For God and Country (in that order): The Challenge of Patriotic Pacifism in the Midst of War

**The following pseudo-speech was prepared during the summer of 2011 for PAPA Fest, Wild Goose, and the Mennonite USA convention. I ended up converting the draft into an outline and spoke more candidly, opting away from reading it straight from the page, but the points I hit are all the same.


When we think and act in binary terms, it can shut down conversation.  This is true of the recent discourse on LGBT issues in the church, and it is true of issues regarding the military.  Harvey Milk often said before speeches “I am here to recruit you.” Well, that’s what I’m here to do too.  I don’t want your vote, though, I want your heart.

It is easier (and more fun) to talk about sex than it is violence, and maybe that is why the former overshadows the latter.   Being a combat veteran is a little like being in the closet. In fact, I think that is what the recent Oscar award winning movie The Hurt Locker is about – the way soldiers force their hurt to hidden places in their minds and hearts in order to survive.  The things we experience on the battlefield are not pleasant, and the last thing we want to do is share those horrors with the people we love.  But when we bottle it up, when our identity becomes fragmented by contempt or apathy, it can have catastrophic consequences.

In September 2010, there was a series of six suicides by BGLT youth.  It made national news and spurned a public outcry.[1]  A mega church pastor in Georgia came out as gay before his own congregation.[2]  It was a tragic but transformative learning moment.

CBS News found, through data provided in 2005 by 45 states, that 6256 veterans of varying ages took their own lives.[3]  17 veterans killed themselves each day that year, about one every hour and twenty minutes; the same amount of time we will be sharing today, in fact.  Since then, the suicide rate of veterans and actively serving troops has only gone up.  In 2009 and 2010, there were more soldier suicides than combat fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.[4] Of soldiers who verifiably served in the GWOT, eight killed themselves every month in 2010.[5]  Even September.

No mega church pastors are coming out in our defense.  No denominations are changing doctrinal teachings in recognition of our plight.  Like I said, it is easier to talk about sex than it is to talk about violence.  But a learning moment is upon us once again.

If Martin Luther King was right when he insisted that silence is betrayal,[6] then the Church has looked, to service members, a lot more like Judas then it has Jesus.  In 2003, many denominations declared the war I fought in to be unjust.[7]  But they never prepared space in their own congregations for Christian soldiers to respond in faith; there was no open and meaningful discussion of conscientious objection, no preparations by major churches to provide sanctuary for AWOL Just Warriors.

When I was applying to be a conscientious objector in 2006, “progressives” insisted that the military was evil and that genuine Christianity was only possible outside the military institution. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, accused me of aiding the enemies of America and abandoning to militant Muslims the women and children I swore to protect.  Polarities dominated the public discourse. The progressives seemed allergic to patriotism, and the conservatives scoffed at the prospect of pacifism. Everyone, who could do so, retreated to their own ideological corners, leaving to fend entirely for themselves those in the ring wearing the gloves. Church failed, ecclesia broke down.

I want to change all that.  I want you to want what I want. The situation will not be changed by a vote or personal check. It will only change with the renewing of our hearts. The military will only be transformed when churches trust in the Spirit to guide them back into deliberate and discerning conversations about war and peace that do not polarize.  We need passion, not polemics.  We need to love our brothers and sisters in uniform more than we do our own beliefs and stereotypes.

So what is patriotic pacifism?

It is a shade of color between the stark differences of black and white, right and wrong, violent intervention and fearful withdrawal.  Pope John Paul II describes patriotism as “a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features.”  However, it is easy to confuse this with nationalism, which is much more sinister. The Pontiff continues,

Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.[8]

A properly ordered social love is not beyond the interest of the most anarchic of Christians. Christian anarchy, after all, must rely upon an optimistic view of human nature. It assumes that the Spirit of Love is more powerful than the long arm of the law, that when push comes to shove, in the absence of secular oversight, Christians will use their hands to embrace, not disembowel, their neighbors.

For my friends on the other side of the political spectrum, we must always be on guard not to turn the Liberty Bell into a golden calf. We must ultimately obey God rather than people, including presidents and prime ministers.[9] Patriotism should never dissolve into nationalism.

