Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

How I Became a Conscientious Objector

I’ve been weeding through old (paper) files as I have been boxing things for our move this week. I came across the text of this testimony and realized that I had never told the full story on this blog. So, I’ll post it here and then I can recycle the paper copy–one less thing to move.  “Testimony,” first-person, lay-centered witness, is a central part of Baptist liturgy–whether one is speaking of the “low church” liturgies of most Baptists or the more formal services of the Charleston tradition. I gave this testimony at my current church, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, during our year long discernment process (2002-3) in becoming a self-declared “peace church.”


Some people seem to be naturally peaceful, almost born nonviolent.  I am NOT one of those people, as anyone who knows me realizes all too well.  Back during the bad-ol’-days when I was still caught up in the civil war of the Southern Baptist Convention (1979-1994), even though I was both adamantly opposed to Fundamentalism and didn’t consider myself theologically “liberal,” I still refused to be called a “Moderate” (the preferred term of those who lost the SBC battle).  I don’t think I believe ANYTHING “moderately.”  Whatever I believe, I believe passionately.  I am by nature an assertive, even aggressive, personality.   Challenge me to a debate on any subject I care about and I’ll go 12 rounds, toe-to-toe. (And notice the boxing metaphor–not exactly sweetness and light. ) I no longer play sports as much as I used to (nor as much as my middle-aged, overweight body says I NEED to), but when I play, I play to win.  I don’t mean I am a bad sport. I play by the rules and, if I lose, try to do so graciously–but first I try to wipe the floor with my opponent.  Moreover, when I was growing up, my family moved often and so I was picked on as the new kid–and got in several fights.  As a Christian, I am embarrassed to admit it, but I liked fighting.  So, how did I ever become a pacifist and conscientious objector?  It’s all the fault of the U.S. Army.  True.  The U.S. Army made me a pacifist!

Okay, maybe some more explanation is needed.  I come from a military family.  Now, I don’t mean  one of those old, rich, officer families where every male in the family goes to a military high school, straight to West Point or Annapolis (i.e., the U.S. Army Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy) then becomes a career military officer, votes the straight Republican ticket and wines and dines all the big defense contractors.  Nothing like that.  Both sides of my family have been working class for generations.  My parents started college the same year I did–and that’s the only reason I am not the first in my family to attend college.  And most of my family were “left of center” politically.  But, on the theory that, in a democracy, the only people who really had a right to criticize the nation where those who had put their lives on the line for that nation, both sides of my family encouraged a “hitch” or term of military service.  The males were almost automatically expected to serve right out of high school, but many female members of my family have military service also.  My maternal grandfather served in the Pacific during WWII and my paternal grandfather fought in Europe during WWII.  My father, opposed to the Vietnam War, joined the Navy so that he could serve his country without going to Vietnam.  Later, my mother joined the Naval Reserves.  I now have 2 brothers-in-law who are active-duty Naval NCOs and 2 sisters who are Naval reservists.  THAT’s what I mean by saying I come from a military family.  So, how did I ever become a pacifist and CO?  Again, blame the U.S. Army.

I graduated high school at 17 (1979) and decided to follow the family tradition of a term of military service without much reflection about the matter.  However, the all-volunteer military was new, so I decided to join whichever branch would give me the most money for college–and that was the Army.

I entered the U.S. Army in 1980, having become a Christian less than a year earlier.  I was fairly naive.  I thought of U.S. military folk as “reluctant warriors” who fought only when the civilian politicians screwed up and couldn’t make peace and who fought with strict rules, like modern day knights of the Round Table.  Now, for anyone who had grown up during the Vietnam War era, as I had, this was a silly idea.  But, for reasons that now escape me, I thought that we Americans had learned our lesson from the “dirty little war” in Southeast Asia and that atrocities like the Mail Lai massacre  were behind us and we would return to the strict adherence to Just War standards that I believed had been the usual U.S. military conduct.

My disillusionment began in Basic Training.  I was struck first by the institutionalized racism.  Please, don’t misunderstand me.  In some ways, the U. S. military has done more to desegregate and to promote based on skills alone than any other sector of American society.  The branches of the military put U.S. churches to shame in this area.  11 a. m. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America–but not in the military.  Go to any U.S. Army post (or Air Force, Navy, Marine or Coast Guard base) and attend a worship service at the non-denominational base chapel.  That service will be FAR more racially integrated than anything I’ve seen in civilian life–even in my current congregation which does better than most.

