As I was trying to discern what God wanted me to write about, I walked into my 16-year-old son’s bedroom to discover a military calendar hanging on the wall. It highlighted young men and women in combat fatigues, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier battle group and plenty of American flags.
I knew from personal experience and deep soul-searching that hidden behind this calendar of military glitter was centuries of death and destruction. And as I removed this calendar, I knew exactly what God wanted me to write on.
Many years ago as young man in my 20’s I found myself in the midst of U.S. military basic combat training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
While firing my M-16 weapon at life-like pop-up targets, it occurred to me the army was not training me to hit pop-up targets, but was training me to kill some poor guy like me in a far off country who got caught up in the propaganda of his own country’s war machine.
I came to realize this was all wrong. And I knew that in my desire to imitate the nonviolent Jesus, I could kill no one.
I spoke to my drill sergeant about these deep anti-war feelings I had and my desire to apply for conscientious objector status. He urged me to wait until I completed basic training and apply for CO status when I arrived at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis for Advanced Individual Training.
At Fort Harrison I was being trained as a broadcaster for Armed Forces Radio in Germany. But that inviting future did not deter me. My broadcast instructors tried to convince me that the chances of my having to shoot someone from a radio station were extremely remote. And although they were technically correct, I knew my role as a military journalist and radio disc jockey would be to boost the morale of those who would be pulling the triggers and dropping the bombs. And I knew that I could have nothing to do with this unholy enterprise.
In my appeal for discharge as a conscientious objector, I had to write a research paper stating my position from the perspective of Catholic teaching on war.
Unfortunately, since the Catholic Church for the last 1,700 years has not been a totally traditional peace church – renouncing all war – like the Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren – it made my case much more difficult. However, since total active nonviolence is at least a part of Catholic doctrine, as clearly exemplified by the first 300 years of its history, I was able to make my case.
After undergoing cross examinations by a military officer and psychiatrist, being interviewed by three army chaplains, and having my appeal go up and down the chain of command several times, it was finally ascertained that I was a sincere conscientious objector, and I was granted an honorable discharge.
My experience in appealing for conscientious objector status was relatively painless. But many Christians have suffered harsh prison sentences like the late Catholic American Ben Salmon. And some COs have even been executed, like Austrian Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, rather than take the lives of others.
For a deeply inspiring testimony of nonviolent Christian witness and heroic conscientious objection in the early Catholic Church, read the authentic ancient Roman trial of St. Maximilian.
Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings about Catholic social teaching. His keynote address, “Advancing the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century,” has been well received by diocesan and parish gatherings from Santa Clara, Calif. to Baltimore, Md. Tony can be reached at email@example.com.