Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: conscription

Attitude correction

For more than 200 years, the government of Canada has graciously extended the privilege of exemption from military service to members of religious denominations which objected to participation in warfare for reasons of faith and conscience. At first, the law required conscientious objectors between the ages of sixteen and sixty to register annually and pay a special tax. These provisions were dropped in the 1850’s.

When the Parliament of Canada passed a conscription act in July of 1917, there was some confusion at first as to how this exemption should work. The Mennonite churches advised their members that when a young brother received notification that he was being called up for military service, he should report to the place assigned and submit to what was required of him Meanwhile, a committee of ministers would present a claim for his exemption.

Before long a system was worked out whereby a member would be given a certificate stating that he was a member in good standing of a specific congregation. The certificate would be signed by a minister of the congregation and this certificate was recognized by military officials as sufficient evidence to grant an exemption.

Before this system was put in place, one young Mennonite lad in Ontario received his call, but his mother would not let him report to the military as the church had asked. She probably thought she was protecting him, but it backfired. The army picked him up and carried him off to training camp. Minister Thomas Reesor was asked to intervene on his behalf.

Thomas Reesor and the young man were granted a hearing with the commanding officer. The officer questioned the lad closely, then turned to Thomas Reesor. “I am going to grant this exemption,” he said. “But I think you are wrong in your attitudes. You are living under the protection of the best government on the face of the earth and you are doing nothing to show your gratitude or appreciation.”

Those words rang in the ears of Thomas Reesor all the way home. He shared them with other ministers and leaders in the Mennonite churches of Ontario. In November, 1917 a committee was formed to help relieve some of the suffering of the war and to express in a practical way their gratitude for the privileges granted to them. The Non-Resistant Relief Organisation set a target of raising $100 for every young man granted exemption from military service.

Thomas Reesor was made treasurer of this organisation. In the early stages, one congregation sent a cheque for $130. He returned it, with a letter saying that if this was all their privileges meant to them they might as well keep the money. Not long after, he received a cheque for $3,500 from the same congregation. $75,000 was raised by the end of the war. This was a very impressive sum 100 years ago.

The money was dispersed to the Merchant Seaman’s Relief Organisation for the relief of widows and children of men lost on torpedoed vessels, the Soldiers’ Aid Commission of Ontario for help to wounded and disabled returning soldiers and to relief agencies working in the war ravaged countries of Europe.

I believe Mennonites have always endeavoured to be good neighbours, but it took the reproof of a military officer to launch us into organized relief efforts in Canada. In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, young men and women are encouraged to volunteer for a term of service in one of the many programs operated by the church: children’s homes, guest homes for families with a loved one in the hospital, units that repair or rebuild homes after a disaster, or Christian Public Service units in a number of cities where young people volunteer in hospitals, rehab centres, nursing homes, etc.

The way of peace

Forty-five years ago I was picking up my mail in a village post office when I heard two older men reminiscing about the war. Somehow the subject of Mennonites came up. “Mennonites!” one of them said angrily, “They should all be lined up against a wall and shot!” The other agreed.

This was at a time when I was just beginning to think about becoming a Mennonite and neither of these men would have been aware of that. They had both served in World War II and were well-respected members of the community. What aroused such feelings of animosity?

I can’t really speak for them, yet those feelings could have been based on several factors.  At the time of the war, Mennonites generally held themselves aloof from the rest of society, to the point of believing there was something almost holy about speaking a Germanic dialect rather than English. As a result, they were not well known or well understood by other Canadians. Some Mennonites seemed to have a sense of entitlement about exemption from military service. Many Canadians may not have been aware that Mennonite boys were serving in alternate service camps during the war, or if they knew, still felt they were being given an unfair advantage.

Peace has always been the central belief of the Anabaptists, Waldensians and Mennonites. Peace with God first of all, then through that peace with our fellow men. Unfortunately, we may sometimes make it seem that the main point of our peace doctrine is non-participation in war. If that is all it amounts to, we are missing the whole foundation of Christian life and the reason why we believe we cannot participate in the shedding of blood.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, taught that we should be peacemakers, suffer persecution if need be and turn the other cheek. James wrote that God gives His children a wisdom that is “peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy”; then goes on to say that “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.”

This is all part of loving our neighbour as ourself. Yet it is very natural and human to think of ourselves first. We are naturally prone to feelings of envy, of being left out, of not being appreciated at our just value. James tells us that these feelings are not heaven-sent, but are earthly, sensual and devilish.

If we take offence at every imagined slight, the peace of God is not reigning in our hearts. We are to esteem others as better than ourselves. Experience should tell us that those who make the greatest efforts to impress others with their own importance are the least appreciated. Yet our concern for others should never be motivated by thoughts of personal advantage.

Canada enacted conscription laws during the two World Wars, but granted exemptions to young men who were members of churches who taught a doctrine of peace. Young men from these churches who were eligible to be conscripted were allowed to join alternative service programs, such as working in forestry camps for the duration of the war.

We understand that if conscription is ever enacted again there will be no automatic exemption based solely upon church membership. Young men and women will be individually examined as to the reality of their personal convictions and whether they have lived according to those convictions.

This is as it should be. Not only our young people, but all of us, should live in such a way that our neighbours know us as peace-loving people, who are always ready to lend a helping hand to a neighbour in need. We should not have a lot to say about the faults of those who govern us; neither should we disdain the poor who have not the courage to believe that anything will ever turn out right for them in life. May we rather be people who can feel the hurts, the sorrows and the joys of others.

I remember my Dad picking me up after school one day when I was nine years old and telling me that my mother was sorrowing that day. She had just received news that her youngest brother, to whom she felt very close, had been killed in Korea. I remember when her last two letters to my uncle were returned unopened and how she kept those letters for years. We need to understand the sorrow of those who have lost loved ones in war.

As Christians, we should never have a sense of entitlement. We are called to serve, not to be served.

%d bloggers like this: