Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

XXIX.—The Problem Of The Conscience

XXIX.—The Problem Of The Conscience

Whoever with open mind shall read the story of the Conscience men of New Zealand all too imperfectly written into these pages will surely need no argument against the further intense militarisation of the Dominion. Whoever without prejudice shall read the record of the atrocities inflicted on these New Zealanders by other New Zealanders will not need to be convinced that, while it required great courage to face the lightning flame that leaped from the wild storm of war, great courage to brave the hail of death that swept across the battlefield, it called for even greater courage to enter that fiery furnace of barbaric torture which Mark Briggs, Archibald Baxter, Garth Ballantyne, and their comrades passed through. It is of such men and their courage that the eminent Professor James Ward has written: "The value of a single man or woman of open mind, independent judgment, and moral courage, who refuses to be cajoled, is only concerned to be right, and not afraid to be singular, deferring to reason but not to rank, true to their own self, and, therefore, not false to any man—the value of such a man or woman, I say, is priceless; a nation of such men would leaven and regenerate the world."

The Conscientious Objectors were in conflict with the law of New-Zealand—a law made, it is true, without the consent of the people, but still a law, with all the organised force of the political class State behind it. When that bad law was first promulgated I predicted in the leading columns of "The Worker," that Labour would mark down for political extinction every politician guilty of the crime of page 167Prussianising New Zealand. Under that wicked enactment the Conscientious Objectors became, in the generally accepted sense of the term, law-breakers. They knew their position; they knew the price they would be required to pay if they persisted in giving pride of place to the dictates of conscience. Cheerfully they were prepared to pay it. When the moment came to decide, as once it comes "to every man and nation," they never hesitated. Hatred, scoffing, and abuse they chose "rather than shrink in silence from the truth they needs must think." Bitterly they were made to pay for their choice. The intolerance that dominates the ruling class mind—slumming over the lessons of history, superficially regarding the psychic realities, often seeking to install science as the handmaiden of stagnation—found wide and ungenerous, often angry and uninformed, expression in every circle where the problem of the Conscientious Objector became the subject of discussion. Bishop Sprott, of Wellington, wandered into a maze of discursive illogicalities which seemed to represent a surrender of some of the foundation principles of Christianity. Militarists, professing Christians and declared Materialists, raved. The Chief Justice of New Zealand found himself unable to resist the temptation to join in the contumelious chorus. On a previous occasion I was constrained to direct public attention to the Chief Justice's excursions into the realms of controversial polities, and then insisted that while the law which prevents public servants from taking the political platform remains, its provisions must apply to the Chief Justice equally with the latest police probationer. In the course of a recent address I had occasion to say: "We have a right to expect that whoever occupies the highest judicial position shall maintain a judicial viewpoint, and shall at no time and under no circumstances permit himself to indulge in ill-advised attacks-framed in the language of extravagance—against any section of the people, whose servant he is held to be, and on all of whom falls the burden of providing his not illiberal salary. If the Chief Justice becomes unmindful of the duty he owes to his position; if he strips off his judicial robes and assumes the attitude of politician and partisan, then he must not complain' if the Labor movement places duty before every other consideration and offers the fullest criticism."

In July of last year, apparently as chairman of the Prisons Board. Sir Robert Stout visited Kaingaroa Prison, and on his return he delivered a lecture which was largely of a political nature, and the spirit of which would not have been calculated to inspire the average Conscientious Objector with a very great measure of confidence in the impartiality of the Court. The Wellington correspondent of a South Island paper wrote of this address: "There is a type of Conscientious Objector which even jail inmates spurn. This was mentioned by Sir Robert Stout, Chief Justice, in an address on the prisoners at Kaingaroa Prison Camp. He said there are several prisoners held for breaches of the Defence Act and military regula-page 168tions. Public conscience is evidently becoming awakened even amongst the law-breakers, for some prisoners who were confined for ordinary crimes refused to speak to military prisoners, saying they would not work with them, as they were a disgrace to the Dominion in shirking their responsibilities under our military law,"

