Family splits over sons' military service; war conflicts with their beliefs
By CHARITA GOSHAY
CANTON - The Marine Corps Reserve 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines returned home from Iraq to the open arms of grateful family members.
Jason and Johel Woodliff had only each other.
The brothers say they were not greeted by their family upon their return on Oct. 6, because of religion.
The Woodliffs' parents are devout Jehovah's Witnesses, who oppose war and military service.
Graduates of Washington High School in Massillon, the Woodliffs said they had a strict upbringing based on their parents' faith, and that the real trouble began when they announced their intentions to become Marines.
"When they found out I wanted to join, they were very upset about it," said Johel, 20, who turned down a college scholarship to join the Marines in 2003.
"I let them know that as I grew older, I had done some research on the religion, and that it didn't abide with my beliefs."
Jason, 23, claims that when he informed his parents in 2004 that he too intended to join the Marines, he was asked to leave the house.
"I was 18 years old, living by myself in a trailer," he said. "I haven't had a conversation with my dad in five years. For him, it's 100 percent about the religion."
Though the Bible is filled with accounts of battles and war imagery, J.R. Brown, director of public information for the Watchtower Bible Tract Society, confirmed that Jehovah's Witnesses don't participate in military service based on their interpretation of Scripture, and that the actions of the Woodliffs' parents are consistent with the faith.
"As Christians, we're neutral with respect to the conflicts that nations have," he said. "Our neutrality is just in regards to conflicts of men. This doesn't mean we're adversaries. We try to (convey) that to the person as best we can, but because they're usually partisan, they think we're against them. That's not the case. We're truly neutral."
Brown noted that numerous U.S. court decisions have recognized members' right to neutrality.
"We're not be feared," Brown said, adding that the church is merely adhering to Jesus' admonition to, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God, the things that are God's."
Brown acknowledged that family members who enter the military voluntarily, risk "disassociation."
"We as an organization or local congregation do not initiate this action," he explained. "Rather than 'disfellowship,' we use 'disassociation' as a term. That means the individual made a conscientious decision that he or she would no longer ascribe to the principles that we do. He or she has decided to take a side; the individual has left the position of 'neutral.' We look at disassociation as accepting the person's decision to take a side."
Given that the faith places a great deal of emphasis on the family, Brown concedes that others might see the policy as contradictory.
"It depends on how you look at your Christian responsibility," he said. "We look at our responsibility before God as our first and foremost responsibility. As our creator, he comes first. We feel our position of neutrality is based on our love for him. If a family member does not accept the same decision, we feel they have to bear the consequences. It pains us. We're human too."
Brown said members must prioritize their allegiances.
"You have to decide who's first in your life, is it God more than any human?" he said. "The fact is, we do not even put ourselves and our own interests ahead of God. He's our creator. Our allegiance is first to him. In making that decision, it does at times create problems within the family. Husbands, wives, parents can be torn; there's love there. But the apostle said we must obey God as ruler rather than man."
The brothers said that although they no longer embrace a particular faith, they believe in God and the Bible, adding that many Marines are deeply religious.
"There are Scriptures written all over Iraq," Johel said. "My favorite is John 15:13."
Attached to Johel's dog tags is a worn medallion of St. Michael, the warrior angel. He also carries a camouflage-paperback Bible.
"War shouldn't be necessary, but war has existed since the beginning of man," he said. "The Bible speaks of war constantly. King David was one of the greatest warriors. It shouldn't be a necessity, but it's a reality."
The Rev. Wendy Bausman, a retired Navy chaplain and an associate pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church, ministered to Marines and sailors for 14 years.
"I didn't have a conflict serving in the military," she said. "But I was a non-combatant, which put me in different category. It would have been really challenging for me (in uniform), simply because of handling a weapon. I'm not comfortable with that."
Bausman said she did encounter service people who became conscientious objectors.
"The first person they go to outside their chain of command, is the chaplain," she explained. "A chaplain listens, counsels and writes a recommendation. They also must discern if the person is just trying to get out of the military, or it's something sincere."
She recalled one Marine who became an objector after joining a Mennonite church.
"It was really an honest introspection," she said. "He was struggling with the military once he became a Mennonite." unconditional love
The Woodliff brothers said they really didn't expect their parents to attend their homecoming.
"I begged my mother to come, but I knew she wouldn't," Johel said. "Several families know our situation and have taken us under their wing. My mom knows I'll always have love for her. I believe love is unconditional."
His brother is less forgiving.
"What's the most important thing in the Bible? Love and family," Jason asked.
"It's not like I blasphemed God or worshipped the devil. It's just ridiculous to me."
In a written statement, Thomas and Mia Woodliff respond: "We love our sons and are saddened that they have expressed public disappointment regarding what should be a private, family matter, that is, our choice not to attend the recent homecoming party for the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. As you know, we are Jehovah's Witnesses and are neutral as to the political and military affairs of the world. We base our beliefs on Scriptures such as John 17:14, 16, Matthew 5:43, 44 and Matthew 26:52 among others. This means we are neither for nor against the political involvements of the 200-plus nations that we can be found in. This does not mean that we do not love the land in which we live, or that we disrespect the government or those in authority. We recognize that each nations ruling authority has the right to enact and enforce laws, make foreign policy and to purse its own sovereign interests. We simply choose not to participate.
"However, we are generally known as exemplary taxpayers and citizens and we try to follow the laws of the land to the extent that our Bible-trained conscience will individually permit. Which leads us to the main point of our statement. Our two sons were taught to be peace-loving followers of Jesus Christ. Instead, they have chosen a different path. We respect their right to chose whatever lifestyle they wish. And we hope one day for reconciliation so that we can be a united family again. We have many fond memories of the abundant good times we shared together. In the meantime, please be assured that the current difference in point of view, and the separation in ties that has occurred as a result, does not mean that we love our children less." (Love? They are willing to forsake their children because of some man's interpretation of scripture.)
These poor people are deluded into thinking that their stance is neutral. If it were neutral they would not care one way or the other. No, they have taken a stand. A stand that is against war. Because of this sick religion they will not aloow their childreen the same freedom without repercussions set down by old men in Brooklyn.