The good news is that the Church has a rich and beautiful history of patriot pacifists who can help us narrate our own allegiances today. One such saint, Desmond T. Doss, enlisted in the Army despite being eligible for a deferment as a shipyard worker. From the get-go, he refused to carry a personal firearm. A seventh day Adventist who took very seriously the decalogical imperative of shalt-not-killing, Desmond endured harsh treatment, even death threats, from others in his unit for not working on the Sabbath and refusing to conduct rifle training. It was a miracle he was not forcibly discharged.

Desmond first deployed to the Philippines, then to Japan at Iwo Jima. There, at a place known ominously as Hacksaw Ridge, he would go on to save the lives of a great number of those very members of his unit that had threatened to end his. His commander, who had threatened to kick Doss out of the Army, explained their ability to hold their ground by simply stating “Doss prayed!” Each time he dragged a friend to safety off the berm, he would ask God “Please, Lord, give me the strength to find just one more,” a prayer God answered 74 times.

The only time the ‘Praying Adventist’ touched a weapon was after he had exhausted his own medical supplies assisting others and needed a sling to splint his own broken arm. Pausing from carrying a stretcher after being shot, he reached over and asked to borrow the injured man’s rifle, being sure to eject the cartridge before setting his arm. When a man observed that it was Saturday, Doss retorted “Even Christ healed on the Sabbath.”[10]

My favorite soldier saint, however, is Martin of Tours, who lived during the third century.[11] Martin’s father was a veteran, which at the time meant the boy was required to follow in his boot-steps. Dear old dad had martial dreams for his son, whom he named after Mars, the god of war. The boy eventually entered the Praetorian Guard, the most prestigious unit in the Roman army, since it was tasked with protecting Caesar himself. Martin, however, had another dream in his heart. Once, in freezing weather, he split his imperial lambskin cape in half in order to clothe a beggar. That night as he slept, he saw Jesus speaking to the heavenly host, saying “Here is Martin, not even baptized, who has clothed me.” That changed real quick, as Martin became a catechumen shortly thereafter.

Protecting the life of Caesar is not a combat assignment, as we might say in this day and age. But that changed in 336 CE at the battle of Worms. Caesar Julian found himself on the front lines, and the phrase “commander in chief” took on a whole new (and direct) meaning. As was custom, Julian went down the line, offering petty cash to secure his guardsmen’s loyalty. But Martin had become a Christian, and he could not pick up the sword after Peter had been commanded so forcefully to drop it. As the most powerful man in the known world stood before him, silver in hand, Martin said loudly “I have served you long enough, let me now serve God. I am a soldier of Christ, it is impermissible for me to fight.”[12]

Julian flew into a rage, throwing the conscientious objector behind bars, accusing him of cowardice. But the supposedly seditious centurion would hear nothing of it, saying

If it is put down to cowardice, and not to faith, I will stand unarmed in front of the battle-line tomorrow and I will go unscathed through the enemies’ columns in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, protected by the sign of the Cross instead of by shield and helmet.

The Caesar could not resist, and plans were made to send him the next day. Curiously, by dawn the next morning, the Gauls had negotiated a peace treaty. Instead of seeking discharge, Martin fulfilled the remainder of his 25-year military service obligation, never shying from service but neither submitting to false authorities. He would go on to be made Bishop of Tours by acclamation; being consecrated on July 4th, 370 CE. He died and was buried November 11, 397 CE. The same day Americans celebrate Veterans Day every year, the Church celebrates a conscientious objector. Should we not rejoice in the fact that this man is the patron of soldiers and chaplains?

One problem we have in contemporary American culture is that in our polemicizing, we fail to take seriously the arguments of those with whom we do not see eye to eye. Just War has lost all meaning to Christian realists[13] and pacifists alike. Pacifism has become a token framework that is dismissed as a callous and uncaring absolute. But pacifism undergirds fundamental human psychology. Nobody in his or her right mind wants to harm another human being.

In one of the only scholarly books on the market about the process required to overcome the innate human reluctance to killing, aptly titled On Killing, LTC Dave Grossman says 98% of the male human population responds harshly to the act of taking another human life. The remaining 2% clinically qualify as being sociopathic. We are all pacific in the sense that we are reluctant to cause harm to others. To be able to knowingly cause harm to another human being takes an incredible amount of operant conditioning, the institutional name for which is Basic Combat Training, better known as Boot Camp.