From this report I was able to gather that Sir Robert Stout gave credit to the Quakers who were Conscientious Objectors, and his antipathy seems to have been directed against the Socialist, Irish, Religious, and other Objectors whose objections rested on other than the extremely narrow "religious" foundations provided for In the Military Service Act. It is extremely regrettable that the Chief Justice should have found it possible to think, and still more regrettable that he should have given expression to the thought, that because the sexual criminal, the embezzler, the thief, or the professional burglar, declared, they would neither speak to nor work with honest, clean-living men, whose only offence was the possession of a conscience which forbade the taking of life, the fact betokened the awakening of a public conscience amongst the criminal class. It may have meant something altogether different. It may have amounted to not more than what some unhappy criminal conceived to be the most effective method of convincing a patriotically credulous chairman that the time had arrived when the Prisons Board might safely favour his release. Even if it meant all the Chief Justice thought, it was surely most improper for the chairman of the Prisons Board to diffuse from the public platform sentiments calculated to create ill-feeling between the prisoners themselves. I have thus far assumed the Chief Justice's statement to be a wholly correct statement of fact—that the professional criminals did really refuse to work with or speak to the C.O.'s. But it is only fair to add that I have interviewed various Conscientious Objectors released from the several prisons (Including Kaingaroa), and in no instance have I been able to find substantiation of the statement. I do not say that it cannot be substantiated. I merely say that the released C.O.'s I have interviewed knew of no instance where professional criminals refused to work with them. On the contrary, the professionals were generally eager to work in association, but it was not the policy of the Department to permit such associated work.

In another paper I find the following included in a report of the same lecture: "We must have what is termed a State or a public conscience," said Sir Robert Stout. "We have heard much of late of private consciences. It is well to have a conscience of some kind; it is well to be guided by moral considerations; but if a man or a woman sets his or her conscience above the dictates of the public conscience, it does not bespeak an exalted moral attitude.

"The Chief justice-as a Rationalist of many years' standing, as a front-rank Freethinker—must know that a State conscience is something which can have no existence. Even if it were admitted that a page 169State conscience could exist, that conscience could only find active expression at the ballot-box. In Australia, where the opportunity was given, the "public conscience" declared Conscription to be wrong-In this country a handful or men refused to permit the "public conscience" to express itself, and set their minority conscience over the dictates of the "public conscience"—which explains. I suppose, why we "cannot boast an exalted moral attitude." So that the C.O.'s are not really in conflict with the public conscience, but with the conscience of a minority who were able to manipulate the governmental machinery in a way which prevented the "public conscience" from functioning. I might digress at this point to remark that if Sir Robert Stout really understood the historic development of the State his utterances would be differently framed.

Whether we accept Christian, semi-scientific, or scientific definitions of conscience. Sir Robert Stout's depreciation of the "private conscience" will be found to rest on no foundation whatever. From almost time immemorial, the Churches have taught that "Conscience is the Voice of God." We have been told from the cradle to the grave that if our conscience tells us a thing is wrong, it is wrong—that the still small voice that speaks the warning is the voice of God's own righteousness. The religious writers who have sought to reconcile science with religion have proclaimed similarly. "And this is conscience, the voice of the law of God within us, which speaks far more strongly than the outer voice of the praise and blame of others," says Arabella B. Buckley, in "Moral Teachings of Science." "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he," in the way it is put in the Book of Proverbs. "Conscience," says Lord Avebury, "is a safe guide." Browning calls it "The great beacon-light God sets in all." Byron says something similar:

"Whatever creed be taught or land be trod,
Man's conscience is the voice of God."

John Stuart Mill, in his essay, "On Liberty," demands freedom of conscience without restriction: "This then is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises first the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensivesense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological…. No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever its form of Government, and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified."

And again: "No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than page 170by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think."

