Conscientious Objection: My Grandfather's Letter to the Tribunal
Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, also happens to be the same day as my Grandfather’s birthday. He was born on 11th November 1909. His father was a primitive Methodist minister (meaning he preached outdoors as well as indoors and travelled across the UK delivering sermons). Whilst my Grandfather didn't continue that legacy, his life revolved around his faith. As a young adult, he was involved in peace work, and together with my Grandmother (who had been raised as a Catholic), converted to Quakerism, (a Christian mystic sect).
When the Second world war began and men were conscripted to fight, Grandad registered as a conscientious objector and had to go to court in front of a tribunal to convince them that his objections to war were sincerely held. Unlike many others, his case was accepted as as absolute exemption, which was awarded to less than 5% of those who applied. The headteacher at the school he worked at had given him a positive reference to say that his convictions were genuine, and so he was able to continue his work as a French teacher at a school in Bath.
I have been reflecting on this in recent times with everything going on in the Middle East. We all have different views on war and how to resolve and respond to conflict, and I respect the beliefs of different people. I believe we all have different roles to play in this tapestry of life, and that it is most important to follow your own heart and soul’s purpose, rather than adhere to the pressures of society.
I do think it takes a lot of courage to go against the grain, especially when the consequences can be quite severe. Israel has its own movement of conscientious objectors, young people who refuse military service, and for some of them, refusing conscription entails serving time in prison. Read more.
I have always felt extremely grateful that we still have the copy of my Grandfather's statement to the tribunal. He died before I was born, and so these are the only direct words that I have from him.
The words he wrote have continually echoed in my head over the years, and become more and more powerful with time.
Here is the copy of his letter and his statement:
"This application to be placed on the register of conscientious objectors is based on my religious beliefs. I believe that God is a God of Love and is the father of all men irrespective of Nationality. He has revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ a way of life, which as I seek to follow it makes participation in war completely impossible for me.
As a disciple of Christ I seek to realise the unity of mankind under God and to work for a deeper sense of brotherhood among all men. War denies this brotherhood and I can have no part in it.
I believe that every individual is equal in the sight of God and that there is something of the divine in each one. Therefore believing in the sacred worth of each human being I must seek in my dealings with others to call out the infinite possibilities of God that they have in them. Again, war is incompatible with these beliefs.
I believe that the evil that exists in the world can only be overcome by spiritual forces, and that the faithful and fearless exercise of love is sufficient to overthrow wrong and establish lasting peace.
My Christian discipleship demands of me that in my everyday actions I appeal to the best in men, trust them to avoid fear, envy, suspicion and hatred, and I have found that men respond when appealed to in this way.
I believe that the highest service I can render to my country is to be faithful to this way of life."*
* On behalf of my Grandfather I would like to apologise for the patriarchal language. I know that he was a wonderfully dedicated husband who fully supported my Grandmother, who was a year older than him, also a French teacher, and very much his equal and beloved. I do believe he would have altered the language to be less gendered if he were writing it today, such was the language of the time!
In researching a little bit more about conscientious objectors, I also came across this insightful blog, which lists some really inspiring cases of conscientious objection:
"One such case is Ben Salmon, a Catholic conscientious objector during World War I. He was an outspoken critic of Just War theology. The Catholic Church denounced him and the The New York Times described him as a “spy suspect.” The US military (in which he was never inducted) charged him with desertion and spreading propaganda, then sentenced him to death (this was later revised to 25 years hard labor). On June 5, 1917, Salmon wrote in a letter to President Wilson:
Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is “our Father who art in heaven.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is unconditional and inexorable. … The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.
Another example of a conscientious objector was the Austrian devout Roman Catholic Christian Franz Jägerstätter, who was executed on August 9, 1943 for openly refusing to serve in the Nazi Wehrmacht, consciously accepting the penalty of death. He was declared Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 for dying for his beliefs, and is viewed as a symbol of self-sacrificing resistance.
For me personally, this is one of the reasons why the extreme, horrifying violence happening right now in the Holy Land really burns my heart. To think of how this is happening in a place that is so sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths, which stem from the same tree of the Prophet Abraham (PBUH), makes it all the more heart breaking.
To recognise the sanctity of life, to love thy neighbour, to love thine enemy, to treat thy others as thyself... these are radically beautiful ways of living. If we followed these teachings, what a heavenly existence we would know on Earth! I have always believed that it is possible, but we have to build that world and envision it together. We have to let go of our anger, vengeance, greed, put down our weapons; recognise and work toward a unity between all human beings.
This Armistice Day, as naive as I might sound, I pray that we can envision and embody that "faithful and fearless exercise of love" which "is sufficient to overthrow wrong and establish lasting peace".
I also pay my respects to every martyr who has fought and died in times of war.
Lest we forget.