No, we are not going to dabble in politics. Nor are we going to plead the rightness or wrongness of either the position of the Republicans or that of the Democrats in this matter. For one thing, the position of both is characterized by the fact that the motivations were pragmatic; and when it comes to pragmatic considerations, a political figure can only hope that he is gauging correctly the opinions of the half-plus-one, the majority, of the electorate. If he does, he wins; if he fails to do so, he loses the election. Besides, when it comes to presidential pardons, neither former President Ford nor our new President Carter has a clean record. The latter, as you know, has issued a blanket pardon to all draft-evaders—and this is the subject of this editorial. But the former has on his record a pardon which will undoubtedly also go down in history books, the pardon of ex-President Nixon.
We do wish, however, to pass judgment from a Christian point of view on President Carter’s recent pardon of almost all violators of the Selective Service Act during the years of the Vietnam War. Why? In the first place, simply because it was an important action involving the life of our nation. This would be sufficient reason in itself to justify a Scriptural evaluation. In the second place, however, there has been a hue and cry raised in some quarters about this action of the President; and in this connection various reasons have been proposed for condemning his action. Should these be our reasons also? What is our Christian evaluation of those reasons? And, in the third place, this entire matter of obeying or not obeying the draft was in recent years a burning question especially for young people. Moreover, clergymen and church spokesmen frequently defended and encouraged disobedience, while others left it to individual conscience. It is by no means impossible that the future will bring young people, including our own covenant youth, before these same questions again. And what must their attitude be then? How must we instruct them on matters such as this? It is for these reasons that we reflect on this presidential pardon.
There have been various reasons proposed for judging the presidential pardon of draft-evaders to be a wrong decision. Some have suggested that the violators of the Selective Service Act were guilty of a lack of patriotism, and that if they did not want to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, they are not entitled to the privileges of citizenship, that if they fled the country when they were needed in our armed forces, they should not be allowed to re-enter the country without penalty. Others have pointed to the alleged unfairness of pardoning these draft-evaders. They claim that this is grossly unfair toward those who obeyed the law, who served in the armed forces, who gave up some of the best years of their life, who suffered hardships, who were wounded in battle, who were prisoners of war, and who were killed in the course of the Vietnam War. Still others have warned of the potential dire consequences of this act of President Carter. It is claimed that a pardon of this kind can only serve to foment disrespect for the law of the land, that in the ,future there may very well be a rash of such draft-evaders in case of a military draft, seeing that it is possible to violate the law and then to go scat free. It is reasoned that many will figure that they can safely afford to disobey a new draft law in the future, seeing that the government will not punish such disobedience, but pardon it, and that then our country might have difficulty in obtaining sufficient men to defend itself in case of attack. Further, it is claimed that this entire procedure has made a farce of the existent laws and principles which always allowed for conscientious objection to military service. For those who disobeyed the draft law claimed to have done so—individualistically—for conscientious reasons; and the presidential pardon has in effect allowed them to get away with this kind of conscientious objectorship.
Now there may be some merit in some of the above argumentation, though it is not impossible to find fault with it also. However, the point must be made that none of these arguments go to the heart of the matter; none of them appeal directly to the Scriptural principles with respect to government and with respect to authority and obedience. Our point is that from the latter point of view, the draft-law violators were guilty of a willful and flagrant transgression of the law of the land, contrary to the ordinance of God; and the government, represented in this instance by President Carter, is guilty of a flagrant trampling of justice, also contrary to the ordinance of God.
What is that ordinance?
For rulers, that ordinance requires that they, as ministers of God, be revengers to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. It is highly questionable, to say the least, whether Scripture even recognizes a right of “the powers that be” to grant a pardon. Perhaps there is room for such a thing as “executive pardon” in instances where a person’s guilt or degree of guilt is at least questionable. But that is hardly germane to this discussion. For, in the first place, there is no question of the guilt involved. It is the right and calling of the government to wield the sword. That wielding of the sword includes the waging of war. For that purpose the government has the authority to require military service of its subjects. And it is this authority—God-given authority (for the use of which the government also is solely responsible before God)—this authority was flagrantly flouted by those who evaded the draft and resisted it. But, in the second place, the very idea of pardon—if we concede that it belongs to the authority of government—implies the acknowledgement of wrong-doing and the confession of it. Now, not only has there not been a judicial finding of guilt by the courts of the land (for the simple reason that the draft violators in most instances fled the jurisdiction of our courts and went to other countries), but there certainly has been no acknowledgement of guilt on their part. There has been no plea for mercy. On the contrary, these men have defiantly continued to insist that they were right in resisting the law. They have even boldly claimed that the president’s action did not go far enough, and that he should also issue a pardon to military deserters and those who received less than honorable discharges—a claim which, on theirpremises, has some merit. No, the sole calling of the government was to enforce the law and, so doing, to punish the disobedient. To do anything else is certainly to place official sanction on disobedience and to encourage rebellion.
For subjects, that ordinance requires that they “must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” This being in subjection implies, in the first place, that as long as and when the government acts within its proper sphere, i.e., the sphere of ruler-subject relationships, the Christian citizen will, for God’s sake, be obedient. If it is the government’s authority to wield the sword in the waging of war—and it is, and if it is the government’s power to call its citizens to arms in order to wage war—and it is, then whether that war be just or unjust, and whether we consider that war proper or improper, it is our calling to obey. This does not preclude our testifying of our disagreement through the proper channels. Nor does it imply that we personally and individually become responsible before God if that war is morally wrong; that responsibility belongs to the government, not to the individual citizen. Only if and when the government steps outside its proper sphere, and only, therefore, when the issue becomes one of obeying men rather than God, does disobedience become not only permissible but also mandatory. If the government steps into our homes or into our parental schools and says, “You may no longer pray here,” then we must say, “We must obey God rather than men.” Disobedience becomes mandatory. But even then, we may not resist and rebel, but must be in subjection and be prepared to take the consequences of our disobedience. This, you see, the draft evaders did not do. They claimed for themselves individualistically the right to decide whether or not they would render military service in any given war. And this is not only individualism; it is the principle of revolution.
The Christian, and especially the Christian youth; must not be deceived by this philosophy. We are living in times when the air is filled with propaganda for this very principle of revolution—even on the part of those who for various reasons might be pragmatically opposed to the presidential pardon of these lawbreakers. And it is well that we be on the alert against this lawlessness, and that we understand our duty as Christian citizens.
The basic trouble is, of course, that our nation was conceived in revolution and born in violence. These, it is becoming more and more evident, cannot be escaped by our country. They belong to the very foundations of our national structure. But also in this respect we, as people of God, must be in the world, but not of the world.