What would your decision be should you be asked to participate or support some action with which you disagree? Not just a mild disagreement, but a serious, considered disagreement for which there seemed to be no second alternative.

The term “conscientious objector” is most often connected to military service. There is a long and worldwide history of individuals refusing to participate in wars led by their country. In some cases, these individuals were executed, and in others allowed some alternative service or simply shamed.

The county seat of Johnson County, Kansas, is the city of Olathe. Somewhere in a file cabinet in a mostly abandoned Selective Service Office, there is a record of my application for military conscientious objector status and an acknowledgement of the granting of that classification in 1967. Those were complicated years for young men. Since the military draft has not existed for many years since then, most have forgotten the impact the impending draft had on each young person. Those of us who lived through them have not forgotten. 

United States involvement in Vietnam was escalating and soldiers were needed. Individuals were drafted through a system that followed your age, birthdate, and, eventually, a lottery number. It was possible to receive a deferment from the draft. Some of the deferments were for physical situations—real or falsely documented. A common deferment was a student deferment.

My student deferment had allowed me to stay in college, but I had now graduated and begun graduate school. The student deferment for graduate students was problematic. Furthermore, both my birthdate, age, and lottery number made me quite vulnerable to the draft at any time.

Any U.S. citizen alive then will remember the strong divisions in the country regarding the Vietnam War. At the time, I did not have deep feelings against the country’s involvement. However, I had developed clear pacifist beliefs that made it impossible for me to consider carrying a gun and shooting at another human. I felt that I was growing as a young Christian at that time and that my personal involvement in the killing of others was not something in which I could be involved, no matter what the cause.

For individuals with my thoughts, two conscientious objector options were available. In one case, serving in a non-military government position was possible. The second was to agree to a military position, but as a non-combatant. Since I did not have strong anti-Vietnam War sentiments, I applied for this second status. The written application was long and extensive; it was the most complete and detailed explanation of my current faith that I had ever attempted.

This is not a story about Vietnam; it is a story about decisions we make. The variety of decisions varies, but each of us has faced situations where we play the role of conscientious objector. There are other situations in our future. 

As I have stated elsewhere, I want to make sure I lead a reflective life. I do not want to just say stuff, buy stuff, listen to stuff, or go places. I want to say, buy, listen, and go with purpose. Because each of us lives in communities, we often have imposed on us decisions made by someone else. Those communities logically could be jobs, committees, cities, clubs, neighborhoods—even churches. Since we generally desire that the communities function effectively, we logically cooperate with the community and try to fulfill our individual responsibilities within that community. Even though the decisions made may not be our own, we go along with them for the good of the community because we, in general, believe the community is positive. However, there may be times that such thinking does not fit.

Speaking to myself, I need to be careful not to trivialize this. I deeply value the concept of community and believe, especially within the Christian group, that it is a strength worth working to accommodate. It is not appropriate that you or I insist that our perception in every situation is the one, true, correct perception. Pursuing compromises is important and functional; in a Christian sense, it is also the most loving.

On the other hand, there are times that the conscientious objector stance is appropriate. To be colloquial, we need to choose our conscientious objector battles carefully and with love. There are consequences to choosing that position and we need to accept those. It is reasonable for me to believe, however, that there are some few times when I must say, “I will not participate in this; you may make your own decision without my criticism, but I believe that action is wrong and I will not participate.”

I will validate your right to say that and hope you will validate mine.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain


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