Conscience is very important in public matters

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 26, 2005

"This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

When Shakespeare penned those legendary lines on integrity and conscience, I wonder if he could have envisioned anything like the current Parliamentary embarrassment surrounding the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions. Indeed, it seems some high-ranking MPs have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they do not vote a certain way, even though that way violates their informed consciences.

In a democratic society such as ours, there can be people of conscience on all sides of some complex moral issues.

The overriding value of being true to oneself reminds me of the story of Eleazar, a greatly respected Jewish elder who faced a similar choice nearly 2,200 years ago. For him, the stakes were higher than mere loss of job, however: either violate conscience or face death on the rack!

It was during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, ruthless ruler over Palestine, who set about suppressing all that was sacred in Judaism. He even built an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrificed a pig on it – an abomination to Jewish ways – and insisted all Jews in the land eat pork to show they had forsaken the heritage of their ancestors. Refusal meant death.

So it was that the gray-haired Eleazar, refusing to eat pork because of conscience, faced execution. But since he was well-regarded among his executioners, some urged him to bring his own kosher meat and, pretending it was pork, eat that instead before his examiners. Thus, by this ruse he would spare his life, they argued. His response was unequivocal:

"Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life, for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. Even if for the present I would avoid the punishment of mortals, yet whether I live or die I will not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws."

And so he went to the rack, to his own self true – a source of courage for future generations, and a reminder that no one need fear those who demand compliance at the expense of one's conscience.

Of course, in a democratic society such as ours, there can be people of conscience on all sides of some complex moral issues. All the more reason, then, for Parliament to have a truly free debate and vote on such matters.

Now to a pair of responses to last week's column on astronomy and what happened to all those pretty Christmas lights.

From Big Horn, teacher Bill McLean wrote:

"After I read your astronomy column I had an amazing experience. I was walking at 6 a.m. and I have never experienced northern lights like these. They were right above me, coming in these pulsing waves about a second apart. It lasted for as long as I walked, probably about 45 minutes. It was like watching a global candle-less flame flickering in the wind."

Then from Waterloo, Ontario, former Bow Valley resident Pamela Showler sent this inspiring comment:

"Where did all the pretty Christmas lights go? They are still shining. They are stars you see on a cold crisp night; they are the sparkles in the snow when the sun glistens upon it; they are the reflections from the ice along the shores of the Bow River on a full-moon night in Morley.

"The Christmas lights are the excitement in a child's eyes, the light reflecting off the face of an elder laughing. The Christmas lights are also the warm eminence that comes from the hearts of those who care. Therefore, the Christmas lights have not gone anywhere; they are just disguised in the wonders of life. One simply needs to look a little deeper, and lo and behold, they are still all aglow."

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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