Selective Objectors?

The eRe Synod decided in 1973 to “urge the President of the United States and Congress to grant, at the earliest opportunity, amnesty for those who by reason of their Christian conscientious objection to the Vietnam conflict are in exile, at large, incarcerated, or deprived of the full rights of citizenship”, Acts of Synod 1973, p. 80).

By permission, this editorial on Selective Objectors?” is reprinted from Clarion—the Canadian Reformed Magazine—(June 30, 1973). The writer, Rev. W. W. J. Van Oene, is the Editor of Clarion. It should be of interest to us to know how someone in Canada evaluates the matter on which he wrote a year ago, prior to the CRC Synod of 1973.

The forthcoming Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will have to deal with, among other things, an overture calling upon Synod to urge Congress and the President to grant amnesty to those who by reason of their “Christian conscientious objections to the Second Indochina War” are either in selfimposed exile or imprisoned, or in any other way experience the effects and fruits of their stand taken.

It is not our intention to speak about the above-mentioned overture or to tell the Christian Reformed Synod how to deal with it and what to decide in this matter. We only wish to discuss the question whether we can indeed speak of “selective objections” and whether such a stand is justified for a Christian.

When using the expression “selective objections” we mean, for instance, objections to a specific war and not to war as such. The above-quoted overture does not speak of amnesty for “conscientious objectors” in general, i.e., such persons who—be it mistakenly—are convinced that the Lord forbids Christians to bear and use arms and to serve the country as a combatant, hut only for those who had objections to the “Second Indochina War.” In other words: it is deemed possible that one is convinced that the Lord demands of him to bear arms and to fight for the country upon the command of those whom the Lord has set in authority over him except in such cases in which he is of the opinion that this war as such is unjust.

The year 1973 will not be the first time that a Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has to deal with this question.

Synod 1939 received a report of the “Committee on Testimony Concerning Our Attitude Toward War,” a proposal for a Testimony.*

The Committee stated that pacifism—a term for the conviction and attitude of those who condemn every war and hence refuse to bear arms under any conditions—is incompatible with Christian duty.

Yet, they asserted, it is clear that Christians not only have the right, but also the duty under certain definite circumstances to refuse obedience to the civil magistrate.

That, the Committee stated, applies also in the case of the conscientious objector who, “recognizing his duty to obey his government and to defend his country in response to its call to arms, has intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the given war to which he is summoned is an unjust war. When he is absolutely certain in the light of the principles of the Word of God that his country is fighting for a wrong cause, he cannot morally justify his participation in the given war. War is killing people and for anyone to engage in such killing of fellowmen when he is convinced in his heart that the cause for which he is fighting is an unjust one, this procedure cannot be justified before the tribunal of God and His Word. The only course open to such a person is to resort to passive resistance and to refuse to bear arms in that given war.”

Synod 1969 too had to deal with the matter of “Selective Conscientious Objectors.” The Vietnam war was going on and thus the matter became pressing. Four appellants as “Selective Conscientious Objectors to the War in Vietnam” claimed that they had failed to receive adequate guidance from consistory and classis on their “religious and moral questions.”

Synod 1969 reaffirmed the stand taken in 1939.

In its observations Synod stated, among other things, “Although the Church is not called upon to decide whether any war is just or unjust, our young men must do so.” If “after intelligent and adequate study” one is convinced that “to obey the law would be to disobey God, he should fulfill his right and duty to obey God, even if this means refusal to bear arms in a particular war and to experience imprisonment.”

The question is whether such a stand is correct.

We gratefully note that in the last-quoted state-men the consequence of experiencing imprisonment is mentioned.

I have never been happy with the stream of draft-dodgers, draftcard burners, deserters and tutti quanti who crossed the border to seek a refuge in am country. Nor do I give a penny for their “conscientious objections.” From those who for various reasons fled their own country and refused to face the consequences of their stand I do not expect anything for our country either.

