From Soldier to Pacifist

Soldier To Pacifist
I have been a soldier in the U.S. Army for a little over 2 years. I have been a soldier-at-heart, for the past 7 years. When I was 13, I saw that Marines commercial where the guy climbs up the mountain and becomes a Marine:

This was the first time that I had ever given much thought to the military at all. I was a research-oriented kid, so I started studying the Marines, called and talked to the recruiters, looked up their history, read books and so on. A couple of years before this experience was the sad day of 9/11. This tragedy, coupled with my new found interest in the military, was a driving force pushing me towards service to my country.

Over the next several years (between ages 13-17), I spent a lot of time researching the various branches, their subdivisions, and various job possibilities within the service. I chose to enlist in the Army because at the time it gave me the most options as to what I could do in the service. I enlisted as an 11B Infantryman because I wanted to be the guy taking the fight to the enemy. I am not saying that other branches or jobs don’t do their part to fight our wars, only that Infantryman appealed to me the most for what I wanted out of the service (get as close as possible to, fight and kill the enemy). My main motives for joining the military were: a desire to protect and defend my country and family, to protect others around the world who could not do so themselves, by extension of my actions help promote my countries objectives around the world. A key Bible verse for me when I enlisted was, John 15:13 . I felt that by laying down my life for my fellow soldiers, or if need be other innocent people around the world, that I would be showing the most possible love for them.

Fast-forward a little bit. In the summer of 2010, I left for basic training in FT. Benning, GA. After basic training I was shipped to Ft. Bliss/El Paso, TX. I have been here in El Paso for the last 2 years. The last two years have been filled with all kinds of military training, weeks in the field and at the rifle ranges preparing for deployment, a month in Death Valley, California this summer, and my wedding about a year ago. Like any job it’s had ups and downs, good times, bad times, fun and not so fun times. I’m not complaining though, for a young, energetic, passionate patriot, it has been a blast. This past summer, however, something changed.

Related: Once They Come Home by Logan Mehl-Laituri

Over block leave last summer (2012), I was confronted with the theology of non-violence that is taught in the New Testament. I was introduced to several books on the subject. Here’s one that heavily influenced me: Myth of a Christian Nation, by Gregory Boyd . A sermon series that immensely helped in my conversion (from soldier to pacifist) can be found here: Inglorious Pastors, taught by Pastor Bruxy Cavey (The Meeting House).

I’ve listed these resources as a starting point for the theology of nonviolence. This topic is very complex and could take many hours to fully explain and hash through. If you are interested in the deeper theology of my beliefs I encourage you to check them out.

The key reason I have become a pacifist, or believer in non-violence…, whatever technical term we want to call it, is this. I was confronted with the words of Jesus. Words such as these:

My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36) If Jesus would not allow his disciples to protect and defend Him, who was the most innocent person that ever walked the earth, I cannot justify defending others by using violence. If my King won’t let me fight for Him, who can I fight for?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”(Matthew 5:38-48) These verses were key in my conversion (from soldier to pacifist). I already know how to love my friends and family and country. Jesus, however, says it is not good enough to just “love those who love you”, but that we must also love those who don’t love us. If my wife, child, brother, sister, father, mother, best friend, etc were to commit evil against me, I would NEVER respond with violence. If I am to treat my enemy the same as those close to me, I cannot do violence to him either.

Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Peter had just lopped off the ear of one of the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus rebuked Peter and then healed the wounded man! Again, if ever there were a justified time for self protection, or the protection of another, this was it!

The Apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ words by saying this:

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Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21) I believe that even when we are wronged and feel that evil has been done to us, we must “leave room for God’s wrath”. In this passage Paul helps us to respond in love to those who wrong us by pointing out that everyone is accountable to God and eventually He will judge. It is our job to respond with acts of love, not hate.

