Holy Disobedience

No!by Jim Forest

“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. Having taken part in a peace demonstration in my free time and out-of-uniform, I quickly found myself in hot water. Afterward I was required to fill out a security form in which I was asked if there were any circumstances in which I might not “perform the duties which 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 non-combatants had become war’s main casualties. Also 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 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 which necessarily involved the death of non-combatants. 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 Catholic University. Even my military chaplain, though puzzled, gave his approval, while 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 so supportive as the ones I turned to. But just two years later, in 1963, the pope himself, 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 just to Catholics but to all people of good will.

The primary human right, Pope John 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 stressed the role of conscience: “The world’s Creator has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by conscience.” He 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 pointed out that laws which 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…. This 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 of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.”

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, all the more 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 which threaten life. Not just the law but 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.”

Martin Luther King in jail
Martin Luther King in jail

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 declared: “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. Who knows, 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.

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Jim Forest has been jailed several times for acts of civil disobedience, on one occasion for more than a year after burning draft records as a protest against the Vietnam War. His latest book is The Root of War is Fear: Tomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. Earlier books include biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and Dorothy Day (All Is Grace) and Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

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For U.S. Catholic / draft as of 21 May 2016
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