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Thou shalt not kill
The sixth commandment, in the King James version of the Bible, is very clear: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
It is a commandment that has been ignored by millions of Christians for centuries. Some, however, have taken it literally. They have chosen to love their enemies rather than fight them. Many have suffered for this choice.
In this edition of the Friend the Fox report considers those people, in countries throughout the world, who refuse to fight. Some do so out of a religious principle. Others do not. The report traces the history of the right to refuse to fight from an aspiration into law – to the protection of those who had a ‘conscientious objection’ to military service – and looks at the status of conscientious objectors in the world today. It reminds us that many, even in Europe, are still suffering for their choice. It prompts us to hold them in the light. It challenges us to action.
The subject of conscientious objection is rooted in the history of the Religious Society of Friends. It is part of the Quaker DNA. It is a part of a story that includes distinguished service in two world wars – when Quakers found a practical way to put pacifism into action. It is part of a belief that there is ‘that of God’ in every human being.
The earliest official recognition of conscientious objection in Britain was in 1757 when Quakers were specifically allowed exemption from the militia in the Ballot Act. This act acknowledged that the ‘promptings of conscience’ – of a sincerely held religious belief – should be respected in relation to members of the Religious Society of Friends. The opposition of Quakers to war had become a defining feature of their faith. They were unique in being given this exemption.
Conscription to military service is a system whereby the state requires all men (and in a few cases women) to serve a period in the armed forces: begun in Prussia in the eighteenth century and developed by Napoleon in France, it then spread throughout continential Europe. Conscription, however, was never part of the British tradition until the first world war.
There was no conscription in the early months of the war but, in January 1916, the flood of volunteers had reduced to a trickle. The government was forced to act. Parliament debated the new concept of fulltime conscription, which, at the time, was widespread on the European continent. During the debate the position of Quakers was often quoted.
The Military Service Act of 1916 was unique in conscription history by also providing for exemption on grounds of conscience. Debate had centred not so much on whether conscientious objection should be recognised as on whether it should be limited to Quakers – or defined in some other particular way.
During the twentieth century more and more countries implemented legislation which protected the right of ‘conscientious objection’. But where are we today? What is the situation of conscientious objectors worldwide? How are they treated? The Fox report, researched and written by Derek Brett and edited by Judy Kirby, reminds us of those men and women today who, like the Quakers of 1759, have made a profoundly important personal decision based on the promptings of their conscience.
Want to know more? Derek Brett’s expertise on conscientious objection is wide-ranging. He has a wealth of material about the long struggle of pacifism in a warring world. We would like to ask readers if they would welcome a separate publication containing a fuller report of the world picture than is possible in the Friend.
If there is enough interest, the Fox team will produce a booklet priced to cover the costs of publication.
If you would like a copy of a more comprehensive Fox report on conscientious objection in the world, please let us hear from you as soon as possible. Email Judy Kirby on email@example.com or contact the Friend office at the address on page 2.
the Friend, 26 August 2011