Refusing military service: my decision for peace

Heidi and Bruno Sägesser-Rich Heidi and Bruno Sägesser-Rich

As Germany once again discusses compulsory military service, Bruno Sägesser of Switzerland is celebrating a very personal anniversary this week: 50 years ago, he refused to do military service in Switzerland and was court-martialed. This is his personal reflection:

A cruel war is raging in Ukraine, a new government with dubious members in Israel is enacting untenable laws, and conflicts are escalating in at least another 50 places around the world.

Politicians and the military continue to tell us the lie that with more weapons there will be peace. At the beginning of every war weapons are used, and at the end of a war there is talk of a catastrophe. Switzerland is also on the verge of supplying more weapons. For me, this is not congruent with what Jesus Christ exemplified to us.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 2, 1973, I, 22 years old, stood before the military court in Aarau as a conscientious objector. This was the most emotional, intense day of my life.

At least three years of intensive preparation led to this day. As a person without a Mennonite family tree, I listened to sermons by Paul Hofer and Samuel Gerber. I became more and more impressed by Anabaptist theology and Anabaptist history.

There was intensive Bible study, conversations with Christian soldiers and Christians critical of the army. I was certainly also influenced by thoughts of the 1968 movement. Experiences in my recruit school solidified the decision that there was no longer a place for me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, in the army.

I faced seven uniformed judges. To my right was a high-ranking officer as prosecutor. To my left was a 22-year-old theology student and friend as defense counsel. Behind me were several rows of seats filled with friends as escorts.

“Three months in prison, unconditionally,” was the sentence. During the three months in prison, I dreamed that if I ever had sons — our sons — and if they decided the same as I did, they could do community service.

This was the beginning of a long road. As a Christian and a representative of the Mennonites, I wanted to fight for alternative civil service. Switzerland finally established civilian alternative service 23 years later in 1996. This was again a highly emotional moment.

Enormous amounts of time, money and energy were invested by me, my wife Heidi and many others. I am grateful for the friendships that developed during this time. Doors opened to hundreds of friends all over the world.

In some war and crisis areas, Heidi and I were privileged to meet people and hear about their hardships and lives. In addition to fellow human beings from many denominations, we also met noble people who were critical of religion and continue to live in a very consistent and exemplary way. Our journey was worthwhile; Heidi and I felt accompanied and carried by God.

My dream continues: As Christians, our lives should become more like the life Jesus Christ modeled for us. Hundreds of passages in the Bible speak of peace and justice.

Bruno and Heidi Sägesser-Rich are members of Evangelical Mennonite Church Schänzli in Muttenz, Switzerland, and parents of nine children.

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