“Conscientious Objector.” That epitaph might aptly be placed on the life’s work of Jim Forest (1941-2022), the founder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and a prolific author. For decades he was a friend and co-laborer of some of the leading voices of Christian conscience in the United States, including Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan. He wrote vivid biographies of these conscience-driven mentors and said that they “lived what one might call Jesus-shaped lives.”
Such people remind those who encountered them of the Gospels. These are people who, in ways large and small, lay down their lives for their neighbor, including the hostile neighbor, the enemy.
I just finished reading At Play in the Lions’ Den, Jim Forest’s memoir of his close friend Fr Daniel Berrigan, S.J.(1921-2016), whose conscience led him to repeated conflicts with the US government, with the Jesuits, and with the Roman Catholic Church. Where did this tense vocation of conscience come from? From the New Testament, says Forest. “Apart from the New Testament, one can make no sense of the pivotal choices Dan made in his long life.” The same might be said of innumerable examples of Christians East and West who follow their Christian conscience into conflicts with church and state. Indeed, in the confessors and martyrs, the Church has a venerable cloud of witnesses who spoke and acted according to their consciences.
Although the word conscience (suneidēsis) occurs only once in the Gospels (John 8:9, in the story of the woman caught in adultery), elsewhere in the New Testament it is used regularly to describe “that faculty which helps overrule moral timidity and do what one knows is good” (Epictetus). Here I’ll look only at the Gospel of John to see various ways this “faculty” is expressed.
- Jesus acts on his conscience when he fashions a whip and clears out the temple of money changers and sacrificial animals at Passover (John 2:13-25). Notably, although the authorities see this as disruptive and unusual, at this early stage of Jesus’s ministry they accept that his protest is within the realm of the prophetic tradition, and they simply ask, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” And while they don’t understand his response at all— “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”— they let it go.
- Jesus heals a lame man on the sabbath (John 5: 1-47), and the authorities now begin persecuting Jesus for acting on his conscience in defiance of the sabbath law. Crucially, Jesus understands what he is doing not as an act of personal defiance, but as humbly and obediently—and yet with paradoxical boldness—following the Father’s will (5:19, 30). This is a point he hammers home repeatedly throughout John’s Gospel (8:12-59, 10:17-39, 12:49-50, 14: 8-11,31; 17:1-26).
- Jesus follows his conscience when he says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:22-71). He scandalizes the crowd, including some of his own followers, but insists that this teaching fulfils the scriptural prophecy that “all shall be taught by God” (6:45). This is too much for most listeners, and only the most trusting disciples remain, even when they don’t comprehend what Jesus is saying.
- The consciences of the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus in John 7 are unsettled, and they won’t follow through on their orders, “because no man ever spoke like this man (John 7:46). Nicodemus’ conscience also urges him to stand up to “the chief priest and Pharisees” and ask them to give Jesus a hearing before acting against him in haste. But the other leaders believe all answers are already given, so they insult Nicodemus and shut him down (John 7:50-52).
- The woman caught in adultery: after hearing Jesus say, “Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone” the crowd of would-be executioners disperses, “being convicted by their own conscience” (John 8:9).
- The man healed of his blindness refuses to go against his conscience, even if his experience and explanation angers the authorities (John 9:1-41). The Pharisees dismiss both the man’s experience and his competence to make a judgement. As Jesus later tells them, they claim to see, but they have closed their eyes to an experience they can’t comprehend and which doesn’t fit their picture of reality.
- John 12 says that despite the controversy surrounding Jesus, “Many even of the authorities believed in him.” But they refused to act on their conscience. “For fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (12:42-43).
- Jesus reassures the disciples that if in future their conscience comes into conflict with the authorities they should not be surprised. As he was persecuted, so will his servants be persecuted and cast out of the synagogues (15:18-27; 16:1-4).
- With his arrest and interrogation Jesus remains true to his conscience despite threats from the religious and state authorities (John 18:19-24, 28-38, 19:1-11). In stark contrast, Pilate goes against his own conscience in order to appease the religious leaders and avoid being labelled “no friend of Caesar” (19:12-13).
- Joseph and Nicodemus overcome their fears and come out of hiding to act openly on their conscience by going to Pilate and seeking the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:38-42).
- Jesus forgives, heals, and restores Peter, who out of fear abandoned his conscience, denied knowing Jesus, and fled when Jesus was being interrogated, tortured, and crucified (John 18: 25-27; 21:15-23).
There is plenty of material here to fashion a Jesus-shaped conscience. And this should give us hope, courage, and determination at those times when we may be called upon to step out in faith, take risks, and accept the consequences of following our conscience with little or no support from others. There is a continuous record in the New Testament and throughout church history of courageous men and women—like Jim Forest, Dan Berrigan, and their friends—acting on their conscience to follow Christ, despite opposition from state and church authorities, and despite their own uncertainties, doubts, and fears.
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