Conscientious Objection and Jury Duty
By Steve Clemens 2/29/04
When I registered for the military draft in 1968, the US war on the people of Vietnam was approaching its most brutal phase. Although my college (Wheaton College) had mandated that all male students be enrolled in ROTC, it wasn’t until I stared over the barrel of my rifle on the target range that I realized the target I was aiming at was not as it appeared: the circular target in front of me morphed in my mind to the figure of the “Viet Cong”. My father’s voice echoed in the back of my mind, “Never point your gun at anything you don’t intend to kill.” Setting the gun down, I knew that Jesus’ call to “love my enemies” required me to register as a conscientious objector.
In the 1980’s, I received a summons to report for jury duty in Sumter County, GA. This was somewhat surprising as the practice for many years in that county was to automatically disqualify members of the Koinonia community from serving as jurors. The judicial officials routinely decided that Koinonia folk weren’t the kind of people they wanted to decide the fate of those accused of violating the law. Having experienced city and county jails and federal prison as a result of nonviolent witness against the Vietnam War and our manufacture of nuclear weapons, I knew first-hand that our penal system was racist and dehumanizing. I had experienced that the “corrections” system not only did not “correct”, it was a dysfunctional place that had created more embittered alumni once someone graduated from those concertina-wired warehouses we call jail or prison.
Recalling my Mennonite-Anabaptist heritage as well as the history of the Early Church, I was skeptical of participating in a system which could condemn others to a place I knew to be alienating and inhumane. I decided that my desire to follow the way of Jesus had led me to be a “conscientious objector” to jury duty. When I was included in the jury pool for my first potential trial, the Judge asked if there was anyone who could not serve in an impartial manner. I raised my hand and stood in the midst of 40 or so other potential jurors. “Unless I am given assurance that a jail or prison sentence will not be considered as a result of this case, I will not find the defendant guilty. I have served time in our prison system and have found it to be profoundly dehumanizing and as a Christian I cannot agree to convict anyone to jail until or unless the systems of jails and prisons are changed and prisoners are treated in a way that respects their humanity,” I stated.
Needless to say, I was not chosen for that jury. I assumed that the prosecutor would excuse me from service for the balance of the week but he did not want to let me “off the hook”. So, I was able to confess my convictions before my fellow citizens twice more that week. Hopefully my testimony to the call of Christ did not fall on hard soil. Hopefully some of the other potential jurors were able to reflect on our responsibility to withdraw consent from this wicked system.
I have not been called again to serve on a jury but I have continued to find myself hauled before judges and juries and into jail because of my desire to follow the call of Jesus to be a peacemaker. Relating to new-found friends “inside” has been easier knowing that I’ve refused to send others there.