Selective Conscientious Objection


Should Young Lutherans Do Military Service?  It Depends.

By Chuck Lutz

The Lutheran tradition on going to war can be called “middle of the road.” It falls between “Never” and “Always.”

The church’s teaching has not been pacifist, which proclaims: “Believers must never take part in preparing to bear arms against other human beings.”

Nor have Lutherans accepted the claim that, whenever their government says so, citizens must take arms: “Any time my political leaders call, I’m obliged to go and kill.”

Five centuries ago the writings of Martin Luther and Lutheran confessional statements addressed the military-service question. They saw such service as limited to wars that a Christian sees as “just” and able to fight with “good conscience before God.”

  • “It is right for Christians…to engage in just wars [and] to serve as soldiers.” So says the Augsburg Confession’s article on Civil Affairs, stated specifically in opposition to the pacifist Anabaptists, who were arguing for no war involvement by Christians.
  • Luther wrote that “to have a good conscience before God [Christians should] neither fight nor serve” in war they believe is against God’s will, since (Acts 5:29) Christians “must obey God rather than any human authority.”


When Is War Just or Unjust?

    Reformation thinkers stood squarely in the ethical tradition of just/unjust war. Most Christian communions have followed this ethic since the time of Augustine 16 centuries ago. The ethical framework defining war as just or unjust has tests (1) prior to entering warfare, (2) when conducting warfare, (3) after the fighting is finished.

Before embarking on warfare

  • Last resort. War can be entered only after all other means of resolving a conflict have been exhausted.  Peaceful forms of negotiation must be pursued. And such tactics as non-violent resistance, ala Gandhi or King, must be tried if applicable.
  • Just cause. One may engage in war for reasons of self-defense, to protect the innocent from attack, or to restore rights and order needed for decent human existence.
  • Declaration by lawful authority. War must be openly and legally declared by a properly constituted government, with its aims made known to the world.
  • Prospect of success. There must be a reasonable chance of victory. National suicide and struggles in which annihilation of both sides are possible cannot be permitted. Thus today, no nuclear warfare can be justified.

During conduct of warfare

  • Just conduct. No war can be waged with an anything-goes mentality. Under this test, weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological) are viewed as unjust.
  • Due proportion of means and ends. Force in warfare can be justified only to restrain an enemy from doing injury. When that can be done without killing (by taking prisoners or through nonfatal wounding) the right to kill is removed. Also ruled out is use of weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and noncombatants.

When war ends

  • Mercy to vanquished. A defeated enemy must be shown mercy, including help with rebuilding what was destroyed. Thus, punitive reparations are not allowed. And positive measures, such as Marshall Plan after World War Two, are called for.


Is Just/Unjust War Ethic Useful Today?

    It’s sadly true that churches of the just/unjust war tradition have often failed to follow it. The tradition was ignored during the Crusades when, starting almost a millenium ago, European Christians waged aggressive war in the Holy Land for almost two centuries. The Crusades were “holy war,” doing violence directly in the name of God.

Even with wars fought in modern times, the churches have been slow to implement the just/unjust war ethic—in their social teaching among the faithful and in their speaking to government authorities. A significant exception was the Vietnam War. The non-pacifist churches in the United States were united in using just/unjust war criteria to counsel young men of draft age concerning military service in a war largely considered unjust. Many of those church bodies also urged Congress to change the draft law so that selective conscientious objectors would be excused from bearing arms in a particular war. These advocacy efforts failed and to this day only objection to all war is recognized in U.S. Conscription law

In recent decades, many church bodies in the U.S., Lutherans among them, have called American military enterprises unjust. Both wars in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan have been so identified. Further, the use of drones as weaponry has been judged immoral because it violates the demand for immunity of noncombatants. Other American involvements that church leaders have publicly termed unjust: use of our military aid to Israel for violation of human rights and continuing military occupation of Palestinians, possible U.S. support for Israeli attack on Iran.


Helping Young Lutherans Decide About Serving

Even without service compelled by a functioning draft, young Lutherans, both female and male, think about doing military service. For many, it’s a way to find a job with rewarding post-work benefits.

Still, those who think about volunteering for armed forces must know that bearing arms always carries profound ethical implications. How can just/unjust war guidelines be applied to decision-making about military service by Lutheran young people today? Those guidelines can help our youth to explore two central questions:

  • Does a particular military enterprise in which I am expected to bear arms pass just-war entry tests?
  • Will I be expected to participate in war activity that violates just-war conduct tests, e.g., civilian immunity?

So, should young Lutherans today put on the uniform and take up arms? It depends!

Selective objection to war participation always is based on specific circumstances at a specific time. It was said well by Pastor Tom Spitz in 1971. Asking that “selective objection” be written into America’s draft law (and speaking officially on behalf of all major U.S. Lutheran church bodies), Pastor Spitz said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“Lutheran ethics…asserts that moral choices cannot be made ‘cleanly’ by appeal to some absolute but always are made ambiguously within the vortex of the competing claims of such realities as justice, love, liberty, and order. Blind obedience to [governmental] authority and blind obedience to a timeless norm, such as total non-violence, are both ruled out. It is for this reason that selective conscientious objection is completely consistent with Lutheran ethical teaching.”

Chuck Lutz, the son of a military chaplain, never participated in the military himself. He was among the Lutheran leaders during the Vietnam war who raised awareness of the invisible wounds experienced by veterans and argued for the protection of conscience of draftees.