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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 117-131

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Conscience, Citizenship, and Global Responsibilities

Richard Reilly
St. Bonaventure University

A version of this paper was presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies held at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, in August 2000.

Upon discovering that Antigone had buried her brother, Polyneices, King Creon ascertains that she indeed had known of his decree forbidding any honor to be shown to the dead traitor, and asks, "You still dared break this law?" Antigone responds:

Yes, because I did not believe
that Zeus was the one who had proclaimed it;
neither did Justice,
or the gods of the dead whom Justice lives among.
The laws they have made for men are well marked out.
I didn't suppose your decree had strength enough,
or you, who are human,
to violate the lawful traditions
the Gods have not written merely, but made infallible.
These laws are not for now or for yesterday,
they are alive forever;
and no one knows when they were shown to us first. 1

Thus arises the dynamic confrontation between conscience and the state in the guise of two very solitary individuals: Antigone, committed to her brother out of love and religious duty, and Creon, striving to reestablish political order so necessary to the welfare of the community. We might say, in the idiom of Saint Augustine and Martin Luther King Jr., for Antigone, "an unjust law is no law at all," or at least not one that should bind one's conscience. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King agonized over the lack of support, much less solidarity, of the Christian community in the effort to achieve racial justice in America. Antigone is provided no comrade (although her sister, Ismene, is sympathetic); no one of religious authority pleads Antigone's case or provides her with moral support. In this respect, Antigone's situation is mirrored in that of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian Catholic beheaded for his refusal to be conscripted into the army in support of the Nazi's cause. [End Page 117]

Surely, one owes much to one's state, especially if it is justly ordered, safeguards individuals' rights, and promotes the common good. Both out of gratitude and a sense of fair play, one should do one's "public duty"—including upholding the law, paying taxes, voting, and otherwise participating in the political life of the community, and so on. We might say, as Jesus said, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's." 2 What does not belong to Caesar is the nature, meaning, and destiny of one's life; or to put it otherwise, what does not belong to Caesar is the allegiance or fidelity of one's conscience. This paper has three aims: (1) to show that to be respectful of life entails "global responsibilities"; (2) to articulate a rational ground for the view that "life" and "conscience" do not belong to the state; and (3) to argue that religious communities should encourage and honor individuals of conscience and that the state should recognize as a fundamental human right a citizen's noncooperation with policies or behaviors that are life-destroying. That Buddhism and Christianity are "world religions" provides each with the opportunity and the responsibility to do whatever is possible to promote peace, prosperity, and well-being of all human beings. Buddhists and Christians would do well to join together to articulate "ethical responsibilities" in a culture-neutral way to underscore their independence from political structures and ideologies on the one hand and to emphasize their global applicability on the other.

Respecting Life—a Global Precept

Encountering spiritual traditions nourished in other cultures allows one to rethink one's cultural assumptions. The spread of Buddhism in the West is especially potent in this regard. One of the most fundamental of all moral laws is: "One ought not to kill." But what does this really mean? What does it require of each of us? Buddhism offers important insights in this regard. In what follows, I shall offer...


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