Editor’s note: This article is taken from the book Nonresistance Under Test, in which the author, who was from Canada, tells of his experiences as a Conscientious Objector to war during World War I. There were no provisions for Conscientious Objectors to war in Canada or the United States during World War I. Those who held these convictions were intimidated, harassed, persecuted, and thrust into guard houses and military prisons. Some died under the brutal conditions to which they were subjected. Ernest Swalm was court-martialed and sentenced to two years of hard labor. After four weeks he was released by the Canadian government. He later became a Bishop in the Brethren in Christ Church.
The great problem of peace in a world torn by hatred, national and international strife, has been the subject of discussion by many people—educators, religionists, politicians, pacifists. The Christian’s attitude toward war, so clearly stated in the New Testament, has been disputed by many professed leaders in the Christian Church. The ruthless participation of so-called Christians, and Christian nations, in war has lowered the prestige of the Christian Church and hindered her usefulness.
Recently a writer in a leading religious periodical said he did not want to Christianize the world because Christianity has sanctified the bloodiest wars of history.
This piercing and scathing indictment is only too true. However, the writer fails to differentiate between nominal and true Christianity. What a pity that what is called the Christian religion has become so degenerated that its principles do not produce any higher standards of conduct than some heathen religions do.
Many people have sponsored anti-war policies in times of peace, but in times of actual warfare, those who have stood for peace and refused to participate in war—directly or indirectly—have been greatly in the minority, and down through the centuries have suffered persecution and in some cases, prison terms and even death.
The plain teaching of the New Testament still holds and it is very difficult to understand how anyone professing to be a Christian can engage in war and take part in the carnal conflicts of the world today. The pressure of popular sentiment has caused many peace societies and religious organizations to reverse their decision on peace during war.
The cause of this pressure is due to the fact that a state of war produces a type of national hysteria, and it takes real courage to dare it. Since groups of men and organized religion have proved themselves unable to withstand the pressure of popular opinion, the matter becomes one of individual conscience.
Nonresistance will never be promulgated by the signing of petitions on college campuses, nor by the popularizing of pacifism in times of peace, nor by the circulation of propaganda against war. These are not born of deep enough conviction. Thus it means that to be a true nonresistant, one must stand alone, for, as someone has said, “national organization can never take the place of individual resistance to hysteria.”
A true Christian, who may be only slightly acquainted with the Biblical standards on this point, can easily see that it is wrong to fight—whether in war, duels, or in any carnal conflict. What I mean by a Christian is a person who has become a citizen of another country. Jesus emphatically declared, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.”
It is on this point that the whole issue hinges as the doctrine and principle of nonresistance are definitely for the pacifist and go farther than non-violence. Its devotees cannot wholly sanction the position of the religious or political objector because the latter position does not necessarily call for more than an attitude of mind, while true nonresistants are dominated by a change of heart. They not only exercise a negative program by refusing to do certain sinful acts, but have a positive policy which overcomes evil with good.
The whole human family belongs to one of the two kingdoms referred to above, and it is a confused citizenship of people who fail to see the line of separation that gives rise to the grave inconsistencies that prevail in nominal Christendom. We are either under law or under grace. If grace has not redeemed us, we are still under the guilt and curse of the law.
The Twelfth Chapter of Romans outlines the duties of the Church; the Thirteenth Chapter of Romans outlines the duties of the State, and in these two Chapters we are shown the distinct difference between the functions of the Church and those of the State. The Church accomplishes her end by the power of love, while the lone power of the State is carnal force.
God has authorized three great institutions, and three only: namely, the home, the church and the state. If all homes were thoroughly Christian and appropriated the blessings of household salvation as is their privilege, they would contribute only to the Church of their offspring, and we would have one great theocracy as it was God’s original intent. But such an ideal state is not realized and we have some homes contributing to the Church, while the children of other homes refuse to become Christians, hence automatically become citizens of the State, and as such, are responsible to the State for direction and should assist in discharging the duties which we are told is to punish evildoers and praise those who do well.
The Church’s duty toward the State is to pray for her, to pay the tribute she demands, and to keep her laws insofar as they do not conflict with the expressed will of God. The Church should realize that the powers that be are ordained of God, and, because of this, they are authorized by God to the discharge of their duties, even to the using of force.
