Saturday, May 20, 2017

Honoring COs

Although largely unknown, May 15 each year is observed by some people/groups as International Conscientious Objection Day (CO Day). So, this past Monday was a day honoring those who have resisted and those who continue to resist war.
The oldest consistent emphasis upon pacifism, non-violence, and non-participation in war is in the Anabaptist tradition, which started with the “Swiss Brethren” of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525.
That tradition has been carried on mostly by the Mennonites, the followers of Menno Simons. He was a Dutch priest who was re-baptized and left the Catholic Church in 1536. Even a few years earlier Jakob Hutter became the leader of a smaller group that came to be known as the Hutterites.
In the late 1600s, Jakob Amman led a conservative breakaway from the main Anabaptist communities in Europe, and his followers came to be known as the Amish.
One primary commonality among these three groups was/is their pacifism and resistance to violence, based on their commitment to love of enemies as Jesus commanded. Through the years adherents in all three groups have known the story of Dirk Willems, who was imprisoned in the Netherlands for his Anabaptist beliefs.
During that winter, Willems was able to escape—but his absence was soon discovered and he was quickly chased by a guard. Willems ran across the frozen moat, but his heavier pursuer broke through the ice. Willems turned back and saved the man’s life—but then was re-captured. On May 16, 1569, he was burned at the stake. 

Even though there was a long history of pacifism among Anabaptist Christians, there was no provision for conscientious objectors during World War I. As a result, two Hutterites who were committed to absolute pacifism became martyrs in 1918. (If you don’t know their tragic story, or would like to review it, click here to see my 11/30/14 blog article about them.)
Since 1935, three church groups have been termed historic peace churches. Those three are the Mennonites (including the Amish), the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Church of the Brethren. During World War II, and since, members of those churches have been able to register as conscientious objectors and to be exempted from direct involvement in wartime violence.
It has not been so easy for people who were not members of a historic peace church or who objected only to a specific war—such as the war in Vietnam. (For more about this matter, see here for Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin’s lengthy and informative comments on my May 10 blog article.)
Conscientious objectors (COs) have been active in countries other than the U.S. In fact, Peace Pledge Union (see here), a secular British group, and War Resisters International (click here) are leaders in the observance of International Conscientious Objectors Day.
This CO declaration appears on the latter’s website:
War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war, and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.
That is the sentiment behind the CO tradition—and it will continue to be emphasized this year.
On October 19-22, 2017, there will be a symposium on resistance and conscientious objection during WWI at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The theme is “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today.” (For more information, click here.)
My church (Rainbow Mennonite Church) is supporting that symposium and will be displaying in our fellowship hall some of the materials from the symposium for a few days following its completion.


  1. In my 9/30/16 blog article titled “Amish Grace,” I mentioned Donald Kraybill’s 2007 book by the same name. In his chapter “The Spirituality of Forgiveness” Kraybill writes, “As we asked Amish people about examples of forgiveness, many of them mentioned a story ‘about the guy who ran across the ice.’” They were referring to Dirk Willems, of course.

    Kraybill continues, “Although not everyone could recall the story’s details, all knew the general outline—and the Amish moral—of this dramatic ‘Martyrs Mirror’ account of self-sacrificing love for one’s enemy” (p. 108).

  2. The first comments received this morning were from Thinking Friend Lonnie Buerge. Lonnie and his wife Jan are leading members of Rainbow Mennonite Church. Among other things, he is also a poet and has written many creative things for the worship services at RMC.

    "Thanks, Leroy for writing this and keeping this in front of us at all times. Mennonites have a complicated relationship with their own past; both embracing it and being ashamed of it. The popular culture here in the US has made it even more difficult to maintain a consistent peace witness.

    "I am hoping that you saw my own depiction of Dirk Willems in my "Certain Martyrs" piece that I did a few years ago. I cannot recall if you were at Rainbow by then or not.

    "Also, Jan's grandfather was imprisoned at Leavenworth where the Hutterite boys died. Tim Soldner was a dentist and so was treated better than most CO's."

    1. Lonnie, I appreciated the comments you emailed me early this morning.

      Any counter-cultural group has difficulty maintaining their differences/distinctives over against the prevailing culture. I am grateful for what you have done and are doing to help our church maintain the peace witness--and yes, I did see and appreciate your "Certain Martyrs" presentation.

  3. Jan Buerge also wrote early this morning: "So interesting to read your summary this morning and think of my own grandfather's story. I've attached it in case you're interested - he was sent to Leavenworth prison. My sister wrote this summary . . ."

