Thought for the Week: Objection sustained

Guest editor David Boulton introduces The Friend's special edition commemorating one hundred years since the right to conscientious objection was recognised in the Military Service Act 1916

I am honoured to have been invited to guest-edit this special edition of the Friend, and I thank Ian Kirk-Smith and his hard-working team for helping me put it together.

I hear the muffled sound of head-scratching by some readers. Today, in our own time, millions of refugees are fleeing what some are calling ‘mini-world war three’. John Greenleaf Whittier’s ‘stormy clangour / Of wild war music’ is being played out in a deafening crescendo. So, why focus on a small group of peacemakers a hundred years ago who faced the music, defied the men of war and paid the price?

One reason is that past and present are intricately linked. As Rachel Brett points out on page sixteen, world war one conscientious objectors (COs) planted the seeds of what became a worldwide movement for human rights. If humankind aspires to ‘tread out the baleful fire of anger / And in its ashes plant the tree of peace’, the establishment of universal human rights must be a key component in the settlement of national conflicts. We’ll have our COs – Quakers and churchmen, radical Liberals and socialists – to thank for that.

In 2014 we ensured that in the national commemoration of world war one the COs would not be forgotten. On 27 January this year Friends organised a meeting at parliament to commemorate the passing of the first Military Service Act, and celebrate the inclusion of the Quaker-inspired conscience clause. Next Wednesday, 2 March, is the centenary of the day the Act was implemented and, in defiance of the conscience clause, the first conscientious objectors were arrested. They were the first of many whose objection was overruled, but nevertheless sustained in prison, military detention and under the threat of the firing squad.

Today’s peacemakers face no such threats, but we have mountains to climb. Much of the strength of the world war one peace movement lay in the inspired coalition of political and religious activists in the joint action committee of the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Friends Service Committee. Today we have the making of a similar coalition in the campaign to turn Trident submarines and their deadly nuclear warheads into peaceful ‘ploughshares’. There are now political peacemakers in high places. Friends who hold to our historic Peace Testimony will surely stand with them.

What better way to honour the men who first heard the policeman’s knock on the door on 2 March 1916?

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