Standing up against injustice can be the hardest thing you ever do, but no one ever said following God would be easy.
No is a word we should use more often.
Perhaps the most difficult no I ever pronounced happened while I was in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Washington, D.C. I found myself in hot water after taking part in a peace demonstration out-of-uniform and in my free time. Afterward I was required to fill out a security form, which asked if there were any circumstances in which I might not “perform the duties you may be called upon to take.” I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer that question honestly in a manner that would be acceptable to the Navy.
Getting back to my base along the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament, and think. Skipping supper, I remained there until at least midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because noncombatants had become war’s main casualties. Besides, how could anyone, Christian or otherwise, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future command?
I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words, “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust. But at the same time I was anxious about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? Finally I composed this paragraph:
I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience, or in opposition to the teaching of my church, as a Catholic. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not obey. . . . I would not assist in any attack or war effort that necessarily involved the death of noncombatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.
While my commanding officer was furious, to my relief nearly all my colleagues treated me well, some of them even singing, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” My parish priest backed me up, as did a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America. Even my puzzled military chaplain gave his approval, though noting, “I never heard about this sort of thing in seminary.” Within weeks I was granted an early discharge as a conscientious objector and went from the Navy directly to the Catholic Worker community in New York.
How lucky I was! Not many Catholic priests in those days would have been as supportive as the ones to whom I turned. But just two years later, in 1963, Pope John XXIII wrote an encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), in which conscience and disobedience were central topics. It was the first papal encyclical addressed not only to Catholics, but also to all people of good will.
The primary human right, Pope John XXIII pointed out, is the right to life. Without that no other right has any meaning. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war (with abortion a close second), peacemaking is among the highest and most urgent human callings.
Pope John XXIII stressed the role of conscience: “The world’s Creator has stamped [our] inmost being with an order revealed to [us] by conscience.” The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state: “A regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides no effective incentive to work for the common good. . . . Since all [people] are equal in natural dignity, no [one] has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for [God] alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence representatives of the state have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.”
In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John XXIII pointed out that laws that violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit obedience: “Governmental authority . . . derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ . . .
A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence. . . . Thus any government which [refuses] to recognize human rights or [acts] in violation of them, [not only fails] in its duty; its decrees [are] wholly lacking in binding force.”
Peacemaking was the encyclical’s core issue. Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “[People] nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms. . . . [T]his conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”
More than half a century has passed. Conscientious objection and civil disobedience are not nearly so rare today as they were when Pope John’s encyclical was published. It’s no longer hard to find a priest who will speak up for those whose conscience leads them to say no to war, abortion, or unjust social structures.
But saying no to those who can punish the noncompliant will always be hard. This is all the more true when saying no violates a law. It becomes even harder when one feels obliged to commit acts of civil disobedience in order to challenge laws, policies, and social structures that threaten life. Immense social pressure makes us long to disappear into the crowd. Fear, rather than love, too often shapes our actions. “The root of war,” Thomas Merton famously observed, “is fear.”
Each January Americans celebrate as a national holiday the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor who was no stranger to jail cells. His Letter from Birmingham Jail has become required reading for anyone wanting to understand the civil rights movement. In it he declares, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Conscience-led dissenters are rarely honored in their lifetimes, but often are remembered with gratitude later on. Not many years ago a postage stamp was issued bearing the image of Henry David Thoreau, who coined the phrase “civil disobedience” and was jailed for refusing to pay an obligatory war tax. Perhaps one day we’ll have stamps honoring Dorothy Day, patron saint of no-sayers and jailbirds, and that troublesome Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who died just a few months ago after many years of consistent pro-life activity.
One lesson that can be distilled from such lives is very simple: Don’t be bullied or manipulated either into obedience or disobedience. God has given each of us a conscience. Form it well and learn to hear it. No one can hear it for you.
This article also appears in the September 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 9, pages 33–35).
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Bachman