Joy of Conscience

Today we had a guest speaker on campus, an anti-war activist Father Roy Bourgeois.   He told his story of how he volunteered for duty in Vietnam, and upon seeing the horror of war had a crisis of faith, and started to ask real questions about his ethical beliefs and the situation in which he found himself.   After the war he became an ordained Priest, and spent five years in Bolivia seeing first hand the damage done by US foreign policy in Latin America.  He understood the lives of the poor, trampled on by brutal yet pro-American regimes.

Upon being deported from Bolivia for involvement with protests against the dictatorial government, he became active in resisting US policy in El Salvador.   When Bishop Oscar Rameriz was assassinated, he and some colleagues snuck into the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia, dressed as high ranking officers.  They climbed a high pine tree and after dark played the final sermon Bishop Rameriz gave before his murder from a boom box outside the barracks of the Salvadoran soldiers.   He served over two years and a half years in prison because of this, but found his calling.  

Since then he’s been part of a growing effort to close down a school known in Latin America as the “school of the assassins.”   He believes they are near success, though 60,000 soldiers, including those who perpetrated some of the worst atrocities in Latin America, learned torture and repression techniques at that facility.  He also is facing possible excommunication for his forceful support for ordaining women into the Priesthood.  The Vatican ordered him to recant.  He wrote back and said “out of conscience, I cannot recant.”   He has not yet received a response from the Vatican.

Now, one can oppose his theology, or his politics, and in this blog post I am not going to dwell on either.  Rather, I was struck by both his style, and a few things he said.   His style was one of a true spiritual leader.  To the point, but not bombastic, egotistical or pushy.   He was preachy, but in a gentle, even loving way.  He seemed to exude a sense of moral clarity, he had principles he had defined as fundamental to his existence, and he lived by them without compromise, fighting the good fight to try to promote peace and equality.

He said three things that I found especially moving.  1) God is love, and love does not discriminate.   Therefore, he opposes all unequal treatment of people, whether due to poverty, race, gender or sexual orientation.   All should be treated with equal dignity, as their creator intended; 2) The most important thing to do is to follow ones’ conscience.  This often requires real sacrifice, since the voice of conscience is sometimes  the only thing urging one to oppose what is unethical, but accepted as normal.  Whether it’s militarism, sexism in his own church, or cultural bigotry against people due to sexual orientation, the conscience speaks clearly if one listens to it.  And, he noted, a strange thing happens when one follows ones’ conscience.  Despite consequences that might mean jail time, problems with family, or social ostracization, there is a deep sense of peace and joy that comes when one lives by principle.   That peace and joy is real and profound.  Finally 3) that when one fights against injustice, it is hard not to get angry.  How can people not see the evil being done in our name, or the injustice of certain policies?   One must not let oneself get consumed by anger, and one must find contemplative time, perhaps in nature, to nurture the joy of living according to conscience.  To be consumed by anger would stifle that joy.

I believe those three points are profound truths.   As in the example of Sophie Scholl earlier this summer, some people have shown a capacity to see evil, even when their culture and the politics of the moment define it as good and natural.   At the time, some people are able to cut through the cultural and social fog and recognize injustice when it exists.   Early abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and founders of the suffrage movement took positions seen as extremist and bizarre, and over time made them mainstream and widely shared.  Those people followed their conscience, and focused not on political rationality, ideology, or calcuations of policy.  Instead, their conscience focused on other people — how are they being treated, are people being treated with equal dignity?   In war, they didn’t lose themselves in political rationalizations, they looked at the suffering of innocents, and knew that suffering was wrong.  

Following ones’ conscience, which I believe is to access the natural love for humanity that we all have, though many repress it, is sometimes hard to do.   But from both his example and my own experience, I’m convinced as well that following that conscience — what Rousseau called a natural instinct of compassion — leads to a level of joy and inner peace that spiritual leaders often exhibit, even in times of struggle and suffering.   This sense of joy and peace is marveled at by others, who think that in such a position they would be either angry, bitter or cynical.  Indeed, some people seem cynical at even the idea of true, deep inner joy.   But without joy, what good is life?

