November 13, 2010

Remembering A Conscientious Objector - Stephen T. Berg

While the second world war blazed, my father farmed a patch of Saskatchewan soil. He was conscripted but found exemption by belonging to a recognized pacifist group. At his examination he also made the case that his farm would be an agricultural asset. By mid 1943 there was a conscription crisis—there were too few labourers, land was left unattended—and so he was able to stay on his farm and avoid being placed in an Alternative Service camp.

On these few points there is recollection within our family, on the rest of the story there is ambiguity. That’s probably because my father never made a thing about being a conscientious objector. Only his actions revealed his convictions; on the finer points, he was silent. There was no moralizing, no kitchen-table debates with phantom war mongers, no regimented training in nonviolence, and no banners hung from our house.

And yet, these many years later, I see how my father could have been a local embarrassment. Even on the most innocuous level, being a conscientious objector is like volunteering to be the skinny kid on a Charles Atlas beach. On the other end of the scale, CO’s are seen as traitors to cause and country. After the first world war the Canadian government, pressed by public opinion, rescinded the privileges of an 1873 Order in Council and barred entry to Mennonite immigrants. It was successfully repealed a few years later, but the passions that surround war,  specifically the second world war, again made ripe the possibility of targeted persecution.

I don’t know how those days unfolded for my father, and I don’t know how he felt or what his thoughts were in the middle of the night. What I’m awake to today is that conscientious objectors do not, and did not, take the path of least resistance. Often bearing social outcast status, they took on roles of noncombatant military service, from serving on medical wards to gathering the injured from the front lines. Some were asked, or were enlisted, for medical experiments, some volunteered for prolonged starvation in order to study its effect and apply the knowledge gained to help POW's. The more fortunate ones, like my father, were allowed to stay where they were and work.

All this has settled in upon me and my many years of adherence to "just war" theory in an unexpected way; like some epigenetic trigger pulled, like the apple not falling far from the tree, I’ve been slowly encircled by the notion that the fundamental evil of violence can only be met by nonviolence; that nonviolence is not an addendum to Christianity, but is at the heart; that the life and the death of Jesus exposes the myth of redemptive violence. I have come to see that not only the theology, but the anthropology of the cross, is this: that peace through blood shed is not merely temporary, but finally a lie.

I do not have the strength of my father. But I do hope to embrace his example—that it is possible to have the quiet dexterity of heart and mind to compassionately remember the war dead, without in any way honouring and legitimizing war.


  1. I was at a peace park in Oregon and read the quotes on the walls. Most of the people who wrote these words about peace seemed to be unaware that some people in this world do not care about peace. They are filled with hate and rage and will take or do whatever they want, against all pleas and reasoning. While people have every right to the view of nonviolence, I've often wondered what a pacifist should do if it was their son or mother being killed, or their wife or daughter being raped? In our comfortable world, we don't like to think through such things... this, Stephen, is a good reminder...

  2. Good post, Stephen. I've been reading Costly Grace, a re-do of Bonhoffer's book on discipleship, written while in a German prison. The bio materieal on him stated that he was a pacifist but, living in that place and time, engaged in the plot to kill Hitler because he came to the conclusion that evil must be stopped.
    Thanks for making us ponder this difficult question.


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