The refusal to pay my taxes if we go to war with Iran, and the portion of my taxes spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if we do not cut off funding for these two conflicts, is not a means. It is an end. I do not know if my refusal, and the refusal of others, will be effective in halting these wars. All I know is that it is worth doing. The alternative, a complacency bred from cynicism and despair, is worse. Refusing to actively resist injustice and flagrant violations of international law, refusing to attempt to turn back the tide of American tyranny, is surrender. It is the death of hope.
Acts of resistance are moral acts. They begin because people of conscience can no longer tolerate abuse and despotism. They are carried out not because they are effective but because they are right. Those who begin these acts are few in number and dismissed by the cynics who hide their fear behind their worldliness. Resistance is about affirming life in a world awash in death. It is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality. We remember and honor the names of those who, solitary when they began, defied their age. Henry David Thoreau. Jane Adams. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mahatma Gandhi. Milovan Djilas. Andrei Sakharov. Martin Luther King. Václav Havel. Nelson Mandela. It is time to join them. They sacrificed their security and comfort, often spent time in jail and in some cases were killed. They understood that to live in the fullest sense of the word, to exist as free and independent human beings, meant to defy authority. When the dissident Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his cell in a Nazi prison to the gallows, his last words were “this is for me the end, but also the beginning.”
Bonhoeffer, who returned to Germany from Union Theological Seminary in New York to fight the Nazis, knew that most of the citizens in his nation were complicit through their silence in a vast enterprise of death. He affirmed what we all must affirm. It did not mean he avoided death. It did not mean that he, as a distinct individual, survived. But he understood that his resistance, and even his death, was an act of love. He fought for the sanctity of life. He gave, even to those who did not join him, another narrative. His defiance condemned his executioners.
“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence,” Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience” after going to jail for refusing to pay his taxes during the Mexican-American War. “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”
Those who recognize the injustice of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a war with Iran, who concede that these wars are not only a violation of international law but under the post-Nuremberg laws are defined as criminal wars of aggression, yet do nothing, have forfeited their rights as citizens. By allowing the status quo to go unchallenged they become agents of injustice. To do nothing is to do something. They practice a faux morality. They vent against war on the Internet or among themselves but do not resist. They take refuge in the conception of themselves as moderates. They stand on what they insist is the middle ground without realizing that the middle ground has shifted under us, that the old paradigm of left and right, liberal and conservative, is meaningless in a world where, to quote Immanuel Kant, those in power have embraced “a radical evil.”
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King wrote from another era as he sat inside a Birmingham jail. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
This lukewarm acceptance, this failure to act, is the worst form of moral cowardice. It cripples and destroys us. When Dante enters the “city of woes” in the “Inferno” he hears the cries of “those whose lives earned neither honor nor bad fame,” those rejected by heaven and hell, those who dedicated their lives solely to the pursuit of happiness. These are all the “good” people, the ones who never made a fuss, who filled their lives with vain and empty pursuits, harmless no doubt, to amuse themselves, who never took a stand for anything, never risked anything, who went along. They never looked too hard at their lives, never felt the need, never wanted to look.
We face a crisis. Our democratic institutions are being dismantled. We are headed for a state of perpetual war. We are paralyzed by fear. We will be stripped, if we do not resist, of our few remaining rights. To resist, while there is still time, is not only the highest form of spirituality but the highest form of patriotism. It is, if you care about what is worth protecting in this country, a moral imperative. There are hundreds of thousands who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This number would be dwarfed by a war with Iran, which could ignite a regional inferno in the Middle East. Not a lot is being asked of us. Compare our potential sacrifices with what is being inflicted on and demanded of those trapped in the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and soon, perhaps, Iran. Courage, as Aristotle wrote, is the highest of human virtues because without it we are unlikely to practice any other virtue. Once we find courage we find freedom.