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BPFNA Co-Sponsors 'Truth Commission on Conscience in War'


April 21, 2010 | bpfna

The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America was a co-sponsor of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War held March 21-22 at The Riverside Church in New York City. Truth commissions have been used to report on human rights abuses and systemic injustices and to foster justice and healing for a whole society. They lift up the silenced and invisible voices of victims and of others directly affected by a conflict or issue, offering them an official forum to testify to their experiences. Truth commissions receive the witnesses of the testifiers, create accountability processes, and generate a vision for change, healing, and reconciliation.

This Truth Commission sought to bring to light the issues facing soldiers who find themselves in opposition to a specific war instead of  “war in any form” as required in current regulations.

Founding director Ken Sehested served as BPFNA’s commissioner. He wrote this op-ed piece for the online
Washington Post.

Soldiers of conscience
by Ken Sehested
Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America

The Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, now synonymous both with the torture of bodies and of language (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) seems an odd venue for the outbreak of what military courts refer to as the “crystallization of conscience” in assessing conscientious objector (CO) applicants.

On the other hand, what better place for epiphanies?

It was in such an interrogation cell that US Army interrogator and Arabic linguist Joshua Casteel underwent a different kind of conversion. The devoted offspring of his evangelical Christian culture, and West Point training, Casteel says he initially “took offense” when the questioner became the questioned.

What do you do with the teachings of Jesus? his admittedly-jidahist subject asked.

In the Emmy-nominated documentary, “Soldiers of Conscience,” Casteel recalled being concerned, before his posting to Iraq, with the chants of “Kill, kill, kill without mercy!” in basic training. But, he said as part of his testimony to the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, “I thought I could make a difference--someone like me, with a conscience, should be in position of authority, instead of someone who only wanted to drop bombs.

“But there is no private conscience.”

Casteel's voice was one of 14 expert witnesses giving testimony before some 70 commissioners, representing 50 organizations of religious, veteran, legal and medical professionals, meeting March 21-22 in New York City's Riverside Church.

More than one among the 14 personal testimonies and expert witnesses recollected an earlier epiphany: When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking from the same pulpit on April 4, 1967--precisely one year before his assassination--expanded his challenge of the nation's moral character to include an indictment of US involvement in the Vietnam War. Few contemporary King Birthday celebrations dare recall his judgment that America had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

From one angle or another, each of the speakers--and each of the commissioners, in the following day's strategic planning sessions--were responding to the initial question raised, and implied purpose statement, by the Commission’s planning committee chair, Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock: “What happens when a member of the armed forces is asked to fight in a war that he or she believes is not morally justified?”

J.E. McNeil, a lawyer and director of the Center on Conscience and War, reminded the commissions and public hearing guests that “we are all conscientious objectors.” Which is to say, the just-war theory implies that some wars are immoral, and every individual’s political right to undertake moral assessment. Yet there is no legal provision to ensure that right for military personnel. To be a conscientious objector, the enlisted must attest their moral rejection of any and all war.

As the Commission’s host, Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr., retired Army Chaplain and former chair of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, said, the military “teaches just war principles from basic training up through its war colleges. Yet, current CO regulations prevent soldiers from using these ideas when called to deploy in a war.”

For my money, the Commission's most hopeful contribution to a new national conversation about the cost and character of modern warfare--where seven civilians die for every combatant, where the need for some 800 overseas US military bases is never discussed--is its capacity to clear common ground for historically-polarized groups. The usual suspects were seated around the collaboration tables--leaders of pacifist groups, many of them religiously based. But so were a host of others, representing similarly conscientious traditions of just-war reasoning. Surely the scandalous rates of suicide among veterans (averaging 17 per day according to one 2005 study), and the epidemic of “moral injury” caused by unprecedented levels of post-traumatic stress, are worthy grounds for common cause.

I'm reminded of the recent conclusion emerging from a five-year dialogue between Roman Catholic and Mennonite theologians:

“We must acknowledge the essential defect in the just war tradition, which is the assumption that violence can somehow achieve justice. And we must with equal courage acknowledge the essential defect in pacifism, which is the assumption that justice can somehow be achieved simply by opposing violence.” (Ivan J. Kauffman, in “Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World Violence,” edited by Gerald Schlabach)

Such collaboration, often referred to as "just peacemaking" (see the book by the title, edited by Glen Stassen, Pilgrim Press, 1998), allows people of different moral horizons to share the road, and bear the load, for the things that make for peace.

Stay tuned. The Commission's final report will be released on November 11, when the calendar features Veterans' Day as well as the church's feast of St. Martin of Tours.

Rev. Ken Sehested is the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the organization’s representative to the Truth Commission on Conscience in War. He is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC.

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