Nurturing pacifist conscienceBy Theron F. Schlabach
On my desk is Peace-Work Quilt: Writings of J.E. McNeil, published by the Center on Conscience & War, 2011, 150 pages, $15.
“Quilt” in this book’s title is quite descriptive, since the volume is a collection of small, variegated essays stitched together more or less into overall patterns. “Peace-Work” is also apt if readers do not respond by building up hate for military commanders and recruiters.
Apparently McNeil wrote all or most of the essays when she was a staff lawyer and executive director of the Center for Conscience & War (formerly the National Service Board for Religious Objectors).
Made up of short essays, Peace-Work Quilt is a handy volume to pick up and read in segments. The main benefit will be what Spanish-speakers call conscientización, or consciousness-raising.
The book’s picture of military service is very different from what the military, the government and even some churches propagate. The book helps to keep pacifist consciences alert and sharp, and its greatest value may be to give young people a view they will never get from military advertisements and recruiters.
As with many collections of published essays, the book’s content can feel disjointed. Gradually, though, four themes appear.
One theme is McNeil’s personal journey as she moved gradually to absolute pacifism, at least regarding war. Early in the book she offers a brief spiritual and ideological autobiography, telling how she went from being a Methodist in Texas well-imbued with a pro-military outlook to becoming a Quaker who used a law degree for a peace-work career in Washington.
A second theme is McNeil’s work as a peace advocate. In addition to her role as a lawyer, she found herself in public discussions about war, conscription, Selective Service and military policies and specific laws.
A third theme is work with conscientious objectors and would-be COs. Apparently most or all of McNeil’s work at the Center came after the U.S. ended the draft and was recruiting volunteers instead. So counsel about conscientious objection was mainly with soldiers, sailors and marines who developed CO convictions after joining.
McNeil found herself working even more on cases that grew from other disputes such as medical matters like going AWOL. Some of those cases involved questions of conscience; some did not. Either way, people were seeking advice and legal counsel from knowledgeable advocates.
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