We Are All Conscientious Objectors

By J.E. McNeil

Friends historically have been conscientious objectors to war. George Fox is axiomatically quoted as saying, “We . . . utterly deny . . . all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatsoever.” Some people maintain that when George Fox wrote these words in 1660, he did so out of a pragmatic understanding that taking sides in England’s civil war would not be in Friends’ best interest (after all, it was not clear which side would ultimately win at the time he wrote them), but practicality was not Fox’s strong suit. What Fox did do was to look to God’s commands as reflected in the Bible:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . (Matthew 5:43)

Paul interprets this clearly as: “Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:14, ESV)

As a Mormon World War II conscientious objector said to me, “It was clear to me I could not participate in war and do it in Love.”

But there are Friends who come up to me to say, “I support your work, but I think the response to 9/11 was right.” These Friends sheepishly say to me that they are not conscientious objectors because they feel that sometimes war is the answer. They express a wish that I was right, but feel that I am — perhaps — a little naive.

On the other hand there are Friends who say to me, “I support the military. Romans 13 says that the government comes from God and we should submit to its authority.” They see me as not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.

But Romans 13 goes on to say (they neglect to mention), “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10, ESV) We must obey the government, but we must obey God first. And, as John Stoner from the Church of the Brethren has said, “We should give God the benefit of the doubt.”

I recognize the reality of evilness in people, but believe that the long-term solution comes not from war, but from God’s Love as reflected in God’s followers. And that this is what God demands of us and what God asks us to demand of our government.

That is a freeing thought: I am a conscientious objector and so are you. We all are conscientious objectors. Anyone who has ever thought that any war was wrong is a conscientious objector. Once we no longer worry about whether we are perfect, we are free to do God’s work on earth and let everything we do be done in Love.

J.E. McNeil is the executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, founded in 1940 by Friends and others to defend and extend the rights of conscientious objectors to war. She is a member of Baltimore Yearly Meeting and resides in Washington, D.C.