Together with many young Christians, I refused to serve in the Soviet army in 1974. Today, the questions asked by the relevant authorities have not changed much.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has left many evangelical young men on both sides of the front facing the same old question: should they follow the military draft and then fight on the front line with weapon in hand, or should they refuse? Although there are laws in both countries that regulate conscientious objection, this is suspended in Ukraine in particular for reasons of war. This forces thousands of young people to flee the country and, if they are caught, to be conscripted.
There are more and more reports of suicides by those involuntarily conscripted on the Ukrainian side . Others manage to escape to the West, where they are not considered "proper refugees". Masses of young potential recruits from Russia have also fled their own country because they refuse to take up arms.
But for Christians in particular, the successful escape does not invalidate the burning questions of whether it was right to refuse. Only a few of these young people have dealt with the question of war and peace and the social duty of Christians and are easily unsettled. At the same time, the trick questions asked by critics of pacifist attitudes have not changed significantly over the centuries. John Howard Yoder brought them to hearing already 40 years ago .
Together with many young Christians, I refused to serve in the Soviet army in 1974 . Today, when I compare the questions asked by the relevant authorities to conscientious objectors with those of my Soviet persecutors, they differ only very slightly.
This is one of the reasons, why I decided to write this article and tell the story of my time as a conscientious objector. Just like in Ukraine today, we were threatened with severe punishments back then and we even mourned the death of some of our brothers, such as the cruel death of Moldovan Christian Ivan Moiseyev, who was brutally murdered by the Soviet secret police .
What were the issues that were used to try and dissuade us from our decision to refuse to serve in the army? And how did we react? The examples below record a couple of these stories and are intended to help young men to make their own decisions.
In many countries, serving in the army is a duty prescribed by the country's constitution. Christians also live under the law and are not allowed to resist conscription by the state. Especially as the Apostle Paul sees the state order as being instituted by God and imposes corresponding obedience on Christians: Paul states:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5).
"You owe it to your country to defend its freedom with a weapon in your hand", claim the representatives of the state. “This is even written in the Bible.” I, too, was accused of betraying my homeland if I refused. I replied at the time: "First and foremost, my duty is to God, my Lord. And this is, according to Scripture, also the duty of our state. Authorities are God´s servant to do what is good in the sight of the LORD. The punish people, who do what is wrong in God´s eyes. I am interested in what He finds right. The politic I follow are politics of Jesus. Everything else comes later and after that. And Jesus commands me to love my enemies and not to kill them! In Mt. 5:43-48 we read:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“That is why I refuse to serve with a weapon and instead offer my time and energy to serve my country peacefully and to express my love for my homeland. I do obey my LORD more than any human constitution.
My sentences provoked anger and annoyance in the people I spoke to. "Your loyalty to your country must always come first," they shouted. God belongs in the church and not in society. Well, I vehemently disagreed with that.
The state claims that defending the country from the enemy is a sacred duty of every citizen and that the only effective means against the enemy are weapons. But is this claim set in stone? Are guns truly the most effective means of defense against the enemy? Does the death of the enemy guarantee the lives of friends and family, as the representatives of the state say?
That was the first thesis I was confronted with during my own refusal. The secret police officer, who had the conversation with me, used the following example to convince me.
"Imagine the following situation. The enemy attacks and threatens your friends and family with death. And you could put them to flight. Wouldn't you not do everything to defend them? And wouldn't the death of the enemy not be a blessing for them and their family?"
I replied as follows. "Yes, the protection of my family, my friends and my homeland is of great concern to me. And I would use the best means at my disposal. These are neither machine guns nor other weapons, but God and the hosts of angels. I would ask Him to swear my family in. No enemy can stand against God. So I don't need to resort to weapons, but to prayer."
"But that's naive, young man. Wars are raging all over the world. Where is your God?" the officer replied sarcastically.
"True, but the question is also and above all, where are the people who ask him for help? They immediately take up arms and try to fight themselves instead of calling on the Almighty. And God does not force his help on people. Those who think they are strong enough to defeat the enemy with a sword should not be surprised if they die by the same sword. Jesus, in whom I believe, once said to his disciple Peter, who, faced with the Roman enemies who wanted to arrest Jesus, unsheathed his sword: "Put your sword into its sheath, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52).
My counterpart began to laugh out loud and blaspheme against God and his cowardly and stupid followers. And so I proposed a deal to him. "I'll stand guard without a weapon next night and you attack me with their weapons. I'll ask God for his help, but I can't guarantee that he'll let you live. So how about it? You challenge God, face Him."
"I don't believe in God," the officer replied.
"Well, then you have nothing to fear. So how about it?"
The officer seemed to think for a moment, but then angrily threw me out of his office. No, his disbelief didn't seem to be nearly enough to face the unknown God.
