Freemasons in The Trenches

Freemasons in The Trenches

I recently attended an M.P.S. Meetup where the topic was “Has War Ever Led to Good?” The presenter had a distinctive bent: absolutely not. The viewpoint was of a passionate pacifist and could only see the negative in war time situations. I felt I should be looking at the bigger picture – how war affects humanity – and the smaller picture – how it affects the individual. While many see the horror of war, there must be something good to also be found, right?

After this M.P.S., I attended a bluegrass festival, John McCutcheon played “Christmas In the Trenches,” based on a letter written by a WWI English private named Edgar Aplin, this song depicts a moment in a bitter and bloody war where two sides came together for a beautiful moment of humanity. John’s song brings about that moment of clarity that everyone thinks about: we’re killing other humans that are just like us. In a tragic war that left millions affected, there is a humanity that we can remember. The lyrics to the song are found here.

Prior to the recent M.P.S. meeting above, and then again after hearing this song again, I looked for incidents of this occurring amongst Freemasons; after all, who else thinks about humanity and the perfecting of it more than Freemasons? Not many. There are many ways in which Freemasons make it known that they are brothers, and perhaps there are moments of “truce” that exist, even if they are not as famous as the U.K. Sainsbury Ad that idealizes the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Some of the most deeply moving stories of Masonic fraternity are from the American Civil War. Author Greg Stewart has written a wonderful article on the American Civil War and Freemasons, found on the Sojourners website. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in history or Freemasonry to read it. He does cite his sources, which is helpful.

In short, the American Civil War tested our country’s ability to fight for what we believed in and at the same time show compassion to our fellow human beings. While it brought out some of the worst fighting, it also inspired the greatest passion to ease the suffering of individuals. Masons strive to erase that which divides us as people. For the fighting Brothers of this war, the inner turmoil must have been great.

The annals of WWI do not have much to say about Freemasonry’s involvement. In an interesting article on skirret.com, we have one author’s exploration into the world and Masonic view of the War. In the article we are given much about how the Lodges felt about the war, but we see little in the way of anecdotal evidence that the war was anything but divisive within the Fraternity. From the loss of recognition to the outright revoking of charters and hostility, even within Lodges in America, we see the seeds of bureaucratic response to the war rather than a human response.

During WWII, Freemasons were one of the persecuted groups under the Nazi regime. A truly wonderful article on this is noted here. Not only does it talk of the secret meetings of Freemasons, after the disbanding of traditional Freemasonry in Germany, but it also describes one of the Lodges that existed within the wire fences of a concentration camp. Another paper, titled “Masons At War: Freemasonry During World War Two,” by Mark Stanford, also documents the Masonic Service Centers that came into being during the war, to care for Service Members at home and overseas. Freemasonry has solidly moved to the larger good works of caring for the members of the armed services, but we rarely hear about the individual’s experience. While acts of heroism show up in small ways by European Freemasons, some documented in various places noted above, the North American experience seems small in comparison.

In looking toward Vietnam, the only real evidence of Freemason’s involvement has to do with, again, the care of wounded soldiers and care packages to military overseas. Military Lodges having long been either frowned upon or banned altogether, there seems to have been very few during WWI and none during the Vietnam era.

From Vietnam forward to today, there seems to be no further evidence of widespread Masonic response to war time situations, either in the form of relief for troops or support of overseas military. While they undoubtedly exist, there is little to record their greater-than-local involvement in war efforts.

A first thought was that the Morgan Affair changed how Americans view Freemasons. It certainly changed how Freemasons viewed themselves and their fraternity. However, we find evidence of individual Masonic charity examples all over the American Civil War, which took place after the Morgan Affair. While anti-Masonic sentiment was still high at this time, it did not seem to affect the person relationships that each man had with Freemasonry and how it affected his actions during the war. Freemasonry overcame bitter rivalry and hatred, and still burned an ideal in the hearts of these men.

Co-Masonry has been in existence in one form or another since the end of the 19th Century, beginning in France and spreading throughout the world. While the numbers were high in its first few decades, Co-Masonry began to decline by the start of WW2; in fact, the decline might have been there for all of Freemasonry. During the war, when Freemasonry was persecuted in Europe, many different Orders originating in Europe found themselves under scrutiny. Those Orders established in France had gone into hiding and Le Droit Humain, a co-Masonic order, was one of these Orders. After the war, Co-Masonry had found itself taken deeper root in countries outside of France and there was an interest in its alternative thought: women could be Freemasons along with Men.

The world was and is decidedly different since WWII. Women in American culture and perhaps in all cultures around the world are more often included rather than excluded. A balanced mindset, toward gender and equality, was perhaps creating a different view of what was needed in the perfection of humanity. In the cultural and societal churn that might be called the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” the world may be looking for new types of leaders who are finally inclusive of all humanity.

Warfare itself has changed. Gone are bayonets and buckshot, hand-to-hand fighting where the soldier met the face of their attacker. Warfare has become impersonal drones sending air strikes on faceless dots on a pixelated screen. While Freemasonry is perhaps becoming more inclusive while war is becoming more impersonal: a struggle perhaps looking for balance?

It seems we find ourselves at an interesting point in history: where the facelessness of war impacts our ability to counter it with “good.” Freemasons may need to look beyond the conventional methods of the Craft employed in the past to not only support humanity but find those things which unite rather than divide human beings. Freemasons perhaps need to look beyond the “care package” or “pancake breakfast” for the troops and train for “civil disobedience.” I do not disparage the good works for the service men and women that many fraternal groups supply. They are necessary and selfless, and inspire hope when there is none. However, perhaps Freemasons can do more. As seekers of Truth and proponents of education, they are uniquely suited to combat ignorance, fanaticism, and hatred which is the heart of war.

