“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.”Mahatma Gandhi
As I listen to President Biden calling on members of Congress to follow their consciences I wonder if they know how to do that. Forgive me for being judgmental but I have not witnessed behavior from them that suggests many are willing to risk anything in order to follow their consciences. Instead I see people acting in lock step, voting according to the desires of their leadership. Senator Mitch McConnell keeps his Republican senators in line perfectly and has described himself as the “grim reaper.” (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to be Congress’ “grim reaper” and thwart all progressive proposals on the Senate floor. April 22, 2019) He is already sending signals that he intends to continue in this manner. I am sad to confess that I believe he will have those who follow him instead of their consciences.
Questions that I have: Are these representatives depending on the consciences of their leaders and not doing the work so they can form their own consciences? (The “just following orders” defense) I mean, this would make things easier. You wouldn’t need to think at all if you just follow orders. You wouldn’t even need to know much about the matter at hand to vote the way leadership tells you to vote. Or, are they acting against their consciences in order to serve their need for wealth, power, and/or prestige when they follow their leadership? What are the values that influence their behavior?
Catholic tradition has long held that deep within every person is the law that must be obeyed. This law is written on every heart by the Creator. This ancient belief is why Micah 6: 8 can say, “Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what ‘good’ is, and what the Most High needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.” In other words, we already know what to do. It is there within us.
Our conscience is at the core of our being and it is in the core of our being that we meet with God. Conscience is that thing that tells us to do good and avoid doing evil. The sacredness of our conscience is so valued in Catholicism that even if that conscience tells you to do something that is against what the Church says to do, you must follow your conscience. You must do what your conscience tells you is good.
Following one’s conscience requires that a person learn how to go inside, to be sufficiently present to oneself in order to hear and follow that sense of conscience. We call this interiority. But people can keep themselves distracted and avoid self-examination, and push away the voice within that is trying to speak. I believe a person can numb their conscience, or weaken its voice over time. I believe that people can choose to ignore their conscience. Our new president may be equally ignored as he tries to call our nation to “follow their better angels.”
Of course, our consciences are formed over time by learning about values and the effects that choices have on other people. We learn what justice is, what kindness is, what walking humbly with God means. But in many of our faith traditions we learn and hold much in common. The trick is to follow what we know.
Here’s the golden rule for each different religions and philosophies:
In everything, do unto others what you would have them do to you. For this sums up the law and the prophets.
Do not offend others as you would not want to be offended.
None of you are true believers until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.
Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.
Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which can serve as the guiding principle for conduct throughout life?” Confucius said, “It is the word altruism (shu). Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
Guru Granth Sahib, pg. 1299
I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.
T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213–218
Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.
Chief Dan George
We are much alive as we keep the Earth alive.
My beloved ones, may we form our consciences well and follow them.