Related: The Myth of Redemptive Violence by Shane Claiborne

I was confronted not with a random man’s teaching, a random pastor’s beliefs, or what a book had to say, but by these words above. Certainly men and pastors and books can have good things to say, but they are not what convinced me. It was the words of Jesus, the “red letters” of the Bible that convinced me. Others, such as sermons and books helped, yes, but only to the extent that they pointed back to and made prominent the plain, simple, easy to understand teaching of Jesus. I came to a point where my own internal justification for my actions, my job, service to my country etc….mattered for nothing if it didn’t fit within the teachings of my Lord, Jesus Christ. I had rallied around the belief of Just War, which I came to realize is just simply not taught in the Bible. I found the exact opposite. I found the call of Jesus, to join Him in the Kingdom of God, where the morals and ideals of this world are not good enough. I found that I am more than willing to die for a cause, but that Jesus was calling me to never kill for a cause. I began to realize that the church today has strayed very far from the teachings of Jesus on this matter. Here’s a quick clip that captures what I’m getting at:

I found that as part of the Kingdom of God, fellow Christians would be off-limits for me to ever kill. I also realized that Jesus was calling me to not only love those that I wanted to love (i.e. friends, family, citizens of my own country), but to love my enemy as well. I realized that as a soldier, I may be called to not only kill my “enemy”, but fellow Christians as well. This I could not live with. Here is another quick video clip that sums up this mentality:

As a result of this new-found conviction, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to follow what I believed were the clear teachings of Jesus, but I was also a Soldier. What could I do?! Thank God that the United States realized back before WWI, that sometimes, soldiers can have a change of conscience. They created the Conscientious Objector status. It’s a rather old tradition. Many countries, as well as our own, have recognized the Conscientious Objector throughout history. Some have been allowed to avoid the draft or get out of the military as a result of their convictions, others were killed or imprisoned because they refused to serve their country through violence. After much prayer and seeking advice from family and friends, on September 12th, 2012, I applied for a Conscientious Objector Discharge from the Army. As a result, the Army placed me on Rear Detachment in my unit, so that I will not have to deploy while the process is taking place. The process of becoming a Conscientious Objector (CO) takes several months. I have had to write an essay stating my beliefs and their source. I have also been interviewed by several officers in my Chain of Command. My case has worked its way up the chain of command on FT. Bliss over the past couple of months. I received word recently that it had been approved by the Commanding General of FT. Bliss. It is now on its way to the Conscientious Objector Review Board in Washington, DC. Within the next couple of months the Review Board will decide whether or not to grant my request for discharge and classification as a Conscientious Objector.

I do not mean to offend anyone by sharing my beliefs. I am doing what I feel called to do by the teaching of Jesus. I’m not saying that others in the military, law enforcement or government are not Christians, only that I believe they are wrong in their interpretation of Jesus’ teachings about violence. This is not a salvation issue but a discipleship issue. I must follow my Master wherever He leads. If others feel they can follow Jesus and his teachings and be in the military at the same time, I respect them for it. I don’t want to knock or judge anyone! My hope is that we can unite together around the important things, and help each other to follow our Lord better each day.

If all this post has done is start new conversations, get you thinking about this topic again or for the first time, then I’m satisfied. It also serves to inform about my journey, from Soldier to Pacifist. I pray that my story and experience will encourage others in their walk with Jesus. I pray that together, we can take seriously the “red letters” and start living the way the bride of the crucified Christ should.

Peace,
Matt

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Matt Young is a U.S. Soldier turned pacifist. An Anabaptist,non-violent, lover of God and people, Matt is a follower of Jesus Christ. He is married to his beautiful wife, best friend, and mother of their newborn son, praying that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven”.

