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Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

V.—Side-Stepping the Law

V.—Side-Stepping the Law.

Parliament first of all emphatically refused to exempt the Conscientious Objector, as the Division List of June 7, 1916, shows. Then, for a reason yet to be explained, Parliament changed its extraordinary mind, and proceeded to make provision for the exemption from combatant service of men who could prove that, prior to August 4, 1914, they belonged to a religious organisation opposed to military service.

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When the Bill was sent to the Legislative Council on June 9 it contained the following condition on which a balloted man might secure exemption:—

"That he was on the fourth day of August, 1914, and has since continuously been a member of a religions body the tenets and doctrines of which declare the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service to be contrary to divine revelation, and that, according to his own conscientious religious belief, the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service is unlawful by reason of being contrary to divine revelation."

It will be noted that this severely excluded recognition of the individual religious conscience except as the auxiliary of the collective conscience of an organisation. It denied to the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Salvationist Objector the right of individual conscience. To the Socialist, Irish and Maori Objector it denied the right of either a collective or an individual conscience, It only left the way of exemption on conscientious grounds open to the members of the Society of Friends, Christadelphians, and one or two other small bodies. Even in their cases it was insisted that they must appear for medical examination, attestation, etc. And again, even to these objectors it only gave exemption from "combatant" service; it offered the alternative of "non-combatant" service; and, of course in a multitude of cases, the extreme religious conscience revolted against any kind of war work.

The printed document to be signed by the Objector set forth that: "I, (Blank), having appealed to a Military Board on the ground of my religious objections to military service, hereby undertake, if my appeal is allowed on that ground, faithfully and willingly to perform such non-combatant work or services as may be required of me in accordance with regulations made under the Military Service Act, 1916, and at such rate of payment as may be prescribed by such regulations."

On June 7 the House divided on a proposal to deprive the Conscientious Objectors of their citizen rights for a period of ten years, and the proposal was defeated by 33 to 23. The division list:—Ayes: Allen, Bollard, Buick, J. M. Dickson, Harris, Henare, Herdman, Herries, Hornsby, Hudson, Mander, Myers, E. Newman, Nosworthy, Okey, Pearce, R. H. Rhodes, T. W. Rhodes, Statham, W. Stewart, Wright, Wilkinson, Young. Noes: Anstey, Craigie, Dickie, Ell, T. A. H. Field, W. H. Field, Fletcher, Forbes, Sir W. Fraser, Hindmarsh, Hunter, Isitt, Jennings, McCallum, McCombs, MacDonald, McNab, A. K. Newman, Poland, Pomare, Poole, Russell, Scott, Sidey, Smith, Talbot, Thacker, Veitch, Walker, Ward, Webb, Wilford, Witty.

By the following session the vast majority of the Tory and Liberal members had somersaulted, and a Bill was carried and sent to the Legislative Council providing for deprivation of citizen rights for the Conscientious Objectors, The Bill, however, also contained a page 17clause providing for the exemption of all clergymen and teachers (including, of course, the Marist Brothers). This clause was rejected by the Council, whereupon the Government dropped the whole measure. The Council's desire to see the Marists conscripted saved the other Objectors in this respect for the time being. By the second session of 1918, as we shall see, the whole of the House, with the exception of the Labour members, had fallen under the influence of the interests antagonistic to the of conscience.

Now, the rejection by the Council of the clause referred to left the law so that it required that the name of every clergyman and theological student should be placed in the ballot in the order of his Division. The Catholic clergy and teachers, by reason of their celibacy vows, came at once into the First Division; consequently the Catholic Church was the first religious organisation seriously menaced by the Act. It was alleged, however, that the Government had previously pledged itself to the Church that the clergy and the Marist Brothers would not be called up. The "New Zealand Times," when the fact became known, explained that the Government had made this bargain because it was anxious to get Conscription through without being tripped up by the problem of the Conscientious Objector. This pledge was understood to mean that the clergy would not be balloted. When the "system" began to work, however, and Bishop Brodie and quite a number of the clergy and Marist Brothers were duly drawn and required to take their chances before the Appeal Boards, the suspicion arose that another scrap of paper was about to be torn up, and a determined spirit of resistance began to make itself felt.

