It all started with a letter dated Nov. 27, 1940, calling my Dad, Cornelius B. Dueck, to report to a judge in Winnipeg, at 10 a.m., on Dec. 18, 1940, to establish his claim of being a Mennonite Conscientious Objector. In order to qualify he needed to explain his personal religious belief, a preacher to verify his church attendance, and evidence from family that they had come to Canada under the arrangement of 1873 and being an uninterrupted member of the Mennonite community.
How shall we think of war as we pray for peace this Advent season? However we do, let’s be careful not to glorify war.
Peace negotiators strive in Yemen, parts of Syria are reduced to rubble, and South Sudan suffers a civil war. Meanwhile, Canadians recently recalled the First World War, a conflict of a century ago with lingering effects. In many parts of Europe, Asia, North America, and elsewhere, the legacy of World War Two remains just below the surface. The effects of the Korean War continue.
Canadian veterans of peacekeeping missions and the war in Afghanistan suffer and show it in various ways. For some it means PTSD, broken families, addiction, homelessness, or suicide. “War is hell,” said William T. Sherman, a general in the Union army during the American Civil War. Hell isn’t what we want to see on the earth (Matt. 6:10).
War takes a horrible physical, mental, and spiritual toll on soldiers and civilians; we know this. And yet it can still be more than we realize. William P. Mahedy, a Roman Catholic chaplain who served in Vietnam and then became an Episcopal priest, said, “A great many Vietnam veterans have become religious agnostics or are now hostile to religion because they took seriously what they learned in Bible classes or in the parochial schools about killing.”
Combat shattered their worldview, he said. “For great numbers of veterans, duty in Vietnam was a journey into spiritual darkness—the very darkest night of the soul.” The average age of Vietnam veterans was just over 19, Mahedy says.
Christ came into the world to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:16-17). He came to restore humanity, reconcile us to himself and each other through the Cross (Eph. 2:11-22), and heal the planet (Rom. 8:18-22).
Because of Christ let’s be careful how we think about war. While our views might vary, let’s not glorify war. People need to hear about and follow Jesus, and for that they need to be alive.
Franz Jägerstätter was a 36-year-old Christian beheaded on Aug. 9, 1943, for refusing to serve in the German army. His objection? Germany’s war was unjust.
Did he oppose all wars? No, but he opposed this one. He reported for duty, said he could not fight, and offered to serve as a medical orderly. He both refused support for the Nazi party and to participate in the war Germany had started; it was not, in his view, a defensive war.
He was concerned about Germany’s invasion of Russia because its fight was about more than being against communism; there was an interest in Russia’s resources—“minerals, oil well, or good farmland.”
The farmer sought spiritual counsel from his priest and bishop, who tried to persuade him to serve. His relatives and wife tried also, but later his wife stopped. “If I had not stood by him,” she said, “he would have had no one.”
“Again and again, people try to trouble my conscience over my wife and children,” Jägerstätter wrote. “Is an action any better because one is married and has children? Is it better or worse because thousands of other Catholics are doing the same?” He “could change nothing in world affairs,” but wished “to be at least a sign that not everyone let themselves be carried away with the tide.”
Would you refuse to serve in a war you consider to be unjust? In all wars?
Jägerstätter asked, “If the Church stays silent in the face of what is happening, what difference does it make if no church ever opened again?”
Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 2007. His widow, Franziska Jägerstätter, died on March 16, 2013, two weeks after her 100th birthday. John Dear, a priest who had a chance meeting with her, said, “She stands, to my mind, as much of a saint as her martyred husband.”
Sources: Erna Putz, Against the Stream: Franz Jägerstätter—the man who refused to fight for Hitler. Translation by Michael Duggan. Reprinted from The Messenger (Nov. 5, 2006); Tom Roberts, “Franz Jägerstätter’s widow, ‘a warm, gentle soul,’ dies at 100,” National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2013, online.
1. Why did Jägerstätter object to serving in the German army?
2. In what way does Jägerstätter’s position fit that of a typical Conscientious Objector? In what does it not? (Being a Selective Conscious Objector is a position not currently protected in Canadian law.)
3. Church leaders, relatives, and (at first) his wife tried to convince him to serve. What role, if any, should others play in convincing believers to act a certain way in a time of war? What is appropriate? What isn’t?
4. A key pressure placed on Jägerstätter was the well-being of his family. His widow, Franziska, lived for almost 70 years after he was killed. There is no mention of how she managed to provide for herself and her children. Franz Jägerstätter was concerned about his wife and children and felt the weight of his obligations, yet ultimately stood by his convictions as a Christian. What do you think about his decision?
5. He “could change nothing in world affairs,” but wished “to be at least a sign that not everyone let themselves be carried away with the tide.” Was this naïve or necessary?
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference