A Movement of Conscience in New York Yearly Meeting

Conscience is an inward knowledge of right and wrong, along with a compulsion to do what is right. It requires judgment and action. Sometimes conscience appears in an instant of clarity, but often it grows as we pay attention to it and develop it. It is a gift of the Spirit.

A movement of conscience arises when the dictates of conscience are violated by the laws of governments. People who have tested their consciences and recognize their freedom gather to express this gift together. Philosopher and activist Jim Corbett, in his book Goatwalking, describes this movement as "civil initiative":

Nonviolent civil initiative by covenant communities is . . . the way human beings preserve and develop society based on consent, in which the rule of law, as distinguished from the rule of commanders, is necessarily grounded. . . . Civil initiative must be societal rather than organizational, nonviolent rather than injurious, truthful rather than deceitful, catholic rather than sectarian, dialogical rather than dogmatic, substantive rather than symbolic, volunteer-based rather than professionalized, and based on community powers rather than government powers.

A first step is to recognize and articulate the truth that is working within us by writing a statement of conscience. Further prompting of conscience has led a growing number of people to join the movement of conscience, asking for support in discerning how that truth is working within and the implications of that truth as we accompany one another on this path. The third step is to identify the ways that we can act on our collective beliefs of conscience as communities of faith.

Thus, conscience arises in the individual and becomes a movement when it is nurtured and expressed in community. This is an account of how faithfulness to promptings of conscience has been moving within New York Yearly Meeting. What began as individual responses to troubled consciences, often accompanied by many doubts and hesitations, is now becoming a movement. A movement, though, is not just action. For those in the New York Yearly Meeting involved in this work it has meant clarity and a deepening understanding of conscience, a working knowledge of details about currently known alternatives available for action, and an understanding of the freedom imparted by personal responsibility and of being called as a participant in a covenant faith community.

Perhaps it would be well to start with the response of New York Yearly Meeting to the events of September 11, 2001. In addition to attending to the immediate needs of its neighbors in lower Manhattan, the yearly meeting went into an extended period of prayer and reflection, the fruits of which were epistles from the Worship and Action Group (available online at http://www.nyym.org/qr/nyympa/wau/). In July 2004 this Group reported to the body of Friends:

Out of faithfulness rises the call to live in peace.

In these times, we hear God calling us to live peaceably, ourselves, in all our relationships.

We hear the challenge to pay attention, inwardly, in our households and families, at work, in our meetings and communities, and in the wider world. We are awakening to the challenges of mediated relationships, relationships we do not experience directly, with people who are most affected by our politics and government actions—close to home or across oceans—with those who make clothing we wear, who harvest food we eat.

We see responses to this call in actions grounded in worship. Gathered in session as a yearly meeting, we are settled. Our reports are becoming messages. We are learning to let go in faithfulness, to pay attention in trust. We see responses in our lives and work at home. We believe that we can learn and live our unity, upholding one another in love and truth, with a tender hand, waiting and acting in faithfulness. —NYYM Worship and Action for Peace, July 30, 2004

One of the fruits of worship and action has been deepened attention to conscientious objection to paying for war, and to ways of "taking away the occasion for war." In our Spring Sessions of April 2006, the yearly meeting approved two minutes that arose not from our committee structure but rather from the body of Friends gathered in regional meetings and forwarded to the yearly meeting:

The Living Spirit works in the world to give life, joy, peace and prosperity through love, integrity and compassionate justice among people. We are united in this Power. We acknowledge that paying for war violates our religious conviction. We will seek ways to witness to this religious conviction in each of our communities. (Minute 2006-04-11)

Friends share a concern about meeting the minimum needs of all people, which we define to be: providing adequate drinking water, nutrition, clothing, housing, primary health care and five years of primary education, to be achieved by the year 2030.

Friends are advised to raise the issue on all occasions where it is possible to influence individuals, groups, and organizations. We charge our clerk and general secretary to make a special effort to speak about this issue with regional, national, and international groups. We encourage Radh Achuthan to continue his ministry on this issue under his existing travel minute. (Minute 2006-04-20)

During these same sessions, the yearly meeting approved the preparation of an amicus brief in the case of Jenkins v. Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (Minute 2006-04-10). Daniel Jenkins redirected his federal income taxes to place them in escrow pending government recognition of his right of conscience to be free from any coerced participation in military activity. The decision of the federal tax court (dismissing his petition without a hearing, imposing a $5,000 "frivolous" fine, and requiring him to pay the income taxes) was appealed to the federal Second Circuit Court. The Second Circuit also dismissed the case and upheld the fine. Dan then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in April 2007 the yearly meeting approved the preparation of an amicus brief in support. The briefs written by Dan’s attorney and by the yearly meeting are available on the website of Conscience and Peace Tax International, http://www.cpti.ws; these documents contain a wealth of historical information that may be of broad interest to Friends.