There are a number of religious denominations that have embraced and taught the doctrine of nonresistance for centuries, but it takes an occasional awakening, caused by persecution, to reveal whether we really believe what we say we do. There is a possibility of keeping truth in cold storage instead of having it on fire. It is one thing to subscribe to the confession of faith of our particular denomination; it is quite another thing to live up to its standards.
Thus the late War, with others preceding, have provided for the nonresistant churches the opportunity of its young men to show whether they really believe in the doctrine and thus keep its principles alive.
If there ever were a justifiable cause for a Christian to fight, it surely would have been when Peter, out of love for his Lord, and in trying to defend Him, drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest; but Jesus told him to put his sword up for “they that live by the sword, shall perish by the sword.” The last miracle which Jesus did before He died was that of benevolence—healing that ear which Peter had cut off.
The early church stood by this doctrine and sponsored it. History tells us that from 60 A. D. to 170 A. D. not a single Christian was known to have enlisted in the army. Later a soldier who professed Christianity, was not given communion until he did penance. But we see a change in the Fourth Century, when, under Constantine, the Church and State were united and the State dominated and controlled the Church. Thus the standards were changed, and military service was held as an exclusive privilege for Christians only. Pagans were not allowed to join the army. Since that time, more or less the Church has strutted down the centuries with the sword in one hand and the cross in the other, thus failing to realize the distinct separation that God expects of the Church and State.
This confessed position cannot be understood by a world which looks on at the Christian Church. In France, during the late War, a padre said to the boys, “Take heart, boys, you’re building a better world.” The boys said, “That’s your job, padre. We’re blowing the old one to bits.”
To show how ridiculous we appear to heathen religionists, we wish to relate the conversation we had on a train enroute from Los Angeles, California to Kansas City, Missouri, with a Hindu priest. He was a graduate of Oxford University and touring America in the interests of Hinduism. While he insisted that Hinduism is the best religion in the world, he admitted that Christianity was a very good religion and said, “That Man whom you call Jesus was a great Leader, and the standards of moral conduct that He preached in that famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ remain unexcelled in any religion. But the trouble is,” he said, “you Christians don’t live up to it.” To prove his statement he very easily and aptly quoted such pointed statements, “If any man smite thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also,” “If any man compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain” and other portions equally as piercing. Then he turned to me with scalding sarcasm and said, “How do you reconcile those rigid ideals with the conduct of you Christians in the World War when you went out and, not only participated in the terrible carnage and bloodshed, but glorified the practice, establishing hero worship toward those who were most successful in that wholesale butchery?”
We replied that we must admit with shame the truth of his accusations. We very definitely pointed out this unfairness toward us in failing to differentiate between nominal Christianity and true Christianity. After trying to show him the essential difference between the two, we ventured to tell him in defense of our position that we, personally, took the teachings of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount,” literally and seriously, to the extent that during the World War in 1918, we positively refused to participate in any form of militarism, suffering persecution and imprisonment as a result. At this our Hindu friend looked at us in utter amazement and said, “You did? I am glad to hear it. If you had courage to stand for a principle like that you are almost as good as a Hindu.”
We do not believe that war can be outlawed. We believe that nations will always have to resort to this method to settle national and international disputes. Hatred and strife can never be legislated out of the human heart. James says that this principle dwells in the heart. Consequently, as long as war and the carnal principles dominate the lives of individuals, it will always be necessary for nations to fight.
We will always need policemen and juries and justices to maintain law and order; but the Christians’ duties are not these, because they belong to a different kingdom and have interest in a different sphere.
The Church’s duty is not to pull up tares, but to produce wheat. Her work is not negative, but positive. She is not expected to foster work of reformation but rather of regeneration. She is not making the best use of her time when she engages in political affiliations or associates in temperance reform work. These are good enough in themselves, but they belong to the world. Christians should remember that they are referred to as “pilgrims and strangers,” citizens of another country, with a heavenly citizenship, passing through to our heavenly home.
When the Church participates in the political campaigns of our various governments, she not only weakens her testimony but she has a misconception of her mission in the world. The work of the church is of such a high order and her message so far reaching that if the church preached it and lived it, she would control many of the national evils today, by virtue of the regenerating power of the Gospel, and go much farther than the temperance and reform movements are going.
