How often does this happen?

From Slate, interview by Kathryn Schulz.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a 13-year-old kid named Josh Stieber vowed that as soon as he was old enough, he would join the military. His goal: to help protect his country and spread its values of freedom and democracy around the world. With the war still on when he graduated from high school, Stieber enlisted in 2006 and was deployed to Baghdad in 2007. A devout Christian and a staunch political conservative, Stieber became troubled by the gap between the values he was told the military embodied and those he experienced on the ground. Partway through his deployment, he realized that his perspective had changed so drastically that he would rather go to prison than remain in the military. Instead, he learned about, applied for, and obtained Conscientious Objector status.

When did your willingness to go along start to shift toward a sense that you couldn’t remain in the military?

That didn’t take place until I actually deployed and was confronted with making crucial decisions. One of the values I’d been taught and that you hear all the time in the rhetoric of political and military leaders was that democracy is a good thing and it thrives on the will of the people.

That came into question a couple of months after we got to Baghdad. We were moving off the main base and going to live in an old factory in the poor industrial part of town. As we were moving in, the local population came out and held a large peaceful protest and told us very straightforwardly that they didn’t want us in their part of town. We ignored that and pushed them out of our way and established ourselves in the factory. Within a couple of days, we had built a large barrier around the full city block that we were living in and continued to displace people who lived and worked there. So this idea that we were there to liberate the common people and help their will flourish—the way we handled that situation seemed to be the complete opposite of it.

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  • Not very often, but, with all due respect, hopefully more and more.

    I have never been enlisted in the military, but I have been enlisted in the “military-entertainment complex” of our culture. I, too, was “A devout Christian and a staunch political conservative” until I was confronted by the love of God in Psalm 110, which taught me that God does not crush his enemies, but it crushed for his enemies. And then Glenn Beck’s rally was the nail in the coffin.

  • Peter

    Greg Boyd (Myth of a Christian Nation), Michael J Gorman (Reading Rev Responsibly), Jesus Creed and others have seriously challenged my understanding of these things. I generally find that political conservatism makes more sense to me and that the historical evidence does suggest that fiscal conservatism will allow a country/nation/government to stay strong, but the militarism that seems indispensable to maintaining our Empire does not seems consistent with the character of the King or the principles of His Kingdom. Must I become an anarchist to be faithful to Christ? Where is the balance? What does good citizenship look like for a faithful Christ-follower?

  • Jason Lee

    Probably not very often because the military heavily recruits/selects those who have few other options in life for a stable, decent-paying job. Most have to stay put and justify to themselves why the mission is justified or even noble.

  • Jim H.

    Great post. Thanks Scott for the insight/courage to post it and get people thinking.

    Three things that immidiately jump out at me:
    1. How can the church support and encourage the Josh Stieber’s of the world? The internal reaction/emotions he experienced in Iraq might not even compare what the emotional roller coaster he experiences at “home.”
    2. We all need to work to get military recruiters off high school campuses. Do kids that young really have the emotional brains to make decisions of those consequences?
    3. How long will it take before Americans wake up and realize you can’t be a “devout Christian and a staunch political conservation” simultaneously? (At least the way those terms are currently defined.)

  • Rick

    Jim H.-

    “wake up and realize you can’t be a “devout Christian and a staunch political conservation” simultaneously?”

    I assume you mean political conservative. If so, that is really quite the statement, including seeming a little bit legalistic/fundamentalist.

  • Susan N.

    Jim H. @ #4 – re: military recruiters on high school campuses…I have seen the indoctrination for war coming from popular video games, such as Call of Duty. My son who is 10 has several friends whose dads own Call of Duty, and who brag about being allowed to play Call of Duty. My firm judgment, “No way. The rating is M(ature) for Pete’s sake! These games glorify and teach violence and war. My son does not have my permission to play these games in their friends’ homes, no matter what everyone else is doing. Good grief!

  • My brother entered the Navy before 9/11. But while he was serving in intelligence on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf he came to a similar conclusion as the young man in the story. As soon as he served his time he got out as quickly as he could and never looked back. He entered the military politically conservative, but left it cynical about the military and mostly apolitical.

