Let me briefly tell you a story that suggests why Christians might have real difficulty with any appeal to the claims of either the state as the ultimate or authority or “family values’ that catch cry so beloved of conservative politicians fishing for the vote of members of the Christian church.
The story I want to tell is that of an Austrian peasant who was executed in 1943 for his conscientious objection to serving in World War 2 because his country was involved in an unjust war.
Franz Jägerstätter was born in, 1907 in St. Radegund in upper Austria an isolated and close-knit agricultural village near the Bavarian border. In April 1938 Jägerstätter cast the only negative vote in his village against the incorporation of Austria into Greater Germany.
Jägerstätter was unclear about what to do about enlistment in the armed forces. Everyone told him that his greatest obligation was to serve his country. It was not his responsibility or position to decide whether the war was just or necessary. So in late 1939, when he received his draft notice, he reported for training. After several months he received a deferment. This experience of military service convinced him that he could never serve again in the German army. He told his wife, “If they call me up, I will not serve.”
Priests and bishops in Austria exhorted their flocks to do their duty for God and country. Catholics, including priests and seminarians without qualm enrolled in the military. Jägerstätter was told that after the war his country and church would need him. His refusal of military service would surely result in his death. He would be removing himself from the struggle just at a time when the church had real need of men with a sensitive conscience. He was also a family man with three daughters and had a responsibility to take care of them.
Jägerstätter’s response to this argument was that he could only act in a way that was compatible with his conscience. He could not judge the actions taken by others but felt he had been given the grace to see a clear course of action and follow it.
In February 1943, Jägerstätter was again called to active duty. He reported to his unit on March 1, 1943, four days late. Because of his conscientious objection to the war and to the Nazi government he would not perform military service. He was arrested, and transferred to the military prison in Linz. On May 4, 1943, he was transferred to the Tegel military prison on the outskirts of Berlin.
Jägerstätter was again told that he owed it to his family to accept military service rather than throw his life away and that as a citizen he was not responsible for the acts of the government, in any case, he was not in a position to pass judgment on government policy. Beyond this he was advised that taking the military oath and serving in the armed forces was not an endorsement of the policies of the government.
I can easily see that anyone who refuses to acknowledge the Nazi Folk Community and also is unwilling to comply with all the demands of its leaders will thereby forfeit the rights and privileges offered by that nation. But it is not much different with God: he who does not obey all the commandments set forth by Him and His Church and who is not ready to undergo sacrifices and to fight for His Kingdom either – such one loses every claim and every right under that Kingdom...
Now any one who is able to fight for both kingdoms and stay in good standing in both communities (that is, the community of saints and the Nazi Folk Community) and who is able to obey every command of the Third Reich – such a man, in my opinion, would be a great magician. I for one cannot do so. And I definitely prefer to relinquish my rights under the Third Reich and thus make sure of deserving the rights granted under the Kingdom of God.
The true Christian is to be recognized more in his works and deeds than in his speech. The surest mark of all is found in deeds showing love of neighbour. … Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love. (Gordon Zahn In Solitary Witness pp.234-235)
On May 24, 1943 Jägerstätter was brought before the Reich Military Tribunal and the court condemned him to death for sedition. He was executed in August 1943. Interestingly his stay in Tegel prison in Berlin overlapped with the presence there of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Jägerstätter rejected the view that as a Christian he should be satisfied with supporting a government that strongly supported family values. He refused to be bamboozled by arguments that assured him he did not have to act on his moral convictions, convictions that called him to refrain from taking up arms in an unjust cause.