It is to the honour of a country when it receives those who are being persecuted and when it provides a safe haven for the oppressed. But all who openly defy those whom the Lord had set in authority over them arc not deserving of such a protection, nor will their presence be a real asset. Even if one should have the right to refuse bearing arms in a specific war—something which I deny—one could still serve one’s country in different ways instead of leaving it.

The basic question, however, is whether “selective objections” as such are possible.

I deny that.

Not only is it not the duty of the Church to decide whether any war is just or unjust, it is not the duty of “our young men” either.

The question whether such objections are possible is to be raised not only in regard to a war. It applies to a person‘s attitude in several respects.

Take taxes.

Not long ago we could read of a very prominent public figure who refused to pay that part of his taxes which was used for a specifically mentioned purpose. There you have some other “selective objections.”

If I should have the right to object to a certain war and from that objection to derive the right to refuse bearing arms, then I also would have the right to refuse paying taxes or at least that percentage of my taxes which is being used for a purpose of which I am convinced that the Lord condemns. Then I would have the right to withhold part of my taxes if the government should subsidize for instance a society for the promotion of homosexuality, or should provide funds for some other admittedly criminal organization.

However, the Lord Jesus tells us that we shall give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Nowhere does the Saviour tell us to investigate how Caesar uses that which he demands of us, or first to come to a conclusion regarding the percentage of our taxes that we can safely pay.

It is only when Caesar demands of us that which rightfully belongs to God, that we are to refuse to obey that specific command.

That also applies to our attitude during and in a war.

It is not up to the individual citizen to decide whether a war is just or unjust. It is the duty of the individual citizen to see to it that in that war he does not do any specific act which the Lord has forbidden.

It has been stated that a conclusion regarding a war should be made only after “intelligent and adequate study.”

My thesis is that a private citizen is unable to conduct an “adequate study.”

A private citizen does not know enough. He has no access to secret documents (unless they are stolen from the government and government agencies); he has no knowledge of secret negotiations (unless they were unlawfully recorded and revealed); and he will not know all the agreements that have been made (unless someone betrays the trust placed in him). Only he who makes the decisions has adequate knowledge.

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to launch the invasion of D-day, he had all the information he needed for such an operation and decision. But the private or the captain waiting in the landing-crafts or the bombardier in his Lancaster lacked such knowledge.

The responsibility for the decision to become engaged in a war is the governments, not the individual citizen’s. The latter, when called to arms, has only to see to it that in and during that war he does not do anything which has been forbidden by the Lord.

It is not the hangman’s duty to conduct his own investigation to determine whether the person he is going to execute is guilty or innocent.

It may be very difficult to decide whether a specific action is contrary to the will of the Lord; it may be a very agonizing decision at that. No one has the right to say, “Befehl ist Befehl,” I have to do whatsoever I am commanded to do: the responsibility is not mine.

On the other hand there is the obligation to obey and the fact that in most instances the responsibility does not lie with the one who has to execute a command.

There is no possibility of a blanket “selective objection.”

We do have the duty to see whether a specific act we are commanded to perform would constitute sin against God.

We do not have the right to refuse obedience by declaring a war as such unlawful, nor do we have the right to refuse payment of all or part of our taxes because we object to this or that specific cause for which that part is being used, since we are convinced that the cause as such is wholly contrary to the will of our God.

Sometimes it is said that we are responsible for what the civil authorities do when we take part in voting for our members of parliament.

It is a mistake to state that.

They who govern us are responsible for their decisions and actions.

They who are being governed are to obey and to let themselves be governed.

When the government says: “Go!” a soldier and any subject must go.

It is only when, in specific instances, the government says, “Do this,” and the Lord has expressly said, “Do not do that,” that the Christian has to obey God rather than man. “Christian conscientious objections to the Second Indochina War” as such are a phantom, a farce. Mans “conscience” as such has never been a trustworthy guide.

*Since I do not have the 1939 Acts at my disposal, I quote from the Agenda 1939, pp. 120–130. See also Acts of Synod 1969, pp. 96 ff.