  • I’m thankful when I hear of young men and women try their best to thoughtfully apply their Christian worldview to their particular situation. Often times, living a biblical worldview means going against the grain, whether you are a part of a secular organization or in a ministry context.

  • Peter: Great questions. As you search for the answers you might also consider reading Shane Claiborne’s books The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President. Vernard Eller’s Christian Anarchy is another good read. I have arrived at my own answer (for now at least). In the end, it seems to me, we have to determine how many masters we are willing to serve.

    I admire Mr. Steiber for his courage and convictions and am saddened to read about the indoctrination he received at his supposedly Christian school.

    thanks for posting this.

  • Tim

    I’m sorry, but I served 4 years in the US military and this type of second-guessing by soldiers is not something I endorse or respect.

    If someone orders you to do something clearly immoral, like shooting an innocent civilian or some such thing, you have a legal as well as moral obligation to refuse the order. That I support. But allowing each soldier to come to their own conclusions as to the worthiness of the mission is not something that makes for a unified and effective force.

    I think it’s great that he received his Conscientious Objector as a personal matter for him such that maybe now he can sleep better at night. But such persons as this who feel entitled to evaluate each mission along their own personal criteria of what they will or will not fight for don’t really have any business joining our nation’s military where we expect our soldiers to follow orders and fight as a unified force.

  • Daniel

    Unfortunately the idealistic views that clash with the bitters of reality often lead to cynicism. I have heard more than one story from veterans from WWII through the current war that they started out waving the flag and preaching freedom to the oppressed only to be disgusted by the whole thing. I know of a WWII vet who joined up after Pearl Harbor and nearly lost his faith after seeing how his fellow countrymen really were in boot camp. One wonders how an Old Testament warrior named David was able to reconcile his acts of violence with worship of God. Unfortunately this is not explored too much, rather the anecdotal “evidence” of the OP will probably be used as a club against those who disagree.

  • Watchman

    I served in the U.S. Air Force for 6 years (1987-1993). When I initially enlisted I was not a born-again Christian. It was later while I was in the Armed Forces that I had come into a relationship with Jesus Christ and placed my trust in Him. In 1993, I had an epiphany of sorts and soon realized that I could not in good conscience kill another fellow human being or support the means to kill. I felt led to depart from the military and applied for an early out option. Ironically, in 1993 the Department of Defense was downsizing the military and actually began paying soldiers to get out early. Therefore, I received an honorable discharge and a nice severance.

    As a pacifist, I do not believe serving in the military can be reconciled with one’s Christian faith. In other words, I do not see a Biblical example in the New Testament of any born-again believers of Christ taking up the sword against a fellow human being. In fact, quite the opposite is true (i.e. turn the other cheek, love your enemies, etc.). And, there was no perfect person that demonstrated this than Christ Himself.

  • Percival

    Tim #10 is exactly right on the one. CO status should not be granted on whether some conflict is a “good war” or a bad one. It is the principle of warfare in general that must be the objection.

  • Pat

    I served for 11 years in the Air Force: 4 enlisted and 7 as an officer. While enlisted, I served in the Presidential Honor Guard, where I primarily performed funerals for fallen military members and their family members. As an officer, I served as a police officer, then ROTC instructor at a university. I was responsible for life-safety as a cop, then for recruiting and developing young men and women to serve as officers in our military.

    I have great pride in my service to our country…and great pride in helping to shore up that service by recruiting and training others to serve. To say that people join the military because they have nowhere else to go is simply wrong and demeans the integrity of those willing to defend your right to say so.

    There have always been wars and rumors of wars. Men and women…and children…die in those wars. Christian men on opposite sides fight in those wars. Both pray to the same God; both hope for the same divine assistance. And both pray that their cause is just.

    I thank God for our country and for our staunch support of Israel…and other countries seeking to co-exist peacefully. That support is not a conservative or liberal issue — or at least it should not be. I fear (and anticipate) that a generation is soon to forget (or ignore)our support of Israel and to disregard the Abrahamic Covenant (blessings and curses for the treatment of Israel). I suppose these things must come to past.

