(Chapel talk at Houston Graduate School of Theology, March 23, 2017)
I first heard the story when I was a young boy. The story of a young man who volunteered for the Army in time of war, but refused to carry a weapon. He was eligible for a deferment from the draft, since he worked at the Newport News Naval Shipyard. But he wanted to serve. He insisted on serving. But he refused to carry a weapon. He wanted to save life as a medic, not take it. He was ridiculed for his noncombatant stance, and for his Sabbath observance. But at the end of the war President Harry Truman presented Desmond Doss with the Medal of Honor, for actions on Okinawa over a three-week period in May 1945.
Mel Gibson recently made a movie about his story, “Hacksaw Ridge.” You may have heard of it. But Gibson didn’t tell the whole story. He only told of Doss’ actions on the first couple of days, lowering over 75 men to safety over the edge of the Maeda Escarpment. He thought audiences might not believe him if he told the whole story.
Doss was unique in that he was the first noncombatant to be honored with the nation’s highest medal. But he was one of maybe 10,000 noncombatants who served, many of them his fellow Seventh-day Adventists. A reporter in Fort Worth referred to them as “Conscientious Cooperators,” instead of “Conscientious Objectors,” because they were willing to wear the uniform, but not to bear arms. Carlyle B. Haynes, director of the Adventist War Service Commission, adopted and promoted the term, and that’s how Doss came to use it—he learned it from his church.
The Adventist church was officially organized in 1863, partly in response to Lincoln’s call for a draft; so that Adventists who were drafted could say they were members of a church opposed to war.
As a church, we aggressively promoted this position as long as there was a draft. When the draft ended in 1975, we didn’t promote it as much. We didn’t see the need. And then came September 11, 2001, and in the swell of patriotism and grief and anger that followed, many men and women rushed to enlist. Including Seventh-day Adventists. Not just as medics, but as combatants.
We took the position in Vietnam that choosing to be a noncombatant was an individual choice. A matter of conscience. We did so to allow those who wished to declare themselves to be pacifists. But the result after 9-11 was that most chose to serve as combatants.
And so we as a church are in the ironic position of Mel Gibson honoring a man who represented the church’s position of nonviolence, while many of our members no longer believe it relevant. Or wise.
I think it is both relevant and wise. And I think we need to hear again the stories of Desmond Doss, and others, of all faith perspectives, whose lives testify that the teachings of Jesus on love of enemy and non-resistence to evil still matter.
I wear an Army uniform, and have for about 18 years, from 1986 to 1996, and again since 2009. I wear the uniform of a chaplain, with the motto, “Pro Deo et Patria,” for God and Country. All chaplains are forbidden from carrying weapons. But few are members of denominations that take a noncombatant stance. We have about 100 Adventist chaplains in all branches. There are two, that I know of, who are members of the Evangelical Friends church, Zachary Moon and Sheri Snively, both Navy Reserve chaplains who have served with Marine units in combat.
How do you witness to peace while serving as a military officer? Isn’t there an essential conflict? There can be. For me, I focus on my ministry to Soldiers. I’m there for them, to ensure that they can observe their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. I’m there in times of loss, of pain, of stress; in times of joy and peace. And I serve as an advisor to the commander, advising him on religious and moral issues both within the command, and in our Area of Operations.
While deployed to Kuwait in 2013 with the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade of the Texas Army National Guard, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, I engaged in what we call Religious Leader Liaison with Islamic Affairs Officers of the Kuwait Ministry of Defense. I had them talk to my Soldiers about what American Soldiers in the Middle East should know about Islam. Over dinners together, we shared our faith, and our life, and became friends. We saw that the Global War on Terror is not something that will be won by force of arms, but by friendship and persuasion and cooperation.
I took Soldiers to the souqs, or marketplaces in Kuwait and Qatar, and to visit the Grand Mosque of Kuwait, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and other places where they were able to experience first hand the culture of the region, and interact with normal people. Along route 80, which was the Highway of Death in the First Gulf War, there now is a sign, before the turn off to Camp Buehring, that says in English, “God Bless US Troops.” Many came home saying how they realized that the major media do not tell the whole story.
I have a combat patch on my uniform, but I’ve never been in a situation where my unit exchanged fire with an enemy. But I’ve seen the cost of war, in the remains of buildings in Kuwait scarred from the first Gulf War, in the bodies of Soldiers at Walter Reed and Brook Army Medical Centers and at VA hospitals around the country, and in the memories and stories of my Soldiers and the members of my VFW and American Legion posts.
We’ve had few US deaths in the past 15 years of war … 6909 as of today. Compare that to the 58,220 of Vietnam, the 416,800 who died in World War 2, and the 7863 Union and Confederate soldiers who died just in the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg.
More have come home with physical injuries, about 55,000 have received the Purple Heart, and many more than that with invisible wounds. 767,000 of the 2.5 million service members who have deployed have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, Depression, or a combination of the above. Others suffer from what we now term Moral Injury, guilt and shame experienced as a result of feeling that you have crossed a moral line, or seen someone else do so, by committing an immoral act or failing to prevent one.
Suicide is too common. About 20 a day among veterans, most of whom, about 65%, are over the age of 50. I’ve had seven in the brigade I serve now. Three at the beginning of this year. I have never lost a Soldier to combat. I’ve never done a funeral or memorial ceremony or casualty notification for a combat death. But I’ve done plenty for suicide, and for motor vehicle accidents, and one murder victim.
I do not believe in nonviolence simply because my church says it is our position. I believe in it because I’ve seen the cost of war, in my soldiers and in the children of the world. I believe in it because I believe the words of Jesus. They are hard to hear. They are contrary to the emotions I felt after 9-11. Anger, grief, the desire for revenge. But they are the necessary response to atrocity, to violence, if we do not want the world to spiral out of control, in a cycle of vengeance that will leave the whole world blind.
I minister among Soldiers and veterans not because I support war, but because I believe that they need to hear the message of God’s grace, and mercy; and because I believe my commanders need advisors on their staff who represent morality, and understand religion, and can speak to the higher values of humanity, of peace, and forgiveness, and mercy. I minister to those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death, to remind them of the shepherd who walks with them, who comforts them, who brings them to cool waters and invites them to sup in the presence of their enemies.
As you seek to discern where God is calling you to serve, consider this. At the career fair, I’ll be here to represent the Texas Army National Guard. One alumnus of this school, Jonathan Dawson, serves in the Guard as a chaplain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He stays to his own faith, while serving as a member of an interfaith team, serving Soldiers and their families of all faiths, representing well the heritage of this seminary. Wherever you go, I pray that you will go forth living out the spirit of the Beatitudes, witnessing to God’s love as peacemakers in a world of anger and division.