Jesus established this truth: the Church and Christians ought to pay their taxes, and ought to pay tribute. When the enemies of Jesus tried to catch Him by asking Him if it was right to pay tribute to Caesar, He said “Show me your tribute money.” They brought Him a penny. He said “Whose superscription is this?” and they said, “Caesar’s.” He said, “All right. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
What did He mean? He meant to say that this tribute coin which bears the image and superscription of Caesar ought to be paid. He meant to say that Christians ought to pay their taxes if it takes the last cent they have; and I believe we ought to do it cheerfully. We ought to be thankful for the privilege we have, as pilgrims and strangers, of going through this country and should be grateful for the privileges accorded us. What He meant to emphasize was that these bodies of ours which bear God’s image should be rendered to God.
A certain minister of a nonresistant church told me of the lesson he learned by protesting to the assessor when he came to assess his property. He contended that his assessment was too high. He spoke rather forcibly and contended rigidly to have his assessment lowered. He didn’t get it lowered, however, and to his surprise when his tax slip came, he was taxed for a dog—and he didn’t own a dog. He said to his wife, “It’s strange that we should be taxed for a dog.” His wife said, “No. Nothing strange about that. The way you growled when the assessor was here; he thought there was a dog around this place.”
He learned the lesson that, as Christians, we ought to pay our taxes cheerfully and pray for our government that God may rule, so that we might have a peaceable and quiet life in all Godliness and sincerity. We should be so cleansed from political and party sentiment that we can pray for our rulers and believe that they are God’s men at this appointed time, remembering that nations, empires and crowns rise and fall at the command of God. The Scriptures say “Whom he will, he puts up and whom he will, he puts down, and hath determined the bounds of their habitation.”
Let us not forget the function of the State is one thing, the function of the Church is another. If there should come into our assemblies the President of the United States, or the King of England, it would be our duty to accord them all the honors we could—give them the best seat, have the congregation to rise, and offer them all the courtesies within our power. But, it would not be our duty to ask them to lead in prayer, or to lay on hands at an ordination, because that is not their duty. They should not expect to assist in this work; neither should they expect the church to assist them in the matter of rulership and legislation.
We do believe that if both state and church function in their God-appointed place, both of them would be doing better work than they are doing today. The church serves the world to the best advantage by being separated from it, for, as someone has said, “The man who moves the world, is the man the world can move.” Let us pray that God will visit the church with a baptism of love and cause her to return to her appointed path of preaching the Gospel and telling sinners to repent and to live a life that shows the way to God. Then can she expect a revival such as we haven’t seen for centuries.
Many of us who have been reared in nonresistant churches and have been taught this truth from our infancy, have surely been made the recipients of a rich heritage for which we ought to thank God. We are made appreciative of this truth when we think of the educators of today, who seemingly discover this truth as something new. When we remember that our forefathers knew this years ago, it stimulates confidence in those who blazed the trail for us in our denominational life.
This now brings us to a personal experience that we had in suffering for conscience’ sake by taking a personal stand against war during the days of the late World War when drafted into the Canadian army and refusing to take service.
We want to make mention of the little seed of truth that was dropped in our home church many years before we were born by an evangelist by the name of Bishop Isaac Trump, who held a revival. The revival did not show many signs of success, not many converts followed the meeting. Nevertheless, it was a great success. The teaching given by that dear man left an indelible imprint on the minds of my father and those who attended that meeting, and it was passed on to those who followed in the next generation.
Among the things that Bishop Trump emphasized was that our people, to be consistent in times of peace and in times of war, should avoid participation in politics. He told the story of his own experience when drafted in the Civil War as a young man. He accompanied a Baptist student-preacher to the army. When they appeared before the judge of the tribunal, he asked for exemption on the grounds that he was conscientiously opposed to the bearing of arms. The judge asked him one question, “Have you ever exercised your franchise [right to vote]?” to which he replied, “No.” He was granted exemption. He asked the same question of the Baptist student-preacher and he said, “Yes, I always exercise my franchise [right to vote],” and he was refused exemption. At this, the Baptist preacher said, with a scowl to the judge, “What would you do if everybody was like Trump?” The judge said, “I would to God that we had a hundred thousand men in our fair Union such as Trump and this trouble might have been averted. Then we wouldn’t need an army.”
“Reprinted from the first chapter of Nonresistance Under Test by E. J. Swalm, pages (13–22). Originally published by Evangel Publishing House in 1938. Used with permission by the Brethren in Christ U.S.”
“Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” ~ Matthew 5:39
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” ~ Matthew 5:44
“My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” ~ John 18:36