In other ways, the military does better racially, too: I saw more African-Americans in position of authority (especially NCOs, but also commissioned officers) than in civilian life and, even though the sexism of the military is legendary, I saw more high ranking women in the military than in civilian corporations.  So, even though I have heard of the white supremacy groups hidden in the U.S. military, I saw little or no overt or institutional racism toward African-Americans.

But other groups were a different matter.  During Basic Training, we were forced to sing marching songs that dehumanized Asians and Arabs. The anti-Asian songs and chants seemed left over from the Vietnam War and the Korean War.  The anti-Arab songs (yes, even in 1980) clearly anticipated a future war in the Middle East.  As a Christian whose mother had drilled into me daily that ALL people were made in God’s image and ALL were people for whom Christ died, this bothered me no end. But that “targetted racism” began opening my eyes.  I knew immediately that it was a deliberate propaganda ploy, a psychological attack that wanted us to see certain groups that  the government might  consider “the enemy” as less-than-human. That way, we would have less trouble killing them if ordered to do so.  I was horrified.  I even got in a little trouble for refusing to sing the racist marching songs.

Then, still in Basic, there was our training for “ABC,”–atomic, biological, and chemical warfare.  We were being taught how to keep fighting in areas where biological or chemical weapons had been used.  This might seem reasonable, but the instructors let slip that WE still had such stockpiled weapons–even though I knew that the U.S. had signed treaties against both chemical and biological weapons.  Just having them violated treaties.  I made the mistake of mentioning this and received more punishment duty. 

Then there was the absurdity of planning ways to keep fighting after a nuclear weapons “exchange” between the U.S. and USSR.  It hit me–these people are crazy.  Some of the military brass WANT to use nukes (hence the push for smaller, “more usable” nukes now) because they hate having “toys” that they are forbidden to use.  The possession of nuclear weapons was always presented to the U.S. public as a necessary deterrent to Soviet use of the same–but I realized that many military leaders did not think of them this way.  They had plans to use nukes.  And, remember, this was 1980, when U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan began openly speaking of starting and winning “small” nuclear wars against the Soviets.  I began to lose sleep.

But there were two big catalysts that really changed me.  One came from a friend from my home church.  Even though he was not a pacifist, he believed that I had been called to the ministry (before I had a clue) and, family tradition or no, considered this interruption by military service to be an act of running away from God’s call on my life.  So, he wrote me a letter saying so and challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) during Basic Training.  Well, I took him up on it.  So, here I was every day learning to use weapons of death, hand-to-hand combat, etc. and, every night before lights out, reading the Sermon on the Mount with its commands to love enemies, forgive others, interrupt worship to make peace, etc.  I began to have doubts, but I compartmentalized them, as the psychologists say.

   After Basic Training and another school (AIT in Army jargon, “Advanced Individual Training”), I was assigned to a post in Heidelberg, Germany as a clerk.  (I loved my time in Heidelberg and used my passes to tour some of Europe by train with buddies.) In that harmless role, I managed to temporarily shelve my doubts about the compatibility of military service and my (still fairly new) Christian faith.  But this was now 1981 and Reagan was creating a HUGE new arms race and making ever more wartalk to the Soviets. (I didn’t know it, then, but he had also started a secret proxy war in Nicaragua!)  Reagan pushed NATO countries to accept new short range and medium range nuclear weapons on their soil to counter Soviet ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles).  These were incredibly dangerous and destabilizing because they could reach Moscow too fast for Moscow to check out false alarms on radar–they would have to launch immediately to be able to counterstrike.  Throughout Europe civilians protested and pushed to get these weapons removed–this grew into the huge European peace movement of the 1980s. I saw it begin in Heidelberg. 

I was attending a small Baptist congregation in Heidelberg instead of the post chapel.  I talked with German Christians about these missiles and they uniformly saw them as threatening their lives. (Reagan talked about how the U.S. could survive a nuclear war with the USSR, but we would, regrettably, wipe out human life in Europe for a thousand years.  Absolute madness.) This brought back all my doubts from basic training. Then I heard the pastor (a pacifist) preach on the duty for Christians to be peacemakers (as I sat in church in my dress uniform) and quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

  That night, I knew that I could no longer reconcile my faith with military service. I was in the wrong occupation for a Christian.  So, I applied to become a Conscientious Objector and get discharged.  Thankfully, the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO–now called the Center for Conscience and War) sent me an attorney.  I returned to civilian life and to a family and church that neither understood nor agreed with my actions.