In 2007 the yearly meeting’s Committee on Conscientious Objection to Paying for War sponsored a series of conferences in support of this growing movement of conscience. The first conference was held at Purchase Meeting the weekend following the oral argument of Jenkins in the Second Circuit in February 2007. The court hearing and the conference were attended by about 35 Friends and others from the metropolitan area and the northeast region. Out of that conference arose two strands of action: exploring the possibility of group legal action, and expanding the movement of conscience by helping Friends at home take the first step of writing a statement of conscience.

The second conference, in June 2007 at Rochester Meeting, featured a public forum on the failure of violence that included Robert Holmes, professor of Philosophy at University of Rochester; Derek Brett, of Conscience and Peace Tax International; and Frederick Dettmer, the attorney representing Daniel Jenkins. During the following day and a half, Friends continued to consider action steps individually and in concert with others.

The third conference was held at Flushing Meeting in September 2007, as the 350th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance was being celebrated. It focused on international venues for raising freedom of conscience issues as they apply to paying taxes for war. A fourth conference April 2-4, 2008, is being planned; and as momentum builds, we envision more every few months, inviting ever-widening circles of participants.

Jens Braun, clerk of the committee, reported to the yearly meeting at July 2007 sessions and offered reflections on the work yet to be done:

  1. We can steep ourselves in the knowledge and understanding of the failure of violence. If we don’t want to pay for war, do we know what the consequences of not having a military might be? Do we know and have real answers to questions like "What about Hitler?" or "Aren’t we humans inherently greedy and evil?"Friends and others have wonderful, wise and insightful answers to these and so many other questions—but we haven’t shared them widely even among ourselves. Steeping ourselves in understanding the failure of violence, this is a confusing topic about which clarity is liberating.
  2. We can explore, develop and improve the many ways Friends can work towards not paying for war. The committee has set up working groups in some of these areas:
    • We are working in the legislative arena to change U.S. laws. Getting the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund bill passed is not beyond our reach.
    • We are challenging existing laws and developing new strategies to be even more forceful in these challenges through the courts. Our support of Dan Jenkins’ case is part of this work.
    • We have developed, gathered, and are working on more materials, video presentations and other resources to help gain clarity and communicate our clarity on not paying for war. We are developing workshops and presentations for individuals, meetings, and regions that wish to have help in this process of first putting into words the knowledge of our consciences, hearts and souls, and then of becoming clearer on what to do with this knowledge. Please ask us, we will come.
  3. A third thing we can do is to join with others. European Friends have participated in the three conferences: Robin Brookes of Britain’s Peace Tax Seven in February; Derek Brett from the Conscience and Peace Tax International office in Geneva, Switzerland, in June; and both Robin and Derek in September. The right of conscience to be free from paying for war is an international movement (and a human right) that is gaining strength and recognition.

By the waters of Babylon
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres . . . . (Psalm 137)

I think many of us feel like exiles in Babylon. It is easy to hang up our harps on the willows. It is time. Let us take up our instruments, lay aside despair, and sing with the voices of wisdom.

The yearly meeting then agreed to issue a call (Minute 2007-07-50):

To Conscientious Objectors to Paying for War Everywhere,
New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends invites you to join us in acknowledging that paying for war violates our conviction in the Power of the Living Spirit to give life, joy, peace and prosperity through love, integrity and compassionate justice among people.

We call on all conscientious objectors to paying for war to state in writing 1) your belief against paying for war and the preparations for war, 2) major influences in forming your belief, 3) how it is demonstrated by the way you live, and 4) a request that our government recognize and accommodate our convictions.

We ask anyone who prepares such a statement to send it to NYYM Committee on Conscientious Objection to Paying for War, 15 Rutherford Place, New York, NY 10003;. We ask Friends to send your statement to your monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings to record in the minutes having received your testimony.

Contact information:
New York Yearly Meeting, Conscientious Objection to Paying for War
15 Rutherford Place,
New York, NY 10003;
(212) 673-5750

National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund
2121 Decatur Place NW,
Washington DC 20008;
(202) 483-3751 or (888) PEACETAX

Listings of:
Local Meeting addresses:

More information on writing a statement of conscience:

Following the steps of discernment in community you may find a liberty and peace that flows from living in accord with your inner conscience. When prepared in the Spirit, we have found that our nonviolent civil initiative becomes not a burden, but a yoke—a welcome service freely offered to the broader community of all peoples.

Karen Reixach

Karen A. Reixach, a member of Rochester (N.Y.) Meeting, is co-clerk of New York Yearly Meeting's Committee on Conscientious Objection to War. She edited this article, which was compiled by the committee.