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Conscientious Objection: Humanity's Default Position

by John K. Stoner  (November 3, 2017)

Berry told us Monday that the plain sad fact of his mortality is taking his voice out of this blog.  And how we will miss his voice.  We have come to depend on his findings of facts hidden, and truths ignored and suppressed.  The courageous pacifist Dorothy Day titled her autobiography THE LONG LONELINESS.  Let’s honor her by thinking of Berry as now beginning to say his long goodbye.  

Last Friday I wrote “Conscience, Creativity and Courage,” a call to recognize voices of conscience in this looming crisis of our own historical moment.  In the next several blogs I will go deeper into this call.

Today, conscience—the voice and voices of conscience.  First, I invite you to look nowhere beyond yourself for this timeless and urgent voice.  It’s an amazing thing about humanity—time and again the help our forebears needed was found hidden or ignored within their own selves. 

Consider this:  Most Americans are by now conscientious objectors to racism and white privilege.  They hear the voice of their own conscience in this matter.  And most men have been conscientious objectors to rape all along.  This is to point out that conscientious objection is familiar to most of us, though perhaps by other language, and has good standing with large segments of the population.  So much so that few of this majority of Americans would boast that some of their best friends make fun of conscientious objection to racism or rape.  

Given  this broad and strong inner voice of conscience, is it really surprising that conscientious objection to war and all homicide (killing humans) is the public stance of many people and the private conviction of many more?  But why would, or how could, this be so?

What if it should be nothing more, or less, than the expression of something broadly true but strangely hidden in the human soul?  Some voices are telling us that this is so. 

Maria Santelli, Director of the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, DC. says that “The default position for humanity is that of conscientious objection to war.”  March 2015 TED Talk, (see here)  That is a striking assertion, isn’t it?  But think about what we said above—most Americans are conscientious objectors to racism.  Do we think that society taught them this voice of conscience, or that they were born with an inclination to see all people first of all simply as people?  

Dr. Camillo Mac Bica,  Professor of Philosophy, School of Visual Arts (NYC), former Marine Corps Officer and Vietnam Veteran, says, "Human beings are not killers by nature. They [killers] have to be created.  Moral injuries are an inevitable consequence of a sophisticated manipulation and distortion of the recruits’ moral foundations and their moral identities and the profound moral confusion and distress they experience as the horror, the insanity, and the moral gravity of their actions in combat become apparent." (testimony at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War on March 21, 2010) (see here)

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967,  “Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence,” said,  “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: 'Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word'.” (text of speech) (audio of speech)    

Most people most of the time are neither killing people nor fighting wars.  In fact, only a very small minority of people ever commit homicide.  That in itself would virtually establish beyond dispute that conscientious objection to killing is the default human position. 

It is time to affirm conscientious objection to war and all homicide as an essential prerequisite for human survival.  It is time to find and hear the voices which call us to act upon the deepest truths of our own conscience.

Far from asking people to become someone they are not or do something they cannot, we are inviting them to affirm and act upon who they already are, right now. 

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