Guns and Fear, Part 3

Guns and Fear, Part 3

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13

When I turned 18 I was required to register for the military draft – which forced young men into military service based on a randomized list of birthdates. The year I might have been drafted the lottery number for my birthdate was 57. Estimates indicated the draft would take all qualified persons with numbers from 1 to between 55 and 60. The majority of those selected would be sent to Vietnam, a brutal war most people never understood the purpose of. I daresay, most of us still do not. I spent many sleepless nights in paradoxical fits of uncertainty. Although I was only loosely attached to a church, I was aware of Jesus’s teachings on non-violence. I remember a question on the draft form asking whether I had a moral or religious objection to killing another person (my paraphrase from memory). I remembered the commandment: Thou shalt not kill, and marked “Yes.” I was assigned the status of CO (Conscientious Objector), which didn’t prevent anyone from being conscripted into military service, and I was relieved when the draft ended before the selections began.

What haunted me on those sleepless nights was an image of coming across a Vietnamese soldier with a gun pointed directly at me. Would I kill him before he could kill me? I did not know. I did not want to know. I resolved, intellectually, that I would die before killing another, especially for such an ambiguous war, but could I actually do that? After all, wars are not conflicts between the fighters but between the political elites that conscript the fighters into battle. I would have no personal issue with my “enemy.” Complicating matters were images of an “enemy” soldier threatening the lives of others in my platoon. Would I kill the “enemy” in order to save the lives of my platoon-mates? Which would be the more Christ-like act? I did not know. I still do not know.

Please understand. I was not wrestling with my patriotic duty as a US citizen. I was wrestling with the conflict between what my country required and what Jesus commanded, at least as I understood the two. I could not reconcile them at the time, nor can I today. My paternal grandfather served in World War I, my father served in World War II. My uncles served, as did a number of cousins and friends. I appreciate the sacrifices numerous generations made in order for me to have the life I have today. I am privileged because of them, and I owe veterans of every generation my gratitude and respect. So, this is not intended to be a judgment on those who serve in the military. I am simply sharing the dilemma I wrestled with.

My tepid commitment to non-violence presented another dilemma when I got married and had children. Like my images of being a part of a platoon whose lives were being threatened by an “enemy” combatant – would I commit violence against someone threatening to do violence to my wife and children? As I read and understand the life and teachings of Jesus, the answer would have to be “No.” Certainly, I could put myself between an attacker and my loved ones, certainly I could sacrifice my life in hopes of saving theirs, but could I actually kill the attacker, even if I were capable of doing so? I did not know. I still do not know. Jesus said no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (and, presumably, family). Jesus did not say “No one has greater love than to lay down the life of anther for one’s friends” (or family or government).

I honor the memories of those who fought and died in service to our country. I honor those who were wounded and maimed – physically and/or emotionally. And I mourn for those in countries in which violent conflicts occur for the lives lost and maimed, both for the innocent and the armed. But I wonder if, going forward, we can reimagine what it means to bring about what is best for our world in the context of the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ. What would that look like? Our country was established and has been forcibly maintained by violent actions against others, from its founding to its territorial expansions to its kidnapping of African peoples to provide cheap labor for its enterprises. That violence has trickled down onto our streets, into our schools and churches, and into our homes. It is in our DNA. It is endemic. But it does not always have to be that way. Perhaps it is time to begin imagining a transformation. More next week.

This is the 4th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are my expressions and not those of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to respond to my thoughts, please contact me directly at

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