SCO & the Right to Refuse to Bear Arms

At age 22 I found myself in the deserts of Iraq. My religious background then was tenuous at best; later, as I was called to an embodied faith, I wrestled with how I could simultaneously be a Christian and a forward observer for the artillery, the “queen of battle.” In 2006, friends in Hawaii, who were helping me process the dueling allegiances I faced between God and country, introduced me to just war principles and selective conscientious objection (SCO).


SCO is an important — but, so far, missing — piece of the national discussion on military service and Christian faith. I am part of a growing movement of Christians in the military who are working to promote full legal protection for our moral, ethical, and religious scruples.


The U.S. and its military already recognize conscientious objection — an individual’s right to refuse, based on religion, morality, or ethics, “participation in war in any form.” The right of those “religiously scrupulous of bearing arms” to refuse to bear arms was even included in the original Second Amendment ratified by the House of Representatives in 1789 (although the Senate deleted the phrase, fearing the federal government could misuse it to abolish state militias).


A selective conscientious objector, however, objects to a particular war for moral, ethical, or religious reasons, including just war principles or church doctrine. In just war doctrine, the imperative to determine the justice of a war falls not simply to the church hierarchy, but to individual believers as well. The U.S. Catholic bishops, in a declaration rooted in Augustine’s theology, re-emphasized in 2007 that “our nation must also make provisions for those who in conscience exercise their right to conscientious objection or selective conscientious objection” (emphasis added).


SCO—which would protect individual liberty to object to specific wars — has yet to be formalized into military regulations or federal law. In the U.S., SCO went to the courts during the Vietnam War. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled against a young Catholic, Louis Negre, a petitioner in Gillette vs. U.S., who refused induction based on just war principles. In an 8-1 ruling, the court found that the difficulty of administering SCO outweighed the constitutional right to freedom of religious practice and expression.


SCO has been debated in churches, military units, and the courts for some time. A charitable reading of scripture might even suggest that SCO can be found in Deuteronomy 20, the “conscription chapter” in the Hebrew Bible. If battle was imminent, the commander was to discharge individual conscripts for select reasons. It was up to the warrior to determine if he fell into one of the categories outlined (new homeowners, vineyard planters, and those engaged to be married are excused, as well as the “faint of heart”).


I regularly hear from service members and veterans who are torn between the dictates of their conscience and orders sending them to unjust wars. They fear loss of personal reputation and unit cohesion if they speak up — but, even more, they fear the moral consequences if they become complicit in injustice. These men and women have moral, ethical, or religious principles that our current conflicts rarely satisfy. To perpetuate this violation of our national integrity is neither right nor necessary for the maintenance of a well- regulated armed force. It is high time we recognized this.

*Published in Sojourners, December 2010 print edition

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