Conscription in peace time is something new in our country.
We are, of course, acquainted with conscription from the time of the World War, when for a time voluntary enlistment was replaced by the draft. But as a regular and permanent institution conscription was not known in America until recently.
It is true that even now conscription was resorted to as something special, as a defense measure. We are told that the present war in Europe also threatens our shores, and that, if the Nazis should be victorious in their war with England, it is not impossible that they conceive of the idea of also invading our country. And it is argued that such an invasion must not be considered as lying outside of the range of possibilities. Hence, we should be forewarned. And being forewarned we should prepare for the worst. We must become strong and become armed to the teeth, so that our very strength may discourage the enemy from even making the attempt of invading America. A defense program has been prepared. And to this defense program also belongs the present conscription measure, according to which all young men between the ages of twenty one and thirty six had to register and are liable to be drafted into military service.
The result is that several of our boys, and I now mean our Christian boys, particularly of our own Protestant Reformed young men, may soon have to leave us for a period to receive their training.
Some of them, that had enlisted in the National Guard have already departed and are even now in Camp Beauregard.
For them this means an important change in their way of life.
There is, it is true, a favorable side to this change.
Let it be said, first of all, that a Christian can have nothing against the conscription law. Those theological students about whom we recently read in the papers, who refused to register because the whole idea of the draft was in conflict with the “teaching of Jesus”, and who were tried in court and sentenced to imprisonment, certainly must have imbibed a wrong kind of theology. The government certainly bears the sword according to Scripture. And this also implies that it has the calling to punish any foreign power that might attempt to invade our country. But if this belongs to its calling, it stands to reason that it must whet its sword for the task. And whatever one may think of the propaganda that would make us feel as if the danger of invasion by the Nazis is imminent of which I personally am not at all persuaded), it must be granted that it is the height of folly in our present world for nation or government to act as if we live in a peace loving world and to fail to prepare. There can be no principal objection against conscription and universal military training.
Some have objected that conscription in peace time is not “democratic.”
But this is a poor objection.
How Americans who always boast that the democratic government is a government “by the people” as well as “of the people and for the people”, can raise such an objection is hard to understand. Can there be privileges without obligations? Surely, if it is really true that we are all equal, and that we all have an equal share in this “government by the people”, if this is really the idea of democracy, it must follow that it is thoroughly democratic to impose on all alike the obligation to defend the country in time of war.
And universal military service is certainly to be preferred above voluntary enlistment. Not, indeed, because, as the editor of The Banner argues, one who enlists as a soldier voluntarily is himself personally responsible for those he might kill in battle, while the conscript can justly put all the responsibility upon the shoulders of the government that called him to the colors. The soldier, as long as he merely obeys orders in battle, is never a murderer, whether he volunteers or is drafted. Does the hangman become responsible for the execution of the death sentence, merely because he applied for the position? Of course not. Were the soldiers that came to John the Baptist drafted? Not very likely. The armies of those days consisted of hired forces, as is well known. Yet, John does not tell them to resign from their post. No, the soldier is no murderer. Whether he enlists or is drafted, he employs not his own sword, but that of the higher powers. And these are responsible, not he.
Yet, conscription, and especially universal military training is preferable to voluntary enlistment.
First of all, because it is more just. Why should not all the young men, rich and poor, be held responsible for the defense of their country in time of war?
Secondly, because it improves the general caliber of the army, and is apt to make army life more bearable, more pleasant, if not a certain class of men, but all must enter the service.
However this may be, when our young men are called, they need have no scruples or have conscientious objections. In their obedience to the higher powers they may serve their God.
Then, too, from certain viewpoints life in the army may be considered to have its favorable aspects. The physical exercise a young man gets in camp will straighten his body and steel his muscles, make him strong and healthy, The discipline of the army may have a salutary effect on many a youth, who at home probably never learned to order his life according to strict rule; and there is no better place than the army to learn by experience what it means to bow before authority and to obey blindly.
But, of course, there are many disadvantages connected with life in the camp.
The conscript will be away from home, away from his people, and away from the sphere of influence exerted by the Church.
And this means a good deal.
Especially is this true in our country and in our own age. Those of us who are acquainted with conscription and military service in old Holland, know that even there, especially if a Christian young man were stationed in the southern part of the country, there were spiritual disadvantages connected with a soldier’s life. Yet, Holland is not large and there are many churches, and usually one could find one of his own churches where he might worship. But in our own country this is quite different, especially in our day. When one is away from his home church it is generally difficult, and often impossible to find a place of worship where the gospel of Jesus Christ is still preached, and I am not thinking now of specifically Reformed preaching. And how much it means to be separated from the influence and fellowship of the Church and of the people of God; not to be able to find a place of worship where one may be instructed in the Word of God and receive a spiritual blessing, one usually does not realize until he is forced to be away from home.
And the religious atmosphere of the army can hardly be expected to be very healthful.
Recreation and amusement will be offered to the young conscript, but hardly of a sort that will tend to spiritual edification.
Even the influence of the army chaplain will not be of very great benefit to the Reformed young man.
And, no doubt, he will come into contact also with the “world” in its worst sense. He will, probably, be in the company of those that are accustomed to take God’s name in vain. And he may be shocked often when he discovers the moral standard according to which many walk and speak.
In a word, while the young Reformed conscript must miss the influence of home and Church and of the fellowship with God’s people, he will be in a different world, surrounded by many temptations.
And in the midst of these he must stand alone, on his own feet.
What to do about this?
First of all, he should feel confident that the Lord has placed him in that position. If a young man deliberately leaves home and church and goes into the world, the matter is quite different. He can hardly have the confidence that he is walking in the Lord’s way, and that, therefore, he may seek and expect God’s grace to strengthen him. But with the young conscript this is different. The call came and he obeyed. In the camp he is where God stationed him. And the same Lord that placed him there is able to sustain him and to give him grace to be faithful and to be a light in the midst of the world.
Hence, mindful of his own weakness, and of the power of the grace of the Lord Jesus, he should seek His grace and Spirit daily in prayer.
He should, of course, not forget to take his Bible with him to camp, and to read it daily. Take time to read it. The Word of God is a lamp unto our feet, a light upon our path. There is nothing to be compared with the influence, the spiritual strength and comfort and guidance we receive through faithful reading of and meditation upon the Scriptures.
He should try to get as much wholesome and spiritual literature from home as possible.
And he should keep in correspondence with his Church, his pastor, his former society friends and fellow members, as well as with his home.
All these means may help him as he wears the American uniform, also to put on and to keep on the whole armor of God, that he may be faithful and be able to stand in the evil day!
And thus there will be a spiritual blessing, strengthening of our faith and steeling of our spiritual muscles in the battle we are called to fight in our new surroundings and while standing on our own feet in the midst of many temptations.
May the Lord grant it!