I found the poem “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay to be very insightful and moving. It touches upon the topic that all of us will experience, albeit only once in our lifetime, namely, death. Death has been called “the great equalizer” since it treats all people the same – it recognizes no class, age, gender or racial distinction. It is the common experience of all humanity, and so ties us all together in its life-ending insatiable swallowing down humankind. Millay says it is possible to be a Conscientious Objector in death’s war on humanity – we each can die, but never hand over anyone –friend or enemy – to death.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not
tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am
not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver
men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
with me; never through me shall you be overcome.
Millay’s poem made me think about death as portrayed in and understood by the Bible. On the one hand God warned Adam that should he disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam would surely die. On the other hand, God commanded that humans should not kill (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), that murderers should be punished by death (Genesis 9:6), and that God Himself had no desire to see anyone, including sinners die (Ezekiel 18:32, 33:11).
Can I live as Millay suggests, as a Conscientious Objector to death? Can I live so that I never betray anyone – friend or enemy – to death, rather always seeing death as the true enemy of humanity?
Whatever role death might have played in dealing with rebellious and sinful humanity, St. Paul does categorize death as an enemy, not a tool of God:
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26)
That death is neither God’s friend, nor invention is made clear in the Septuagint which was canonical Jewish thinking at the time of St. Paul:
“Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.” [Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-16 (NRSV)]
Death is summoned when humans sin, but does not belong to the Will of God for humanity. God’s will is always geared toward humanity’s eternal salvation.
So, can I live so committed to a pro-life attitude that I never betray any fellow human being to death? Would not that be respecting the sanctity of human life?