REA: “My God, what have we done?”

Leah Gunning Francis opened the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. She introduced the plenary speakers, and informed us that unfortunately Gabriel Moran was not able to be present. Francis lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and given that the theme of this year’s conference is “Religion and Education in the (Un)Making of Violence,” she showed some of her photographs of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri — to the great interest of the conferees.

The first “speaker” was Andrea Bieler, Professor of Practical Theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany. Bieler did not appear in person; her presentation was a video, in which she spoke, and showed various works of art and other material.

Bieler’s video began with a statement by Theodor Adorno: “The principal demand upon all education is that Auschwitz does not happen again.” Bieler extended this to other instances of systematic violence, including systemic racism in the United States, the state terrorism and “disappearances” in Argentina and Chile, apartheid in South Africa, etc.

In the video, Bieler laid out a nuanced argument, beginning with theories of memory and winding up with a discussion of remembering violence through aesthetic art. I was most interested in her analyses of several site-specific art works in Berlin, particularly the Chapel of Reconciliation, built near the site of the Berlin Wall.

Continue reading “REA: “My God, what have we done?””


Reflection delivered by Samuel Erickson at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Calif., 13 October 2013

As a member of the male gender, and a United States citizen, when I turn 18 I am required to register for the draft. When I do so, I plan on registering as a conscientious objector. For those who might be unclear about what that means, and certainly what it means for me specifically, being a conscientious objector means that I, as a conscious and thought out decision, believe that military force, in fact force at all, should not be used. In the end force does not solve whatever problem it is aimed at. Were I to get conscientious objector status, I would not be conscripted to fight and kill but rather would be assigned to other tasks that would not contribute to the killing of others.

The first question you may have is why? Why, when a draft is so unlikely? Why devote my time to something that in the end has little to no actual significance at a time when my schedule is crammed with so many things — college applications, music, sports, classes, and even the occasional bit of social life. What makes it worth it?

In the end this is not about time in my schedule, it is not just another thing in a long list of things, it is the right thing to do for who I am, and therefore I must do it. Following my own moral ideology, and indeed even being able to say I have a moral ideology, is not about following the way that is easy, but that if I don’t say and recognize what I believe I simply wouldn’t be me. For the person who I am it is the logical step, and therefore the one I take.

So where does that belief come from? Where? Where, when the anti-military movement was at its peak during Vietnam two decades before I was even born, when most of the organizations that assisted conscientious objectors have shut down due to lack of interest, where does it come from? First and foremost, my beliefs come from my family, and then from my community, namely this church.

My parents — most vocally my dad — have always, when commenting on the news and talking to me, discussed issues through the lens of nonviolence: wars don’t solve problems, they create them. Always take the nonviolent approach, talk about problems rather that react to them physically.

As for this Unitarian Universalist church, I know we do not specifically teach pacifism, but I believe what we do value directs itself to such. This church, I think we can agree, highly values basic humanism. We should help and assist those in need, provide essential services to those who cannot afford them or get them themselves. Those ideas generally clash with the feeling that there are people in the world who need to die.

Along with my other influences, I believe my mindset perpetuates such a mentality. I would like to think that I live my life with a little more logic than those some of those around me. That logic supports to the argument that indeed force is no longer needed to compel countries and individuals to act in a certain way.

Pacifism, for me, and indeed for the world we live in, does not, and should not, mean that you are incapable of ever thinking a violent thought, that you should never play really any video game ever, or even that you can’t once in a while recognize that it would feel really good to punch that really irritating person in the face.

No, pacifism is when we stop and think about any situation, you and I realize that violence will never accomplish anything, death will not solve problems. When we extrapolate our actions from there and to the rest of our lives, that is what means to be a conscientious objector.


Copyright (c) 2013 Samuel Erickson. Used by permission. If you would like to reproduce this reflection elsewhere, I’d be happy to pass your request on to Sam.

Samuel Erickson is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, and is on the Board of Trustees. He is a senior in high school.

Conscientious objectors

Although it seems unlikely that the United States will reinstate compulsory military service any time soon, there are people who are so opposed to any form of military service that they may want to establish themselves as a conscientious objectors for personal and/or moral reasons rather than for practical reasons. Then too, the political climate in the United States could change very quickly, all young men are required by law to register with Selective Service at age 18, and it is not unreasonable to want to establish conscientious objector (CO) status now just in case you need it later.

When I had to register for the draft upon turning 18, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) provided counseling and resources that helped me, but the CCCO died in 2010. And the big concern for most organizations in the present political climate is supporting people already in the military who discover that they are COs.

However, I have found some good online resources for non-military COs. Most important is the Center on Conscience and War (CCW) Web page titled “Advice to Youth Facing Selective Service Registration” which offers three main suggestions:

Print in legible black ink on the face of all Forms sent to Selective Service (not on the edges): I am a conscientious objector.

Make a photocopy all forms for your own records before you submit it to the postal clerk for date stamp and initials. Send all mail return-receipt requested.

Prepare a statement of your beliefs. Get it on file with your church or a reputable peace organization such as CCW. Such a statement could be helpful in getting the government to recognize your CO beliefs.

You can read the full article here. You can find a PDF of “Basic Draft and Registration Information,” a more comprehensive article, here.

What about Unitarian Universalists and conscientious objection? The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) offers a brochure titled “Conscientious Objectors and the Draft,” available online here. Unfortunately, this brochure is somewhat dated, but it’s still worth reading. According to this brochure, the UUA maintains a registry of conscientious objectors; with the demise of the CCCO registry, this is good news for UU COs.

All this makes me think back to how I documented my own conscientious objection to war as a Unitarian Universalist youth. The first thing I did was talk with Rev. Pat Green, the associate minister at my Unitarian Universalist church, about my religious objections to war and the military; he helped me sharpen my arguments in favor of pacifism, and find a religious basis for them. Pat also helped me to understand that although Unitarian Universalism does not have a specific peace witness (unlike, e.g., Quakerism), our religion nevertheless calls on us to follow our conscience in the face of difficult moral and ethical decisions. Thus I learned that as a Unitarian Universalist I could remain firmly opposed to participation in war on religious grounds, and other Unitarian Universalists could remain firmly committed to a career in the military on religious grounds. And Pat also pointed out that because of this, it was much harder for a Unitarian Universalist to convince a draft board that he was a CO than a Quaker (and yes, I do mean to use the word “he” here, since women have yet to be subject to compulsory military service in the United States).

I also registered with the CCCO — if I were doing this today, I would register with the UUA, my local congregation, and the Center on Conscience and War (CCW). I have vague memories of writing out a statement of my pacifism, but I don’t remember what I did with this. I got involved in the peace movement, specifically in campaigns to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal, attending demonstrations in Washington, etc. Before I turned 18, I found a qualified counselor who could give me advice about registering with Selective Service — the man I saw was trained by the CCCO, but as I understand it the CCW still trains such counselors. I also knew my Unitarian Universalist church would back me up if I ever needed to establish a claim, and I suppose that’s one thing that kept me involved in Unitarian Universalism.

If I were to give advice to a Unitarian Universalist youth today on how to establish CO status (and one recently asked me for just such advice), I might refer them to the Web page “How To Compile a CO Claim,” which suggests the following:

  • State that you are a CO when you register with Selective Service
  • Write a statement of your CO beliefs
  • Get three people who know you well to write a letter supporting your CO claim
  • Get active in peace work, and document your activity
  • Document other ways in which your pacifism has affected the way you live your life (at the very least, give money to CCW!)
  • Collect all these documents, and get them notarized
  • File copies of these documents with the UUA, your local UU congregation, and find out if the CCW will keep them on fiel as well
  • Keep the originals in a safe place

If you have any other suggestions or resources for UU youth who want to establish their conscientious objection to war, I’d love to hear them — leave them in the comments below.