MAKING IT PERSONAL
Fr. William Messenger
(This article was published in The Catholic Agitator, August 2, 1982)
Perhaps it is true of all peoples. I do not know. But American people and hence the American Church are very issue oriented. Sure, we claim that our lives are guided by principles, but what really motivates us? What charges us to get involved? What stirs us from our complacency? Individual issues. Not that they aren't important--they are. Some of today's big issues touch us very personally. Like the draft or nuclear war. The problem is trying to ferret beneath the issue to the principle. The inability to do this leads to inconsistency. And so the incongruity of a stance against abortion and for capital punishment; a commitment against injustice coupled with support for oppressive foreign governments. Thank God for the draft!
Let me explain. I am opposed to registration and conscription at any time--peace or war. I also find that registration for a draft that does not exist is an illogic unbefitting a civilized and free society. It possesses an Orwellian macabre--a typical activity of the state in 1984. But I think the draft has been the missing link in the peace movement--the one chance to bring it all together.
It is unfortunate to admit, but the fact is that the growth of the peace movement and the phenomenal success of the nuclear freeze campaign have rested upon the ability to tap the resource of fear--to assist people in confronting the basic insecurity of our defense postures. In itself there is nothing wrong with that approach. Fear is a real dimension of the war/peace debate. However, it is only part of the picture. Where are the churches and synagogues? Do they say anything different than the secular voices for peace? What happened to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? Where is the Law, the Prophets, the Gospel?
There are two dimensions to the question of war and peace that I believe our religious leaders should address and which the draft does. The first is personal. Other than the question of fear, which I do not consider sufficient, the discussions of the peace movement have remained rather distant. They center on the activities of the State: Should the U.S. possess nuclear weapons, is a policy of deterrence moral, what of first strike capability? Nothing very personal. With the draft there is no escape from the personal. The question must be asked: Can I participate in the murder of other human beings for whatever reason--even national defense? The question can be answered in more than one way. What the resisters do is to answer from their own deep convictions. That forces a dialogue on the personal level. No matter what the State says or does, it becomes a matter of personal involvement. I do not believe that an argument can be sustained in opposition to a personal commitment to non-violence--especially when that commitment is based on religious principle. The government knows that, too. In the absence of an answer, it responds with the threat of prison. Although I probably would not find support in the courts, it is clear to me that both registration and the draft itself are violations of the First Amendment as it applies to religion and as it applies to freedom of speech. Because of this personal dimension, the draft leads to the most significant part of the question. And it is here that I believe the religious leaders have failed most drastically.
It is my contention that the heart of the question lies not in a particular political decision (draft, nuclear deterrence, etc.), but in the process of forming political convictions. In the United States, we mold our religious beliefs to fit our political convictions. What we find uncomfortable we distort or discard. Does anyone in the United States take seriously the gospel call to poverty? Does anyone believe that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven? Have the people of this nation ever read the prophets? What to the psalms tells us about the source of real power: Are we to put our trust in presidents and the military complex?
As a Christian I am embarrassed by the lack of coherent leadership in the Churches. It is one thing for everyone to jump on the anti-nuke bandwagon. But why are the Churches not challenging our basic conviction? My reading of the Scriptures suggests that political convictions should be formed according to the Word of God. Not the other way around. When there is a conflict, the politics must yield--not the WORD.
Registration for the draft has inadvertently initiated a political renewal in our country. I'm quite sure that neither Carter, nor Reagan, nor Congress anticipated this. Registration has given the peace movement a new heart. It beats with personal integrity and conviction. And it is becoming the pulse of the nation. The resisters are modern day prophets who, like Jeremiah, insist that we listen to the Word of God. It is not an easy life and I'm sure most resisters do not choose it eagerly. The scriptures assure us that the Lord is concerned with all his people, not just one nation. After all, the name of Jesus Christ does not appear on the list of presidents of the U.S. He is the Prince of Peace.
At a time when the United States has a bellicose president and an acquiescent congress, the resisters sound forth the voice of Sanity and Wisdom. With a president who daily searches for opportunities to send troops into a war zone, we need to listen to those who in the name of God refuse to kill or participate in the preparations to kill. Thank God for the draft!