Imagine that you are an 18 year old young man. Imagine that for your whole life you have grown up in a country that promotes violence. There are knights waving flags in your Sunday school classroom. Billboards proclaim the glory of becoming a national hero. You know that when you reach the age of majority, you must perform obligatory military service. Without the military service card (libreta), you cannot graduate from university or get a decent job. This service is also socially considered to be an important part in the formation of your manhood. Legally, you must present yourself for service at 18; illegally, many youth are rounded up on the street and those without libretas are forced to get into military trucks and are immediately taken to military bases as recruits. These forced requirements happen at universities, subway stations, parks and other public places where, as a normal young man, you spend your time.
Now imagine that you say no. You may have many reasons for choosing to object: you need to stay home to work to support your family, you are studying in a trade school which is not recognized by the state or you are in middle of other life plans you do not want interrupted. You may be part of a youth collective that for humanistic and political reasons refuses to support state-war making. You may have heard of some of the horrors that take place in the jungle and do not want to participate in scandals such as the false positives. In this case, you feel morally unable to participate, based on religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and that no one should hold the power of life and death over another; to wear a uniform and carry arms is a direct contradiction to these beliefs.
First of all, imagine the legal consequences. Conscientious objection is a right, but there is very little political will or a legal framework to enforce it. You don’t even know there is a law when you first say no and refuse to put on the uniform after being illegally transported to the military base after being picked up on the street. You may be mocked and punished by officers and fellow recruits. Imagine that you receive a home leave and decide not to return by the stipulated date. Now you are facing potential jail time and further military harassment.
Next, imagine the social consequences. Neighbours may decide that you are a traitor to both country and family and refuse to interact with you. You must take safety precautions because you are now in danger of potential violent retribution for your decision from armed groups. Imagine that you can no longer live at home, you worry about being followed, you must inform people if you plan to deviate from your carefully planned schedule, and you are encouraged to change your cell phone number and be careful of the information you divulge during phone calls. You become wary.
Imagine your relief when, through a series of random yet miraculous circumstances, you come in contact with a group of Colombian Mennonites who are working to promote conscientious objection and change political will. They are providing you with legal accompaniment and helping you learn about your right, as well as connecting you with other conscientious objectors. Everyday you practice your discourse on why you refuse so you are prepared for court. You still may face jail time and violence, but are committed to sharing your story and promoting the right not to bear arms. Because of your choice, a growing group of young menforms in your church who know they have the right to refuse to board the military truck. Every week you meet together to talk about your rights, not only to say no, but to also say yes to peace and alternatives to military service.
Imagine that you were that brave.
(This post is based on a conversation I had this week with an 18 year old conscientious objector who is living out a very similar situation. Here is a link on how the new office on religious freedom in Canada could support conscientious objectors)