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Conscience and Resistance

Our Bonhoeffer Moment

by JEFF LEYS

The Bonhoeffer Moment of nonviolent civil resistance and disobedience to the world war being waged by the United States is clearly at hand. As Congress considers an additional $190 billion to fund the Iraq–Afghanistan war through September 2008 and as the threats of war against Iran become increasingly loud, it is time for us to learn lessons from the German resistance to Hitler, to the Nazi regime and to the war waged by the German nation-state. We must engage in the Long Resistance to this current world war, using every nonviolent means to bring about its end.

I was set to be tried on October 2 for an act of nonviolent civil resistance at the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command. The judge dismissed the charge the day of the trial. Following is the closing statement I prepared for the jury trial in Waukegan, Illinois.

Our Bonhoeffer Moment:

In 1942, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian engaged in resistance work to bring about an end to the Nazi regime, penned the following lines in his letter "After Ten Years". He was in prison and under investigation when he wrote:

"We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?"

Silence.

Silence is golden.

Silence is Death.

Silence in the face of our country waging a world war is complicity in the war; is complicity in the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens; is complicity in a crime against humanity.

I chose to break the silence at the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command (MEPCOM) on July 5, 2006. I choose to break the silence today.

I chose to act at MEPCOM last July for a number of reasons. MEPCOM is the command headquarters for the system of Military Entrance Processing Stations. Each person entering the military takes their oath of enlistment at one of these stations. MEPCOM, as the command headquarters of this system, is the focal point of injustice being done to those who serve in our country’s military.

I acted to oppose the injustice of stop-move orders which force service members to extend their tour of duty beyond its scheduled end date.

I acted to oppose the injustice of stop-loss orders which force service members to remain in the military beyond the agreed upon end of enlistment date.

I acted to demand that our country provide the highest quality health care for veterans and their families, as well as for all who live within the U.S.

I acted in solidarity with those members of the military who have chosen to risk prison for refusing to comply with orders to deploy to Iraq to fight in an unjust war.

I acted to demand that our country immediately withdraw from Iraq and recommit itself to rebuilding the Common Good in Iraq and in the United States-funding hospitals, health care clinics, schools, jobs programs and the like rather than funding war, death and destruction.

I acted to engage in a conspiracy of Life with Iraqi citizens suffering over these past 16 years of economic and military warfare and to act in a conspiracy of Life with U.S. soldiers, citizens and others who are engaged in nonviolent action to end the U.S. war in and occupation of Iraq.

Does this form of civilly disobedient action accomplish anything? I don’t know. I believe it does, but I simply don’t know within the context of a world war-the first world war begun by a democracy. For guidance, I look to those German citizens who engaged in resistance work to bring an end to the Nazi regime and to end the world war.

In 1943, German students formed the group the White Rose which advocated for the overthrow of the Nazi regime and for an end to the war. Their simple, yet profound, act was to distribute flyers advancing their positions calling for resistance to Hitler and his regime. Once discovered and arrested, they were executed by the German state. Yet 50 years later, everyone in Germany would come to know of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their comrades in the struggle to end the war and the regime.

In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others were also executed by the German state for engaging in resistance activities to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer, in 1939, had the option of remaining in the U.S. where he would have been able to ride out the war in the safety of academia. Instead he chose to return to Germany to participate in resistance work. Writing as a Christian theologian about his country in which the Church was a willing accomplice in crimes against humanity, Bonhoeffer stated his reason for returning:

"Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security."

Bonhoeffer knew what choice he had to make, he made it, and he paid the price for it.

Let this be our Bonhoeffer Moment of resistance to our country’s world war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that the guns are being aimed.

The examples of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer echo down through the years. In 1983, German judges and prosecutors recalled the example set by the German resistance efforts to Hitler and the Nazi regime and crimes against humanity and determined that it was their obligation to act to prevent nuclear genocide from occurring. German judges and prosecutors actively blockaded the U.S. military bases to which Pershing nuclear cruise missiles were being deployed. They acted to uphold international law even though that meant violating national law.

So does an act of entering the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command do any good? I don’t know. I do know that my action did not stand alone on that day. I do know that others are engaged in active nonviolent civil disobedience to end the Iraq war. Since February 5 of this year, over 700 people have been arrested across the U.S. in actions to end the Iraq war-with many more arrests to come.

I ask you today to join with us in this conspiracy of Life. You have the opportunity today to find me guilty or not guilty. If you believe that the war in Iraq is proper and just, you should find me guilty-regardless of what the law says. If you believe the war in Iraq must be brought to an end today, you should find me not guilty-regardless of what the law says.

The choice is clear and stark. Life or Death. Not guilty or guilty. The future of the war is in your hands today. I urge you to follow your conscience-regardless of the law.

JEFF LEYS is Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and a national organizer with Seasons of Discontent: A Presidential Occupation Project as well as the Occupation Project. He can be reached at: jeffleys@vcnv.org