It was a hard time.  I was helped by reading Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which gave my new pacifism a firm biblical and theological basis.  I have since worn out 3 copies of that book.  I also read more of Dr. King’s writings.  These were the only guides I had to gospel nonviolence before seminary. 

During college, I encountered Latin American liberation theology and went on 2 short-term trips to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace (’83 and ’84), learning an organized, nonviolent response to the U.S. support for the Contra terrorists.  On the second trip, most of my colleagues were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, so on returning to the U.S., I joined the F.O.R.  So, by the time I started seminary in ’86, I had solidified my identity as a Christian pacifist. I argued the position in class, joined the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and continued to be involved in movements for peace and justice as I studied theology.

I still have a temper. I’m still a very aggressive personality.  I am not by nature very peaceful and have to work on that with spiritual disciplines.  I raise my voice too often and am too impatient with others and myself.  But I am a pacifist:  I no longer believe that any killing, for any reason, is morally justified.  I refuse to own handguns or allow war toys in my home.  I have resisted the current war and I have tried to spread the practices of Just Peacemaking.

I do not, however, regret my time in the military.  It taught me discipline I would otherwise not have and showed me some of the world I might otherwise not have seen.  And, more than that, I am not sure that I would have ever been forced to think as long and hard about the issues of war and peacemaking and Christian faith as I have if I had not tried to be a soldier. (This is not a recommendation of this path for others.) So, thanks be to God for the U.S. Army:  the Holy Spirit used it to make a Christian pacifist and conscientious objector of me. Amen.

October 21, 2007 - Posted by | pacifism, testimony, theology


  1. […] I came across this post – How I Became a Conscientious Objector – that I thought was worth sharing.Hope you enjoy […]

    Pingback by gospel music » How I Became a Conscientious Objector | October 22, 2007

  2. Great testimony, Michael.

    Re: Our church doing better than many in terms of racial balance… wouldn’t you think we ARE balanced, at least in terms of having a minority presence equal to or exceeding the percentage of minorities in Louisville?

    I’d agree that our services still reflect more of the “white church” tradition, than the “black church,” but in terms of numbers, I’d say we’re right around reflecting Louisville’s black/white percentage, with a little multi-ethnicity thrown in for good measure.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 23, 2007

  3. Dan, the percentage of African-Americans to whites @ Jeff Street IS about that of the city–but not of the neighborhood where we are situated. And, yes, at times we’ve also had other racial/ethnic identities–Japanese members, adopted Chinese babies, even one Native American–and we still have some mixed ethnic identities. And we have more blended families than most–your family and mine look more “Ozzie and Harriet” than most in our congregation!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 23, 2007

  4. […] here This entry was posted on Sunday, October 21st, 2007 at 5:53 pm and is filed under nuclear family. […]

    Pingback by sxa-roo » Blog Archive » How I Became a Conscientious Objector | October 23, 2007

  5. I’ve just recently “discovered” your blog. Can’t believe that you don’t get more comments. I have to have my dictionary at my side but I’m constantly challanged.

    Comment by Judy Wileman | October 23, 2007

  6. Thanks for dropping by, Judy, and for the good words. My “comment count” varies. Things I think will provoke much discussion get ignored and other things I think are of minor interest spark debate for weeks. So, I don’t know how to judge the interest.

    Please feel welcome to drop by and comment any time–dictionary or not. (Those of us with Ph.D.s are afraid we’ll be voted out of “the club” if we don’t practice our academic vocabulary from time to time. 🙂 )

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 23, 2007

  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences. You are a hero for your service AND for your choice to object. Your blog and others I’ve connected with over the past couple of years have been a great value to me. I have very few real life friends who share our common passion for non-violence and peace through justice. Keep up the passion and don’t ever let them call you moderate!

    Comment by Mike L. | October 24, 2007

  8. I read this testimony on a peace-makers website about six months or more before I discovered your blog. I tried to contact you to see if you’d let us publish it in our book, the email address I found was dead. So is our book, now.

    Comment by Thom Stark | October 30, 2007

  9. Mike, I am no “hero,” and I am not sure that the concept of heroism is even Christian. I hope you meet other peacemakers where you live. Email me and I may be able to help–making connections and “networking” is one of my specialties.

    Thom, I hope the book is only shelved temporarily. I am glad you found my poor testimony of interest.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 1, 2007

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