We Are Conscientious Objectors
By Nathan Brown
I grew up with the story of Desmond Doss, the World War II conscientious objector whose story was told in The Unlikeliest Hero, among other books. A few years ago I reconnected with his story in the form of The Conscientious Objector and, earlier this year, I was privileged to again see the film with Terry Benedict, producer and director of this award-winning documentary.*
Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who took the sixth commandment—“Thou shalt not kill”—both seriously and literally, at the same time as serving his country in the midst of World War II. Both in military training and in combat, he would not carry a gun and refused to take life, even in the heat of battle. Under heavy fire on the Pacific island of Okinawa, medic Doss rescued 75 injured men, treating their injuries, and lowering them to safety at great risk to his own life, for which he became the first conscientious objector to receive the United States’ Medal of Honor.
Desmond Doss was a true Adventist hero and—as evidenced by the success of Benedict’s excellent documentary—his story is one that can connect with people beyond our church. But the real value of such stories is not only to offer us a hero or role model, or even a reflection of what our faith can look like at its best, they should also prompt and guide us toward living with similar courage, principles, and faithfulness in our time and place.
One year on from the Sandy Hook school shooting that shocked the world, it is a puzzle to many outside the United States—and to many within—how such an horrific outrage has not prompted more than arguments about restrictions on the production, sale, and possession of automatic assault weapons. This is not only an American issue, gun crimes play out in so many places that they have to be particularly shocking or uncomfortably close to home to claim some media coverage and get our attention.
Yet we should never take such violence for granted. Apart from the political, constitutional, and cultural debates, perhaps these looping headlines and ensuing discussions about the place of violence in our societies should call us as a church to live out the kingdom of God in ways we might not have previously imagined, even when we are prompted toward this by the best of our history and heroes.
Imagine if, amid the ongoing debates and tragedies, we remembered that historically we are conscientious objectors. Imagine if we as a church stood up and spoke out, calling on our church members, and all other people of good will, to live as conscientious objectors today. And imagine if we were not only talking militarily, that in the face of ongoing social and cultural violence we chose to be civilian conscientious objectors, disarming ourselves, our homes, and our churches.
Imagine the attention and impact this kind of moral leadership could have in societies that seem unable to make progress toward curbing violence and its tragic results. Imagine if Adventists again became known as members of a “peace church,” creatively and conscientiously objecting to and resisting the culture of violence and fear that threatens to infect even our own attitudes and responses.
In saying this, I quite understand that I write from a relatively secure society, one in which I am rarely overtly threatened physically or otherwise. But I am reminded in the story of Desmond Doss of how we Adventists act at our best, resisting terrible pressures toward conformity and self-preservation, at the same time seeking to help and heal those who are most hurt by the evils around us. If Doss could live this out on the Pacific battlefields of World War II, surely it is applicable to even the worst of circumstances today.
Even in many Christian discussions, peacemaking is too often painted as some kind of flower-loving, daydreaming, disconnected approach to life. But Desmond Doss-type conscientious objection might well be regarded as the most courageous and counter-intuitive way of living, especially when done so in such difficult and dangerous situations.
Courageous and counter-intuitive except when we consider the alternative: that we lose our souls in the tragic spiral of violence and fear. As Jesus warned, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). How much more so, the automatic assault rifle or concealed handgun, possession of which implies their use is somehow justifiable?
Of course, Jesus also said this in a much more positive way: Those who work for peace will live as children of God (see Matt. 5:9). Courageous and counterintuitive as it might be, this is the way of faithfulness and true security. And in a dark and tragically violent world, what better way to shine a light of courageous hope and transforming love?
Let’s say it again: We are conscientious objectors.