Filed under: Militarism, Peacemaker spirit | Tags: air force, conscience, Human Rights, pacifism, spirit
Two weeks ago I spoke at a gathering in Austin TX on Honouring Conscience. As I prepared I revisited those times in my life when I had listened to my own conscience. And then I began to make notes of people around the world who had acted out of conscience. I remembered troubling days of decision making many had reported to me. I recalled the joy and freedom that lit up their faces as they told their story and the consequences including changed relationships to neighbours, nation and colleagues that flowed from their decisions. I had never experienced such energy and confidence in preparing for an event as I did for this one.
At our gathering we celebrated acts of conscience in an honouring ceremony where persons from many walks gathered for special words of blessing and recognition, former soldiers, tax resisters, community activists, educators, professionals, workers, and Conscientious Objectors. As the words of recognition were spoken, my mind was also illuminated with a cloud of witnesses with whom I had worked from every clan, culture and nation where I served. It was humbling to be in the presence of this sacred trust of inner light, a force more powerful than law or might.
Immediately before this honouring ceremony I attended a workshop where the presenters included six former and current soldiers from Fort Hood north of Austin, one of the major finishing schools and launch sites for soldiers going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each soldier described his own journey through patriotic acts of killing to preserve “our way of life”. They spoke of the estranging space deep inside called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), where the meaning of their acts intermingled with their conscience.
One described the “first” Iraqi child he killed because he thought that child would grow up to be a terrorist. Another described a 36 hour odyssey in the field of killing. Each soldier spoke of suicide thoughts, broken relationships, abusive behaviour, lying, stealing, legal and illegal drugs and alcohol in the journey to find safety from the memories. Now they stumble through college classes in a world where there are few jobs. When asked if anything helped in their journey to recovery they agreed that the spirit and compassion of Cindy Thomas who runs a coffee shop called Under the Hood, just off the base gave them hope. Cindy’s active duty husband’s experience and the decision of her son to join the marines compelled her to open this center. The soldiers couldn’t think of anything else that helped them.
But the Iraq veterans were not the only former military people at this event. An important spirit behind the celebration of conscience was Garland Robertson former air force pilot and chaplain. Garland’s journey included his own renewal of conscience when as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force he reached a boundary within that would not allow him to go on without speaking more directly about militarism. A multi year battle with his superiors through rejection, hearings and court cases led to his retirement and current pastoral work at the Austin Mennonite Church. His firm persistent familiarity with the Spirit encourages people around him to be alive to the life of conscience.
As these heroes spoke I remembered the Iraqi soldier I met in Baghdad who refused to serve in Iraq’s army. His ear was partially cut off as a permanent reminder of his disobedience. I remembered the paramilitary soldier in Columbia who showed up one day seeking help to disappear from his comrades who would surely kill him if they knew he was trying to leave. I remembered the local heroes, pastors, prophets, imams, monks and human rights workers who listened to conscience and saved lives in the Philippines, Viet Nam, Burma, Indonesia each in a special time of political emergency. In Pakistan this past June I met a Pakhtoon man from the part of Pakistan where the Taliban are strong who travelled for two days by foot and bus to tell the story of the bombing that his people live under and plea for help to save lives.
Did Albert Einstein really mean what he said, “Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” Conscience is not something that is owned by a particular class, nation or sect although it is foundational to the life of faith. Nor can it be destroyed when people find ways to listen to it and act on it. Tyranny finds its place when people of conscience fail to act. Listening to conscience does not make us over into perfect specimens of our species. When conscience choices are made the darkest hours of our common life become points of light for all humanity. Even a child understands the voice of conscience.
Before there was law, conscience already existed. That is why the breaking of law is not disrespect for the law. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from the Birmingham jail wrote, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”