Acts of conscience lead to controversy


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Shortly after Jesus ascended and left his apostles in charge of his community of followers, their leaders were hauled into the court of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and ordered by the officials to stop their public speaking about him. The Sanhedrin had both religious and civil authority. The Twelve knew enough to know that what had happened to Jesus could well happen to them. Crucifixion was the usual capital punishment. Yet Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” boldly refused, saying, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts of the Apostles 4, 19). What happened to the Christian’s obligation to obey duly constituted civil authorities in their proper realm of jurisdiction? It’s called civil disobedience and it’s controversial.
LaSalle University hosted in February a lecture by John and Bonnie Raines and Washington Post reporter, Betty Medsger, who publicized the pair’s March, 1971 surreptitious break-in at the Media office of the FBI. They and five others had been planning for weeks to do what the Philadelphia Inquirer called unthinkable as an anti-war attempt to prove a suspicion many held, that J. Edgar Hoover, who had caused presidents to quake, was waging a secret war on legitimate political dissent. Their objective was to find paper proof that orders came from Washington to spy on war dissidents and African Americans. One memo the burglars found told agents to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and . . . further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
The Media activists have gone public now that the statute of limitations has expired, although two participants still have not allowed their identities to be revealed. An eighth member, also unnamed, almost felt compelled in conscience to report the plot to the FBI after the burglary but decided against it. All the participants had taken part in at least one draft-office raid, so convinced were they that such radical action was needed since nothing else was stopping a war they saw as indefensible, a war that took the lives of 58,000 U.S. military personnel and nearly 2 million Vietnamese.
Conscience is what makes this controversial. A group of dissidents felt in conscience permitted to break a civil law on behalf of a higher, divine law about protecting human life. The Camden 28 had a similar conundrum. Its members felt permitted to break into that city’s draft office and sabotage draft files. One of its members felt in conscience compelled to alert the FBI, who was there to arrest the activists. When they came to trial, they experienced America’s only jury nullification of an anti-war act of civil disobedience. The pastor of Camden’s Sacred Heart Parish, Msgr. Michael J. Doyle, was a member. He spoke to the jurors about the higher law of life preempting the lower one about property.
Even today discussing America’s part in the Vietnam-Cambodian-Laotian war stirs rage in people, all of whom have been equipped by God with consciences. If we accept as a definition that conscience is reason deciding on the morality of an act, we can assume the good will of people on both sides to weigh the merits of the rationale offered by U.S. bipartisan government. Young people today are not faced by the draft, and perhaps for that fact see Vietnam as remote as the Civil War. The U.S. calmly trades with Vietnam, not to mention China, the superpower behind Hanoi. Falling dominos are a threat no longer heard. Yet it is imperative to respect the consciences of the millions of U.S. troops who wore the uniform with honor and served at great risk, one I’ll never experience. Many met contempt at home when they mustered out.
What can be accomplished by digging up old bones like these? The subject hurts after 50 years. One good reason is that it never happen again, for all the pieces are today in place for a repeat. Our crazed gun culture, our macho combat videos, our drones, our all-volunteer military and the fact that since the 1973 end of the draft, the U.S. has prosecuted 144 military deployments somewhere in the world – all argue that our consciences can be massaged and suckered by robust calls to battle as evidence of our power on the world stage, and by our ever growing need for the resources and products of other nations.
Because these things are so, the Second Amendment must be repealed.