100 years of recognition of the right to Conscientious Objection

A sermon by Steve Hucklesby, given at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, on the 8th May 2016, to mark 100 years of the recognition of the right to conscientious objection.  We are posting it on our site because we think it says really helpful things about why Christians should sometimes follow their conscience rather than the law.

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Each year Conscientious Objectors day is marked on 15 May. So as we approach this day this year, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on ‘conscience’. How does our faith impact on conscience? And are the insights we might gain from those who have stood by their principles and suffered as a result.

This year is rather special as we mark 100 years of the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. Conscription was introduced in the UK in 1916. It was introduced because during the First World War we were struggling to get sufficient voluntary recruits for the needs of the army.

The Trinity Hall, Book of Remembrance lists 134 members of Trinity Hall who tragically died in that war. We remember to this day their sense of duty and calling. No doubt some who fought in that war will have had conflicted opinions about the war and about their part in it. Even so once conscription was introduced in spite of their doubts they responded to the call of the nation to fight.

Others could not in all good conscience fight under any circumstances. Conscientious objectors suffered ridicule and were accused of a lack of patriotism. Women were encouraged to present them with a white feather – a symbol of cowardice. There were 16,000 people who registered as conscientious objectors. Of these 6,000 were imprisoned. This was often because they failed to gain absolute exemption but instead were required by the tribunal to put on uniform and serve as non-combatants in the military.

I am going to talk about briefly about the lives of two conscientious objectors before coming on to our reading from Acts 4.

But first some thoughts on the nature of conscience and how is it perceived in our scriptures.

Philosophers largely accept that conscience is formed not only by powers of rational reasoning but stems from a sense of morality that is deeply embedded within us. Our moral integrity forms a part of our sense of identity – our own sense of our worth as individuals. Where people of faith may part company from secular philosophers is in the belief that God is the source of all righteousness.

The Old Testament gives an account of God giving to Moses laws for the people of Israel on tablets of stone but the tablets of stone are not where God intends law to rest. God’s new covenant is expressed through Jeremiah. This looks forward to a time when,I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people”. In their minds and on their hearts. Recognition maybe that God intends law not only to guide our behaviour but also to transform our being.

In the Psalms and Proverbs we frequently see the heart referred to as the seat of conscience – the place where morality resides. For example the Psalmist implores God to create in us a pure heart. We see a thirst for teaching “… that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. An appeal to Turn my heart towards your statutes”.

The expectation is that our conscience, or sense of moral integrity, is transformed by God’s action.

I am going to provide accounts of two young men who objected to joining the army on the grounds of conscience but let us also recognise that for others, their conscience led them to an equally strong sense that the German aggression had to be stopped.

Many Conscientious Objectors were motivated by a religious conviction. One such example is that of a young Methodist local preacher William Burwell. In 1914 he initially had told his mother that in all likelihood he would respond to the voluntary call to fight. However on an army training ground he saw sacks of straw suspended between trenches. Into these sacks army recruits were taught to thrust their bayonets. On seeing this he had a change of heart. He recalled in his memoire:

“the thought came to me like a flash. That is not the way Jesus taught us to behave towards our enemies. It was a conviction that came to me with sufficient force to make me resolve to endure whatever was involved in refusing to fight. My firm belief was that when conscription came I should be shot.”

William Burwell spent the war in prison in harsh conditions suffering much mental and physical hardship.

My second account comes from another Methodist, Jack Foister and his motivations and outlook were a little different. Jack Foister was the son of a Cambridge boat builder. In contrast to William Burwell, Jack had a strong political motivation and was a socialist. Like William Burwell he had a good evangelical upbringing. He had won a scholarship to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. But studies had been put off by the war, so he ended up teaching at King’s School, Peterborough. The headmaster at King’s School was anxious to keep his teachers. He tried to persuade Jack to not to claim conscientious objection but to claim exemption on the grounds of the educational needs of the school and on his genuinely poor eyesight.

