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.


Lauren Sheil said...

It's stories like this the beg the question - which is the greater crime, treason or blasphemy?

Whether or not you agree that war is blasphemy, you have admit that at times you need to commit one in order to avoid committing the other.

Your feelings on war and pacifism aside, that's what conscientious objection is all about, is it not?

Izgad said...

Operating within the framework of a modern secular state, my politics do not recognize a concept of blasphemy; it does still have treason. (In practice, now that we are living in a world in which Jane Fonda could travel to enemy territory and willingly broadcast enemy propaganda and not be arrested upon her return, there is no more treason.)

I do not desire war and consider it a great evil. I am prepared to go to war, sending thousands of young men and women to their deaths, because I believe that, in certain situations, I am saving lives. War is sometimes the lesser of two evils. (I am here today because the Allies saved my Hungarian grandparents. Saying that World War II should not have been fought means believing that my grandparents should have been left to die at the hands of Hitler.)

I am not against being a conscious objector, even if it means breaking certain minor laws, as long as it is done within the framework of actively accepting the overall legitimacy and authority of the government. The moment you cross that line you are guilty of treason. For example I, as a patriotic American, who supports the Federal government in its present form as primarily a war making system, can protest the war in Iraq. I can even go so far as to not pay taxes for the war as a means of making my voice heard by the members of the government I am so loyal to. I must be very clear as to my larger support of the government and willingly accept my punishment and that it is right that the government punish me as the penalty of my actions.

The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief of all military forces. Since you do not believe that the United States should be allowed to have a military force for the president to command, how are you not advocating the rejection of the Constitution?

Lauren Sheil said...

Thomas Jefferson, during the drafting of the constituation advocated for a government with No Standing army. His idea was ultimately rejected but did receive a lot of attention in the 18th century. The United States was never intended to be a war making institution as you assert.

Furthermore, I reject the idea that a crime of treason can exist in a representative democracy. You use the term "lesser crimes" but where then do you draw the line? By the traditional definition of treason all civil disobedience, including speeding could be considered treason.

Izgad said...

Having a standing army is a different issue from the government’s ability to raise one in the event of a war. Even an opponent of Jefferson’s like John Adams was against a standing army, mainly because he believed that such a policy would serve as cover for a man they both opposed more than each other, Alexander Hamilton, to take over the country. Jefferson, with Adams’ help, wrote the Declaration of Independence in part to justify the authority of the Continental Congress to raise an army to fight the British. They were certainly not pacifists.

As I hope should be clear, I am willing to accept quite a bit of civil disobedience, just as long as it never challenges the overall legitimacy of the government.

SJ said...

Izgad, you are invited to post at