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Monday, 3 September 2007

Archibald Baxter

It's old news: Mother Teresa had far more doubt than almost anyone knew. She expected to feel God's presence; she did not. In public, she professed perfect faith; in private, she called herself a hypocrite for doing so. She spent the majority of her life in an agony of extreme cognitive dissonance.

I may not have the measure of her, but I'd say she was someone who was capable of denying any and all inner feelings in service of -- well -- of the rules; of the rules she believed represented the pathway to supreme goodness. It is presumptuous of me, but I sympathise. Though I freely concede that there are many counts on which she may be criticised, when it comes to the criticism of hypocrisy I, yes, I who love the truth, can only be grateful that it was her and not me.

Ironclad adherence to such demanding rules excites quite understandable awe from some. In the past, I have thought that this is religion's major card: the ability to inspire perfect determination, to declare with such certainty that people will go far beyond what is normal for human beings in an attempt to follow. Such a card can be used either for good or for evil, of course. In adding certainty, religion becomes an amplifier. But is this the only way to achieve a remarkable act of conscience? No. No, it isn't.

In 1917, the New Zealand Defence Department decided to make examples of some conscientious objectors. Fourteen such were removed from prison and shipped off to Europe, there to be forced to take part in the action. One was released, having been transported by mistake (he belonged to a recognised religious sect which advocated nonviolence and was hence a 'legal' objector). Three submitted after 28 days of detention in England which included solitary confinement, forced dressing, handcuffs, verbal and physical abuse, and a bread-and-water diet.

The remaining ten were sent to France. Threatened with being shot, three more broke. The rest were sent to the lines. Three of those were court-martialled, repeatedly threatened with the death penalty, and eventually sentenced to two years' hard labour in a prison in Dunkirk. Conditions were hard; all three were hospitalised with illness of some sort or other. Finally all three agreed to become stretcher-bearers. One was killed in action.

The other four were subjected to No.1 field punishment: morning and afternoon, for a fixed period of time, they were tied to a forward-leaning stake by the ankles, knees and wrists. Crucifixion, if you will. One agreed to bear a stretcher after 28 days of this. Another was hospitalised and became a stretcher-bearer upon recovery. Two remained defiant until the end.

Not my country's finest hour.

The two who held out? Mark Briggs and Archibald Baxter. Briggs was a leader among the fourteen, defiant and uncompromising. By the end of the war he had been declared physically unfit for service as a result of the abuse he received. Baxter, though, is really something else. His autobiographical account, We Will Not Cease, is described by some as 'remarkable for its lack of animosity'. That isn't the half of it. No, the truly remarkable thing about Archibald Baxter is his distinct lack of cognitive dissonance. In his autobiographical account, Baxter is never certain how far he will be able to hold out. He does not set his teeth. He does not set his position in stone and then hold to it. He simply remains in tune with his personal convictions, whatsoever they may be.

Baxter would never have wanted me to imply he shared my atheism, so before I go further let me explain that he was most definitely Christian: unchurched, but Christian. In explaining his objection to war, he says

"To me, Christianity is based on the commandment: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' I do not profess to be able to live up to this ideal, but one can at least go so far along the road as to try to treat other people as one would wish to be treated by them, and war cuts this position at its very roots."

As a freethinker, I find Baxter's achievements remarkable and inspirational. If it is possible to hold out under such strain while still remaining in touch with one's real and human conscience (rather than with an ideal set in stone), then perhaps it is also possible to navigate in life while still in touch not only with conscience but with reason: aware that our views may change, aware that under some circumstances we might be too broken to hold out, but still, for now, following what we believe to be true and good. If we are to aim for heroism, let it not be heroism of the Mother Teresa style. Let us rather trust our own hearts and minds, and have courage in what they tell us.

Baxter eventually passed out from starvation (long story), and woke up in an English mental hospital. Presumably they assumed that someone who wasn't eating was probably mentally disturbed. At any rate, he stayed in mental institutions until the end of the war. The exact extent to which he needed mental attention and the extent to which the English medical people were simply trying to keep him from further abuse by the New Zealand authorities is unclear; in his autobiography, Baxter does not consider himself to have been truly mad. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that his experiences left him with considerable psychological damage -- he had nightmares for years afterwards.

Archibald Baxter married Millicent MacMillan Brown in 1920. Millicent was the daughter of Helen Connon, one of the first female BAs in the British Empire. She was educated in Sydney and Cambridge; he was a self-educated farm labourer. When Millicent was 90, someone asked her what she would do if she was sixty years younger, and she is said to have replied without hesitation "I'd marry my husband again." Their second son, James K. Baxter, was one of the greatest poets New Zealand has ever produced.


spaghettipie said...

Lynet, thanks so much for sharing about this. I find his life fascinating and will add the book to my reading list. As ironic as it seems, perhaps the only way to really "hold to" our convictions is to not determine to hold to them, but simply remain "in tune" (as you aptly put) with them.

DaVinci said...

I totally agree with your sentiments here.