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About the Author

Matt Young

Matt YoungMatt Young is a U.S. Soldier turned pacifist. An Anabaptist, non-violent, lover of God and people, Matt is a follower of Jesus Christ and blogs regularly at Christian Expatriate. He is married to his beautiful wife, best friend, and mother of their newborn son, praying that God's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven".View all posts by Matt Young →

  • Jim Smith

    Matt, I suspect that the backlash you receive for your stance will be severe. I suspect that your manhood and bravery will be questioned. But the reality is that taking this stance, in the midst of a church culture that has fully embraced militarism and “just” war, is true evidence of your courage. I pray that the holy spirit will use your words so that many may rethink this important issue.

  • Jason Hess, CJ

    Excellent piece Matt! As someone who is currently processing this teaching and understanding I appreciate this post.

  • otrotierra

    Thank you Matt Young and RedLetterChristians for continually pointing us to Jesus first.

  • http://www.fivedills.com Greg Dill

    Matt – As a former soldier turned pacifist I too join with you in this journey. There are others like you who have gone before you who were so moved by Jesus’ teachings and the conviction of the Holy Spirit to make a difficult but necessary decision to leave their occupation of violence.

    I served 6 years in the U.S. Air Force as a combat medic. I had received many decorations and awards during my tenure, shot expert marksman on both the M16 and .38 and was well on my way to what seemed like a successful career in the Air Force. But, just after the Gulf War had ended in 1991 I had become a Christ follower. And, this jolted my world. I too struggled with the fact that I could be called to take up arms and possibly kill another human being created in the image of God. I simply couldn’t reconcile this with Scripture and the non-violent Jesus I had come to know. Shortly thereafter, I had made a decision that I too could not carry on with my career in the military. I spoke with my First Sergeant and told him of my dilemma. He too recommended I begin filing for CO status for discharge. But, as “fate” would have it, by this time President Bush Sr. began offering early out options to all active duty servicemen with no questions asked as a way of reducing our nation’s military defense spending. I took that opportunity and received an honorable discharge.

    Looking back I am thankful to God that I was never placed in a position to kill someone in battle. Fortunately, as a medic I was spared from combat roles. Nevertheless, as a medic I was on standby to be placed on the frontlines of battle to save and rescue down pilots and other injured servicemen. I am also thankful that it was while I was in the Air Force that I was first exposed to Christ and His followers. There are many good Christian men and women in our Armed Forces. And, like you, it is my hope that they too will be shown the truth of the non-violent ways of our King, and consider the cost of leaving our culture of violence.

  • http://twitter.com/KingdomMatt Matt Young

    Thanks for the encouragement! I’m so glad to see that my story is being used to bless others. Peace

  • bluecenterlight

    Evangelicals need to cross paths with Anabaptists more often. I grew up with immense respect for Martin Luther King, he exemplified Christianity to me. The way he lived and the church just didn’t seem to mesh to me, but I was surrounded by people who believed in Jesus and violence, so it had to be me, right? I heard Bruxy years ago and a light went on, an OMG that’s me, moment. I pray the church will see where they’ve errored in this area and we won’t be a minority for long.

  • John

    Really moving story Matt! I pray you and yours will be blessed with the peace of Jesus that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). Like your good self I was a firm believer in the Law and right to defend oneself, one’s loved ones and one’s nation through violence, but a few years back my Canadian uncle suggested I read Bruxy’s book and my whole perspective was all of a sudden reframed towards Love and Forgiveness! It’s a tough stand to take especially in a culture such as ours that promotes the mentality that might makes right. But, Christ has shown us a better way (1 Peter 2:21-23). Indeed as Paul notes our warfare is spiritual and our sole weapon of defense and offense is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:12, 17). I’ll be reading Boyd’s book soon too and am looking forward to it. Another book that I recommend on forgiveness (since turning the other cheek necessitates Christ-like forgiveness) is Bevere’s “The Bait of Satan.” It’s a sad world we live in with all the violence and bloodshed spilled in the name of God it reminds me of a popular song by Guy Sebastian who asks, “Can we all just get along?”

  • I. E.