    Until then, thank God for the young people willing to join our military. I pray for them…and for those who lead them.

  • Derek

    For those of you who hold that a soldier cannot make a CO decision based on a particular ‘good’ or ‘bad’ war (Percival and Tim?)a question. Where and how does just war criteria apply? Most Christian ethicist insist that war can be pursued by Christians when it meets just war criteria. If a soldier decides that the war or mission does not meet these criteria then what? Are they obliged to fight in that case? Or is it the president and congress that gets to decide if a military action fits ‘just war’ criteria? If so, then what if a soldier disagrees?

  • Tim

    Derek (15),

    When you join the military, you do so as an American. You might be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, what have you. It doesn’t matter. The military doesn’t care and they don’t expect your religion to impact your performance as a member of our armed forces. So, if you happen to be Christian, you are then a soldier who is Christian, not a Christian soldier. We don’t want Christian soldiers in our military. We don’t want Muslim soldiers in our military. We just want soldiers, and outside of your duty as a soldier you can worship and believe however you wish. Your faith is personal, but your duty is professional. If you feel your personal faith has the potential to put constraints on your professional performance in our armed forces, then you need to stay out of the military.

    When you join the military, you give up a good deal of personal agency. Your ability to make decisions in your professional capacity is in large part surrendered to your superiors…and theirs to their superiors, and so on up to the commander in chief. So, to address your just war question, that is a question for the commander in chief (and the voting public in the next election), and no one else’s.

  • Robin


    Just compare the requirement for CO status to the requirements for being exempt from taxes like social security. It is not enough to say “I don’t think the program in question is run efficiently or represents the best use of my money, so I’m keeping my taxes and investing them personally” No, you have to be able to say “I believe that social insurance programs are inherently sinful and they, whether run well or not, violate my religion”

    I see a parallel in the CO status. It is not enough to believe an individual war/battle is just/unjust because those opinions can shift and sway depending on multiple variables. The soldier must be able to say “War is sinful” in order to conscientiously object and receive an honorable discharge.

  • Phillip

    I am late getting in on this, but how does an all volunteer military change things from the days of a draft? It seems to me this man has less wiggle room since he chose to go in.

    Having said that, if because of his faith he came to believe he could not fight (particular wars or any war), then he must be true to his faith AND accept the consequences. Sometimes taking a stand because of one’s faith means punishment will come from the powers that be. Just ask the Conscientious objectors from the days of the draft, or those who took stands against segregation, etc.

  • chad miller

    If you are a soldier who happens to be a christian – who kingdom has your aliegence, here is an interesting clip of a interigation officier – who had serious doubts about what he was doing.

  • Jeremy

    Derek (15) – Just War Theory is philosophical, not enshrined in scripture, and thus up for debate. Many Christians here reject violence entirely, and by extension, Just War Theory. So in Percival’s view, I’m guessing he’s not including JWT in his line of thinking at all.

    As a former infantryman, I tend to side with Tim though I appreciate CO’s availability to soldiers who honestly have a change of heart regarding their faith and violence. It serves no one to have a deeply conflicted individual on the battlefield. That said, enlisted culture is hard on faith as it tends to be professionally violent and personally hedonistic. Our “actual” Christians had a pretty hard go of it. Idealism dies very, very quickly on the battlefield and if that’s all you had, you’re in for a rough time.

  • Jeremy

    Robin stated the CO status issue quite clearly. I over-focused on JWT and missed it entirely.:/

  • David

    Jamie Smith in his Desiring the Kingdom does an excellent job of exegeting the intentional cultural connection between sports and the military industry. It’s worth reading.

  • Derek

    Tim (16),
    I understand the whole allegiance thing and that is precisely the problem. The question is can a disciple of Jesus be part of an institution (the military)that demands complete obedience? Dual allegiance can get messy very quickly. Isn’t that the point of Just war theory (JWT), making sure that the type of wars a christian soldier would engage in would be allowable?

