Hard Questions for Conscientious Objectors

We asked David Schroeder to answer some questions about pacifism and conscientious objection. He is a Mennonite and served as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He agreed to address some challenging questions about his beliefs.

Why did you become a pacifist?

I have always been a pacifist. I do not remember a time when I thought that war was right. I thought rather that only non-Christians thought war to be an appropriate response to conflict. But I found out later that some Christians also hold that at least some wars are justified. The call to register for the draft in the early Forties solidified my convictions against war. It clarified for me the fact that I am a pacifist because I follow Christ. Jesus taught, lived and died as one who did not resist evil with violence and as one who was willing even to suffer death rather than to betray his relationship to God.

What is the difference between being a pacifist and a coward?

I suppose there are pacifists who could be cowards and there may be soldier who are cowards. But that is not the issue for either group. It may actually take less courage to enlist in the army than to refuse to do so, especially when the pressure is on for people to enlist. It takes even more courage to resist the draft when the government of the land is actively recruiting and drafting people who would not enlist out of their own accord, and threatens imprisonment for persons who resist the draft. It takes courage to resist such fear of imprisonment and death.

The Nazis would have won the war if everyone else had been a pacifist.

If everyone were a pacifist there would be no war. Furthermore, it would be unrealistic to think that Christian pacifists would be only in one nation and not in the other. If Christians all over the world would take a position of refusing to use violence in solving problems, it would make a huge difference in international relations. In the long run, there is a better chance that the spiral of violence could be broken by refusing to meet violence with violence.

Are all Christians pacifists? Why would Christians go to war if Jesus taught us to love our enemies?

I was disappointed to learn that not all Christians were pacifists. They all know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, but they find ways to nullify this teaching. Some believe that non-violence applies to their personal lives only and that the state has the right to defend itself through violent means, or war. Such a dual ethic does not seem right. Some Christians hold the pacifist position to be unrealistic. But this means that in their judgment the state is the highest good and must of necessity be preserved. Anything that does not meet this requirement is judged to be unrealistic. Other Christians hold that a distinction needs to be made between just and unjust wars and that Christians should participate in fighting just wars. But this distinction has lost its credibility and the criteria for a just war have never been met even though many nations have felt their war to be justified.

Were all Mennonites conscientious objectors during the Second World War?

No, of course not. Many young Mennonite boys enlisted. Some were not yet ready or prepared to take a stand at age eighteen. They had not come to a strong enough conviction on the matter to resist the draft. Others were enticed by the propaganda that promised them glory and honour and a vocation or trade at the end of their term of service. They were lured into service in the army. But others, who enlisted, have become even stronger in their pacifism after the experience they had in the army.

[Read a list of people from southern Manitoba who joined the military. The list has many Mennonite names.
View some obituaries of Mennonites who died as soldiers.
Read about the human and financial cost of the Second World War.]

If war isn't the answer, what can we do to fight injustice and oppression?

Let me put it this way, we can act justly and seek justice for others. The more we refuse to oppress people ourselves and stand up for the oppressed people of the world, the less need there would be for war. It is especially important to address the way richer nations exploit poorer nations economically and socially. It is important also to unmask the real reasons for war. So often wars are fought not to remove injustice and oppression but to make it possible for such injustices to continue. It is a real service to the nation to be critical of all unjust policies and action of the nation.

What would a pacifist do if someone attacked his or her family?

Who knows? Pacifists are human and have all the human inclinations of self-defense. It is, therefore, all the more important that they practice in all conflict situations to learn to choose the non-violent options open to them. Failure in some instance not to do so, however, does not nullify the pacifist position. Failure to do what is right does not make the wrong right! That seems to be the implication of the question.

How can you live in Canada and then not fight to defend it? What does it mean to be a good Canadian citizen? Why do you not obey the government?

By doing what is right I am defending Canada. By giving my life to justice and peace I am supporting what is basic to the welfare of the nation. War is not necessarily good for the country as is assumed in the question. What is right and just exalts a nation and therefore to live by a higher standard is to be a good citizen. Ultimate loyalty belongs to Christ for the Christian, not to the state. Therefore if the state asks a kind of allegiance that the Christian cannot give, the Christian will refuse to obey the state.

Aren't your taxes going to support the military? Isn't that like praying for peace and paying for war?

Christians are not against the government of the nation. They are not against taxes as such. They believe in supporting the legitimate programs of the government. They do not want to support war and other programs that are counterproductive to the nation. They would very much like to contribute the amount contributed to the military to a special peace fund that would be used for international aid and other causes that would contribute towards peace and good will. The government on its part, however, does not want to specify which taxes support war and which do not because this would make it too easy for many people to object to war taxes. War taxes remain hidden as much as possible. We would like to have the government honour its citizens by allowing those who are pacifists to contribute their taxes to a pool of taxes that are used for humanitarian causes within the country and beyond.

Is it ever right to go to war?

When you take the position that war itself is wrong, it is not possible to justify any war.

Pacifism is too idealistic and it would never work on a large scale.

This statement assumes that we have to achieve a certain end and pacifism does not guarantee a certain end. But that is not the point. War too does not guarantee a certain outcome. It only professes to do so. It is our calling to do what is right and to stand up for what is right. The outcome we leave to God. We know that God can use our feeble efforts to achieve certain ends but that God will do so at any given time, we do not know. Our task is to attend to the means and not to guarantee ends.

How did pacifists think that Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Germany, would be stopped or defeated?

Christians in East Germany resisted communist directives in many and subtle ways. When the collapse of the Soviet regime came the banner in the victory parade in East Germany read: "Wir danken dir Kirche!" or "We thank you, Church!" The silent but persistent resistance of the church was recognized and honoured by the population. If more people would have spoken with their lives and if the church had not been in complicity with Hitler, the program against the Jews might not have happened the way it did. Hitler could have been defeated in his program if the people had not played his game.

Why should we care about conscientious objectors when soldiers sacrificed so much more?

I do not think we are asking for people to care for conscientious objectors per se. We are asking for the cause, which they represent in the nation, to be honoured, respected and seen as a vital part of what it means to be Canadian. We care about everyone. We respect freedom of conscience.