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Communal Conscientious Objection

WE ARE CONSCIENTIOUS NON-RESISTANTS. This is the Historic position of the Church. We insist that MORAL and SPIRITUAL Issues can not be arbitrated by FORCE. War is basically a moral issue. An appeal to ARMS is an appeal to brute force. Force can never make a wrong and an injustice, right and just, whether as between man and man or Nation and Nation. We refuse to be partners to the settlement of a moral issue on the basis that might makes right. And we are conscientious in this matter. WE ARE CHRISTIAN. We take the Bible seriously as the very Word of God; therefore we observe to the letter many of its teachings which are commonly disregarded. . .. We hold literally to the teachings of Jesus …. For the same reason we are Non-resistants. It is our inmost conviction of reasoned thought and an overwhelming sense of divine compulsion that impels us to take our stand against WAR as un-Christian and therefore sinful.

-Excerpt from a sermon by J. Allen Miller (1866-1935) entitled, “The Quest of a Warless World,” in Christian Doctrine: Lectures and Sermons (Ashland, Ohio: Brethren Publishing Company, 1946), 334-35

The United States has endured a number of mediocre presidents and congressmen, many of whom are in the pocket of big business. The political arena is filled with frequent allegations of ‘kickbacks’ and corruption. Laws of the age protect corporate interests but overlook social problems and the interests of workers. There is growing discontent about wage levels and the treatment of labor. Several groups have emerged to pressure for female rights. Many progressive journalists criticize government corruption and business tycoons whose profits are enhanced by bribery, tax evasion, law-dodging and the exploitation of workers. The common perception is that money and business has replaced democracy and justice as core American values. There are calls for the ‘purification’ of American politics. American mdeia whips up fears about the intentions and atrocities of other nations, many of them exaggerated, some outright false.

Before you take offense to the above paragraph, allow me to let you in on a secret. It’s a description of American society pre-World War I. Mark Twain coined this the “Gilded Age” of America. There seemed to be no limit to the scientific, industrial, philosophical and technological prowess of America. Yet amid this Gilded era existed deep-seated fear and anxiety.

Similarly, America today is a fractured society. Progressives and conservatives both embody similar postures in their responses (or reactions) to the other side. Stoked by the fires of public opinion coupled with fear and anxiety, a litany of words crawl across our computers, tablets, phones and televisions. We are called to panic. We are called to be offended. To not be offended is culpability in the brokenness around us. Offense is measured through a series of likes and shares on Facebook, how many times a story is viewed on Instagram (albeit for a 24 hour window) and how those around us reinforce the cliquish nature of civil dialogue—neither civil or dialogue.

Instead, we are reinforced. We are enraged. We look for an outlet for our fear and anxiety and so we shoot one another with Facebook shares. We shoot with words and images. We shoot with guns. We devalue one another because someone has to hold the blame for our incessant fear and anxiety. We look for a scapegoat and that is often a good war or good international skirmish to release domestic pressure. Our inability to deal with our perennial fear and anxiety shapes us to be a violent people.

What are we to do when the world around us stokes the fires of fear and anxiety? 

We heed the call of J. Allen Miller. We don’t insist that the world turn over its guns because then we are still participating in the broken structures and systems of society that produce further fear and anxiety. This is the issue with liberal pacifism . It becomes a war of words. While those of this philosophy renounce gun violence, they are not against tearing other sides down by incessant criticism coupled with verbal and emotional violence. Liberal pacifism has lost the foundational vision of peace. Christians do not know peace apart from Christ because only through Christ are we given what we desperately want—a telos of shalom. The reason fear and anxiety run amok in American streets is because the power divisions of our society fail to produce a vision for the common good. America never will because absent a transcendent standard, our only vision can be self-preservation and self-perpetuation.

Some group must model an alternative to show the world what it is called to be. The world will not know that it’s “the world”—broken and hurting—unless a people model an alternative. A people needs to emerge that loves one another and ignores the violent, fearful rhetoric of the world around them. The hope of the oppressed and downtrodden is not ultimately a more lawful, American society. It is a community of people who actually see the oppressed, know their names and invite them into kingdom community.

These people are conscientious objectors. They are conscientous in that they have been invited into life within the Trinity. They know not just the feeling of community but are empowered by the source of community. The Triune image of God is imprinted on their gatherings. They are irresistible. Out of this deep, communal life embodied by shared practices, their liturgy is dutiful, worshipful and conscientious. They cannot be anything else other than objectors to worldly structures of violence and oppression. They refuse to play the game. If they are shot down, then the hope of the resurrection assures them they will be raised again. You cannot take their life because GOD OWNS THEIR LIFE!

To those who have participated in the violence of the world, you are not turned away from this community. We have all participated in this world. There is no world apart from the church. We are embedded within the world. But, when we gather, we confess our sins to one another and the Lord. We acknowledge that we’re not just broken (like an appliance that simply doesn’t work any longer). No, part of our story is that we are sinful. We sin by commission and by omission. Every Sunday, we acknowledge this and God, who bore our violence on himself to dismantle these evil systems that perpetuate violence and oppression, extends his grace. As my dear friend, Craig Hovey declared in a recent sermon, “Christ, the victim, returns and embraces us.” Brothers and sisters, if that is not grace, then I have no idea what grace looks like.

Grace does not make bad people good. It brings dead people back to life. It is the antidote to the violence that seems to win on the evening news. The only peace our world will know is people who choose to courageously model it. Our atonement conversations have often made our collective witness impotent. The mathematical formulas of drops of Christ’s blood to amount of sin forgiven has cheated us out of bold life with God in the here and now. While important, it is the resurrection that allows us to boldly declare that even though our very lives are taken on this earth, they remain held by the hand of our heavenly Father.

Conscientious objection reminds a people called Brethren that we have more than the here and now. We need not play the games of effectiveness arbitrated by society. Life is more than the sum of all parts. Life is given by God. God’s original intentions will not be thwarted. Kill me as you may (with words, with social media, with weapons) and I, by the power of the Holy Spirit, achieving greater likeness with my Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus, will rise again.

The challenge of J. Allen Miller, the Brethren way and the example of the early church is that we need not fear death. We have hope. We have patience. We reject worldly strategies that exist only because we feel that the here and now is all there is for our lives.

This Sunday is Veteran’s Day. It is also Armistice Day as we remember the end of World War I—the war that was to end all wars. It’s been 100 years since that significant event and the societal decay then is hauntingly similar to our present discord. World War I didn’t end all wars because Americans don’t know how to deal with their fear and anxiety without violent outbursts (domestically and internationally).

Somebody has to follow the path of Jesus and model a difference. Someone has to abstain from violence. It requires discipline. It requires diligence. It requires intentionality. Just as Miller preached to a world on the brink of war, it might take a people who are conscientious in their objection to the broken patterns around them. It might just take Christian conscientious objectors to make the fear and anxiety known by their witness and to call the world into something different.

I hope that people can be the Brethren.

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