Jack turned this down and instead applied for conscientious objection on the grounds that he believed the war to be wrong. A tribunal determined that he must put on uniform and take up service in the military as a non-combatant. But for Jack it was not acceptable to be supporting the war in any way. When a warrant was made for his arrest he handed himself in at a police station. He was later imprisoned, tied up, punished for not obeying military orders and eventually one of 35 people sentenced to death at a barracks in France, where he had been forcibly taken. The 35 then had their sentences commuted to 10 years in prison and Jack was eventually released in 1919.

In all likelihood Jack could have quietly sat the war out teaching in Peterborough. As a Cambridge graduate before the war he had a bright future to look forward to.  But now, as a conscientious objector, it was almost impossible to get a job.  

What was the point? What did this act of resistance achieve? You might think not very much – other than for Jack to know that he had been true to himself and to his ideals.

It is probably because conscience forms a part of our sense of who we are, that people like Jack Foister are prepared to take great risks. The American Civil Rights movement was at its core about preserving people’s dignity and self-image, as much as it was about achieving political aspirations. Martin Luther King said that “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because conscience tells you it is right.” 

On resistance Dietrich Bonheoffer comes to mind.

In 1939 Dietrich Bonheoffer went to the United States for a few months to escape the draft. He could have sat out the war in America but recorded in his diary that it was simply ‘unbearable’ or ‘unthinkable’ for a German to be there. For him it seemed to amount to abandonment of his fellow Germans. He returned to Germany to join the resistance with all the risk that went with that.

Again we see this sense of having little choice but to go with conscience.

Peter and John’s actions in Acts Ch 3 and 4 are of a rather different order. Their motivations are not essentially political. We see them healing the sick and preaching salvation through Christ. Unlike Bonheoffer they were not involved in plotting a political revolution.

The openness and honesty of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin provided the Annas the High Priest with a glimpse into their hearts. The judges realised that Peter and John are unschooled ordinary men. Annas still thought that there might be a chance of persuading them not to preach – but he was put straight “We cannot help ourselves. (This is who we are – this is our calling). And so we see here a clash between personal conviction and authority – in the case of Peter and John the conviction arises from their direct encounter with Jesus, and from the Great Commission.  In verse 19 they recognise the mandate of the Sanhedrin to sit in judgement, but say rather bluntly Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God”. The implication being that if Christ’s commission to heal and preach in His name is contrary to the Sanhedrin’s interpretation of law, then the law itself stands condemned before God.

Now, there are different views as to whether actions of civil disobedience can be justified in the UK today.

The Christian tradition has a high respect for the law and the process of law. In a democracy such as our own there is an ethical cost associated with choosing to contravene the law.

Yet members of our churches are among those who have been arrested in actions of civil disobedience: we think for example of the Occupy Movement following the financial crisis of 2009; at demonstrations over the fracking of gas; blocking entrances to the Aldermaston site to protest the UK’s continued investment in nuclear weapons and blocking the Government sponsored arms fair held in London. In all these actions of non-violent civil disobedience we can see Christians at the forefront.

If you have taken the exceptional step of going against the authority of the police in protest then you need to have an explanation as to why the issue in question warrants such exceptional action. In some cases the explanation has included the defence that they are seeking to prevent the execution of a greater crime. And indeed a defence along these lines was accepted by a Judge in a court in London two weeks ago. Five people were found not guilty following their obstruction of the London Arms Fair.

Actions such as these are designed to cause us to think.

I wonder whether we have become too accustomed to thinking of morality as a private matter. We may think of morality as something that applies to me and my behaviour. It is not so fashionable to be talking about morality in public life.

On aspects of public life do we search our consciences?

What are the issues around which you would want to speak out?

Do we have that sense that God is writing his laws in our minds and on our hearts? Engaging not only our powers of reasoning but also our heart.

For we would want to respond with the Psalmist “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer”.

Steve Hucklesby works for the Joint Public Issues Team: Baptists, Church of Scotland, Methodists and United Reformed Church working together.

This was given as a sermon reflecting personal opinions on these issues.

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