Wednesday, November 11, 2015


This is not meant to be a slight on any man or woman who chooses to serve in the military. It is only meant to show the other side of the story, as told by me.


God’s grace shows up in the most unlikely of places. We should always be prepared, especially when
God is involved. Still, it can be a bit disorienting when it happens.  On a fall day, in 1972, in downtown Chicago, at the Everett Dirksen Courthouse, on Dearborn Avenue, God’s grace made an unusual appearance.  But I get ahead of myself.

My wife and I were married on March 6, 1971. We immediately moved to Bethany Theological
Seminary, in Oak Brook, Illinois. I went to seminary for two reasons. I wanted to be a minister, primarily to save the world, and I wanted a 4D classification from my local draft board. A seminary student was exempt from the draft. Somewhere, deep inside, hidden in a corner of my heart that I was unfamiliar with, a conviction, or fear, was taking up residence.  I was beginning to realize I could not kill another human being. I do not know where that feeling came from. Not from my parents. My father was a WWII veteran and a member of the local American Legion. The church we attended had deemed the war as just. The community my wife and I grew up in demanded that one put in your time. Still, it was there, hidden away, dormant, nagging, keeping me awake at night, keeping me busy during the day protesting the war. Then, I read an article about Dr. Dale Brown, professor at Bethany. He was a leading authority on pacifism and nonviolence. The direction was clear: I would attend Bethany and learn what I could about becoming a pacifist and conscientious objector, under the guidance of Dr. Brown, who became generous with his time and helped me prepare for a hearing with my local draft board. I was denied at my first hearing. I appealed and was given another hearing. At my second hearings with the draft board, I was tested to see how my pacifism would hold up. Someone in Washington must have sent out questions that the local boards should ask would-be pacifists. It actually became something of a classic. One of the members asked what I would do if I found someone raping my wife.  I had to think about that for a few minutes. The silence unnerved them. I finally answered that I would not push my conviction quite that far. I’m not sure if my answer was good or bad, but they granted me conscientious objector status. It was some years later that one of the board members, whom I did not know was an acquaintance of my deceased father, told me that I was the only person granted CO status that he could recall. He did not elaborate.  And I didn’t mention that silly question.

At the same time I was attempting to become a CO, another student was giving up his status. Doug had moved from just objecting to being involved with war, to not wanting to participate in the conscription system at all. A letter describing his new position, and his torn draft card, were mailed to his local board. This resulted in him being arrested for non-compliance with the draft, a federal offense, and he was scheduled for trial.

Fifteen of us loaded into the seminary van and went to the trial in downtown Chicago. It was a cold fall day, dreary, a little damp, one of those lonely fall days that sticks to your bones. The courthouse is quite spectacular. It was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1964. It stands there, thirty glass stories tall, staring at you, each window reflecting you like an eye, a primitive insect warning against coming too close. Soon, inside this stately, orderly  building, a judge wearing a black robe will be convicting a good man for refusing to kill anyone, or be involved in a system that sanctions that killing. It seemed about as cruel as the weather, which was getting worse.
It would be a bench trail. There would be no need for a jury. It was all cut and dried. Doug’s position was clear and simple as any case could be. He was defying the federal government. He was breaking the selective service system laws that had been put into place in 1940. From 1964-1973, about three and one-half million young men between the ages of 18-25 were sent to Southeast Asia. Another 16 million were either deferred, exempt, or disqualified from the draft. According to the Selective Service System, a conscientious objector was “one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles.” The objector could agree to enter the military, but refuse to carry arms, in which case they would be placed into noncombatant service. Or the objector could do “alternate service” in a job “deemed to make a meaningful contribution to the maintenance of the national health, safety, and interest.” Doug was going to do none of these.  He was guilty of noncompliance, by his own admission and action. We would probably be taking a dreary ride back to Bethany.  Doug may or may not be with us.