Sir George Greenwood, M.P., in "The Problem of the Will," issued by Watts and Co., furnishes a Rationalist definition: "Conscience is merely what one thinks in a particular case on a question of right and wrong with reference to the proposed course of action. It is one's judgment on a question of practical ethics. … He who acts against the voice of conscience does wrong because he does what he thinks to be wrong. To say that a man should always follow the dictates of his conscience is no more than saying that he should always do what he thinks to be right. Conscience, therefore, is always a safe moral guide to the individual, though it may make him do things which the majority of mankind think foolish or ill-advised, or even criminal."

Finally, in his "Riddle of the Universe," the great German materialist, Professor Ernst Haeckel, to whose school of thought Sir Robert Stout may be said to belong, puts it this way: "We now know that each act of the will is as fatally determined by the organisation of the individual, and as dependent on the momentary condition of his environment, as every other psychic activity."

From every viewpoint Sir Robert Stout was wrong. From every viewpoint—whether religious, semi-scientific, or scientific—the Conscientious Objectors were right. They were right because they were following the promptings of their own conscience. And now that the hurricane of Hate no longer rages with its wartime fury, it may be noted that the soldiers who heard the artillery roar along the line of battle, the brave men who with a laugh on their lips looked Death in the face have no words of scorn for the bona fide Conscientious Objectors. The soldiers from the depths of their own souls' courage, are able to pay sincere tribute to other brave men who saw differently from themselves, and who, seeing differently, were called upon to "stand alone" through terrible hours which strained every mental and physical power of endurance. Not the men who fought, and fought gallantly, were they who hurled contumely at the men of conscience; that Hymn of Hate was reserved to be sung by men—mostly old men—who never fought either Kruger or Kaiser except with goosequills and fountain pens, from long thousands of miles behind the guns.

The war is now "ended," and other wars are either threatening or progressing. The Prussian Militarists failed to win, but Prussian Militarism raises triumphantly and detestably its head in every land—insolently, aggressively, threateningly. The falsehood that the world slaughter was a "war to end war" stands brazenly naked before the bereaved peoples. Thunderclouds of revolution are rolling up the Sky, "whirlwinds of rebellion" are shaking the planet. In the background the fathers and brothers, the mothers and wives, the sisters and sweethearts, and the orphaned little children, are sorrowing dry-page 171eyed or flooding the earth with their tears. The countries are counting their dead, their limbless, sightless, and insane men—compiling their records of human wreckage and ruin. The soldiers who fought for Freedom stand aghast to behold her in shackles. The Democracy they bled for they see imperilled by the stranglehold of Privilege. The millions who mourn their millions of dead are learning in heartbreak and bitterness that in the world war, as in all wars the people have suffered defeat. But where all other facts are blurred and seen as through a glass darkly, one fact hurls its rays of light through the murkiness like a star of the first magnitude. The greater victory—the real victory—of the war years was won by the Conscientious Objectors of all countries. The Labour Movement acclaims their courage and honesty, The Labor Movement denounces their persecutors, protests against the vindictive action of an unrepresentative Parliament which awarded an additional punishment of deprivation of civil rights on top of a multiplicity of other and barbarous punishments. The Labor Movement demands the immediate restoration of every civil right to the Conscientious Objectors, and pledges itself to work unceasingly for such restoration. For these men with their high sense of personal responsibility as Citizens of the World may be reckoned among the nation's best assets. Imperishably they have written their names on history's scroll of heroes. Professor Ward is right: "A nation of such men would leaven and regenerate; the world." With the record of the shocking treatment they endured and the fortitude with which they faced worse than death, none in future days will dare to open lying lips to stigmatise them as cowards and shirkers. There would be no dictionarial term that would adequately describe the slanderer who would ascribe cowardice to such men. They have vindicated the prophetic faith of the poet:

"Truth crushed to earth shall rise again;
The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain
And dies among her worshippers."

page break