Conscience Clauses, Civil Disobedience, and Uncivil Discourse

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In this country, a long tradition exists of individuals who have refused to perform a particular duty or task, citing their religious beliefs as justification.  The very definition of Civil Disobedience, of course, depends on the person, the situation, and how it is applied.  The latest incident has opened up a discussion which has never really subsided, only dipped underneath the radar from time to time.  In this circumstance, a Texas bus driver, who is also an ordained conservative Christian minister, claims that he was fired for not taking a women to Planned Parenthood.  His decision is in the same vein as those of pharmacists who, stating moral reasons, will not dispense the morning-after pill to women who request it.

Though I myself am staunchly pro-choice, I’ve felt a need to examine the particulars of this case.  As reprehensible as I find many of the tactics utilized by those on the other side of the divide, I’ve decided to analyze events and notable people of a different age to determine if some middle ground can be reached.

In the Eighteenth Century, The Quaker John Woolman spoke out against the degrading evil of slavery. Before he began his work, there was no uniform opposition to the peculiar institution among Friends.  However, Woolman’s ministry, writing, and ethical conduct changed the minds of many.  His hard work has not gone unnoticed, nor has his philosophy of life.

In 1754 Woolman wrote Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.  He subsequently refused to draw up wills transferring slaves. Working on a non-confrontational, personal level, he individually convinced many Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves. He attempted personally to avoid using the products of slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves were used in the making of dyes.

In Woolman’s travels, whenever he received hospitality from a slaveholder, he insisted on paying the slaves for their work in attending him. He would also refuse to be served with silver cups, plates, and utensils, on grounds that slaves were forced to dig such  precious minerals and gems for the rich. On one occasion in his early  adulthood, he did convey the ownership of a slave in someone’s will, but was later so filled with remorse over the act that he went back, found the individual so injured, and made monetary reparations sufficient to sustain that person in freedom for some years. He observed that some owners used the labor of their slaves to enjoy lives of ease, and found much more fault with this practice than with those owners who treated their slaves gently, or even worked alongside them.

Woolman was able to see nuances within the practice itself, while still viewing it as savage, cruel, and in dire need of being abolished altogether.  It would appear that he placed more emphasis on social justice than in harsh condemnation.  This is in great contrast to today’s culture war, the abortion debate being only one theater; any who stand in opposition to how “we” believe are often reviled in language that could only be described as demonic.  Returning to the past once more, some historians have argued that, shortly after Woolman’s death in 1772, slavery was assumed by many to be a dying practice on its way out.  Indeed, many slaveholders of the time stated that they would have manumitted those who they held in bondage simply as a matter of course.

Arguably, what changed their way of thinking were two key events.  One was the establishment of the abolitionist press, of which later Quakers had a notable hand, and the bombastic rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison.  In the first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, published in 1831, Garrison famously wrote,

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not  equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

The second event to turn the tide was the threat of slave insurrection, a kind of massive paranoia that sprang up following Nat Turner‘s revolt that same year.  By the time the butchery concluded, 55 white men, women, and children lay dead.  Yet, something not often mentioned in discussions of the uprising was Turner’s strong religious convictions.

Turner had “natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few.”  He learned to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently experienced visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 23 years old, he ran away from his owner, but returned a month later after having such a vision. Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet”. Turner also had influence over white people, and in the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to “cease from his wickedness”.

By early 1828, Turner was convinced that he “was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty. “While working in his owner’s fields on May 12, Turner “heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” Turner was convinced that God had given him the task of “slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons.” Turner “communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence” – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam.

Beginning in February 1831, Turner came to believe that certain atmospheric conditions were to be interpreted as a sign that he should begin preparing for a rebellion against the slave owners.

Nat Turner’s reputation has evolved considerably since then.  Many scholars view him in a favorable light, but regardless of one’s opinion of the man, he was a homegrown terrorist using religion to justify violent acts.  I can think of more than a few abortion clinic bombers who fit the same profile.  As a pacifist, I do not approve of violence for any reason and for any cause, regardless of whether it suits my ideological beliefs or not.  It bothers me when anyone who kills someone else for a moral cause, regardless of the context, becomes transformed into a hero.  This is as true for Nat Turner as it is for John Brown.  Our silent complicity condones indefensible cruelty.  Whether we be anti-slavery or pro-life, we all too often let the fringes speak for us, if not in our own time, certainly with the passage of time.  It upsets me how easy it is for us to rehabilitate the reputations of people who caused so much harm and pain, transforming them into noble figures who were misunderstood in their day.

The Texas bus driver may have cited conscience in refusing to drive a woman to Planned Parenthood, but I look beyond it.  The crux of the matter, to me, is not what he did, but how it has been perceived and reported.  This event is already being used as the latest salvo in a war with no endpoint in sight.  I don’t believe that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood, but I am profoundly troubled by what I see for the future.  The fastest, easiest way to encourage a dialogue filled with crude, destructive hatred is to state an opinion either for or against legalized abortion.

Some months ago, I recorded an iReport for CNN shortly after Ted Kennedy’s death, and several people who left comments used my video remarks in support of the late Senator as an opportunity to introduce their virulent opposition to abortion rights.  We’ve become so polarized that people will interject their own passionate beliefs on this matter regardless of they are pertinent to the topic or not.  I hate to think about where we’re headed next.


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