Thursday, December 19, 2013

Conscientious Objectors Needed Now More Than Ever

Ken Butigan
Waging NonViolence
Wikimedia/Leo Harder)
Interior of Civilian Public Service dormitory at Camp Snowline (CPS #31), near Camino California, 1945. In our present age of permanent war, it is almost impossible to recall a time when armed conflicts clearly began and ended. In that ancient, bygone era — say, before 2003 — one could judiciously ruminate on an impending war before it got rolling and make a choice about it. Most people, even then, didn’t see it that way — for them there was no choice. If the government said, “War — jump to it,” invariably most of us said, “How high?” whether that meant picking up a gun, plunking down our taxes, or throwing our full spiritual and political weight behind it. It seemed automatic and inevitable and foreordained. Choice, it seemed, had nothing to do with it at all.

But there was a choice, and some took it seriously. And even today, when war is on a dizzying spin-cycle whirling with such tremendous velocity that it virtually disappears before our very eyes — and when the ever-expanding remote-control battlefield increasingly exceeds every horizon — we still have a choice. Groping our way back to such a decision-point is crucial. Though it will be different than before — a choice made in the midst of the 24/7 careening, never-ending centrifugal spin and not amid the more contemplative lull that we once were afforded before all hell would break loose — this choice must be rescued and learned and applied, given the Pentagon and the NSA’s monotonously relentless planning. What better teachers do we have than those who seized this opportunity in the past? Who better than those who chose?

History is chock full of conscientious objection, though it sometimes takes some hunting around to glimpse it. Violence and injustice — and what is more violent and unjust than war? — often prompts an equal and opposite reaction, from lone individual figures to whole communities, like those of the historical peace churches, including the Mennonites and the Quakers. In virtually no case is this easy. Pacifist religious groupings, where one can feel nurtured and supported in the scandalous belief that killing is wrong, ultimately prepare their members to “pay up,” as Daniel Berrigan — the Jesuit priest and activist who was imprisoned for his resistance to the Vietnam War and has been conscientiously objecting ever since — once pithily described it. To hold stubbornly to such a belief in a society where killing is a matter of policy means there are often bound to be consequences.

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