Finally, he is right about anger.   Anger may at times be useful, but if you’re angry about something it’s often just misplaced and wasted energy, distracting one from life tasks, or hurting ones’ mood with an impact on daily life.  If you get mad at political leaders, those with different views than your own, or even at the brutal thugs that cause death and destruction throughout the planet, that does little good.  One should oppose evil and fight for good, but to do so out of anger and not joy will become an arduous task, breeding cynicism and depression.   No one can fight the good fight when filled with anger and bitterness.  Nature can center a person’s soul, I think.  Contemplation, and understanding that despite all the negativity of the world there is love, can rejuvinate the spirit, even as one realizes that injustice and suffering will remain intense despite ones’ efforts.

As I think about Father Bourgeois’ faith, as well as that of others such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sophie Scholl, I wonder about how we can capture the power of that faith in a world of religious division, and secular distrust of anything spiritual.   I think Father Bourgeois said it right when he said he should not think that our belief, our religion, or our perspective can be put forth as the one right perspective.  He went to Iran to learn about Islam, and has a keen desire to understand other faiths, with a deep personal belief that the creator is love.   That is a kind of faith that can overcome religious difference, and focus on what binds humanity together.

Many of those attending the talk were keenly interested in Father Bourgeois’ politics, the School of the Americas, and events in Central America, ranging from past wars to the recent military coup d’etat in Honduras.   I found myself struck more by the power of his spiritual message, and the idea that true joy in life comes best from following ones’ conscience.

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  1. #1 by henitsirk on September 13, 2009 - 03:36

    “The Vatican ordered him to recant. He wrote back and said ‘out of conscience, I cannot recant.'”

    Hmm…sounds like Luther! Not a bad role model.

    “God is love, and love does not discriminate.” I struggle with this one, especially in the conservative Missouri Synod, where women will not be ordained and homosexuality will not be acceptable. It makes me look at much of the Bible, especially Paul, in the light of the culture of the time instead of in the light of God’s word. Terribly postmodern of me, but I can’t help it because the discriminatory elements are just so contradictory to what I see as Jesus’ message.

    “The most important thing to do is to follow ones’ conscience.” I think it’s all to easy in our materialistic, fast-paced culture to leave no time to hear that still, small voice, no less act on it to the detriment of our physical wealth and safety.

    “When one fights against injustice, it is hard not to get angry.” I suppose you could look at this as righteousness, like Jesus scourging the temple, or the harsh corrections of a Zen master. It’s righteousness when it’s directed outward (it is wrong to hurt others); it’s anger when it’s self-referential (how dare you hurt me!).

    • #2 by Scott Erb on September 14, 2009 - 03:57

      My Grandfather was as Missouri Synod Minister, but my mom and sisters moved to the American synod, now part of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church). They just agreed to allow gays to be ordained, and women have been for some time. Maybe they’re closer to your views (though clearly if community and friends are in your current church, you wouldn’t want to change!)

      I also thought of Luther — another Catholic Priest who was defying the Pope — when he described his response!

  2. #3 by notesalongthepath on September 14, 2009 - 04:16

    I envy you and your opportunities to see all the wonderful speakers you do. Or is it because you seek them out? Maybe I’m so out of the loop, I just don’t know that people like the priest you saw are coming here (to Nevada). He sounds like a very special person, one who can follow his conscience no matter the consequences. Takes a lot of courage. My sister-in-law was in the public square in San Salvador (I think it was) when the Catholic Bishop was shot, and in all the horror and confusion, she and her sister were not sure they would get away. Truly, that this priest finds joy in his work, rather than bitterness, is a testament that love is at work in our world. Without people like him, we might forget!
    Pam B

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