KURT: An Email I received on July 25, 2012 –
MATT YOUNG (20-year-old soldier): Sir,
I have recently been reading your blog. I find it very interesting and obviously counter-cultural. I have taken particular interest in your series on nonviolence (Nonviolence 101).
A little about me. I was raised in a Christian home, am the oldest of 9 children. I was homeschooled and joined the U.S. Army 2 years ago. I am currently an Infantryman stationed in FT Bliss, TX. I have recently come to question the very values that I have grown up believing and which influenced my deciding to join the Army. I believe your series was well put-together. I am having an inner battle. I have found your views and the views of others I have read on nonviolence very convincing and convicting. At this time though I am trying to determine if God is truly speaking to me about this issue or not. If I do come to this conclusion I will most likely seek a Conscientious Objector Discharge from the military. This is obviously a very difficult decision to make. If it is at all possible Sir, I would be very blessed if you would speak to me by phone about these issues. If not, any advice or counsel through email would be much appreciated.
Thank you and God bless,
KURT: What in the world led you to email me of all people?
MATT: As I said in the email, I had been raised to follow Christ. I had joined the Army as a result of my spiritual values and outlook on life. In short, I believed I was doing a good, moral, spiritual, and Jesus-like thing by serving in the military. When I was confronted by the teachings of nonviolence (after being in the Army for 2 years), I felt lost and alone. I wasn’t quite sure what I believed anymore. I knew my friends, family, and co-workers would think I was crazy.
I contacted you (KURT) as a cry of desperation, I guess. I needed someone to talk through these issues with me, to make sure I wasn’t crazy. In searching for teachings/writings on nonviolence online, I found your blog series (Nonviolence 101). After reading the series I felt you were a person with a firm grasp on the subject and would be able to give me wise counsel.
KURT: I remember our first conversation quite well. We must have chatted for like two hours! After that dialogue, I sent you Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation to help process your questions (which you read in like two days!). By this time, you were wide open to Christian nonviolence, but certainly not fully convinced. Conflicted might be the best word to describe what I sensed from you at the time. So, obviously you weren’t always a pacifist. How did you find yourself confronted by the nonviolence of Jesus?
MATT: That’s true. Actually, prior to joining the military I had engaged in several conversations with a family friend from back home (in NY). He was a pacifist and had politely shared his views with me, knowing I was about to enlist and head of to basic training. I thought he was crazy and that his interpretation of Scripture was WAY OFF! So, I pushed him (and the ethic of nonviolence) out of my mind and headed off for the Army.
Fast forward 2 years to this past summer. My wife and I came home to NY for 2 weeks of vacation. Her father’s car that we were going to use broke down. This man (I’ll call him Larry for the sake of this conversation), whom I had spoken to about pacifism before my enlistment, heard of our car trouble and offered his car for us to use for the entire 2 weeks of vacation. It was a huge blessing. The night after we picked the car up from Larry, I couldn’t get out of my mind a statement he had made 2 years before. He had said:
“I just can’t picture Jesus picking up a gun and heading over to the middle-east and killing people.”
Out of the blue this statement had come back into my mind and it wouldn’t go away. Over the next several weeks of leave I woke up several times in the night. Every time I woke up that phrase was playing in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of it! It was at this point that I felt I should give a second look to the issue of nonviolence, that perhaps God was saying somthing to me.
KURT: Clearly, the Holy Spirit was speaking to you in a “charismatic” sort of way. What I love about your story is that you were willing to listen to God’s voice, even though it was a bit scary. I know (better than most people) that you had an uphill journey when you first started to wrestle with these issues. One of the things that impressed me from the beginning of our conversations was the authentic integrity I sensed in you. You’re a good evangelical guy who simply wants to follow God’s will for your life.
For folks who might be tempted to think that you were searching for an “out,” so that you wouldn’t have to be deployed, can you paint us a picture of: 1) why you entered the military, 2) your reputation amongst your peers in your unit, and 3) the internal conflict you had as you faced the decision to apply for “Conscientious Objector” status.
MATT: I joined the military for patriotic and spiritual reasons. I was raised in a typical, conservative Christian home. We went to parades on the 4th of July, appreciated the freedom’s that we had living in America, and thanked soldiers for their service whenever we saw them. So, the first reason I joined the Army was because I wanted to give something back to my country. I also felt very strongly that by being a soldier (protecting my family, country, and others around the world) I would be living out the call of Jesus to “love your neighbor.” I was even willing to “lay down my life for my friends.”
Since joining the Army, I have served in several positions. I strove to be the best soldier I could be. I gained early promotion waivers, and received several awards from my unit over the last several years. After being confronted with nonviolence, there was a huge battle that begun inside of me. I was proud of the good I had done and would do in further service to my country. I wanted to follow Jesus, but continuing to serve in the Army seemed further and further away from the life that Jesus was calling me to .
KURT: We had some really tough conversations as you wrestled with how you would proceed after accepting “enemy love” as a central aspect of Christian discipleship. Filing for C/O status was a big risk. As we dialogued and I prayed for you, I sensed that God was going to use you in a big way as a witness to the Kingdom. Clearly, God is already using you, especially through your story. But, let’s be clear, the process was tough on you. You had to “count the cost.”
Early on in our dialogues, you were still discerning if the peace of Jesus was something that you actually believed enough to make major changes in your life, such as leaving the military. You eventually ended up in the Mojave Desert region to engage in desert warfare training. I remember telling you that the “desert” was often where God speaks to us and that perhaps this would be a spiritual experience for you. What happened on that trip that convinced you that the way of peace was something you couldn’t deny?