    Here is just a bit about whan Jan's sister wrote about their grandfather:

    "The experience in Grandpa's life that is most intriguing to me was his days spent in jail for refusal to fight in the military during W.W.I. Non-resistance has been strongly taught to me by my parents, and I admire Grandpa for refusing to fight when he knew it was wrong. He'd learned this non-resistance stance through the church, and his parents supported him in his decision.

    "Grandpa spent several months at Military Camp Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. He was court-martialled and taken to Fort Leavenworth, a prison near Kansas City, Kansas. In the fall of 1918 he was working in a gang of 50 men who dug stumps on a farm."

    Jan's sister went on to write how he was treated better after they found out that he was a dentist and was asked to help in the Leavenworth dental clinic.

  4. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago, who once again shares significant comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for the story about Dirk Willems. I was unaware of this story.

    "One must admire the courage of the Anabaptists. Luther, Calvin, and the Roman Catholic church all wanted them destroyed and they almost succeeded. Modern Mennonites have done much to relieve suffering in disaster areas and to continue the struggle for world peace.

    "Although I do not consider myself a pacifist, I do believe that our government, and other governments, should be working far more vigorously to stop existing wars, prevent future ones, and to significantly reduce nuclear stockpiles and the obscene levels of military spending. Unfortunately, military spending has become a jobs program.

    "How many of the world's nations are now threatened with invasion? Very few, although those few may include nations bordering Russia, a few countries in the Middle East, and Kashmir. The prospects for world peace are quite good if we can get past our paranoia and tribalism.

    "Instead of building walls, we should be tearing them down."

    1. Like Eric, I am not a pacifist. I do, however, find most wars, especially recent Americans wars, to be largely indefensible. That is because our wars are mostly about profits for the MIC (military industrial complex), not about defending America, democracy, or victims around the world. For a recent discussion of what is happening, see this link:

  5. Interesting, Leroy. I sent my DNA to several years ago. Started a family tree but did little with it. This past Christmas, with her blessing, I gave Patricia the Christmas gift of Ancestry DNA test. Since then I have been working diligently on her family tree and mine. Patricia's maternal grandmother was a Coffman. I traced that family back, and discovered that in the 1700s that branch of Coffmans became Kauffmans, and that they were Mennonites from Switzerland. Patricia's seventh great grandfather was born in Bern, but died young in the Netherlands. And I also discovered that I have a DNA match with a Kaufman (just one f) and that his family goes back to the very same Kauffmans as Patricia. Do you suppose that stubborn Jesusism could be a genetic trait? Charles publishing anonymously because its easier

    1. Charles, thanks for sharing about your Mennonite connections. Rainbow Mennonite Church has had both Kauffmans and Kaufmans--the the latter far more numerous. -- I would assume that the name Coffman came from Kauffman rather than the other way around.

  6. PS: I would love to come to that symposium in October. Charles

  7. We are all enriched by the strength of these three traditions. Thanks for the reflection.
    I was a college chaplain in the early days of the Vietnam war and was involved with several young men who petitioned for “conscientious objector” status with the U.S. draft board. It was a designation not easily obtained.
    It is shameful that we, as a society, have become so inured to the possession of nuclear weaponry and still rely heavily on war and violence in dealing with conflict. The military budget of the U.S. is largely accepted without protest. We need to draw more inspiration from the gifts of these traditions.

  8. Thanks, Leroy. I thought this was a good time to share this link regarding the event at WWI museum this coming October honoring COs and "Muted Voices."

    1. Thanks for sharing this link, Pastor Ruth. (I should have included it with the blog article--and I guess I will add it now.)

  9. I'm getting in on this a little late to generate any discussion. I would mention that, if the Anabaptists and Roland Bainton are correct, the early church--at least for the first several centuries--was pacifist; also that the historically earliest pacifists were not Christians at all but probably Jains and Buddhists. One other historical note: During the Reformation there were a few among the left-wing (Anabaptists) who were quite martial, but their lives were snuffed out fairly quickly. The Anabaptist tradition might not have come to be viewed as so unambiguously and consistently pacifist had those more militant had some success.

  10. Conscientious Objection is well worth thinking on. However, I do not believe that was why the Anabaptists were held in low estimation by the rest of the Church in their beginning. As I read it, it was their theological beliefs about Christ and the Church, much of which has been conveyed down to the evangelical of today. Novel Doctrines never seem to play well with established tradition and belief. The Anabaptists went significantly farther than the Reformers in changing Church practice and belief.