Mayfield: Serving in non-combative roles
Vail, CO Colorado
Unlike some of my baby-boomer peers, I did not grow up hearing stories of combat in World War II from my Dad or my uncles. My father spent the war years in an aircraft factory in Los Angeles while all of my mother’s brothers did their service time as conscientious objectors. One spent his alternative service as a social-worker in a juvenile detention center in Chicago while another built latrines in America’s impoverished Deep South. The youngest volunteered to be a human guinea pig and was subjected to a plethora of poisonous diseases as doctors sought to find cures for the soldiers at the front. Indeed, this uncle’s premature death from a heart attack in 1963 was attributed by many to his courageous wartime non-combative service.
I recalled my uncles’ pacifism this week while reading of the outraged response by many to recent remarks from Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Williams set off a firestorm of protest when he suggested earlier in the month that some allowance be made in the British judicial system for Sharia, the Islamic rule of law. The response was both swift and savage as calls for his immediate resignation were made not just by those in the secular world of politics but by some in his very own church. A senior member of the General Synod, Anglican’s own legislative body declared, “A lot of people will now have lost confidence in him. I am just so shocked, and cannot believe a man of his intelligence could be so gullible. I can only assume that all the Muslims he meets are senior leaders of the community who tell him what a wonderful book the Koran is. There have been a lot of calls today for him to resign. I don’t suppose he will take any notice, but yes, he should resign.” Even Williams’ immediate predecessor, Lord George Carey, strongly condemned the archbishop’s remarks saying acceptance of the Islamic code would be “a disaster for Britain.”
In fact, a careful reading of the archbishop’s infamous address entitled: “Civil and Religious Law in England” reveals a meticulously worded approach to the inevitable tension between a free society and the practices of its various religious traditions. We in America are certainly not unfamiliar with the problem. Everything from the Amish’s right to ride their horse-drawn buggies on county highways to a Christian Scientist’s choice to not seek medical help have found their way into our own judicial system and continue to be a source of confusion in many of our communities. A recent television report by HBO’s Bryant Gumble on polygamous practices in Colorado City, Ariz. revealed the reluctance lawmakers have to crackdown on this patently illegal practice because of the complexities surrounding the issue of religious freedom.
Even our prison system struggles with the issue. Last month an inmate brazenly
declared that smoking marijuana was a religious ritual in his particular spiritual tradition and sued the Utah Department of Corrections for denying him his constitutional right promised in the first amendment. These are but a few of the questions that come to the fore when a nation promises the free practice of religion.
The archbishop appeared, at least to me, to be wondering aloud as to the complexities of personal loyalties that shape our decisions. He was acknowledging that patriotic citizenship is not necessarily determined by only one set of priorities.
There are times when religious values may come in conflict with the values of the state. Must this always result in criminal prosecution or may there be ways where both one’s religious or philosophical commitment and one’s responsibility of citizenship be satisfied?
All of which brought up my uncles’ wartime conscientious objection. Because of their religious convictions, these men found themselves in the dilemma of seeking to satisfy the seemingly contradictory requirements of both their God and their country.
The solution of alternative non-combative service offered them an opportunity, albeit an imperfect one, to fulfill both obligations. In a world that grows ever smaller, where cultures are constantly colliding with one another, such imperfect opportunities may be the most we can hope for.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to email@example.com.