Pacifists are persons who, in principle and absolutely, oppose war as a way of resolving conflict. In all of American history, few pacifists have been bred within Lutheranism. It is calculated that, among all major Christian traditions in the U.S., Lutherans have produced proportionately the fewest conscientious objectors (COs). During both world wars of the past century, some of the young Lutherans who did achieve legal CO status felt they must leave Lutheranism because of that church’s lack of support for, even hostility to, their stance when called to war.
But a watershed regarding military service came for U.S. Lutherans in the 1960s. Vietnam was this nation’s first major military enterprise which large numbers of Lutherans questioned. It became the occasion for that faith tradition to rediscover, re-assess, and re-affirm its historic ethical position: that “to have a good conscience before God [the faithful should] neither fight nor serve” in war they believe is against God’s will (Martin Luther in Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved).
While these Lutheran bodies took the same position on selective conscientious objection, not all of their members agreed.
You could call such Lutherans “selective pacifists.” In relation to U.S. draft law, this position became known as “selective conscientious objection” (SCO), and was affirmed by most Christian denominations. All three major Lutheran bodies endorsed it, asking that it be made legal so that, if an SCO were called by the draft, he could do non-combatant service in the military or with a civilian agency.
From the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) in 1968: “This church approves provisions whereby persons in the military who become conscientious objectors are permitted reclassification and reassignment [and] urges that these provisions also be extended to the conscientious objector to a particular war.”
From the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1969: “Resolved, that the Synod petition the government to grant equal status under the law to the conscientious objector to a specific war as it does to a conscientious objector to all wars.”
And, from the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in 1970: “It is time to amend the [draft law] to provide alternate forms of national service to those who object on religious, moral, and philosophical grounds to participation in a specific war.”
Action takes more than statements
While these Lutheran bodies took the same position on selective conscientious objection, not all of their members agreed. There was deep division among the Lutheran faithful which lasted until conscription ended and the war was winding down in 1973. In the ALC a 1972 Lutheran Standard article titled “Luther was an SCO” fed the debate.
These three Lutheran church bodies also joined in funding a Lutheran Selective Service Information office. (The author of this article was called to staff this group from 1971 to 1973.) It was based in New York City at the Lutheran Council in the USA. And in 1971, the Council’s executive director testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on selective objection.
Thomas Spitz, an LCMS pastor, told Senators: “The ethical person is by definition ‘selective,’ and is morally answerable for what he chooses. The Lutheran tradition counsels both selective participation in and selective objection to military service, depending on the circumstances. The criteria for judging flow from the theory of ‘just war,’ which has been inherited through Luther from the medieval church and, originally, St. Augustine. Lutheran ethics … asserts that moral choices cannot be made cleanly by appeal to some absolute but always are made ambiguously within the vortex of competing claims of such realities as justice and love, liberty and order.”
The Senate later voted on writing SCO into the draft law, but only 12 Senators favored it.
So, during the entire Vietnam Era, young Lutherans who were draft-eligible and selective objectors could live in a church that, for the most part, accepted them and tried to minister to them. Those services, almost all conducted ecumenically, included:
* support of draft counseling, much of it through college campus ministries,
* visiting draft-refusers in federal prisons,
* aiding Canadian churches in their ministry to draft exiles, and
* consulting with military chaplains on ministry to in-service objectors
Lutheran work was not limited to those who said “no” to military service. It was clear that those who said “yes” to service in Vietnam and safely returned home were also victims. In April 1973, a Conference on Emotional Needs of Vietnam Veterans was held at the LCMS’s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Along with veterans, it was attended by health professionals from the Veterans Administration and church social service agencies.
Lastly, as the Vietnam chapter was closing, Lutheran churches joined the public campaign seeking amnesty for draft offenders. That federal policy was enacted during the Carter Administration in the late 1970s.
We have had no military conscription for 40 years. But our national experience continues calling for “war/conscience” ministry — with those considering military service, those who enter it, and those who survive it.
Charles P. Lutz is editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran. He is a member at Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, ELCA, in Minneapolis.
Tags: ALC, American Lutheran Church, Charles P. Lutz, CO, Concordia Seminary, conscientious objectors, just war, LCA, LCCR, LCMS, Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Lutheran Council in the USA, Lutheran Selective Service Information, Lutheran Standard, Martin Luther, pacifists, SCO, selective pacifism, St. Augustine, Thomas Spitz, Vietnam War, Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved