The Legacy of Civilian Public Service

[Originally published in The Mennonite, June 19, 2007]

During World War II, about 12,000 young American men served their country performing service separate from the military in a program called Civilian Public Service (CPS).  About 40 percent of those World War II conscientious objectors (COs) came from Mennonite communities.

The CPS generation is passing from the scene.  The youngest living CPSers are now about 80 years old.  As those holding direct memories of CPS move on, will future generations see the CPS experience as important, as something worth continued reflection and appreciation? Here are several reasons why we should. 

1. CPS stands as a reminder of people saying “no” even to this “good” war.  In the face of the strong cultural consensus of the time in support of the American war effort, people witnessed to their convictions that even such a “good” war is still unacceptable.  For Christians who see Jesus’ message of consistent love as the most importance directive we have for our lives, this “no” is important.

Winning World War II was, in many ways, a terrible thing for the United States.  The near absolute power the US emerged from the War with has had a corrupting effect. 

Winning that war shaped the US even more into a permanent war state, governed most of all by the interests of its military-industrial complex.  For example, the claims that the United States armed itself with nuclear weapons as a defensive measure against Soviet expansionism have proven empty.  Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, we did not respond by cutting back our nuclear might but expanded it.

In the future, the courageous “no” a few thousand COs expressed during World War II will be seen as a prophetic act.  People will recognize in the witness of the CPSers what theologians calls a proleptic expression in which the needed future outcome (peace on earth) finds some small but truthful expression in the present.

2. CPS provides a fruitful case study for illuminating various approaches to social action.  I see four different types of approaches COs tended to take: the “resister,” “transformer,” “servant,” and “separatist” tendencies. 

“Resisters” thought in terms of the dictates of their sense of right and wrong.  Their consciences convinced them that war is always wrong.  Some believed in total noncooperation, resisting the war system however they could.  Many chose not to go along with the draft at all, foregoing the compromises that legally acceptable alternative service entailed and spending time in prison instead.

“Transformers” were influenced by the social gospel vision for transforming society as a whole to be peaceable.  Many went into CPS hoping to find opportunity to work at such social transformation.  Often they were frustrated with the limited opportunities they found for meaningful social action within CPS.  However, when opportunities for service in mental hospitals opened up, some found some satisfaction. 

“Servants,” most typically Mennonites, saw their calling primarily as offering acts of service that gently contributed to the wellbeing of others.  These COs eagerly took new opportunities such as mental health work as they arose, not so much out of dissatisfaction with the nature of the existing opportunities within CPS as out of a simpler desire to help wherever they could.

Finally, “separatists” tended to think mostly in terms of their calling not to be conformed to the wider society.  Many of these were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Witnesses sought mostly to remain to true their sense of being separate from the warring and ungodly society that was asking them to participate in human-initiated warfare.

These four tendencies reflect four Christian options.  Are we called overtly to resist the powers-that-be as firmly as we can, avoiding compromise and challenging a warring world to turn around before it’s too late?  Or are we called to think in terms of constructive social action that works within the system to bring about change—with a sense of optimism that the system may be transformed?  Or should we understand our Christian calling in terms of Jesus’ call to be “servants of all,” witnessing to peace amid the world’s violence, mostly by our spirit of personal involvement in meeting people’s needs?  Or is our main focus to be on our own community, seeking faithfulness by remaining separate from the worldly system that is rebelling against God and inevitably doomed?

3. The CPS experience makes clear the importance of communities of support for the creation and sustenance of peace convictions.  The role played by the growing-up contexts for COs was huge. 

Most (not all) World War II COs in some significant sense lived in two distinct communities—the community of their church and the community of U.S. society.  For most American Christians (I think of my own father, a born-and-bred Lutheran and son of a pastor, who went to war), the two “communities” of church and society were not in tension about the issue of fighting in war.  When the state demanded involvement in its war, most without much thought simply said yes (especially given the obvious evils of the Nazis and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). 

For many Mennonite young men, though, church communities left them unwilling to accept the state’s call due to the centrality they placed on the Sermon on the Mount.  When there was a tension between loyalties to their two communities, often they chose loyalty to the church community over loyalty to American society. 

Beyond strong support within the church community to choose the path of conscientious objection, Mennonite communities also made tremendous commitments to provide ongoing support for their young men serving in alternative service.

We see in this story a combination of communal factors that created and sustained pacifist convictions—teaching and valuing the peace position, modeling from older people (here the experience of COs to World War I played a major role), strong pressure to remain true to the church’s position and extensive moral and material support as COs found themselves remaining in CPS much longer than anyone anticipated.

4) CPS has had a major impact on Mennonite churches over the past 60 years.  The CPS experience transformed the character of the Mennonite community in the United States. 

An entire generation of leaders emerged from CPS to guide Mennonite communities—educational and denominational leadership, expanded ministries of Mennonite Central Committee, the emergence of Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite mental health hospitals.

We may also note the in-the-pew impact.  Thousands of young men returned from their intensely broadening CPS experiences to “normal” life as significantly changed people.  Virtually all of the former CPSers I have talked with speak of lives much more devoted to service, travel and peace as a consequence of that experience.

The CPS experience broke down many walls that separated Mennonites.  Leadership of Mennonite CPS required cooperative work among the various Mennonite branches.  Camp life usually included the variety of Mennonites.  Contacts were made, prejudices punctured and relationships built that brought Mennonites together in unprecedented ways.

The CPS experience shaped Mennonite peace theology—a movement from nonresistance to social activism.  To illustrate, one CPSer I talked with grew up in a traditional Mennonite community and entered CPS in obedience to his church leaders and his parents’ wishes.  While in CPS he came to own his peace convictions for himself, and in the rest of his life he devoted himself to peace work.  He told me that if he had to do it again, he would refuse to cooperate with the draft at all.  Instead, he would go to prison as a resister due to his convictions concerning the evils of warfare for all people and the need to struggle against it.

I could mention other themes as well, such the impact on the mental health field in the United States flowing out of the CPSers who worked in mental hospitals—leading both to reform movements within the mental health system and the building of new mental health facilities that embodied Mennonite values.  Or the role of the World War II experience in shaping future governmental policies toward COs that were much more respectful and flexible.  Or simply the environmental good that was done through forest and agricultural conservation work. 

CPS remains an important part of our heritage—not just as history but more as a living reminder of the challenges of following Jesus in a warring world and the fruitfulness that may follow from rigorous efforts to remain faithful.

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