    Robin(17)the comparison with paying social security works in a legal way but I would say that there is a personal difference when one makes a choice to engage in deadly use of force. One might be able to do so under one set of circumstances and not in another, or at least that is what JWT holds. Some wars are sinful, some are not, or at least they are allowable.

    Jeremy(20), yes, Just War theory is not enshrined in scripture and is definitely open for debate. In fact it’s debated every time the US engages in a military action. And it should be because as far as I can tell JWT criteria are quite stretchable in their application.

    Your second paragraph is well said and shows why it would be hard for a disciple of Jesus to participate. Can being ‘professionally violent’ and being an “actual” Christian go together? JWT tries to set criteria so that they can. It’s success in doing so is debatable.

  • Tim

    Derek (23),

    I don’t know how clearer I can make this. If you have reservations about committing your full allegiance to the US Military, then do not join. When you join the military, you literally sign a whole slew of legal documents. These are lawful contractual agreements between you and the US Government. You are held to your contractual obligations, freely entered into by you, the service member, and if you violate those obligations the US Government is fully within their rights to prosecute you, and in times of war potentially even execute you, for unlawful violation of or negligence in upholding your commitments as a service member of our armed forces.

    The US Military does not enter into arrangements with service members based on any understanding of Just War Theory. This is to be found nowhere in the contracts you sign, in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or in any act of Congress or legal document whatsoever. If when you sign onto the military, you want to attach an asterisk next to the provisions that obligate you to obey lawful orders, and say “only under the condition that the orders I am given comply with my understanding of Just War Theory”, then by all means ask the military to put that in your contract. They won’t of course, but feel free to ask. If you do sign on, understand what it is you are agreeing to. The documents are all right there, and if you want to consult with a lawyer before joining, you are fully within your rights to do so.

  • Scot,
    thanks for sharing this. Josh has been attending my church here in DC for a while, but will be moving to another state. His story is quite compelling. I had breakfast with him shortly after he started attending (riding his bike each week from several miles away) and he’s a thoughtful young man.

  • Deets

    I don’t really care about the practicality of the armed forces allowing or not allowing CO for active personnel. I do think there is an important question for Christians to consider. Is the work of the US military consistent with the Christian’s call to be people of faith, hope and love. I think that every recruit needs to know and consider that it may not be. @Tim and others who don’t think post-enlistment COs should be allowed, shouldn’t you be leading the charge to help all the potential recruits to know fully the spiritual ramification of entering the service?

  • Tim

    Deets (26),

    You are putting words in my mouth. I never said that post-enlistment COs shouldn’t be allowed.

    I find it very gracious of the military that they award some post-enlistment service members CO status and I support their doing so as it remains appropriate to the needs of the military. What I objecting to is military service members feeling themselves entitled to violate their contractual obligations to serve for personal reasons. Like I said, the military is gracious in awarding some of these individuals CO status, but they don’t have to, and they don’t always for every individual or situation. They are fully within their rights to court marshal instead.

  • Tim

    …and as far as “shouldn’t you be leading the charge to help all the potential recruits to know fully the spiritual ramification of entering the service?”

    I thought it was fairly obvious to the public what is expected of our men and women in the armed forces whether in peace time or in war. The military tells you to jump, you say how high. That is the way it is. You lose much of your autonomy to make individual decisions in your professional capacity as a service member the moment you join. Again, I thought this was obvious. If it isn’t obvious to some, then perhaps the blame should be laid at the feet of those who try to paint some ridiculous picture of the individual philosopher/theologian soldier. Someone who has autonomy and can decide when they will or will not follow lawful orders and for which conflicts they will or will not fight.

  • Deets

    @Tim, That’s the problem right there. We assume that it is clear in the minds of the young folk that are recruited. We assume that they know (a) What they will be called to do when they put on a uniform and (b) What God has called them to be. The issue is that they are recruited without any real mention of what they are going to be asked to do. I just watched a bit of both the Military Bowl and Arm Services Bowl. Tons and Tons of recruitment adds later there is no image of anything but character formation, adventure and strength left for a recruit to contemplate. I’ve been to a recruiter, through every step until the final health check, and no remark about the fact the the Armed Forces is about killing the enemy. (I thank God regularly for exercise induced asthma that would hit me when I ran a 2 minute half mile.)

