A White Poppy for Conscientious Objectors

And here’s one to mark International Conscientious Objectors Day (May 15th).

Tomorrow, May 15th, is International Conscientious Objectors Day. I’m wearing a White Poppy to mark the occasion.

It’s a day I can feel proud – of my country and of my faith group.

When, during the First World War, parliament reluctantly introduced conscription, the UK became the first country in the world to recognise the right of individuals to refuse to go to war.

Every other country had entered the war with conscript armies.

In Britain, however, there was opposition from politicians, who argued that compulsory military service would be undemocratic, and would undermine our claim to be fighting a war in the name of freedom and justice.

And from churchmen, notably Quaker MPs – like Arthur Rowntree and John Ellis – who believed the state has no right to force individuals to kill fellow human beings if this was against their faith or beliefs.

Thanks to these arguments the Military Service Act of 1916 allowed exemption, on the grounds of ‘conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service’.

Now, I have to admit that this clause was controversial at the time. The tribunals set up to decide individual cases, gave those who claimed this right a very hard time. And the controversy has survived for a very long time. My own father, who fought in the American Army during the Second World War, regarded ‘conscies’ as cowards and traitors.

Nevertheless the argument that Governments should respect individuals’ beliefs has won over most of the world. It’s now enshrined in the UN constitution and recognised in the laws of almost every country.

So today, I’m wearing my White Poppy with pride in both my country and in my church for showing others the way towards what I regard as a fundamental human right.


Script 60 in Each One of Us is Precious also marked International Conscientious Objectors Day but took a slightly different angle

The benefit of the doubt

Here’s a Thought for the Day I did on election day (May 7th).

So, it’s Election Day at last. I haven’t got a clue what the result’s going to be. I suspect it will be a while before we know who’s going to form the Government.
Quakers are quite comfortable with a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty. The first time I went to a Quaker meeting I was told ‘We don’t have a lot of answers – but we do try to ask the right questions’. As I’ve grown in the faith, I’ve learned that Quakers don’t claim to already know the ultimate truth – just how to set about looking for it.
And I don’t think we’re alone in this. In fact, I suspect that all worthwhile religions start with a questing attitude. Historically, one of the things that all three ‘people of the book’ – Jews, Christians and Muslims – have shared is a willingness to read their key texts critically. To find the underlying messages, they have to put the right questions to their holy books. The early Rabbis called this spiritual practice ‘Midrash’ – meaning ‘the way to seek the truth’.
I’ve recently read Karen Armstrong’s book ‘The Bible: a biography’. She argues, convincingly I think, that it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Christians – and others – began to read scriptures as word-for-word literal truth. This approach, based on certainty, has lead to unquestioning fundamentalism. We’ve seen the results in brands of Christianity that seem to teach intolerance rather than peace and humanity and also the atrocities committed in the name of religion by so-called Islamic State.
And I’m pretty clear this kind of certainty does more harm than good.


My original script finished with a paragraph about how I was prepared for a period of doubt about the result of the election if that was what it would take to get the right one. But that would have got the BBC into legal trouble,