Turn the Other Cheek

A Conscientious Objector in World War II

September 6, 2021 by

In a warrior society, it takes real courage to refuse to kill.

—Phil Berrigan, peace activist and priest.

My father, Dick Wareham, was raised to be a peacemaker. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren in the 1930s, he learned about turning the other cheek from his father. By the time he became eligible for the military draft, his early lessons in peacemaking and his strong faith in Jesus led him to apply for conscientious objector status. In his words:

When I turned eighteen in December 1942, I had to register for the draft. Because of my active church participation in the previous years and especially because of the camping experiences in church camp, I felt that I couldn’t kill another person, and I felt that the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments were clear enough for me to have a conscience against participation in war. Jesus did not want that for Christians. Because of this, many troubles began for me.

My family would not support me, so I went to the pastor of my church, and fortunately he did support me and help me. He later lost his pastorate there because he supported me and one other boy, his own son, as conscientious objectors. Out of forty-some young men of draft age in our church at that time, we were the only ones who took this historical stand of the Church of the Brethren. All my closest friends signed up for the armed services and were taken off to military camps during the next year and a half.

OtherCheekEmbed Mural by Doug Driediger, 1995, Calgary Alberta Canada. Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash.

I registered as a conscientious objector, but was turned down by the local board. I made an appeal, and was called before the board for questioning. I stood there alone as they fired questions at me. I had read much from the Bible and had prayed much for help that I might give the answers so that I would be accepted as a CO. That was an afternoon I will never forget. I’m sure it was an hour or more before they finally excused me and said that I would hear from them in a few days. Nothing in their questions gave me much hope, and the waiting seemed like years. But when the card arrived, I was accepted with a 1-O classification.

Almost immediately my friends in Martinsburg gave me the cold shoulder when I came home from college. Several of my friends were killed in the war and one or the other came home quite troubled and confused in mind. I experienced people moving to another pew in church when I sat next to them. Often on the streets people would cross to the other side when I walked to the store. Many good friends would not speak to me any longer, and others tried to get me to be a non-combatant or a chaplain so that I would still be supporting the war. After a time, I pretty much stayed at college except on holidays, as it was so distressing to everyone, including my family.

In college it was not much better; the president especially didn’t like my stand. He was a Brethren minister and former moderator of the entire Church of the Brethren, and he was my department head as well. So the going wasn’t easy.

The concepts of non-resistance, pacifism, and peacemaking then took a decidedly personal turn.

There was one other conscientious objector on campus, Don Forbes, training for the ministry. Before the draft was in full swing, during the fall of 1942, I observed a scene which I will never forget and which was a witness to his belief and faith. The football players, who represented strength and superiority on campus, surrounded Don Forbes one night after supper outside the dining room in front of the whole student body. Don was a big man but nonviolent in belief. One of the football players stepped up to him and asked him if he really was a CO.

Don said, “Yes, I am. That is what I believe.”

Then the other fellow pulled back and hit him with all his strength in the face, and knocked Don down with blood coming out his nose. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I froze in complete horror at what happened.

Then the football player said, “OK, Forbes, are you still a CO?”

Don slowly got to his feet and said, “That doesn’t change my belief in Jesus’ way and teaching. I am still a CO.”

Then the football player hit him again in the face with all his might, and Don went down again in great pain. But slowly he got up again and said to his attacker, “I forgive you.”

The fellow was furious and charged him again, but many other football players grabbed their fellow aggressor and marched him off to his room. Many of the football players and others standing by were aghast at this brutal scene. Another student and I helped Don carefully through the crowd to his room, where he was in bed several days with facial cuts, swollen eyes, and headaches.

Don was a friend of mine through college and seminary. He often told me, in humor, “Dick, if you would only be quiet and not talk so much, you wouldn’t expose your ignorance.”

When I think about my father’s story, I am reminded of this poem from Clarence Jordan, New Testament Greek scholar and founder of Koinonia Farm. I can just hear my dad saying Amen.

For when the cards are all in,
And the final chapter of history is written,
When Time is rolled up as a garment
And God is all and in all;
In that final day it will be the peacemakers,
Not the warriors,
Who will be called the sons of God.

 Kirk Wareham lives with his wife, Alice, at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. Comments

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