I started studying the Marines, called and talked to the recruiters, looked up their history, read books, and so on. And the tragedy of 9/11, coupled with my newfound interest in the military, was the driving force pushing me towards service to my country.
Over the next several years (ages 13-17), I spent a lot of time researching the various branches, their subdivisions and various job possibilities within the service. I chose to enlist in the Army because at the time it gave me the most options as to what I could do in the service. I enlisted as an 11B Infantryman because I wanted to be the guy taking the fight to the enemy. I am not saying that other branches or jobs don’t do their part to fight our wars, only that Infantryman appealed to me the most for what I wanted out of the service (get as close as possible to fight and kill the enemy). My main motives for joining the military were: a desire to protect and defend my country and family, to protect others around the world who could not do so themselves, and, by extension of my actions, help promote my country’s objectives around the world. I looked to John 15:13 and felt that by laying down my life for my fellow soldiers — or if need be other innocent people around the world — I would be showing the most possible love for them.
Fast-forward a little bit. In the summer of 2010, I left for basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. After basic training I was shipped to Fort Bliss/El Paso, Texas. I have been in El Paso for the last two years. They have been filled with all kinds of military training, weeks in the field and at the rifle ranges preparing for deployment, a month in Death Valley, Calif., and my wedding. Like any job, it’s had ups and downs, good times, bad times, fun and not-so-fun times. I’m not complaining though — for a young, energetic, passionate patriot, it has been a blast. This summer, however, something changed.
Over my block leave last summer, I was confronted with the theology of nonviolence taught in the New Testament, resulting in my conversion from soldier to pacifist. I was introduced to several books on the subject. One that heavily influenced me was Myth of a Christian Nation, by Gregory Boyd, as well as a sermon series: “Inglorious Pastors,” taught by Pastor Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House, a Brethren in Christ church near Toronto. If you are interested in the deeper theology of my beliefs, I encourage you to check those resources out as a starting point.
The key reason I have become a pacifist, is this: I was confronted with the words of Jesus.
Words such as these:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). If Jesus would not allow his disciples to protect and defend him — the most innocent person that ever walked the Earth — I cannot justify defending others by using violence. If my King won’t let me fight for him, who can I fight for?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:38-48).
These verses were key in my conversion (from soldier to pacifist). I already know how to love my friends and family and country. Jesus, however, says it is not good enough to just “love those who love you,” but that we must also love those who don’t love us. If my wife, child, brother, sister, father, mother, best friend, etc. were to commit evil against me, I would never respond with violence. If I am to treat my enemy the same as those close to me, I cannot do violence to him either.
Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Peter had just lopped off the ear of one of the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus rebuked Peter and then healed the wounded man! Again, if ever there were a justified time for self-protection, or the protection of another, this was it!
The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ words by saying this:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).
I believe that even when we are wronged and feel that evil has been done to us, we must “leave room for God’s wrath.” Paul helps us to respond in love to those who wrong us by pointing out that everyone is accountable to God and eventually he will judge. It is our job to respond with acts of love, not hate.
I was confronted not with a random man’s teaching, a random pastor’s beliefs, or what a book had to say, but by these words above. Certainly men and pastors and books can have good things to say, but they are not what convinced me. It was the words of Jesus, the “red letters” of the Bible that convinced me. Others, such as sermons and books helped, yes, but only to the extent that they pointed back to and made prominent the plain, simple, easy-to-understand teaching of Jesus. I came to a point where my own internal justification for my actions, my job, service to my country etc., mattered for nothing if it didn’t fit within the teachings of my Lord, Jesus Christ. I had rallied around the belief of Just War, which I came to realize is just simply not taught in the Bible. I found the exact opposite. I found the call of Jesus, to join him in the kingdom of God, where the morals and ideals of this world are not good enough. I found that I am more than willing to die for a cause, but that Jesus was calling me to never kill for a cause. I began to realize that the church today has strayed very far from the teachings of Jesus on this matter.
I found that as part of the kingdom of God, fellow Christians would be off limits for me to ever kill. I also realized that Jesus was calling me to not only love those that I wanted to love, but to love my enemy as well. I realized that as a soldier, I may be called to not only kill my “enemy,” but fellow Christians as well. This I could not live with.
As a result of this new found conviction, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to follow what I believed were the clear teachings of Jesus, but I was also a soldier. What could I do? I thank God the United States realized before World War I that sometimes soldiers can have a change of conscience. They created the Conscientious Objector status. Many countries have recognized the Conscientious Objector throughout history. Some have been allowed to avoid the draft or leave the military as a result of their convictions. Others were killed or imprisoned because they refused to serve their country through violence.
After much prayer and seeking advice from family and friends, on Sept. 12, 2012, I applied for a Conscientious Objector Discharge from the Army. As a result, the Army placed me on Rear Detachment in my unit, so that I will not have to deploy while the process is taking place. The process of becoming a Conscientious Objector takes several months. I had to write an essay stating my beliefs and their source. I have also been interviewed by several officers in my Chain of Command. My case has worked its way up the chain of command on Fort Bliss over the past couple of months. I received word recently that it had been approved by the Commanding General of Fort Bliss. It is now on its way to the Conscientious Objector Review Board in Washington, D.C. Within the next couple of months the Review Board will decide whether or not to grant my request for discharge and classification as a Conscientious Objector.
I do not mean to offend anyone by sharing my beliefs. I am doing what I feel called to do by the teaching of Jesus. I’m not saying that others in the military, law enforcement or government are not Christians, only that I believe they are wrong in their interpretation of Jesus’ teachings about violence. This is not a salvation issue, but a discipleship issue. I must follow my Master wherever he leads. If others feel they can follow Jesus and his teachings and be in the military at the same time, I respect them for it. I don’t want to judge anyone. My hope is that we can unite together around the important things, and help each other to follow our Lord better each day.
If all this has done is start new conversations, get you thinking about this topic again or for the first time, then I’m satisfied. It also serves to inform about my journey, from soldier to pacifist. I pray that my story and experience will encourage others in their walk with Jesus.
Matt Young is a U.S. Soldier turned pacifist. An Anabaptist, nonviolent, lover of God and people, Matt is a follower of Jesus Christ. He is married to his wife, his best friend and the mother of their newborn son. He blogs regularly at The Rejected Path and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.