Ach, mein Sinn

Bach on the reasons for respecting freedom of conscience

I’m not at all religious; I found seeing a procession carrying a cross, and kneeling down to pray briefly outside my building in the centre of Auckland before continuing on their way rather bemusing. But I do like good music, very much including religious music from JS Bach to Dave Brubeck, and a rainy Good Friday seemed like a very good occasion to listen to a recording of the St John Passion without getting distracted.

This turned out, however, to be a more topical exercise than I expected. Pilate wondering “What is truth?” and the crowd insisting that “We have a law, and according to that law He should die” ― was Auden thinking of this when he wrote about “the loud angry crowd/ Very angry and very loud” claiming that “Law is We”? ― are just two examples of the very contemporary issues the Passion raises, quite from any belief that it holds eternal truths.

But it was another passage that struck me most, one that speaks to a truth that is, at least, as old as mankind but also, sadly, very relevant to Canadians in 2018: the aria “Ach, mein Sinn”.

 

Here is a translation:

Alas, my conscience,
where will you flee at last,
where shall I find refreshment?
Should I stay here,
or do I desire
mountain and hill at my back?
In all the world there is no counsel,
and in my heart
remains the pain
of my misdeed,
since the servant has denied the Lord.

As you’ve probably guessed, the words are Peter’s, after he denies being one of Jesus’ disciples. But the description of a conscience that is tormented by its own weakness, that wants to flee its predicament yet realizes that it cannot escape, and that cannot be helped, is one that ought to be recognizable to all human beings, regardless of their belief in, or indeed awareness of, the Gospel story. Whether Peter has denied the Lord or “only” a man he loved and admired is, I think, quite beside the point. Either way, he has given up his integrity, and he suffers as a result.

It is also beside the point whether Peter’s denial was voluntary, and his suffering, something he brought upon himself. Having followed Jesus, whom the High Priest’s men have arrested, to the High Priest’s palace, Peter is confronted by “One of the high priest’s servants, a friend of the man whose ear Peter had cut off”. He is no doubt afraid; he is probably right to be afraid. From an external perspective, his denial might be excusable; one shouldn’t be quick to boast that one would not have done the same in such circumstances. But for Peter himself such excuses are of no avail.

This reminder of why conscience is so important is most timely. The idea that Trinty Western University can just be made to abandon its homophobic and illiberal “covenant”, or that religious groups can be made to accept an “attestation” implying support for abortion rights, or that Ontario lawyers can be made to “promote” values regardless of their belief in them, ignores the suffering that these institutions and individuals would subject themselves to in complying with the state’s demands. Empathy for this sort of suffering, for the pain people when they lose their integrity, even if acting under the compulsion of the law and the threat of legal sanction, is the justification for respecting and protecting ― including by constitutional means ― the freedom of conscience.

The promoters and defenders of impositions on conscience feel no such empathy. Whether that is because they do not understand the plight of those whose obedience they demand, or because they are indifferent to it, I do not know. I suspect that a certain failure of imagination ― the inability or the refusal to admit that they might not always be the ones exacting obedience, and that they might instead find themselves in the position of would-be conscientious objectors ― is at least partly at issue. But, either as a warning about what they might themselves feel one day, or as an appeal for compassion, I hope that they take note of “Ach, mein Sinn”.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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