    Great article Matt. Congratulations on your boldness to make this decision. You are a source of encouragement to many of us. I wouldn’t say I am a complete pacifist yet, at least not 100%. I am very close. I believe war should be the absolute last resort. I believe our Christ is not violent and we should not be violent. However, I am honestly struggling to reconcile what this all mean. Perhaps you or someone here can help me. When I read scriptures like the one below, and when I think about what the world would look like if Hitler was not stopped with violence, or what if the atrocities in Bosnia and other places were not combated with violent force, what would the world look like? I don’t doubt God’s omnipotence, what I wrestle with is, should the world stand still and do nothing when such evil is being perpetrated on others who may not be in a position to help themselves? One reason I love being a RLC is because there are aspects of Christ’s teachings that challenge me. And I love the process of continue in the journey of becoming perfect, even as our father in heaven is perfect.

    “For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth…a time for war, and a time for peace.” Ecc 3:1, 8

    Every feedback will be appreciated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeepNarcosis William J. Green

    WOW!

    ONCE AGAIN THE CONSTITUTION PREVAILS!

    The Newtown Board of Education wants more armed police officers in the town’s four elementary schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

    Last night, they decided to ask the town to approve the request to include one additional full-time Newtown police at each of the elementary schools in next year’s budget.

    GOD BLESS AMERICA!

    • Eric

      How about “God bless faithful and courageous Christians!”? I’m glad the system worked this time. The vast majority of pacifists who seek to leave the armed forces are denied for all sorts of BS reasons.

  • Shawn

    Matt, thank you for sharing your story in this public fashion. It takes courage to change or alter one’s convictions in such a delicate matter. To your credit, you seem to have taken much time in prayer and research before reaching a conclusion in regards to a very difficult challenge. Navigating the Bible’s record of when and under what circumstances to fight and take human life, and when to lay down one’s arms and turn the other cheek is not an easy task. As one who is a pastor, who has served in the Army, and still considers himself an American patriot, I have wrestled with this issue as well. I realize my highest citizenship is as a member of God’s eternal and universal Kingdom, but I also acknowledge that God has determined the boundaries of the nations of man (Acts 17:26). Thus, I see that it is permissible to have a kind of “dual citizenship”, as an American and as a Christian. I believe that both the Old Testament and the New Testament make it clear that we should always strive to live in peace with all men, and that the Kingdom of Christ is built in the hearts of people who freely choose Him, and not by coercing a feigned confession at the point of a sword (or gun). And yet, it also makes provision for limited self-defense as individuals and self-defense as a nation. Moses, Joshua, many of the Judges, David, and others in the O.T. were called by God to protect and defend Israel with the force of arms when necessary. In the N.T. John the Baptist baptized soldiers and gave them clear instructions how to serve in the military and yet be honorable toward God and peaceable with people. Jesus ministered to a Roman centurion who displayed great kindness to Israel and faith toward God. Jesus allowed the disciples to carry 3 swords in their company (limited self-defense) on the night he was arrested, but rebuked Peter for using it rashly to prevent Christ from being taken, because Jesus’ mission was exactly to die for all of us on the cross. Peter ministered to another Roman centurion and led his whole household to Christ. Paul also had much time ministering to military soldiers. And yet, for John, Jesus, Peter, and Paul, they did not condemn the soldiers, nor their service.
    It is a difficult subject to be sure, so let us serve the Lord together in peace and work for the Gospel of salvation in Christ and His love to be shared with all people everywhere. God Bless you and your family.

    • Daniel Freysinger

      Two swords and Peter was rebuked for using one of them shortly after. You should read some of the writings of the early church. Soldiers who converted were forbidden from using the sword. A Christian who joined the military was excommunicated. Didn’t John mention something about doing violence to no man when the soldiers aked them what to do?
      It is pretty hard to use violence without “resisting an evil person.”
      The references to the Old Testament are easily dealt with for me when Jesus said…But I tell you.
      In 70 years of New Testament history there isn’t one example of a Christian using violence. The Jews were an occupied people, yet Jesus didn’t bother to mention it.
      When you view self-defense and warfare from an eternal perspective things start to get clear. If eternity is more important than this life, there is never an excuse to take the life of a non-believer removing any hope for a future repentance.
      That last one really annoyed my commander when I told her I would allow my daughter to die rather than take a life. My young daughter was secure in her innocense. Why would I kill a non-believer to prevent her death?

