An act of civil disobedience?

November 10, 2003|By Kent John Chabotar

Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God's purposes. If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply. Ask your meeting for the prayerful support which will give you strength as a right way becomes clear.

- Quaker Faith & Practice (Britain Yearly Meeting)

GREENSBORO, N.C. - The national media have focused a spotlight on Guilford College in recent weeks because of actions by a student, junior Nathaniel T. Heatwole, claiming "civil disobedience" as his motive in connection with allegedly taking dangerous weapons aboard aircraft. He has admitted to federal authorities that he knew his actions were against the law.

Messages the college has received range from "Hail Heatwole a hero!" to "I am disgusted with the behavior and misguided antics of your student."

Mr. Heatwole, 20, of Damascus, was charged in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Oct. 20 with carrying a concealed dangerous weapon aboard an airliner, was released without bail and was permitted to return to his classes at Guilford. A preliminary hearing in the case is to be held today.

Court records described an amateur airport screening sting, and an FBI affidavit said Mr. Heatwole tried six times since February to carry prohibited items onto Southwest Airlines flights between Baltimore and Raleigh, N.C., succeeding four times. Mr. Heatwole identified himself via e-mail to the Transportation Security Administration, explaining what he had done. But the hidden items were not discovered for about five weeks.

It's clear from messages to Guilford and many news reports that there is a misunderstanding of the topic of civil disobedience and the place it occupies in the traditions of an independent liberal arts college founded by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Webster's provides commonly accepted definitions of civil disobedience as "refusal to obey governmental demands as a nonviolent means of protest" and liberal arts as "studies intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities." With those in mind, let's examine how the independent actions of a Guilford College student might fit in the context of his educational experience here.

Throughout history, Quakers have prayerfully resisted civil convention in upholding their testimonies of inward spirituality, simplicity, integrity, equality and peace. Members of the faith have a long tradition of confronting laws that are understood by the individual and the Quaker community to be in violation of a higher law.

Early Quakers in England gathered for silent worship, in spite of the Conventicle Act, which made such gatherings illegal. Quakers in the 19th century violated the Fugitive Slave Act in harboring those escaping slavery. Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and others willingly broke the law in their struggle for suffrage.

Gaining insight into life-changing decisions, such as marriage or civil disobedience, is known as discernment. It involves checking one's leading from God with scriptural truth and with the experience, tradition and testimony of the Quaker community.

The most common example of this community discernment process involves a worshipful gathering of peers and elders (known as a clearness committee), which asks the individual clarifying questions. Those questions might include: "Have you considered other alternatives? Does this come out of a deep conviction? What are the ramifications?" Individual acts arising out of a sense of personal privilege or disregard are not what Quakers would characterize as conscientious acts of civil disobedience.

At this point, we do not know whether Mr. Heatwole's actions conform to these or other standards of civil disobedience. We do not know whether the student engaged in a deliberate process of seeking clearness about the appropriateness of his actions.

Guilford College offers its 2,101 traditional-age and adult students a challenging academic program that fosters critical and creative thinking through the development of the essential skills of analysis, inquiry, communication, consensus-building, problem-solving and leadership. The Quaker tradition harmonizes well with the college's atmosphere of free inquiry.

Liberal arts education requires academic and personal freedom, founded on intellectual and moral responsibility and commitment to ethical values and human beings. The combination of these qualities has contributed to the character of this college for 167 years.

In its teaching, Guilford draws on both Quaker and liberal arts traditions to prepare women and men for a lifetime of learning, work and constructive action dedicated to the betterment of the world. The college embraces action for social change; in fact, it encourages students to "be the change you wish to see in the world."

These are Guilford values, and not only values held by Quakers. Less than 10 percent of our staff and students belong to the Society of Friends. As a Roman Catholic, for example, I am the first non-Quaker president since the college was founded in 1837. Some of our students are activists and many are concerned about political and social issues. But many of our students are simply focused on getting an education and a job or into graduate school later on.

Kent John Chabotar is president and professor of political science at Guilford College.

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