I came of age during the Vietnam War and, like many in my generation, it has profoundly affected who I have become. When I visit the Vietnam Memorial here in Washington DC, it brings back floods of memories. Several of my school classmates served and died there. I remember the grim daily tally of those killed in the war—many more Vietnamese than Americans. I remember all the war protests. Protest songs like Blowin in the Wind bring it all back as though it happened yesterday.
I hated that war but was so unprepared to grapple with the choices I had to make when I was drafted. As someone who had grown up in an historic Peace Church with pacifist roots going back to the 16th century, my family assumed that I would be a conscientious objector. Still, I was filled with doubts and questions. Like many of my peers, I hated that brutal war. Yet, I was not sure I was religiously opposed to all wars and that was the claim I had to make to be given conscientious objector status. Teenagers are so ill prepared to make such choices.
I, nevertheless, registered as a conscientious objector and served two years as an orderly in a hospital psychiatric ward. That began my search for answers and my personal journey to peace action. As a follower of Jesus, I began my quest by reading the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ words in the beatitudes became my guiding light, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I heard those words as a personal call that would define my life.
I gradually realized that I was pacifist, opposed to all participation in war, even as I became convinced this in itself is not an adequate response to violence. Peace activists should be willing to take risks and serve with the same kind of dedication as military personnel do. I’m not a brave man but such convictions have led me to years of service in the Philippines, India, and Nepal where I have seen so much violence and human suffering.
Jesus is calling us to take transformative initiatives and become peacemakers. I’m especially indebted to Glenn Stassen, the recently deceased Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary who devoted his life to just peacemaking. Glenn identified a triad structure in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which opened my understanding of Jesus’ call to take transformative initiatives.
The first part of the triad is traditional piety (e.g. you shall not kill), the second identifies the mechanisms of bondage (e. g. hate and nursing anger), and the third is a transformative initiative (e. g. be reconciled, love your enemy). Glenn had his call to action and, in collaboration with others, identified and developed various peacemaking initiatives in many different disciplines and arenas of life.
In my next post I will further develop this approach to peace action.
Earl – Thank you for this story – I appreciate your transparent analysis of a difficult choice, and your mention that pacifists must also take as risky a path as military people. – Margie
Thanks Margie. I look up to you as someone who has also made tough choices with grace.