June 14, 2020

War No More

Passage: Matthew 5: 43-48

Bible Text: Matthew 5: 43-48 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman | Synopsis: My commitment to “war no more” is rooted in my Anabaptist faith tradition and my crisis of faith as a religious conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. In what I now look back on as a religious conversion, I learned that the way of peace is rooted in the life and witness of Jesus. It relates to how we raise our children, resolve church conflicts, conduct business, and deal with labor relations—it’s about all of life. Yes, it’s also about saying no to war but it doesn’t start there.
In 1969, as a nineteen year old boy, I was drafted by the U.S. Selective Service during the Vietnam War and told to report to the local military barracks for a physical examination to determine if I was able to serve. There in a large room full of draftees, we were all asked to take off all our clothes, including our underwear. We were all buck naked and I’m sure that was by plan. It’s a classic way of shaming and showing who’s in control.

The military doctor told us to spare him any excuses about physical reasons for not being able to serve. He had heard it all before. It was all perfunctory as we were told to form a line and the doctor did an extremely basic physical examination of each of us. One thing that still stands out in my mind is an Amish boy in the line who stripped naked but refused to remove his hat.

As an Old Order Mennonite boy, I was exempted from military service and was told to find an alternative service assignment within three months. I had all kinds of conflicting feelings.

More on that later. I loved skiing and dreamed of finding an assignment in Colorado where I could ski those beautiful slopes during my spare time.

To put it mildly, my parents were not thrilled about that notion. They convinced me to stop in Indiana as I and my two friends drove west looking for an assignment from a list of hospitals that the Selective Service had given me to choose from. There was an Old Order Mennonite pastor near Goshen Indiana that they arranged for me to stay with as I looked for possible assignments in that area.

A nearby general hospital gave me an assignment as an orderly in their psychiatric ward. A local Mennonite farm family gave me free room and board if I would help with chores in my spare time. All was set up but then I almost backed out. As we gathered for breakfast in the Mennonite pastor’s house the next morning, he was reading a frontpage newspaper article about Woodstock Music Festival. With an angry scowl, he said they ought to move the army in and clean that place out.

That really upset me and I told him that he can be thankful we live in a country where they don’t do things like that. Later, in the car with my buddies, I told them I was so done with this and wanted to go to Colorado. They tried to calm me down and eventually convinced me to keep my assignment in Indiana and figure it out later. They didn’t want to drive to Colorado and I was stuck.

To put it bluntly, my faith was a muddle. I hung out with a wild bunch of teenagers and caused my parents lots of distress. It was the 60s and we were into long hair, cutoff jeans, sandals, rock and roll music, partying, fast cars, and weekends at the beach. I had rejected my traditional Mennonite religious heritage but had nothing to put in its place. I, therefore, tried to ignore all my faith questions as best I could.

Finding myself in Indiana, and working in a psychiatric ward, ended the life I had known and circle of friends I had hung out with. I had plenty of time to think and the questions wouldn’t go away. Like many young people of my generation, I hated the Vietnam War and was appalled by the notion of fighting against Vietnamese people in their own country on the other side of the world.

I wasn’t buying all the Cold War reasons given for fighting that war. Still, I was very aware that I had been given an alternative service assignment as a conscientious objector because I was a Mennonite. I felt like a hypocrite because I certainly wasn’t a good, practicing Mennonite. And I kept thinking about that Mennonite pastor who wanted the army to clear out the rock music festival at Woodstock.

Working in a psychiatric ward made me aware of needs in our community that I had never experienced before. The nursing staff took me under their wing and helped me adapt to some tough stuff when patients came in with severe trauma. I worked the 11 to 7 night shift and we had lots of good conversations in the wee hours of the morning. They were thrilled to meet Ruth when she came out to visit and were so happy to see our growing romantic relationship. Oh, that was a long time ago.

One older nurse’s aide treated me like a son. She told me that the Mennonite missions office was nearby and that they might be able to help me with my questions. So I stopped in one day and asked the person at the front desk if they had any resources about Christian positions on war. The woman went to confer with someone another room and came back with the title of a book that I could buy at the Provident bookstore.

The book was “War, Peace, and Nonresistance” by Guy Hershberger. I read it from cover to cover and went back for another book he had written called “The Way of the Cross in Human Relations.” The nursing staff at the hospital had given me a modern language Bible called the Living Bible. Reading the New Testament in that version made it come alive for me.

What I was learning from this is that the way of peace is rooted in the life and witness of Jesus. It wasn’t just another Old Order Mennonite rule like wearing plain clothes. The way of peace relates to how we raise our children, how we resolve conflicts in our churches, how we conduct business and deal with labor relations—it’s about all of life. Yes it’s also about being a conscientious objector to war but it doesn’t start there.

As I now look back, I recognize this awakening as a conversion experience. It enabled me to give my life to Jesus, to follow him in a new way, and to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind. It was so liberating. It set me on a completely different trajectory in life. Even to this day, I look back on it as a marker in my journey of faith that shapes the kind of person I am becoming as a disciple of Jesus.

Loving our enemies is the heart of the gospel. To only love our neighbors makes us no different from anyone else. It’s normal to return love for love and hate for hate. But we’re God’s children and we participate in the nature of our God who unconditionally loves everybody—no exceptions.

Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. Biblical scholar Douglas Hare says that praying for our enemies means more than entreating God to help them to change their attitudes and behavior, though that is by no means excluded. This is how I pray for people in authority, including the police, who devalue black lives. But even more is expected of us.
Praying for enemies involves a serious attempt to see them from God’s point of view. We cannot earnestly pray for enemies without acknowledging our common humanity; they too have been created in the image of God, and no behavior, no matter how nefarious can erase that image. . . We cannot pray fervently for our enemies without reminding ourselves that the God who is able to love us despite our disobedience is able to also love those who hate and abuse us. Seeing our enemies in the light of God’s love is the first step toward surprising then with positive acts.[1]
This by no means suggests that we condone evil or appease bullies. No, we resist evil and stand up against bullies. We call out injustice for what it is and we resist nonviolently. We affirm the lives of all people no matter who you are. And we believe in our hearts that love is a more powerful force.

I recently spoke about racism as one of the original sins of our country. Black people came to America in shackles and then served as slaves on the plantations of their white masters. Now, our country is finding it so hard to liberate ourselves from the racist grip of that horrific legacy. Our other original sin is militarism. Our country was founded through a violent revolutionary war. And we militarily destroyed the native American nations in our land, confining them to reservations. Too often, our first impulse is to use military responses to social and international conflicts.

That’s what was beginning to happen in government responses to the massive street protests following the brutal murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. Our president even called out the military to violently disperse peaceful protesters in front of the White House so he could walk across the street to have his picture taken holding a Bible in front of a church. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and we were able to avoid a brutal military escalation of that conflict. A disturbing trend in the past several decades has been the militarization of our police forces. We need to get back to community policing and to not relying on the police to respond to social problems like mental illness and homelessness.

What a challenging time to be a peace church. I want to work at this in my retirement. The last chapter of my book Practicing the Politics of Jesus deals with the social practices of Jesus’ way of love and nonviolence. Yes we to say no to war—no more war! But that isn’t enough. We need to wage peace in the same way that others wage war.

We’ll want to put this into practice in ways that build a strong peace church that lives out God’s love and Jesus’ way of peace in our common life. We can then extrapolate from this to other parts of our community, including our healthcare system, our schools, our businesses, our government agencies, our police departments, and even the military. Can we imagine a military that’s premised on a nonviolent commitment to peacemaking and not on the violent waging of war? Now that’s a gospel initiative to work toward.


[1] Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 59

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