The representatives of the state demand obedience to constitution and readiness to defend the country even to the price of life. But those who cry the loudest for weapons are usually the least willing to face the enemy if it means giving up their own privileges.
My good friend Andrei Lavor from Belarus, who now lives in California, USA, refused to serve with a weapon in the Soviet Union in 1987. When his will to refuse was established, the typical lengthy discussions and conversations with superiors, threats and insults began. One day, the officer concerned, asked Andrei and his friend Nikolai, who also wanted to refuse, the trick question: "Suppose the enemy captured your family and threatened to kill them if they didn't renounce their faith. Wouldn't you resort to violence and try to free your family? You love your family, don't you?"
"We wouldn't. We would rather leave our family to God's protection. And if they were to be killed, we know they are safe with God and look forward to meeting them there in heaven again after our own death," the two courageous Christians replied.
The officer now cursed them in the worst possible terms, calling them cowardly and heartless. Then Andrei asked the man if he could ask a question. The man agreed. And Andrei asked: "You're a communist, aren't you? And you have a party membership card. Do you?"
The officer nodded proudly and looked in the direction of the KG colonel, who was also present in the room.
"Suppose your family had been arrested by the enemy and you were threatened with death unless you burned your party card on the spot and renounced the party membership, would you do it?" the young Christian continued, looking bluntly in the direction of the KGB observer. "Would your loyalty to the party be more important to you than your own family? Would you just let them die? You would have no hope of ever seeing them again. We see our loved ones in heaven, you don't. And all because of a scrap of paper with your name and party affiliation on it:"
The questioning took the officer's breath for a moment. He started shouting loudly, insulting the young men, but without answering the question. Then he finally threw them out of his office. Andrei and his friend refused to serve with the gun and are now serving the Lord in their respective churches. Obviously, those who loudly call for loyalty to the state are often the biggest cowards.
You can observe this in the behavior of many Ukrainians today. They are vehemently committed to defending their country against the Russians, but at the same time they themselves have gone abroad and from a safe distance they demand loyalty and even heroic death from others. It is easy to imagine how cowardly this is. We shall never demand of others what we are not willing to do ourselves.
Only a dead enemy is a guarantee of peace, say the proponents of the militant response to all aggression. Enemies deserve to die. That is why every army in the world cultivates a pronounced hatred in its soldiers towards their enemies.
When I refused to serve with a weapon in 1974, the KGB henchmen took me into the Lenin Room one night. They knew that I had boxed as a young man. So one of the officers read me the verse from the Gospel in Mt. 5:39, where Jesus says to his disciples: "But I say to you, do not resist evil, but if anyone strikes you on your right cheek, offer him the other also." Then they asked me if I believed this "nonsense". When I said yes, they placed a small Turkmen soldier opposite of me and ordered him to knock out one of my teeth, which he hesitantly and with great difficulty did. The procedure was repeated night after night. I lost many of my teeth. Each time I was called upon to actively stop the action and fight back. I didn't and instead asked God to help me to love my enemy. And then one night, the officers threatened to kill me. One of them stood across from me and threw his huge feast towards my face. But just before my face, he stopped his punch and yelled at me, "Why do you love me?" He couldn't hit me, my love for him, my enemy, had broken his aggression.
Jesus expects exactly this attitude from his disciples when he says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:44-45).
Children of God overcome evil with love for their enemies and not with hatred and manslaughter of their enemies. This, however, requires grace . I can't imagine how loving people put a bullet in their enemy?
That is why I can only encourage my Christian friends to use love against their enemies instead of weapons. Christians are peacemakers, ambassadors of reconciliation in Christ's stead (2 Cor. 5:18-20). And reconciliation is never an act between friends, but between bitter enemies. They may use their weapons against each other. Christians, on the other hand, turn to God. They know that the righteous God never leaves injustice unpunished. Just peace is possible out of His hands. For He is a God of peace (Rom. 15:33).
In any case, I have decided to stand on His side of the front and fight in prayer. And that is what all Christians should do.
Johannes Reimer, professor of Mission Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and director of the department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).
1. See, for instance article: Johannes Reimer: Refuseniks are not cowards and traitors. In: Evangelical Focus 30. December 2022.
2. John Howard Yoder: What Would You Do?: A Serious Answer to a Standard. Lancaster: Herald Press 1984.
3. My story was published: Johannes Reimer: Liberty in Confinement: A Story of Faith in the Red Army. Winnipeg: Kindred 2000.
4. See the story of this brave young man in: Myrna Grant: Vanya: A true story of Ivan Moiseyev, persecuted for his faith. 2. Edition. Charisma House 1996.
5. To love your enemy, you need grace. In: Anabaptist Witness, 11.07.2022.