Opinion: The issue of conscientious objection has become more complex

Opinion: The issue of conscientious objection has become more complex

Commentary | Barry Bussey

The competing pull of national loyalty, personal conviction and faithfulness to God

If we as Christians are called to take up arms on behalf of our country, should we fight?

It's too late to try to engage with the moral dilemmas of war and conscientious objection once we actually face a personal moment of decision. We need to take up the question while we still have the opportunity to carefully weigh ethics, morality, and, most importantly, principles of scripture.

Unfortunately, this is also a question that most of us would prefer to leave alone. It's messy, it arouses an uncomfortable assortment of feelings involving our sense of national identity and pride, and it has far too many ambiguities and shades of gray.

And so we've put it off. Even the voice of the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- historically such an outspoken proponent of conscientious objection -- has grown less clear and less certain on the issue over recent decades. We've, by and large, preferred to look the other way or simply skirt around the edges of the issues.

I believe now more than ever we need to once again undertake a clear-eyed examination of the moral and theological questions raised by military service. A generation of young people face a politically unstable and unpredictable world. If their church can't provide clear principles to guide them in the choices that may confront them, who will?

My two sons are joint Canadian-U.S. citizens, and from the day they received their Certificates of Naturalization in early 2001, they were quick to assimilate U.S. nationalist pride. They came to revel in their American heritage, so much so they began insisting on our celebrating Americana such as Thanksgiving in November. Hockey games took on a new meaning with both Canadian and American anthems being sung.

September 11, 2001, was a day of infamy that brought home the realization that war was about to erupt yet again. We were in the kitchen discussing the new war in Afghanistan when suddenly the fact that one day our twin boys may be eligible for a possible military draft hit us with full force.

"What would you do, fellas," I asked my boys as they sat at the counter. Four large blue eyes looked at me as their minds with 10 years of experience began processing the concept of serving as a soldier.

"Dad, I have no problem giving my life for the United States," one said. I was dumbfounded. Here this kid, not even one year as an American citizen and he is willing to die for the "land of the free!" Now I know in Scripture the Lord said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13 NKJV) My son appeared to be willing to give his life for those he hardly knew, except his cousins in Michigan.

That experience caused me to search my own soul and revisit the teachings of the Adventist Church on the issue of war. I had read the story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, but little else. Further study revealed our historical position not to take up the rifle. "Save life, not take life" was the general sentiment; bearing arms was seen as violating the non-violent teachings of Christ.

When speaking in churches or attending church gatherings around the country it became my practice to take a tape recorder and record the stories of those men who were conscientious objectors during World War II. One interview led to another.

Graduate study gave me an opportunity to write a paper on Earl Coupland, a Canadian Adventist conscientious objector. Coupland and a number of the other men I interviewed in my study have since passed away. Earl told me that what I was doing was "important." He did not want his story to die with him -- he wanted it to continue as a witness of what he and the others went through to be faithful to their conscience.

I have a duty to discharge to these men and others like them -- men who suffered scorn, imprisonment, and cruel treatment at the hand of fellow servicemen.

It is hard for me to believe but almost 10 years have passed since that autumn morning when I talked with my sons about what it means to be a follower of Christ and yet a citizen of our country. I've studied our Adventist history in depth, and began a serious analysis of the theological underpinnings. I met men of incredible courage who, when the test came, were not afraid to give an account of what they believed -- even if it meant imprisonment or hard labor with pick and shovel. I also met people in such places as Lebanon who were forced as young people to join a militia against their will and struggled with the internal battle of having to take a rifle. I have not had to make such a decision. My life has been easy in that respect.

Where has my journey taken me? It's brought me to a realization that in today's world of increased militarism, patriotic rhetoric, and fear of terrorism, the question of conscientious objection has become more -- not less -- complex. It's also given me tremendous sympathy for those who must personally contend with the often competing pull of national loyalty, personal conviction and faithfulness to God.

War, peace and conscientious objection require a response. We can't ignore these issues; they're not going away. As a church and as individuals, we have no choice but to grapple with the basic moral questions they raise. Jesus said, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).

When the time comes, we must be prepared -- like so many who have gone before us -- to give an account of whether our lives are in accordance with the spirit and intent of His words.

--Barry Bussey is editor of the book Should I Fight? (Guardian Books, 2011), a collection of essays on Adventism and conscientious objection.