Plain speaking on the part of influential Catholics was not without its undercurrent of threat. Archbishop O'Shea laid it down that while a priest would cheerfully expose his life at the call of duty, "to put a rifle in his hand and require him to take the life of another would be an outrage on the sanctity of his profession and an outrage on the Catholic conscience." When he was reminded that in France the priests were compelled to the trenches, he retorted: "Well, the law that compelled the priests to fight in France was passed by an infidel Government for the purpose of destroying the Church." He warned the Government: "Catholics are resenting deeply the attempt to conscript their clergy, and will resent it still more if it is persisted in." He sternly declared: "We will use every means in our power to prevent it." He appealed to the Government "not to persist in a policy that we look upon as a useless persecution and will resent to the end." Father Taylor wrote in the leading daily papers protesting that it was "monstrous" that a layman should declare the clergy "under compulsion to carry arms and dip their hands in the blood of their fellowmen." The chairman of a Catholic public meeting at Wellington denounced the proposal to conscript priests and theological students as "a gross outrage." A prominent Wellington lawyer at the same meeting asked:

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"Are we going to stand by and see our priests sent to the firing line? I say no. Is there a single male Catholic in the Dominion who will not make any sacrifice to prevent a single priest being sent to the firing line?" The Wellington correspondent of a Christchurch paper intimated that the Catholic clergy had a promise from the Government that the clergy would not be conscripted, and that the Bishops had been lulled by this promise, and so had allowed the legislation to proceed without protest. This correspondent, pointing out that Archbishop O'Shea's words had been addressed to "men and women of Irish blood, who knew something of suffering and had not forgotten," declared that "to them and their offspring there would be no bravado about making a stand to protect the priest."

The Government had sown the wind, and it began to look as if the Church would lay upon it the obligation of reaping the whirlwind. But for a harvesting of this sort the Government had no stomach; and accordingly it planned for a way by which it might escape from an ugly situation. The method it adopted to save itself from the consequences of its own unwise and unjust law was explained by Sir James Allen to a deputation (of "a private character") of representative Methodists and Presbyterians which waited upon him at Christchurch on February 23, 1917. Parliament having refused to exempt the clergy, this end was to be achieved by the Minister of Munitions sending to the Appeal Board in each clerical case a certificate of exemption. All that was necessary was that the heads of the respective churches should make application on behalf of the clergy for whom exemption was desired.

The Cabinet could not have been the happiest family round about this period, for two days later the Hon. G. W. Russell, also deputationised at Christchurch (by the Ministers' Association), said: "He could not give a specific reply to the Association that a secret undertaking existed between the Government and the Church"—meaning the Catholic Church. But the honourable gentleman made it quite clear that he had considerably swerved from his former attitude. On the previous June 6 he had voted against exempting Religious Objectors. On June 7 he had voted in favour of jail with five years' hard labour for Conscientious Objectors. On June 8 he had voted to punish with fine and imprisonment an employer who retained in his employ a Conscientious Objectors refusing military service. On June 8 also he had voted in favour of a £50 fine for persons who failed to inform against Conscientious Objectors refusing military service. Now he told the Protestant ministers he was in favour of exempting all clergymen—"he could conceive of nothing more incongruous than that a minister of religion should be compelled to bear arms." It was surely not alone because he once represented Riccarton that his dearest friends nicknamed the present member for Avon.

It may be explained here that the Labour Movement never at any time desired that the clergy of any church or the Marist Bro-page 19thers should be conscripted. Labour stood against Conscription in the first place, and in the second place for the exemption of every man, whether clergyman or layman, with conscientious objections to military service. If a clergyman was an ardent militarist, there could be no logical reason for his desiring exemption. But, of course, all Christians who interpreted Christian principle from the viewpoint of the early Christians were of necessity anti-militarists, and the Labour movement desired that none of these should be required to do violence to their conscience. There was an open way by which the principles of such men might have been respected. But the Government did not take that open way. On the contrary, it sledge-hammered its tyrannical clauses through Parliament, denying the right of a conscience to the individual, and then when it became alarmed at the storm it had raised, it set out to evade its own bad law. And although it saved itself from coming into conflict with the Church over the matter of the clergy, it went on sending scores of good Catholics to jail for the crime of possessing consciences, Just as it sent scores of good Socialists, good Protestants, good Quakers, good Irishmen, and others to jail for the same reason.

From the manner in which the Government backed down before the determination of the Catholic Church, the Labour movement has one great lesson to learn: It is Organisation that Counts. The Church had made up its mind that neither its preachers nor its teachers should be sent to the trenches—and they were not sent. But while the Government stood beaten and afraid before the organised strength of the Church, the jail doors were swinging inward day by day for the representatives of Labour. It is organisation that counts.