, etc. is necessary to a rightful use of violence.
The second consideration of this statement is to determine what justice is in the context of war. A government’s authority exists in this: to maintain a system of law and order (that is, justice) for those out of whom and for whom it came into existence. By this standard, those people with power acting as a government become evil doers when they seek to impose their power over other peoples or when they use their power to exploit anyone to their own advantage. I am speaking of justice in the sense of the quote “deserved punishment on the evil-doer”; thus, a government can only engage in war when it seeks to destroy these evil-doers or to help another government do the same.
Thirdly, to say that one government is more godly than another seems to me to be ridiculous. I can see no difference in moral motivation between a government that murdered millions of Jews and one which, while professing to be “under God” “with liberty and justice for all” murdered tens of thousands of Indians and still today is corrupt in every facet. Therefore, I do not think that we can consider any one government to be God’s agent above another. If you ask, then, how a government can engage in a war against another government, you must distinguish between a legal government and one which is preemptive according to the standard set up in the previous paragraph.
So we see that a government, if it exists in rightful authority, can use the sword if it does it carefully against evil.
Then we face the question of how we can allow ourselves to become agents of the government in war since we personally cannot engage in violence. Just as we are obligated to pay taxes we must allow our physical abilities to be used by the government in order that it can fulfill the obligations which its authority places upon it. I say physical abilities in distinction from the personal identity because, although the government can use a persons body as a weapon, the soldier may never allow the government to determine his actions above the dictates of his personal identity or conscience. In other words, a person can only act as the agent of the government when he determines that the orders he receives issue out of the rightful sphere of authority.
Now that we have dealt with the theoretical basis for our answer, it is time to return to the concrete. Should the Christian conscientiously object to the draft? No, not if the government which calls him exists with authority from God, which I think that the American government does today in a basic although very distorted sense. But now the most difficult problem walks out; to decide whether to conscientiously object to or to conscientiously obey every order that is given in the service just as one must conscientiously react to every situation in all of life. For instance, the specific problem of Vietnam definitely requires careful consideration. I do not know if I could fight there at all because of the economic, political, and other motives of American aggrandizement which seem to be the only reasons why our politicians keep us in Southeast Asia. If I did decided that American involvement in Vietnam was a legal expression of our government’s authority, I think that, from stories I have heard of corruption in the military power structure, I would find it very hard to “remain in favor” over there. Also, in situations where one must fight against women and children one is faced with an unanswerable question of whom he can kill. I would say now that I would not shoot if in doubt, but I am sure than has no meaning in the immediate situation.
Such problems face the soldier that I think it would be one of the most difficult positions in life. Therefore, the soldier needs the constant prayer and encouragement of others in order that he too may pray and be critical in all that he does. Also, I think that it would be a very good thing if some sort of instruction would be made available to those about to enter the service of war, in which veterans, ministers, and some people acquainted with the political philosophy would participate in order to prepare a young man for this ordeal. May God lead us all to the truth through the complexities of life.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 31 No. 1 March 1971