    On the other hand, Church leaders and mentors are so focused on the duty to the country that a young person will be fulfilling. That duty, of course, isn’t a duty outlined in scripture. I’ve heard people talk about the risk to their own life, but very seldom hear what they will be asked to do to other people. I seldom here people who have been there talk about the horrible acts that our military is asked to do. I assume that’s because most people are convinced in the training that killing the enemy is something they are taught it good and for the good of the country.

    I don’t want to make a judgement of whether the military is right or wrong in it’s mission. I do think there should be more truth in preparing our young people who are considering this track. That truth mostly needs to come from people like you, who I assume are both followers of Christ and experienced in the work of the military. Is that a responsibility that you agree to?

  • Tim


    I don’t know what to tell you. Going into the military I had a very accurate understanding of what was to be expected of me. I don’t know that I share your cynicism concerning recruits being mislead into not realizing that they might later (gasp) be asked to kill the enemy or follow lawful orders in engagements they may or may not agree with. It is the military, and not the boy scouts after all. If you feel it is a problem, by all means do your best to be an advocate and address it with our youth.

    For me, I don’t share your sense that it is as serious a problem as you seem to make it, so I will have to content myself with blog posts such as these.

  • Derek

    Tim said “The military tells you to jump, you say how high. That is the way it is. You lose much of your autonomy to make individual decisions in your professional capacity as a service member the moment you join. Again, I thought this was obvious.”

    It’s obvious that it would make good soldiers, but not so obvious that it would make good Christians.

    And yes you can blame me for asking the question. After all I am a certified philosopher/theologian:)

  • Tim


    Yes, it makes for good soldiers. No, the military is not interested in making good Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or whatever. They do try to provide avenues to worship of course, and are accommodating within reason when the mission allows, but their interest is in one’s ability to serve as a soldier. So either persons of faith are on board with that or not. If they’re not, then they should do themselves and the rest of us a favor and refrain from serving.

    And no, I don’t blame you for asking the question, but I would blame someone foolish enough to encourage our youth to believe that they retain agency they actually forfeit when they join the military. I presume you aren’t doing that.

  • RDH

    Let me understand the logic correctly.

    1. We live in a nation offering many freedoms, including the freedom to worship and serve God.

    2. Our nation has enemies who want to take away those freedoms.

    3. We have since the American Revolution been willing to kill people who want to take away those freedoms.

    4. Today we have a professional military service that is ready, willing and able to defend us from those enemies with various deadly technologies.

    5. But as Christians, the God we are free to worship is Jesus, who wants us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, not kill them.

    6. Therefore it is wrong, sinful and immoral for a Christian to serve in the military because he/she could be called upon to kill an enemy of the United States.

    7. And therefore, too, it is righteous and moral for Christians to rely on sinners or very worldly and immoral Christians to serve in the military and continue to defend our right to worship Jesus.

    Is this the consensus we have reached on the Jesus Screed?

  • Jeremy

    Nice slipped in insult there, RDH. Not particularly helpful, but hey. Also, your logic presumes that we owe something to the US that supersedes any debt/service to God. If God tells us not to kill, it doesn’t matter who/what does for us.

    Also, your logic presumes that God is completely suprfluous to human affairs. That’s rather silly, don’t you think? God is perfectly capable of defending himself, especially if we’re doing what He’s asked us to do.

    NOW whether or not we’re barred from military service is another question entirely. Personally, I feel no particular conviction regarding my service and I’m not entirely “bought in” on the pacifism arguments. However, I see no reason to think that I owe my country any more than God says I’m allowed to give.

  • RDH

    What about law enforcement?

    Policemen must defend themselves, possibly with deadly force.

    Is the consensus here that Christians should not only refuse military service but they should also never enter law enforcement? Would Jesus want you to be an FBI agent? A big-city murder investigator? A DEA agent? A small-town cop?