We filed into the courtroom. The room reflected the powers that designed it. The judge up front, in
charge.  The bailiff by his side, the muscle. The prosecutor sits below, to the right.  He represents the
people. The defendant is to the left. There was no need for an attorney. This would likely not
take long. The prosecutor and the defendant are separated by as much space as the room allowed,
driving home the fact that this is an adversarial proceeding. To the rear, the gallery, those interested in
what will happen.  I suppose a lot of life is played out like this. Things designed to let you know where you stand. The room was not very big, adding to the uncomfortable feeling.  The fifteen of us filled it up. There were a couple of other people, maybe relatives, I’m not sure. I do not remember meeting anyone else, but it was all about to become pretty confusing.

The prosecutor had no witnesses. He laid out the case in detail, reading from various documents that
told of the selective service laws and penalties for violating them. The maximum sentence was five years and a $10,000 fine. It was all right there, in black and white. It was plain and simple. He wasn’t going to have to do much to find that guilty verdict he was looking for. There was only one witness for the defendant,  Dr. Dale Brown. It had been determined that Doug would not testify on his own behalf. This was in keeping with his conviction to not participate in a system that would try a person for their unwillingness to kill and be a part of the military system, including the courts demand on him to comply.  

Dr. Brown would have to paint some gray between the black and white. He talked for probably thirty
minutes. He spoke eloquently about the history of the Brethren being pacifists and conscientious
objectors. He evoked the names of Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Penn, St. Francis, and Christ.  By the time he got to Christ, the courtroom  was dead silent. You could hear everyone breath in, breath out, like a silent meditation.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God,” was the mantra. He held everyone spellbound.  He told of all religions emphasizing the good, peace, and a nonviolent resolution to our differences.  His words were soothing, comforting, giving hope that this would somehow work out. Power became a very gentle thing that day.

The judge appeared attentive, but I was worried that he was not very interested. Having heard both
sides, the judge said he would retire to his chamber to consider the verdict. Generally, you would
consider that a good sign. We figured it was probably unnecessary, more likely a chance for him to go to the bathroom or grab a bite to eat. We talked among ourselves, trying to be positive, supportive,
realizing we were waiting for the inevitable.  Doug was okay with how it had gone. He appeared
resigned to his fate. Outside, the wind continued to blow and the sky grew darker.

The judge returned in about an hour. He asked the defendant to stand. Dr. Brown stood with him. The
fifteen of us also stood up, slowly and hesitantly, not wanting to, but knowing we were probably
breaking protocol. We were all going to be guilty of the same crime: refusing to take another life.
In an instant, I discovered why the judge looked more human.  “I find the defendant innocent.”
Innocent.  I played over in my mind all the words that mean innocent: guiltless, cleared, blameless,
acquitted.  None of them seemed to fit. Surely, that is not what he meant.  I must have misheard him.
Innocent/guilty, it’s hard to confuse the two. Doug had admitted his guilt. It was purposeful. He had
done it intentionally. He wasn’t trying to weasel out of this. He was prepared to suffer the punishment. We all were.

You could hear a pin drop. No one said a word for what seemed like hours. No one could form words;
they seemed inappropriate. Everyone was crying, sobbing, hugging the person next to them, fighting for some way to make sense of what had just happened. Out of this joyous, thankful, once dreaded but now glorious moment, someone started singing the doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” We all tried to sing as best we could, still crying and sobbing like newborn babies. “Praise him all creatures here below.” Praise us. Praise Doug for standing up for what he knew was right. Praise everything about this day, which is a miracle. “Praise him about, ye heavenly host.” I translated to “Praise God for all that love has done.” Where did “innocent” come from? How, in a place so filled with law and order, could something so gracious and unpredictable happen? “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

The judge came down from the bench, took off his robe, and shook all our hands. You could tell he was rattled. He was caught between being happy and doing what he was required to do, which was follow the letter of the law. He was shaking slightly, and his eyes were misty, making a dignified attempt not to cry. I still don’t know what happened that day. I do not know if he was ever reprimanded for his verdict. He was probably given a hard time by his colleagues, at the very least. I cannot explain what happened in any logical way. I’ve tried for forty-three years. Sometimes, just at the right moment, when everything comes together in the universe, just then, I believe the synchronicity allows God to intervene. On that day, God’s grace prevailed over man’s laws.

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