Sunday, June 20, 2010
Rev. James Lawson and the True Meaning of Pacifism
During the Korean War, Rev. James Lawson, a future Civil Rights leader, went to prison as a "conscientious objector" rather than serve. As someone involved in the clergy, he could have protected himself, but instead chose not to, in of itself an act of protest. He argued, and in this I agree with him, that it was wrong to exempt clergymen or those studying for the job from the draft and that it was simply a means to buy off established religions by protecting their people. I certainly admire much of what Rev. Lawson would later do for the Civil Rights movement and, in practice, support non-violent tactics when dealing with private individuals protesting social and government ills. That being said we need to consider the true meaning of pacifism as a consistent ideology when practiced by the likes of Rev. Lawson.
First off, let us consider the very act of being a "conscientious objector" to the Korean War. Rev. Lawson took it upon himself to stand in the way of the United States government's efforts to protect South Korea from being overrun by the forces of Communist North Korea and China. If Rev. Lawson would have had his way with the United States government, South Korea would not be one of the leading technological innovators in the world today as well as a source for millions of new converts to various denominations of Christianity; he would have sentenced millions of people in South Korea to, like those in North Korea, starve to death in the world's largest maximum security prison. Who knows to what extent people like Rev. Lawson bear a share of the blame for the millions of people still sentenced today to a living death in North Korea. (I do not know how someone sleeps with that on their conscious.) More importantly, by opposing a relatively justifiable war, out of an innate opposition to all war, Rev. Lawson had backed out of his covenantal obligations as a citizen. He grew up accepting the benefits of the United States government, a war making institution, but refused to follow through on his obligations when this war making institution followed through with its foundational purpose and went to war. (Obviously, as a black man living in segregationist America, Rev. Lawson did not enjoy the full rights he deserved. As such it would have been justifiable for him to not serve until the United States lived up to its obligations to him and all blacks.) Rev. Lawson was not just expressing his opinion or even practicing civil disobedience against a law he found unjust. He was not just objecting to our involvement in Korea. He was challenging the very legitimacy of the United States government. What are governments if not an institution authorized to use violence? As such, Rev. Lawson was guilty of a passive, relatively harmless, but still quite real form of treason. I would not go so far as to have him executed, but it was certainly reasonable for him to do hard time in prison.
While in prison, Rev. Lawson found himself threatened by the inmates and faced with the prospect of being raped. Realizing that he was not even safe in his own cell, he prepared to defend himself with a chair. This put him in a dilemma; how could he, someone who went to prison in order to avoid engaging in violence, justify using violence even to save himself from being raped.
It was at that point Lawson had one of his numinous experiences. It was as if he heard a voice explaining everything to him. Everything which had been so difficult suddenly became clear. The voice told him that he was not there of his own volition or because he had done something wrong. He had not sinned; if anything he was he was there because he had been sinned against. The voice explained his dilemma to him. "If something terrible happens to you, it's not you causing it, and what happens is not your fault. What happens would be outside your control. You are responsible for only one thing – above all you must not violate your own conscience. If something terrible happens it is because of them, not because of you. It is not about personal choice. That makes it one more thing you have to endure in order to be true to Him. It is part of the test He set out for you." When Jim Lawson heard that voice, his fear fell from him. He would not resort to physical violence to protect himself. He would endure. He prepared himself for the worst. (David Halberstam, The Children pg. 46-47.)
In the end nothing happened to Rev. Lawson. It is believed that one the prisoners he befriended put the word out that Lawson was not to be touched.
One wonders what advise Rev. Lawson would have given if it had been his daughter threatened with rape. "Daughter, do not fight these men, not even with a can of mace. When these men corner you and you have nowhere to run, just submit to them and let them do what they will." Maybe Rev. Lawson could stand by his daughter's side while this is going on and read her the passages in Augustine's City of God where he argues that it is not an evil for a woman to be raped; as long as she is unwilling her soul remains undefiled and, as such it is irrelevant what happens to the body.
Loving your neighbor as you love yourself means that in order to love other people you have to start by loving yourself. As a child of God and a creature of reason, you have value. As such you are obligated to protect yourself even if it means turning to violence. Once you are obligated to value yourself, you are also obligated to value and protect every innocent person even if it means turning to violence.