As a teenager, I never thought very much about the taking of a life. I had a pretty peaceful childhood and teen life and, with the exception of an occasional bully, karate, and football, violence was not part of my life. I believed in the Ten Commandments, including the one saying, “Thou shalt not kill,” but never envisioned a time when even thinking about it would be necessary. And then came the Marine Corps.
In the Marine Corps, I became very serious about my relationship with God. I set a goal of reading through the New Testament in 10 weeks and determined, to the best of my ability, to live out what I read. I had really never read the Bible before, even though I attended Sunday School, youth group, and church. At the time, I did not have access to the Old Testament. So, I read the New.
The more I read, the more I wanted to live in the light of Christ’s teachings. Much of what I read was difficult and even disturbing. One day, I was on a work detail with several other Marines, all of whom were privates. One of those in the work party was a 17-year-old Marine who had terrible acne, was somewhat shy, and was very easy going. He became the target of a bigger, louder, meaner private who was looking for someone to push around.
After watching the bully trying to provoke the other into a fight, I could stand it no longer. I said, “Look, leave the kid alone.” Turning on me, he said, “Fine. I’ll just give you the a**-whipping I was gonna give him.”
And here is where it became difficult. The evening before I had read, Matthew 5:39 (RSV), which said, “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” All of a sudden, I was in a dilemma.
After a pause, and making up my mind, I said, “All right. If you feel the need to beat on someone to make yourself feel better, I’m right here. But you leave him alone.”
Smiling, he replied, “Deal. Put your hands up and get ready for a beating.”
Understanding that I was, indeed, about to get a beating, I said, “No. I’m not going to fight you. You want to pound on me, go ahead. But you leave him alone.”
After several more unsuccessful attempts to get me to fight, he threw up his hands in disgust, stalked away, and said, “You’re crazy!” I just stood there wondering what had happened. He left the kid alone.
Reading through the New Testament, I came to the conclusion that to be a true follower of Jesus, one had to eschew all types of violence and fighting — and that included war.
For a young Marine whose country was at war in Vietnam, that was a serious problem. If I told anyone in my command what I was thinking and feeling, it would look like a dodge — that I was trying to avoid the obligation to serve my country. If I told no one and was sent to Vietnam, I knew I would be a liability and might even be a real danger to my comrades if they couldn’t count on me. And, I knew that if I couldn’t pull the trigger, I would die in Vietnam. Or go to jail.
On the other hand, if I did tell someone — the chaplain or whomever — what I was going through, it was possible that I could be seen as unfit for service, discharged, and sent home.
But I couldn’t go home. My father, a World War II veteran of the United States Navy, would never understand. He thought that the people who avoided the draft and went to Canada were the worst kind of cowards. Would following what I believed to be the truth mark me, in his eyes, as a coward?
Here I was, a young Marine, well thought of by superiors, who had qualified as an Expert with the rifle — and who was committed to not killing. To turning the other cheek, In fact.
“What in the world,” I thought, “am I going to do?”
(To be continued next week.)
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]