Even though we are all essentially pacific by nature, sometimes folks are willing to set their natural inclination toward peace aside in order to accomplish a perceived good; protection of the innocent, enforcement of moral order, etc. When that is the case, our basic pacific nature is contingent upon those other factors; we are contingent pacifists (but we are still pacific at our core). In fact, Desmond Doss preferred the term “conscientious participant,” since he saw himself as being unable to stand by on the sidelines and merely object while others did violence, ostensibly, in his name. Just Warriors are contingent pacifists by another name.[14]

Universal pacifism, on the other hand, is a framework that does not grant moral legitimacy to organized violence in any form at any time. Right now, it is the only recognized form of pacifism by the United States armed forces.[15] John Howard Yoder insisted, in an unpublished paper, that Just War (a kind of contingent pacifism) and pacifism actually “co-inhere” [16] – each share a foundational belief in the restraint of violence.

Pacifism and Just War are ideological kissing cousins, not distant, estranged relatives. You wouldn’t know that if you listened to popular debates on war in the Church. I know because I do, and so do a lot of other Christian service members. When religious leaders speak and act in extremes, the moderate middle ground gets drowned out, and meaningful dialogue is shut down. When dialogue gets shut down, discernment fails, and those expected to conduct the arduous moral work of fighting in our name pay the social, moral, and emotional consequences.

The first step to recovery of dialogue is to give it color again. Just War and Pacifism are not polar opposites; this is not a conversation about black and white, or even ambiguous “shades of grey.” There are a number of points on the spectrum of thinking about war and peace.  In fact, John Howard Yoder identifies (and critiques) no less than 27 distinct forms of pacifism in his book Nevertheless. (Herald Press, 1992)

While extremes are troubling, they do exist, stereotypes are based in history. At one end of the extreme, one stereotype I’ll name, is absolute obedience.[17] This is the assumption that, in war, soldiers are to obey unquestioningly. This belief system broke down with the Nuremburg trials – unthinking obedience is never an excuse and therefore is never an option.

On the other end of the spectrum is absolute pacifism,[18] a caricature of what many of us here might believe. Pacifism is also sometimes passed off as absolute in order to dismiss it (i.e. “if you would not protect a more vulnerable person from evil, then you cannot claim moral legitimacy”). Whether we dismiss someone for their inclinations to obey or to object, we are failing to engage in critical thought, we are retreating to our ideological corners.

In the ring, right there in the thick of it, you’ll find the great number of moderate, reasonable, and discerning individuals. It is there that we will find contingent obedience and contingent pacifism, conscientious participants and conscientious objectors. Jesus is there, fighting the spiritual battle alongside our nation’s service members who are trying to figure it all out in the midst of trial and tribulation. If we want to be effective in this fight, we must join him.[19]  We need to crawl out of our corners and be prepared to face our ideological adversaries, disarming crippling fear with proactive love, combating stereotypes and caricatures with sympathy and respect.

So what can you do?

Well, to begin with, if you like politics and lobbying, you can help revise the CO regulations. The current state of affairs is dismal for men and women of conscience (basically, everybody) in the military. Right now, the only form of conscience recognized is universal pacifism. In order to be granted CO status, one must object to war in any form and as well as participation therein. That great number of reasonable men and women in the middle? They are left out to dry, including every Just Warrior – contingent pacifist and conscientious participant alike.

Just War traditions of every color and crop require the individual to determine, often with the help of a congregation or other faith community, whether a war to be undertaken meets certain criteria – the theologian Thomas Aquinas called this jus ad bello, “justice before war.” When it does not, they have the opportunity, or perhaps the obligation, to refuse. The US military doesn’t like individuals thinking. I was told repeatedly in Basic Training that “recruits are not paid to think,” but when I got ready to deploy in 2004, I was told that I was required to disobey unlawful orders. How was I to determine an unlawful order, how are Just Warriors to discern unjust wars, if it does not involve thinking? Or worse, how am I to act if the product of my discernment is to selectively participate or conscientiously refuse (especially within a church that has failed to create a space in which I may respond in faith to declarations about unjust wars)?

There is a movement afoot to legalize conscience, to secure the right to oppose particular wars and not war as such.[20] It is an effort to extend to the rest of the Church, not just the Historic Peace churches, the right to listen and respond in faith to their conscience (or, at least, the Church itself). Anabaptists and other historically recognized peace denominations enjoy this protection, since they often object to war as such, but the vast majority of mainline denominations, who rely upon Just War traditions, are not afforded the same respect and protection.