  • daithi duly

    What would a pacifist do in Rwanda?

    • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

      Same thing as a pacifist in the US would do – resist evil without violence, giving his or her life if that was what it took. Just like Jesus did.

      • daithi duly

        Pacifism didn’t stop the genocide or help stop it in any way. Pacifism lets the gas chambers fill, the genocides happen and the corpses mount. To say that letting someone butcher another is holier than stopping the attack is mad.

        • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

          And to say that one person is responsible for the sins of another is also mad. So I guess we’re all mad here. Lucky for me, I’m okay with being mad, because the wisdom of the cross is madness in the eyes of the world.

          • daithi duly

            But my point remains. A pacifist is of little comfort in Rwanda.

          • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

            So is a dead Messiah.

          • daithi duly

            So edgy

          • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

            Sorry, I meant to give you the point, not the edge. That point being that you’re so wrapped up in this world that you’re ignoring Christ. The argument “pacifists can’t help Rwanda” is only true if you believe that Christ cannot help Rwanda. Do you put your trust in the Warlords of this world, or in the Lord of Lords who is the Prince of Peace?

          • daithi duly

            Hefty accusation to make, since I don’t agree with you on this point of theology I am “Wrapped up in this world and denying Christ?”??

            Christ always talked of turning the other cheek individually and always preached our responsibilities to others, defend the weak and support the oppressed. When it says” If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” The onus is on the brother who denied the aid. He had, but he did not give. He could have intervened but he did’nt. If I see a brother being abused, have to power to stop it, and do nothing. I have sinned.

          • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

            No. For claiming that those who are following Christ are worthless, I say that you are ignoring Christ. For claiming that violence is the only answer, I claim you are ignoring Christ. And now, for claiming that those who are following Christ are sinful, I say you are ignoring Christ. You have put your trust in the violent ways of this world, and claim to follow the Prince of Peace. You claim that the God who chose death demands that we kill, and you defend it by claiming that I must kill or I am denying aid to my brother. It is far more than merely disagreeing on one point of theology. It is disagreeing on the very nature of God. Your god is a bloodthirsty god who demands violence. My God is a loving God who enacted change through dying, not killing. When you are ready to take up the cross instead of hammering someone to it, then I will no longer say that you are ignoring Christ.

          • daithi duly

            Phew, that escalated quickly. Any deviation from correct teaching is in fact, ignoring Christ, each time we choose to sin rather than obey the Lord, we ignore Christ. However unless someone has the perfect knowledge of Christ and enacts it perfectly, the ordinary believer cannot help but daily ignore Christ. Or else we would live perfectly. You however in your accusation seem to be perfect. I never said that you MUST kill, which highlights how you didn’t read what I typed. I didnt say that you had to kill, you sometimes have to forcefully aid your brothers, I said nothing about killing.

            And I don’t need you to tell me when I am no longer ignoring Christ . I dont say you are ignoring Christ because we differ on doctrine, however this seems to be a common feature of the comments in these posts. If people dont agree with line a….woe to them. No love, no charity, no mercy. So much for the Red letters.

          • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

            You commented on a post about how a soldier is trying to be a pacifist because he feels that is how Christ is leading him. Your only input was that a pacifist couldn’t have helped in Rwanda – implying that the pacifist author is therefore worthless. Now, you are upset over a lack of love, charity, and mercy. Ironic.

          • daithi duly

            Trying to stimulate conversation into a wider “arena” thanks for being so stimulating

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