Testimony: nonviolence and the government

posted on 2012-07-04

In February 2011 I was discharged as a conscientious objector after 7 years in the Navy.  Part of the conscientious objector process is an interview with an investigating officer.  His job is to assess the “depth and sincerity” of the applicant’s beliefs.  My interview spanned three days and covered both technical legal points and broad theological concepts.  Here is a short excerpt where we talk about some of the ways nonviolence impacts my interaction with the state outside of a military context.

The investigating officer is in bold, and I am in plain text.

You state on page 2 of your application, “I cannot take someone else’s life, nor can I aid others in doing so. Therefore I cannot participate in war in any form.” If you pay federal taxes, your money is used to fund the military. Explain how you justify that.

My goal is to draw as close to God as I can. At this point, the issue of taxes has not come up on my conscience because I have a more important concern. Every day, I spend my life in the Navy wearing the uniform, somehow contributing to warfare. That has weighed very heavily on me. It’s not compatible with my beliefs anymore. I recognize that a conscientious objector discharge is the first step that I have to take to reconcile my beliefs with what I’m doing. I don’t yet know what to do about taxes.  Right now, the Navy automatically deducts them from my pay.  I will deal with that problem when I come to it.

My goal, as it has always been, is to work through the system: to be a good citizen, be constructive to my country, and to help and serve my country. I want to keep doing this, but I just can’t continue in the military anymore.

Edit: I have now had lots of time to think about my paying taxes for war.  I do not do it, and am a war tax resistor.

You say you believe in the country. Do you know this country was founded by military operation?

Yes sir, I do.

So we actually wouldn’t have a country if it weren’t for some military. How do you get that straight in your mind?

My belief in the country—like I think it is for most people—is that I believe in freedom, democracy and liberty. Those ideals are somehow fundamental to humanity. I think lots of nations are trying to get those ideals in different ways. It’s those ideals that I support

Edit: Also, those ideals mean more to me than any country ever could.  I actively work to undermine the United States when it does not live up to its rhetoric here.  I think this is the most patriotic attitude we can have.  When the United States falls short, we don’t just sit by and watch.  Instead, we strive to make it a better country.

Our country needs laws to support itself. For instance, murder is against the law. How are those rules enforced? Will everyone in the country just decide to follow them?

No, which is why we have a police force.

Does that police force use violence to enforce those rules?

It does.

In a letter from your former roommate, he discusses a conversation you had in December 2009. This was after you submitted your first application. He says, “Not before long, our conversation turned into me justifying to him why it is necessary to even have law enforcement agencies that are willing to do violence on behalf of those who need to be protected. This was a surprise to me because we had discussed law enforcement on a few occasions before he had decided to become a conscientious objector. And, he had not been opposed to the idea of violence in the name of law.”

Do you believe that violence in the name of the law is necessary?

I could not participate in that violence.

I understand that you don’t believe you could participate. Do you believe it’s required? Or can we just get rid of the police force?

My inspiration comes largely from Gandhi on this point. He believed it would be possible to have a society where the police enforced laws nonviolently. In a society like that, I would be able to serve in the police force.

Gandhi believes that?

That’s what he tried to implement. That’s my understanding.

Was he successful in implementing that? A country with a police force that doesn’t use any violence?

In my opinion, he was. He helped create communities called Ashrams that were based entirely on nonviolence. I’m currently living in a place called St. Francis House which is also based on nonviolence and partly inspired by his example.

Is there like a wall up around there? I mean, how do you keep the violent people out?

The same way the early Christians did it: by turning the other cheek. When violence comes to you, you be nonviolent back. Sometimes that means you experience violence. The early church had many martyrs because of this. But through it all, you continue to love those who persecute you.

At least, that’s what I think Jesus would want.

Don’t you think there might be a lot of home break ins? These people seem like they’d be an easy mark, and it doesn’t really seem believable unless you had this huge wall up around the whole city that kept the violent people out away from the nonviolent ones. It would be like a chicken coop with a bunch of wolves around. You’ve got to have something that keeps the wolves away from the chickens. Otherwise, once the walls go down and the wolves go in, all the chickens die.

Gandhi, the early Christians, and people who practice nonviolence today usually do not have much to steal because they are too busy helping people to accumulate riches on earth. Besides, Jesus said to give to anyone who asks and constantly compared Christians to sheep.