Working for peace

With the rising rhetoric and tensions regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I’m asking myself, again, what does it mean to work for peace? A question I’ve returned to repeatedly over the course of my life. My answer to that question has changed over time. Following is some history of working for peace. But I intend to write how I see working for peace has changed, what that means today, soon.

As I was coming of age in the late 1960’s, at the time of the war in Vietnam, I continuously studied and thought about war and peace. On his eighteenth birthday, every male in the US was required to register with the Selective Service System, which recruited for the armed services. I was born into a Quaker community and attending Scattergood Friends (Quaker) boarding school at that time.

Because of their work for peace, Quakers, the Brethren, and Mennonites were known as historic peace churches. Young men who were members of one of those religious organizations could apply for conscientious objector (CO) status with the Selective Service System. If approved, they would spend two years working in civilian jobs for the public good. Most often in hospitals or mental health institutions.

Those who didn’t belong to one of the historic peace churches could apply for CO status, but that usually wasn’t granted to them. That was blatantly unjust. Similarly, those attending college were routinely granted a student deferment, allowing them to finish their studies. Yet another injustice for those who weren’t students.

Conscientious objector status and student deferments were transparent efforts to quiet resistance to the draft. A number of young men refused to accept those alternatives. Refusing to register with the Selective Service System or returning your draft card made you a draft resister. If convicted, the sentence was a felony conviction and usually a prison sentence.

The peacetime draft was implemented in 1940. Not long after, some Quaker families left the country and established the Monteverde community in Costa Rica.

About dozen men and their families in my Quaker community remained in this country but believed they could not participate in the draft. Which meant refusing to register or returning their draft cards if they had registered but came to believe that was wrong.

It took some time for my family to come to terms with my decision to resist the draft. I initially applied for and was granted conscientious objector status. When my family finally accepted my decision, I turned in my draft cards.

A lot more about my draft resistance story can be found here:

I wasn’t arrested, but Daniel Barrett, who attended Scattergood Friends School with me, was arrested and imprisoned.

My Quaker friend and mentor, Don Laughlin, collected many stories of Quaker responses to several wars, including Danniel’s and mine. Don resisted the draft and was imprisoned. When I heard of his project and offered to help, which meant I had those stories when Don died. You can read those stories here:

Young Quaker Men Facing War and Conscription

This morning I saw a message from a Friend who suggested we begin to offer conscientious objector, or draft counseling, as was done during the Vietnam War.

I wanted to share the story of how Muhammad Ali was an inspiration to me as I struggled with my draft decision.

Muhammad Ali was one of the most significant influences in my life, at a difficult time in my life. Approaching my 18th birthday, when I would have to decide what I was going to do about registering with the Selective Service System, I saw Muhammad Ali take a very public, very unpopular stand against the Vietnam War.

He said:
“Under no conditions do we take part in war and take the lives of other humans.”

“It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. I do so with the full realization of its implications. I have searched my conscience.”

“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me n_____.”

It was very clear what the consequences of that decision could be, and yet he would not be persuaded to change his position, knowing he was jeopardizing his boxing career.

I was impressed by his clear vision of the universal struggle of every person for peace and freedom, and every person’s responsibility to the world community, no matter their religion, race or country.

He helped me make my decision to refuse to participate in the draft, and therefore, the Vietnam War. And continued to be an inspiration in the days that followed.

Muhammad Ali and Me

I read this Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription many times as I was praying and thinking about draft resistance, and since.

An Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription

Dear Friends,

It has long been clear to most of us who are called Friends that war is contrary to the spirit of Christ and that we cannot participate in it.  The refusal to participate in war begins with a refusal to bear arms.  Some Friends choose to serve as noncombatants within the military.  For most of us, however, refusal to participate in war also involves refusal to be part of the military itself, as an institution set up to wage war.  Many, therefore, become conscientious objectors doing alternative service as civilians, or are deferred as students and workers in essential occupations.

Those of us who are joining in this epistle believe that cooperating with the draft, even as a recognized conscientious objector, makes one part of the power which forces our brothers into the military and into war.  If we Friends believe that we are special beings and alone deserve to be exempted from war, we find that doing civilian service with conscription or keeping deferments as we pursue our professional careers are acceptable courses of action.   But if we Friends really believe that war is wrong, that no man should become the executioner or victim of his brothers, then we will find it impossible to collaborate with the Selective Service System.  We will risk being put in prison before we help turn men into murderers.

It matters little what men say they believe when their actions are inconsistent with their words.  Thus we Friends may say that all war is wrong, but as long as Friends continue to collaborate in a system that forces men into war, our Peace Testimony will fail to speak to mankind.

Let our lives speak for our convictions.  Let our lives show that we oppose not only our own participation in war, but any man’s participation in it.  We can stop seeking deferments and exemptions, we can stop filling out Selective Service forms, we can refuse to obey induction and civilian work orders.  We can refuse to register or send back draft cards if we’ve already registered.

In our early history we Friends were known for our courage in living according to our convictions.  At times during the 1600’s thousands of Quakers were in jails for refusing to pay any special respect to those in power, for worshiping in their own way, and for following the leadings of conscience.  But we Friends need not fear we are alone today in our refusal to support mass murder.  Up to three thousand Americans severed their relations with the draft at nation-wide draft card turn-ins during 1967 and 1968.  There may still be other mass returns of cards, and we can always set our own dates.

We may not be able to change our government’s terrifying policy in Vietnam.  But we can try to change our own lives.  We must be ready to accept the sacrifices involved if we hope to make a real testimony for Peace.  We must make Pacifism a way of life in a violent world.

We remain, in love of the Spirit, your Friends and brothers,

Don Laughlin
Roy Knight
Jeremy Mott
Ross Flanagan
Richard Boardman
James Brostol
George Lakey 
Stephen Tatum
Herbert Nichols
Christopher Hodgkin
Jay Harker
Bob Eaton
Bill Medlin
Alan & Peter Blood

Roy Knight, John Griffith, and Don Laughlin were among the members of my yearly meeting, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) who resisted the draft. Don and Roy signed the epistle above.

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