Our faith teaches us that when we need to decide what is the right thing to do, or the right way to be… when we are trying to discern right from wrong, that we can be guided by our conscience.
Our conscience is something we imagine to be inside us, like a guiding voice or a light, which shows us the way that is true, and right, and good. It guides us from within.
There once was a man who believed deeply in the power of our conscience as our guide. His name was Henry David Thoreau.
During Henry’s life, the United States was fighting a war. And Henry’s conscience told him that this war was a bad thing; that it was wrong. And his conscience told him he should try to do something about that. And then, Henry had an idea.
You see, wars are expensive. When an army goes to war, it has to pay for all the weapons, the ammunition, the uniforms for the soldiers, and all the food for the soldiers to eat, and on and on. You can imagine how expensive wars are, especially when they last a long time.
Well, the government paid the army so they could fight this war. And you know where the government got their money? … From the American people! In fact, to make sure they had enough, there was a law – and there still is – that everyone had to contribute a little bit of their money, in the form of a tax, so that the government could provide the army with enough money for the war.
Well, Henry thought that since the war was wrong, that paying taxes to support the war was also wrong. Henry’s conscience told him that the right thing to do was to refuse to pay his taxes. So, when the tax collector came around and knocked on Henry’s door and asked him to pay up, Henry said… [wait to see if they’re with you and can provide the next word…] “No!”
Now Henry knew that refusing to pay the tax was breaking the law. And he knew that breaking the law meant he would face punishment. Indeed he was punished; he was taken to jail and had to spend one night there.
But for Henry, following his conscience and refusing to pay the tax which supported the war, was what mattered most to him, even if it meant he had to go to jail.
There are a couple of big words we use to describe what Henry did. We call it “civil dosobedience.” And Henry’s act of civil disobedience has inspired countless others over the years – people who listened to the guidance of their conscience and did what they believed was right, even when that meant breaking the law.
And I suspect that some among us in this room have, like Henry, acted in civil disobedience, and if you are one of them, and you feel so moved, I invite you now to rise that you might be an inspiration to us all. [Invite the children to notice those who have risen.] Thank you for your courage to heed the call of your conscience, and for the example you show to us all.
I have greatly simplified the story behind Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience. There are multiple complex subjects wrapped up in Thoreau’s argument: the role of government, the Mexican-American war, taxation, individual freedom, and slavery, which he opposed, and which I chose to omit. I reasoned that taxes supporting a social institution was too abstract a concept, plus some children are too young to be introduced to the concept of slavery.