There will be another war. We are humans, after all. It seems to be as yet in our nature. Deciding to be a pacifist will not stop it. Deciding to hide from it or ignore our leaders will not stop it. The question is how can we prepare for it and will Freemasonry be there to shed Light? Learning to speak Truth is a far greater skill that may be necessary to counter modern military thinking. Perhaps learning to be wise philosophers is more important to stopping war before it starts.

I’m Offended…

I’m Offended…

What is a Masonic Offense? A lot of Masons and Non-Masons have used this term, offense or Masonic offense, in various ways, and in a recent conversation with a friend, this came up as a huge question mark for them. Where does the term offense come from and how is it variously applied?

Offend has varied meanings, from extremely strong (“to strike against”) to the fairly mild (“to be displeasing to.”) It can also mean “to commit an illegal act.” In this case, with a Masonic offense, people are referring to this last designation – to break some law, either written or unwritten. What may surprise non-Masons is that Freemasonry has its own jurisprudence.

The legal system of Freemasonry is governed by its specific degrees and dependent upon the structure of each individual Masonic obedience, for example The United Grand Lodge of England is an obedience, or The Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry is another. An article on The Masonic Trowel explains, in broad terms for one obedience (a Grand Lodge structure) what that jurisprudence may be. For obediences that have a Supreme Council structure, the written laws and general customs may be different, as may be Masonic Orders that allow all genders. In fact, technically, each Masonic Order has their own set of rules, regulations, and laws.

Then, one must ask again, what is a “Masonic offense?” It seems to be something that is, in general terms, identified by Masonic authors to be a Masonic crime. Different than public and private crimes, where the laws of the country rule, Masonic crimes have to do with a violation of the duties of a Freemason, to the ritual, the constitutions, the by-laws, and to a Freemason’s moral and literal obligations. In other words, any time a Freemason goes against his consecrated and accepted obligations, the rules of his own order, the instructions of his ritual, or the by-laws of his Lodge, he has committed a Masonic offense. He becomes a potential Masonic criminal, subject to the Masonic punishments his order dictates.

What does a Masonic crime look like? Mackey states, on Page 511 of his Masonic Jurisprudence book, “Disobedience and want of respect to Masonic superiors is an offense for which the transgressor subjects himself to punishment.” In other words, to willfully ignore or counter a superior’s direction is considered a Masonic crime; likewise would be making fun of them, or disparaging their character to others, in private or public. A Freemason may be censured for arguing with another member in a meeting or for being aggressive during a public study session. Freemasons have been expelled from their orders for divorcing their spouses, having personal fights in public, bringing legal actions against other members, or stealing funds from their Lodges. Expulsions happen due to actual physical or verbal abuse. An act committed just once is enough to have Masonic charges brought forward by the offended member or members.

A question recently was posed during a discussion, “Does this apply to actions outside of the Lodge?” In other words, does Masonic jurisprudence stop at the door the Lodge? The answer is an unequivocal “no.”

Freemasons hold themselves to a high moral code. There are no physical boundaries on being a moral and upright human being, one would hope.

The ritual, moral, and constitutional charges to Freemasons interject into every aspect of a Freemason’s life. The rules of the Order and the dictates of the rituals and Lodge heads do not stop once we’re amongst non-Freemasons. In fact, the very fabric of Freemason’s charges, to help the world be a better place, dictates that they must bring Masonic ideals to the public – to non-Masons. This does not mean that they exemplify the positive and ignore the offenses they do while in public. Freemasons obligate a submission to Masonic discipline; this is a 24×7 task and does not end when the Temple lights are turned off.

In a recent article on Indiana Grand Lodge jurisprudence, the author made an argument for a roll-back of some fundamentally silly “Masonic law” involving a bowling team and the use of Lodge names for bowling teams. He asked, “Is this really a rule for High Moral Conduct?” Or course not. He went on, “There is a reason that there are only Ten Commandments. Breaking these rules results in the loss of your soul.” Masonic law should remain “higher” than common, every day public offenses as Freemasons are working to make the common world better. You can only do that if you’re striving to achieve something better than what you already have.

The above author’s solution also included the more rigorous enforcement of Masonic punishment. “Simplification of the rules. Let lodges govern themselves. Yet, enforce them to the letter. Suspensions and trials should be as much of the common lodge landscape as the preverbal fish fry and degree work. We cannot be a society of greatness until we raise the bar and put it back up where it belongs.” I agree.

Culture of the United States tends to shy away from enforcing laws and rules. In general, there is a fear of retribution or loss of membership, or in some cases, rules are enforced on some and not others. This is a societal problem which permeates our consciousness, Freemason or not. People will leave the group if we actually enforce the rules.

Hogwash.

Freemasons become Freemasons to become better. If a Freemason submits himself to Masonic discipline, he submits himself the the jurisprudence of Freemasonry. Why wouldn’t the officers and leaders of the Lodge enforce those rules and laws? Why be afraid of creating a better society? People will leave groups for various reasons and perhaps someone enforcing the rules, like the Lodge leadership, may cause departures. That is to be expected because Freemasonry isn’t for everyone. A Lodge survives these departures because those that remain love Freemasonry and respect its higher purpose. What the Freemason should expect is that his Lodge hold him and all members to a high standard, to challenge their moral compass always, to entrust them to do the right thing, even if it is difficult or troublesome. This fulfills the basic tenant of Freemasonry: the perfecting of humanity.