Are you a CO? Am I?

This blog post is inspired by “Let them Stay Week” (a campaign on behalf of U.S. war resisters in Canada) and by the publication of a recent issue of Intersections on conscientious objection. 

In the midst of many stories of violence, 2014 also brought us stories of courageous young people around the world taking a stand against participation in war and armed conflict as conscientious objectors (COs).

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Jhonatan Vargas of Colombia was eventually granted conscientious objector status after a major advocacy campaign. Photo credit Justapaz.

In South Korea, Anabaptist Sang-Min Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to perform compulsory military service. In Colombia, Jhonatan Vargas was detained by National Police when his request for conscientious objection was refused by his battalion. In Israel, where military service is compulsory for Jews and Arab Druze men, a group of 140 high school students signed a public letter stating their refusal to serve in the army. Closer to home, U.S. soldiers, who fled to Canada to escape the War in Iraq, now face deportation back to the U.S. with possible imprisonment and a criminal record.

These brave young men and women are deliberately refusing to participate in state-sanctioned violence — sometimes at significant risk to themselves. Many of them have made their courageous choices without a lot of support from their communities.

In my pacifist Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, conscientious objection to war has been an important and central faith conviction. But in Canada, seventy years have passed since conscription has put those convictions to the test. Without the reality of a military draft (which ended in 1945), few of us have had to grapple with the choice we would make if called up for military service.

During the Second World War, Canadian COs performed “alternative service” in forestry, fire-fighting, road construction, mental hospitals, etc. This photo depicts COs at an alternative service camp at Jasper, Alberta. Photo credit

Our friends in the U.S. have not had the luxury of more than a half century without conscription. An official draft existed throughout the Vietnam War. An “unofficial” draft continues for individuals from poor and marginalized communities who join the military because that is the only possibility of getting an education and escaping poverty.

A good friend and former U.S. citizen who chose to be a CO during the Vietnam War, has often said that Canadians need a military draft now and then in order to force Mennonites (and other pacifists) to grapple with their convictions about participation in war. I sometimes wonder if he is right.

I also wonder if we need to reconsider the meaning of conscientious objection, in light of the changing nature of war and how it is fought. For example, Mary Groh, president of Conscience Canada, reminds us that governments need our money more than our bodies to fight their wars nowadays. People like her promote withholding the military portion of one’s income tax, as a way of resisting the conscription of money for war fighting and war preparation. Is this what it means to be a CO today?

Former National Chief Phil Fontaine has called Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people “genocide.”

And what about the other “wars” we participate in. Some First Nations now use the term “genocide” to define the way white settler society nearly annihilated Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. We 21st century settler-folk may not have been directly responsible for those genocidal actions, but we have certainly benefited from them and have a responsibility to make things right. What does it mean to be a CO in the context of ongoing relationships of injustice between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?

Additionally, the environmental movement has demonstrated how Western addiction to fossil fuels and excessive consumption is threatening the very earth as we know it. People like American environmentalist and author Bill McKibbon are urging divestment from the oil and gas industry as a way of bringing about drastic reductions in carbon emissions. What does it mean to be a CO in the context of a “war” against planet earth?

What does it mean to be a CO when we are not actually “called up” for military service but when, in countless insidious ways, we are implicated in the violence – both overt and structural – of our world?

Surely, being a CO today must have a positive meaning – that is, it should be demonstrated by people actively working for justice, healing, and reconciliation with their neighbours and with the earth. But perhaps it also still means saying – like the brave COs mentioned above – a clear and emphatic No to participation in practices that harm and destroy and kill.

Are you a CO today? Am I?

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

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