MATT: After that vacation (where I was re-confronted with the nonviolence of Jesus) my Army unit headed to the National Training Center (NTC) in California. This is a month-long training exercise that all units go through in preparation for deployment. You (KURT) had pointed me towards two resources to further my study of the way of peace.
The first was a sermon series by Pastor Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House called: Inglorious Pastors – Waging Peace in a World of War. I downloaded this series to my phone and listened to the entire series on the bus ride to NTC. This series spoke to me in a huge way. I left El Paso in a searching mindset. When I left, I still wasn’t fully convinced that the way of peace was really what Jesus taught. After listening to this series, I arrived in California firmly convinced that the way of peace is the way of Jesus.
The second resource was the book Jesus For President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. I took that book with me to NTC and read it in my downtime every night. This book further strengthened and affirmed my new conviction that nonviolence is essential to the way of Jesus. I returned from California a changed man. I knew that peace was the way, and that serving in the Army definitely did not fit with this new conviction. It was at this point that I decided to pursue a Conscientious Objector Discharge from the Army.
KURT: I remember praying for you, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to hear from you for a full month! I thought: What if he gives up on the idea? And then, a few days into your time in the desert, you sent me a text about how much you liked Bruxy Cavey’s sermons and Shane and Chris’ radical book! I knew that God was speaking to you and continued to pray until your time at NTC was finished. Then, you knew that you had to eventually take steps forward to get out of a situation that would require you to participate in nationalistic violence. What was the C/O process like? Where are you at in this process?
MATT: The path to being classified as a Conscientious Objector (CO) by the military is time consuming and has a lot of hoops to jump through. Basically I had to make a case to the Army, and prove that I had developed new, life-controlling, beliefs since my initial enlistment. My Chaplain tried to turn me from this path, but I continued because I knew that following Jesus and the way of peace, was definitely not compatible with my current job as a Soldier.
I had to write an essay explaining my new beliefs and their source. I went through interviews with a Chaplain and a military psychologist to confirm that I really did believe what I said I did. The commander of my unit, in the end, had to write a report on my case and send it to the Conscientious Objector Review Board in Washington D.C. Within the next couple of months the board will decide whether or not to grant me a discharge.
KURT: I’m sure that folks who read this will add you to their prayer lists as you wait to hear if the government will grant you C/O status and a subsequent discharge. I trust that this will happen without too much push back. If a problem arises, you will have LOTS of voices speaking on your behalf, Matt
Many people who read the Pangea Blog are friendly toward Christian nonviolence, so hearing stories like yours gets them excited about the Kingdom. Unfortuantely, you do not live in direct proximity to most of us to get our regular encouragement, fellowship, and support. How have people in your “incarnated” life responded to such a big change? Also, comment on relational stress this choice added to your friendships and family dynamics.
MATT: From the beginning of this process of transformation, I have had a lot of negative responses. Friends and co-workers, close and extended family have all let me know what they think. Some have been supportive, but the majority have responded with distant, condescending words.
In the beginning of this process my wife was very much against the idea of nonviolence. She was afraid that I was “thinking too much about it,” or that I was “falling into a set of false beliefs,” to use some of her words. But by the grace of God, however, after I finally convinced her to listen to Bruxy’s sermon series. She has now fully adopted the way of peace! Even though most of our family and friends don’t see things the same way we do, her support, trust, partnership, and friendship has given me the strength to endure this challenging time in our life.
KURT: From what I know of your wife, I’m convinced that she is flat out awesome. You are privileged to have her in your life. Making the transition from nationalistic Christianity into anabaptist/Kingdom faith is not easy, especially if the ideas of pacifism are brand new. I also love that she was not easily persuaded, but rather, she took time to process this conviction. It shows lots of character. God has some great things in store for your marriage!
To close out this conversation, I’d love to hear about what have you been learning because of your newly-embraced understanding of life in the Kingdom of God? Has this just been about nonviolence or is this transformation bigger than all that?
MATT: This transformation is definitely about A LOT more than nonviolence. I remember in some of our earliest conversations you (KURT) told me that by embracing the Kingdom of God, my life would be affected in more ways than just nonviolence. How true I have found that statement to be, brother! I have found that by being a part of the Kingdom of God (making God the master of the domain that is my life), my perspective and beliefs have changed in so many ways. I have learned that the most important aspect of following Jesus is not in our outward actions, but in the transformation of the heart. I have found that Jesus doesn’t just want to change part of who I am, but rather transform me from the inside out, to be an extension of his body on earth today.
I am also learning to place importance on the things that Jesus did. He spoke so much about things like: taking care of the poor, caring for the sick, widows, and orphans, standing up to the empire of this world in a way that exposes injustice, and not being concerned with which side of the political line I stand on but supporting the causes that most look like the Kingdom of God.
And probably the most important thing I’ve learned is what exactly the kingdom of Jesus looks like. It looks like Jesus on the cross, dying for the very ones who unjustly murdered him, and forgiving them with his last breath. That’s what I want my life to look like. That’s why I’m leaving the Army, because like my friend Larry, I too just can’t picture Jesus picking up a rifle and killing people.
- You can read more about Matt Young’s theological journey, at his blog: The Rejected Path.
To learn more about Christian Nonviolence, start here with my series: Nonviolence 101.
Are you a Soldier convinced that Jesus is calling you to Nonviolence? Here’s a resource to get you started with the CO process from the Mennonite Central Committee.