Friday, July 29, 2005

Thoreau's Question

Thoreau's question was the one he is said to have asked his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, when Emerson visited Thoreau in jail. Thoreau's offense was refusing to pay a tax that financed the United States's war with Mexico and the enforcement of slavery laws. Emerson reportedly asked his friend, "What are you doing in there?" Thoreau replied, "What are you doing out there?"

Kevin Benderman is a 40-year-old Army mechanic who is serving a 15-month sentence in prison now for refusing to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty. After seeing firsthand the destruction, trauma, and suffering Iraqis experienced as a result of the war, Benderman became convinced that war was wrong. Monica Benderman, Kevin's wife, describes what happened to him and why he decided to go to jail rather than return to Iraq:

"He returned knowing that war is wrong, the most dehumanizing creation of humanity that exists. He saw war destroy civilians, innocent men, women and children. He saw war destroy homes, relationships and a country. He saw this not only in the country that was invaded, but he saw this happening to the invading country as well -- and he knew that the only way to save those soldiers was for people to no longer participate in war. Sgt. Kevin Benderman is a Conscientious Objector to war, and the Army is mad."
But the Pentagon is imposing its power to enforce the unconscionable. And words that were written by Monica Benderman in early July are now even more true: "The Army has removed itself so completely from its moral responsibility, that its representatives are willing to openly demand, in a court of law, that they be allowed to regain 'positive control over this soldier' by finding him guilty of crimes he did not commit, and put him in jail -- a prisoner of conscience, for daring to obey a moral law."

And, she added: "It is 'hard work' to face the truth, and it is scary when people who are not afraid to face it begin to speak out. Someone once said that my husband's case is a question of morality over legality. I pray that this country has not gone so far over the edge that the two are so distinctly different that we can tell them apart."

I choose to find hope in the knowledge that the human drive to oppose the state when the state behaves in evil ways and asks for our help in doing so is still alive. I feel a great deal of hope when I realize that the spirit that infused the mind and heart of Henry David Thoreau and impelled him to refuse his personal contribution to war and human enslavement still exists today. The daily events that we see on our television screens every day are still there; but there is also an invisible chain of love, conscience, courage, and independence of mind that started long before Thoreau's time and that continues to stretch from his time to ours.

When Henry David Thoreau refused to "pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house," he was arrested for this minor act of resistance. Had every citizen done the same, there would have been no Civil War. There would have been no Reconstruction. Someone paid the tax and sprung him out of jail after one night of soul searching. Unfortunately, Thoreau's gesture carried little weight until literature immortalized it. The state, meanwhile, exhibited a collective madness then just as it does today. [Emphasis mine; war is NOT inevitable.]

It's the evidence I continue to see that some men and women still have the ability to recognize the madness and the strength and courage to oppose it that allows me to hope that the madness will not win in the end.

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