In “Hacksaw Ridge,” Director Mel Gibson tells the story of Desmond
Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Conscientious Objector who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as an Army medic during World War 2. You can see the trailer at YouTube. A documentary, “The Conscientious Objector,” was made in 2004. You can read about his story here.
In this post, I want to summarize the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church that led Doss to his decision. The Adventist Church was formally organized in 1863, in the middle of the US Civil War. Part of the impetus for organization was to ensure that church members could receive recognition as Conscientious Objectors. See F. M. Wilcox, Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War (1936), which brings together a lot of early documentation.
An 1865 statement of the General Conference summarized the church’s teaching this way:
Resolved, That we recognize civil government as ordained of God, that order, justice, and quiet may be maintained in the land; and that the people of God may lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty. In accordance with this fact we acknowledge the justice of ren-dering tribute, custom, honor, and reverence to the civil power, as enjoined in the New Testament. While we thus cheerfully render to Caesar the things which the Scriptures show to be his, we are compelled to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed as being inconsistent with the duties enjoined upon us by our divine Master toward our enemies and toward all mankind.
This statement was made after the war had ended. During the war, leaders scrambled to inform state and federal leaders about the church and its teachings, to ensure that our members were included under the Conscientious Objection provision of the draft bill of 1863:
The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. If there is any portion of the Bible which we, as a people, can point to more than another as our creed, it is the law of ten commandments, which we regard as the supreme law, and each precept of which we take in its most obvious and literal import. The fourth of these commandments requires cessation from labor on the seventh day of the week, the sixth prohibits the taking of life, neither of which, in our view could be observed while doing military duty. Our practice has uniformly been consistent with these principles. Hence, our people have not felt free to enlist into the service. In none of our denominational publications have we advocated or encouraged the practice of bearing arms; and, when drafted, rather than violate our principles, we have been content to pay, and assist each other in paying, the $300 commutation money. And while that provision remained of universal application, we did not deem any public expression of our sentiments on this question called for.
We would further represent that Seventh-day Adventists are rigidly antislavery, loyal to the government, and in sympathy with it against the rebellion.
Much could be written, and has been written, about Adventist Conscientious Objectors in the wars since. Some have been imprisoned, some were discharged, while other individual Adventists chose to bear arms (the Adventist Church has always recognized this as a matter of individual conscience).
In 1972, the Adventist Church reiterated its stance:
Genuine Christianity manifests itself in good citizenship and loyalty to civil government. The breaking out of war among men in no way alters the Christian’s supreme allegiance and responsibility to God or modifies their obligation to practice their beliefs and put God first.
This partnership with God through Jesus Christ who came into this world not to destroy men’s lives but to save them causes Seventh-day Adventists to advocate a noncombatant position, following their divine Master in not taking human life, but rendering all possible service to save it. As they accept the obligation of citizenship as well as its benefits, their loyalty to government requires them willingly to serve the state in any noncombatant capacity, civil or military, in war or peace, in uniform or out of it, which will contribute to saving life, asking only that they may serve in those capacities which do not violate their conscientious convictions.
For more on the Adventist position, and the history, see Gary Councell, “Adventists and Military Service” (2012), and Ted N. C. Wilson, “The Battle: Should Adventists Serve in the Military?” (2014) Elder Wilson, our current General Conference president, summarizes,
Thus, while the official church position is that of noncombatancy—conscientious objection to bearing arms—the decision as to whether or not to serve in the military and bear arms is left to the conscience of the individual. However, the church does not encourage people to join the military for reasons that include the biblical concept of noncombatancy, the difficulty to obtain full Sabbath observance, and other challenges. Regardless of the decision the individual makes, the church is committed to ministering and providing pastoral care and support to all of its members, including those serving in the military, and to their families.
Adventists continue to serve their members in the military and their families. Many Adventists continue to serve as medics and other healthcare professionals. Adventist pastors serve as chaplains in each of the branches. We honor and care for our veterans, and for the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And we continue to lift up the story of Desmond Doss, who would not kill, but would do his best, “for God and country,” to serve his fellow men.
Personally, I think we need to do more to uplift the cause of peace-making. To be proactive in the service of peace, guided by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25. This is part of our heritage. Early Adventists were fervent abolitionists. We are devoted to healing, through our broad network of healthcare institutions, and to education, and to service to temporal needs, through Adventist Community Services and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. We are a global church, which cannot be identified with any nation or political perspective. Our members have been on opposite sides of international conflict, and on opposite sides of civil wars, as in Rwanda. We cannot, I think, merely say we will not fight. We must care for the wounded of wars, those suffering from both visible and invisible wars. We can be leaders in the healing of Moral Injury, that injury of the soul that comes from violating conscience. And, above all, we must show love, and build bridges of reconciliation, deescalate conflict, and seek justice.