As a child, Tim McElwee was raised in the Catholic Church. As he moved into high school, he decided to break with family tradition and joined the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic Peace Churches. His conversion to pacifism started with his early experience with Catholic authors such as Dorothy Day and Daniel and Philip Berrigan. The Catholic Worker Movement, created in the 1930s and still active today (a network of “houses” set up around the country to address social justice issues), was very influential for him with their focus on anti-war activities during the Vietnam War.
Tim says, “As I moved into high school, I can remember my dad saying something like, you know, I just hope you’re not drafted. I can remember some messages along that line. More than anything, it was not so much a personal risk as much as just his great disgust at the loss of life, the waste of human life there [Vietnam]. As those years went on, I started hearing from some Catholic priests about people like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. I started subscribing to The Catholic Worker, a penny a copy. I started reading about the Berrigan brothers, some of their articles as I could find them. One parish priest who was a dear friend of our family who had spent five, maybe ten years in Bolivia.Hearing him talk about the tremendous poverty and human need there, and the way that that was folded into a waste of resources on war, was an important development for me.
“So, as I got into maybe my junior year in high school, I can remember thinking very clearly to myself, as I envisioned scenes from Vietnam, that if I were ordered to kill a Vietnamese person in battle I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it. There’s no way I could fire a weapon and deliberately try to end a life that I so clearly understood at that age as a gift from God. God had created this human being. I had no right to end that person’s life.
“As that was becoming clearer in my mind, I was trying to express those conversations with my family when we had priests over. Maybe it was a priest, maybe it was my dad, I don’t know who said it, but someone said I should try to write to the Bishop and tell him what I think. And so I remember sitting down and trying to do that, to write that letter. And it was a very hard thing to try to do, as a junior or so in high school. To try to articulate what felt to me like mostly just feelings, and to do it in a way that would not sound simplistic. I remember pleading with my dad to help me write this.And, at the time, I was really angry that he wouldn’t help me with it. As I look back on it now, I’m really grateful that he wouldn’t, because it forced me to wrestle with that, and to try to articulate what I understood to be the basis of my emerging pacifism.
“I wrote the letter and I got a response back from the Bishop. I can remember reading the letter, which was probably two paragraphs long, and maybe comprised of three sentences, where he had said something like, ‘Thank you for your letter. I’m glad that you’re thinking about how your faith relates to the important question. There are, as you know, a variety of opinions on the ethics of this war. Yours Very Truly.’ I just remember reading the letter and thinking that I spent hours trying to say what I thought, and the response I got was yeah, yeah, yeah, don’t waste my time, you know, you’re one of the many who have different perspectives. So, I remember trying to write a second one, a follow-up letter, and for the life of me I can't remember if I ever finished it and actually sent it off.But the indelible image is of such a pathetic, bland, non-response letter from the official representative of the Catholic Church.”
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