“A man who would not help to defend his country and womankind is a coward and a cad.” – The Telegraph
The Last Objectors
One of the more common and unfortunate characterizations of the Conscientious Objector or pacifist is that of the coward. This sentiment was made explicit in many countries during the Second World War and is still prevalent today. Hollywood movies continue to uncritically deify the soldier, and suggest, sometimes quite overtly, that the “draft dodger” or “CO” or “pacifist” is merely a coward using ideology to avoid what he fears.
On the other hand, Mennonites have often argued, in counter to this idea, that the “cowardly” thing to do is to abandon your principles, cave to social pressure, and go to war.
It’s an interesting dilemma. Those who support war sometimes characterize the COs as cowards for not fighting. Those who are opposed to war might say it would be cowardly to participate. In other words, the lens you use will have a great impact on who you view as cowardly or heroic.
Director Andrew Wall, in collaboration with the Mennonite Heritage Archives, recently released an excellent documentary on (primarily) Mennonite COs during World War II called The Last Objectors. I’ve had a chance to see the film three times and I plan to see it again in April at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. It’s an important film because it documents, as the title suggests, the stories of the very few WWII COs still with us. These are important stories that lend a lot of context to this discussion.
Were these men fearful? Is that the reason they refused to fight? I think too often labels are used to replace real thinking. It’s easier to call someone a “coward” than to make an effort to understand his point of view. The Last Objectors is an excellent aid for anyone seeking to understand.
The Role of Fear
I recently attended a lecture on Physician Assisted Suicide by Dr. Patrick Franklin, Associate Professor of Theology & Ethics at Providence Theological Seminar, who explored the topic from both a theological and scientific lens. Relevant to our discussion on fear of death, Franklin documented how early Christian theology and experience emboldened believers in the face of death. Rather than a source of fear, their faith made them take risks they otherwise would not have. And, in fact, a recent study from the University of Oxford has pointed out that both Atheists and devoutly religious people “fear death the least,” or, at least less so than the majority of the population which falls somewhere in between those categories.
The question then becomes, well, what is riskier – standing up for what you believe in and staying home, or facing the bullets on the battlefield?
I think our 20th (or 21st) century perspective skews us into asking the wrong question, or at least presenting a very narrow spectrum through which to judge it.
Yes, it’s true that North American Mennonite (and other) COs during WWII faced less physical risk as COs than did the soldiers. This is undeniably true. However, it’s important to examine the origin of this teaching of non-violence. Because, as Franklin points out, the early church (which was, in the first few centuries at least, primarily non-violent), were bold in the face of danger.
Christ’s Sermon on the Mount comes from a context where non-resistance and non-violence would place people in a position of risk not advantage. Jews of the Roman Empire (the largest group of early Christians) were made defenceless by a literal interpretation of Christ’s teachings. This was a not a situation where those who were non-violent would be in less danger…but one where those who were non-violent would be in considerably more danger.
The Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterite) taught that the life of the early church should be emulated and the Sermon on the Mount should be taken literally. This, too, meant that they were defenceless against persecution.
Early Anabaptist leader Conrad Grebel, writing to the stem the violence in Munster, said, “True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter… Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.”
According to Grebel, they were “sheep for the slaughter,” and many Anabaptists were, indeed, slaughtered. Even in the 20th century (for example in the USSR) thousands of Mennonites died because they refused to defend themselves.
It’s safe to say that for the vast majority of Mennonites throughout history the position of non-violence has not led to peace and comfort, but to death, persecution, and discomfort. Who then can describe it as “cowardly?”
It is true that not all Mennonites have practiced pacifism, or any form of it. There were, for example, the Selbstschutz, in Southern Russia, who used arms to defend Mennonite communities. Mennonites, around the world, have signed up to join the army during almost every conflict they were near. This is only a problem, or a contradiction, if one views Mennonites as an ethnic group. It’s true, there were “ethnic Mennonites” who signed up for war or bore arms, but the moment one picks up arms he or she ceases to be a Mennonite in the truer theological sense. By definition a Mennonite doesn’t bear arms, so, by definition, those who do are not Mennonite (in the true sense of the term as a Christian denomination).
(However, this raises more controversies (ethnicity vs. theology) than I intend, and perhaps I shouldn’t even have brought it up. But I do, just to point out that, yes, I’m well aware of the Selbstschutz and so on, and, no, I don’t find their existence problematic to my argument.)
For CS Lewis, who I think is an excellent storyteller but over-rated as an apologist, argues that a Christian is not called to pacifism. At one point, he acknowledges that, yes, Jesus, did appear to teach pacifism, but that the entire history of the Christian church and much of Western Civilization and literature rests on a tradition of just war and, thus, to claim that a Christian should be a pacifist is an arrogant affront to all those who came before you. Essentially his argument is: Who are you to say, in the 20th century, that all those violent Christians of the past were wrong?
I hate to see one of the supposed great Christian thinkers of the last century reduced to such apparent fallacies, but it does appear that Lewis’ argument, at least this particular one, rests strongly on an appeal to tradition and ad populum argument. This is too bad. As much as I find this argument problematic, I did find his comments on the social aspects of fear interesting.
Earlier I said that “Mennonites have often argued, in counter to this this idea, that the ‘cowardly’ thing to do is to abandon your principles, cave to social pressure, and go to war.” And, indeed, there is tremendous societal pressure to participate in war, so much so that even some Mennonites, as mentioned, signed up to fight.
However, in this same essay Lewis counters the pacifist argument that COs are marginalized, mocked, and rejected by society and thus their actions are brave and heroic. He argues that the marginalization by the greater society is mitigated by the solidarity found in the sub-culture. If he were talking about Mennonites, for example, he might say that, yes, Mennonites were looked down upon by other Canadians, but they found tremendous social bonding in their Mennonite communities which countered this feeling.
I think this argument has some merit. We see this more in the Internet age than ever before. People are easily able to find other people with their same niche beliefs and, thus, feel a sense of comfort and community no matter what they believe. There is even a sense in which persecution (whether real or imagined) can add solidarity and cohesion to these groups.
So, it may be true, that the person of Mennonite background who decided to go to war actually exhibited a tremendous amount of bravery in disobeying the community’s values, while the Mennonite CO felt safe in adhering to those values. Some may have even been COs out of fear of what their community would say if they weren’t. Of course, this cycle of fear and community to mitigate that fear is endless. The Mennonite who joined the army may show bravery in leaving his community, for example, but, if the movies are to be believed, will undoubtedly find a convivial community with his fellow soldiers. In other words, one community is replaced with another.
Lewis’ argument only scratches the surface of the complex sociological factors that are a play in decisions like this. It raises an interesting point, but I don’t think it any way addresses the breadth of these factors.
The cowardly objector
The truth is that some COs probably feared dying in war. So, too, did most of the soldiers. Only an extreme sociopath, perhaps, would not. To say that COs feared death is not even really an argument of any sort. Of course they did, as do all of us, to some degree. To say that COs refused to fight because of this fear is simply ignorant.
You can argue about who the real “heroes” were (though I’d suggest that entire premise is based on a flawed notion that ‘heroism’ is a value to be treasured and an attribute we can accurately describe), but I think it’s time we stop arguing about who the “cowards” were.