The effort to pass the Military CO Act, which would formalize “Selective Conscientious Objection,”[21] needs your support. The Center on Conscience in War in Washington DC, an organization focusing on the legal aspects of conscience in war, needs your encouragement. It is an organization advancing legislation beneficial to the Church, since Selective CO is simply another name for Just War ethics.

Churches have everything to gain by educating themselves more about the effort to legalize conscience. Christian soldiers, wrestling between faith and service, are the ones with everything to lose. When conscience is outlawed, when they are refused the opportunity to discern good from evil, right from wrong, it is they who suffer. My greatest fear in combat was not being hurt or killed, it was when I had to look down my sight at another living, breathing human being and move my selector switch from Safe to Semi. It is not the prospect of being killed in combat, but killing, that shatters the mind and fragments one’s moral character. When a person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that violate their religious or moral training or beliefs, they suffer something called Moral Injury.[22]

Nobody comes home from war saying, “I am a monster because I was almost killed.” We come home broken and beaten because of what we are asked to do, because our consciences tell us we did something wrong even as other people suggest we did something right. When we are venerated, it can have the same effect as when we are villainized. Today, a generation burdened by Vietnam is trying to correct their past mistakes, but they have set off a pendulum – swinging their unrequited guilt into excessive gratitude.

Don’t look at us and see heroes, see human beings. Don’t make us villains or victims; help us be survivors! The Church is not called to guilt or gratitude, but GRACE. Grace is not silent, it is not scornful or superficially celebratory. The beginning of grace is conversation with and a Word from God – pastors must preach good news to the centurions in their congregations. Too long, churches have been silent in the face of overwhelming discomfort surrounding patriotism and pacifism, a silence that is socially and ecclesially estranging. We have assumed too often that the two are mutually exclusive. Congregations took sides; flying the flag of empire in order to “support the troops” or, on the other extreme, dishonoring the virtue of service because we thought it violated the cross of the Man who came to serve all.

In your own church, find those places where conversation needs to happen. Do not allow a soldier suicide in your congregation be the first reminder of how close to home this truly hits. Silence is betrayal; complacency is complicity. There are veterans and service members sitting in your pews, attending Bible study, and planning worship.  Their insight is powerful and visceral, and should be valued, but must be handled with care. In some churches, the centurion state of mind is already in place – for example, did you know that the last thing spoken before a Roman Catholic priest consumes the Eucharist, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” was spoken by a soldier?[23]

I know what it feels like to be unworthy. Everyone in an infantry unit in combat has wrestled with what they have done and what they have failed to do. I have been asked countless times by loving family members and friends what to do when the soldier they know comes home or is preparing to deploy. If you have that question for me today, don’t make the mistake of thinking that I know them better than you do. Your task, and that of the Church itself, is to reconstitute the same person they were when goodbyes were said.

How to do that is a multi-faceted operation, one that requires an entire community gifted with patience and attention. One place we have tried to be that community is Centurion’s Guild. There are only four of us right now, but we represent a diverse swath of the military, from Air Force to Marines, active duty to ROTC, and objectors to participants.  For about three years now, we have tried to protect and defend prospective, current, and former service members while bearing true faith and allegiance to God. We publish a newsletter we call Change of Command, named for a ceremony in which a new Commander takes the place of the old (I’ll let your imaginations run with that, I’ll give you a hint though, it involves metanoia).

We also send care packages to other Christian service members struggling between God and country, including books, CD’s, our newsletters, and community tee shirts (which you can purchase from me to help support that project). If you or someone you know is serving or have served in the military, you are eligible to receive a package, and I invite you to take a card or leave your name and address so we can be in touch. Everyone is also welcome to leave their email address if you want to be included in our online updates, which don’t clutter your inbox too often, I promise.

Furthermore, I am writing a book with InterVarsity Press about the issues I have raised today, and I have been asked by the editor to compile an appendix that includes resources and tools for congregations and families with loved ones in the military. You can help by suggesting what needs you or your church might have in regards to these issues, what obstacles you are facing and what questions you might have that are begging to be asked (but are not sure how with your own congregants or loved ones). Service comes naturally to us, and we are happy to help in whatever way we can to cultivate meaningful and sensitive conversation with Christian service members in your midst.

