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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The Heathrow 13: Plane Stupid or Holy Fools?

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On Monday 25th January the 13 members of Plane Stupid who blockaded Heathrow Airport on the 13th of July 2015 were found guilty in Willesden Magistrates court. They return to court on February 24th for sentencing. The magistrate stated that she intended to deliver a custodial sentence, the maximum permissible period being 90 days.

In her summing up, the magistrate praised the 13 for their integrity, character and intentions and did not dispute that emissions from aviation would exacerbate climate change. Presently, Heathrow is the UKs second largest source of CO2 emissions after DRAX power station. David Cameron’s 2010 pre-election assurance of ‘no ifs, no buts, no new runway’ is now undone and the UK is back in line with global trends to increase aviation emissions to account for 22% of world greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is in no way consistent with the UKs legal obligations under the Climate Change Act. Rather, it is entirely consistent with a planet inhospitable to living things.

The magistrate then went on to point out that the disruption caused to the thousands of travellers and the cost to the airport was so significant that she would have to punish them severely. This came as a surprise to many as no climate campaigner has ever been given a custodial sentence in the UK*.

The unprecedented nature of this sentence is noteworthy enough for those of us who personally engage with the issues of climate change. In addition, I feel this is very interesting from the point of view of the Christian observer and potential participant in such actions.

It is tempting to consider this court case and the action that led to it to be a matter of 13 individuals causing inconvenience to thousands and expense to a legitimate corporate entity. This notion that our lives are a matter of individuals exchanging discrete rational interactions is problematic. It is also the product of the fragile ego catered for by capitalism and entirely consistent with our ongoing descent into imminent catastrophic and multivariate collapse. I think as Christians we need to resist this world view.

The disruption caused to innocent bystanders and the opprobrium received from them as a result of acts of prophetic resistance is often a stumbling block for those of us considering non-violent direct action. However, this reasonable and considerate reticence seems more common for Christians than it apparently was for Christ.

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The most reported, cited and possibly most cinematic example of Jesus’ non-violent direct action was the cleansing of the temple. Here we are told that Jesus, with his followers, caused so great a disruption that temple business was stopped (Mark 11:16). This happened in the days leading up to the Passover, the national annual festival to which ordinary people would have spent days travelling, costing much time and expense. In addition, this was amongst the highlights of their religious calendar and Jesus blew it for a number of them. Perhaps, preceding his Crucifixion, if his accusers had not opted to charge him with blasphemy or sedition, someone would have pointed out the disruption that he and his followers (perhaps 13 in total but probably more) had caused to a lot of innocent bystanders in order to make an ideological point: A point they could, no doubt, have made otherwise through legitimate avenues.

The fact that Jesus did not consider the inconvenience or even spiritual and emotional distress of ‘ordinary people’ fit to deter him needs consideration. Amongst other matters we need to remember that the notion of individual morality as we understand it did not really exist then and arguably ought not to exist today in its current form. The notion that the just society is made up of just individuals is very self-indulgent and is the cause and effect of a great deal of consumerism: ideological, theological, ethical and moral consumerism.

Rather, we need to remember that just individuals are the product of a just society who then feedback to either improve or degrade societal justice, redefining normal, respectable and then legal behaviour with each generation and even on a day to day basis. Evidence suggests that we have been spiralling downwards for some time. Whether one sets year zero at the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, the fall of mankind or similar, we have clearly been at this for a while.

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As such the actions of the Heathrow 13 are not those of some individuals imposing their ideology on a great mass of innocents, but rather should be considered a contrarian component in the feedback loop that has us spiralling towards something like hell on earth. The dominant component in this feedback effect is the everyday, respectable and legal behaviour consistent with this polite genocide we find ourselves so comfortably implicated in. The problem with the actions of the Heathrow 13 is not the great disruption that they caused, but that there were only 13 of them and that they belong to a society devoted to self-destruction. It is very instructive that we have together constructed a society who celebrate troublemakers of the convenient past but respond to these contemporary actions with jail time (Matthew 23:29-31).

Regarding the expense caused to Heathrow Airport we Christians need to remember that the Gospel is the culmination of the process of liberation and restoration outlined in part in the Jubilee writings of Leviticus 25. Foundational to this is the statement that the earth is the Lord’s (Leviticus 25:23). As such, ultimate rights to land or resources are not purchasable (by an individual or corporate entity), nor can they be bestowed by favour, but everyone is subject to the law of love as revealed by Jesus Christ. The Heathrow 13 need to give an account of their actions but so does Heathrow Airport.

Jesus’ action overturning tables in the temple would have cost traders and the institution of the temple money, yet he was unapologetic. The legitimacy of the temple and the practices of those using it were not beyond question, rather they were beyond his forbearance. Since the role of Heathrow, not only in terms of emissions, but also in terms of commerce and culture, is not consistent with life on earth, the fact that the Heathrow 13 caused them financial loss may not be cause for concern.

Once again we see that we have together constructed a society that assumes Heathrow’s legitimacy over the activists. This reveals a preference for power, money and climate chaos that I believe is not in keeping with the example of Jesus Christ.

If what I have said is true, or even half true, then the position of those of us who seek to see the world through Christ-like eyes must be to question this verdict and the subsequent sentence. Our judicial system’s treatment of these unlucky 13 reveals to us what our world has become, and poses a challenge to us as the diaspora of the body of Christ, not of the world, but curiously comfortable in the world.

I realise that what I have written is not the majority view of the Church. We all feel called to be good citizens but some under Christ and some under Caesar. For most of us the requirements of these two Lords are indistinguishable. This also serves to reveal us to ourselves.

These 13 women and men appear in court on Feb 24th to receive sentencing. If you would like to show your support then we are invited to attend a solidarity rally outside Willesden Magistrates court at 9am on Weds 24th February.

* The 13 were charged with aggravated trespass and thus appeared in front of a magistrate. If they had been charged with public nuisance (for which they were arrested) they would have appeared in front of a jury. Juries at times find such defendants not guilty. This judgement is an institutional ruling and not an appeal to the conscience of our peers.

Westley Ingram is one of the 5 members of Christian Climate Action on trial in London on May 31st for painting the Department of Energy and Climate Change in whitewash on the first day of the Paris UN Climate Talks (COP21) last November.