One of the joys of being a Divinity student is being able to meet and interact with man different people from many different traditions. This is why I am excited to share with you an article written by one of my good friends and frequent theological conversation partner, Ms. Jessica Andrews. Both of us are working on an event next Fall which will focus on issues surrounding moral conscience and war. It is a subject which I have not engaged very much, but as I look around and see our country at war, I think that we as people whose morals are derivative from our faith in Jesus and his gospel of love, we need to be active in talking about how, if at all, Christians can support war. My mind is truly not made up on this issue yet, but I think that Jessica’s call for real conversations rooted in the humanity of war instead of an impersonal theological debate is a word desperately needed for our world.
Engaging Each Other in Violence–Jessica Andrews
I was raised as a Mennonite. As such, I was taught that Jesus calls us to lives of radical discipleship that include, among other things, a commitment to non-violence. Throughout my youth I questioned this and sought answers for myself. Through this process, I was occasionally mocked and prodded by those around me who wondered how I could be a Christian or an American without supporting war. They asked me, again and again, what I would do if someone was going to kill my family, and what would have happened if America had not joined the war against Hitler. They often found little satisfaction in my answers (and, though I would not have admitted it at the time, neither did I). Through this and since that time, I have developed a strong belief in the morality of, and power in, Jesus’ call to non-violence, but I have gone through this formation in an environment that has been sheltered from nearly all immediate physical threats.This is the story of most North American Mennonites of this generation. We accept and genuinely believe that Christ calls us to lives of non-violence, but usually the extent to which that belief is tested is a little mocking here and a few insults there. Even in our recent history, this was not the case. I have uncles who registered as conscientious objectors and served in South America, as well as one who spent time in prison for draft evasion. Without being faced with the draft, often my generation of Mennonites can clothe itself in the identity that our predecessors struggled to gain without having to do any of the hard work. This does not necessarily make our commitment worth any less, but there is a difference. Because of this, I have been profoundly struck by the stories of those who are engaging in a struggle to follow their conscience while on the battlefield. These soldiers are doing the hard work that most those of us who are raised to “believe” in nonviolence no longer have to do. Because I do not have the experience of being at war, I cannot fully comprehend their stories; however, as a child of God, I also cannot avoid the conversation.The documentary film Soldiers of Conscience follows 8 highly thoughtful people – 4 of whom are in the military and appear in uniform, and 4 of whom served in the military and became conscientious objectors. In this film, the soldiers tell their stories. They tell how they grew up, and of the things that shaped them, challenged them, tore them to pieces and built them up again. They tell profoundly moving stories of the intersections of joy and pain that make them who they are.For those of us who have been insulated from the graphic reality of war, the stories into which this film throws us are painful. It is hard to hear about methods of interrogation. It is difficult to be brought into someone’s struggle with choosing whether or not to shoot another human. I didn’t want to see bodies ripped apart by bullets and explosions. However, I refused to let my eyes be torn away; I refused to stop up my ears. When we encounter the terrible reality of the experience of war, limited and distant though our encounter is, it does not let us forget. The truth first demands tears, and those tears must develop into conversations. The truth refuses to leave us even if we go home at the end of the night and attempt to continue life as though we were unchanged. We cannot wipe what we have seen and heard from our eyes, minds and hearts. We cannot, and we should not. The shared stories of these soliders demand that although we will certainly not all come to the same conclusions about our role in war, we cannot just turn away and ignore what we have seen. When we refuse to turn away, look a person straight in the eyes, and encounter their heart – true encounter – we change, and there is no going back.The conversations that spring from such an encounter are not easy. Too often I have seen them fall prey to the illusion that when good, moral people choose to engage questions regarding the morality of killing another human in war, we will eventually all come to agree on the “proper” course of action. When this occurs, everything in these conversations degenerates into a debate. We forget that all of us have wept over the pain we have seen. We cease to really engage each other as people, and instead choose to compare, contrast, and argue ideologies. We forget that we are people who not only imbue, but also create every aspect of this story, and we, particularly those of us who have lived a life isolated from the experience of war, have the debilitating pride to insist that the confidence we have in our own belief renders the other person’s beliefs invalid. Real conversations will not be easy, but we must not let ourselves dilute the harsh reality of encounter with the soothing balm of disembodied debate. Together, we must love, cry, hunger, scream, mourn, and love some more as we seek, in some way, to really understand both the first hand experiences of individuals, as well as what we, as a collective human body, have seen and experienced as a people at war. There – in that place, where we stare together into the eyes of truth and refuse to back down – lies hope.Why is it that in this cruel and twisted world that often seems to reject the humanity of its inhabitants, we can gain the most hope by looking deep into the places of the most pain? Perhaps it is because it is at this intersection that we see most clearly what must change. It is in this place that we see the best and the worst of what we are: the image of God, scarred by sin. In our experiences of pain, we hold our Divine identity side by side with that which tears us apart – but we cannot settle for accepting this simply because it is the current reality that we know all too well. Joshua Casteel, one of the conscientious objectors who shares his story in the film, states, “I have a different picture of tomorrow’s humanity, and I want to be involved with creating that.”So do I.If you would like to be a part of this conversation, please look up the “Duke Conscience” group on Facebook, which can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_183900454958748
This article first appeared in Duke Divinity School’s Online journal, Confessio. Used with permission.