There is also an event being planned at Duke University Divinity School for Veterans Day later this year. An emerging student group committed to similar ideals as Centurions Guild is organizing a two day conference around Christian faith and military service, catered particularly for pastors, seminarians, and chaplains. The conference, “After the Yellow Ribbon,” poignantly asks – “What do we do to heal the wounds of war in our communities and in our lives? Where do we go After the Yellow Ribbon?’ The conference is being held November 11th and 12th, and hopes to transcend disciplines in order to continue to develop resources for the Church, the Academy, and the world for the benefit of those serving honorably in the armed forces.

[1] News search for lgbt suicides

[2] Pastor Jim Swilley announced his sexual orientation before his congregation in November, 2010, saying of the rash of LGBT youth suicides “As a father, thinking about your 16, 17 year old killing themselves, I thought somebody needed to say something, CNN –, Local News –

[4] Raw data indicate numerically superior suicide rate over combat fatalities, though interpreted data is important to consider –

[5] Of 1,868 attempts in fiscal year 2009 by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, 94 ‘succeeded’ in taking own lives –

[6] MLK Gave a speech by the name “Silence is Betrayal” at Riverside Church of New York City exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated – It was the first time he publicly aligned the increasing militarism of the United States with the civil rights movement. His decision to make the comparison was not welcomed by the majority civil rights movement leadership.

[7] Though President George W Bush’s own United Methodist Church made statements condemning the Iraq war in 2002, others included the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches, in 2003 and 2004, respectively –

[8] Both of these excerpts were taken from Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium (Rizzoli, 2005)

[9] Acts 5:29

[10] The best resource for getting to know Desmond more is the documentary titled simply “The Conscientious Objector,” available through

[11] I am particularly impressed with Regine Pernoud’s biography, based on Sulpicius Severus’ hagiographic work based on first hand accounts in the 4th century, titled Martin of Tours: Bishop, Soldier, Saint (Ignatius Press, 2006).

[12] The soldier saint pedigree actually does not begin with Martin. In fact, “I am a soldier of Christ, it is impermissible for me to fight” is a phrase attributed to one of the first martyred centurions, Maximilian of Tebessa – a 21 year old beheaded in front of his father for refusing Roman conscription in 295 CE.

[13] Christian realism is traced to Reinhold Niebuhr, who advanced a kind of Just War ethic around the 1940’s. This school of thought insisted (basically) that war was a necessary evil, and that entering into it should always be done with bowed head and broken hearts, but that when push came to shove, Christians needed to be prepared to counter power with power.

[14] In my studies at Duke University, I am developing language to nuance and diversify the conversation on war and peace, including the terms “conscientious participant/objector” and “contingent pacifist” as status of persons, and concepts from absolute to universal adherence to obedience and pacifism along a spectrum of beliefs about violence. That will probably be an academic paper in and of itself, but hopefully my brief exploration here will suffice for now.

[15] The various branches of the Department of Defense formally recognize only ‘full’ conscientious objectors (universal pacifists), those who object to “war in any form.” However, military regulations are not governed by federal law, meaning the DoD and its subordinate branches can rescind those “rights” at any time, such as the 1991 Gulf War, during which a number of C.O. applicants were imprisoned.

[16] The use of this term to align just war thinking and pacifism was made by John Howard Yoder. You can find his thoughts on the matter on his curated page at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of theology website under the “Just War Tradition” subheading here –

[17] This might be found on the far “right” of the spectrum, since it is associated with the established state as the ultimate object of obedience. I use the term “absolute” to imply the uncritical nature of this kind of belief structure.

[18] The “left” end of this spectrum is marked by a disassociation with the state, a framework that super-ordinates individuality, or, at least, something the state has no claim against, such as conscience or a divine power.

[19] I am a pacifist, but I believe strongly in the presence and importance of battles waged without weapons; not between people of flesh and bone, but between a spirit of hatred and Other-ing versus the Spirit of Love.

[20] The Center on Conscience in War advanced a proposed piece of legislation they called The Military CO Act in 2008 and 2010, which would have legalized selective conscientious objection (a term I find objectionable, if for no other reason than that the word “selective” is misleading and divisive). They are still trying to find major Congressional sponsors to bring the bill to the floor of the House and Senate again. Please go to to support that effort.

[21] SCO is what I have referred to as conscientious participation, since ‘objection’ names war as the norm, and fundamental human nature, which I understand to be pacific, a departure therefrom

[22] Go to to learn more.

[23] The Roman Catholic Mass uses Matthew 8:8, but it can also be found in Luke 7:7.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s