In Hong Kong, prominent lawyer Margaret Ng, sentenced for leading and participating in a peaceful protest, addressed the judge in her plea: “Your honour, I came late to the law. I have grown old in the service of the rule of law. I understand Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of the legal profession. He was tried for treason because he would not bend the law to the King’s will. His famous last words were well authenticated. I beg to slightly adapt and adopt them: I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.
“Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short. Take heed, therefore, thou not strike awry for saving thine honesty. I die the King’s good servant and God’s first.”
As Thomas More faced his executioner he implored the man to kill swiftly and he declared that though he rendered faithful service to the king, his first service was to God. Thomas More, 16th century writer and author of Utopia, found himself the enemy of Henry the 8th when the King annulled his own marriage to his first wife, married Anne Boleyn, and declared his supreme authority over the Catholic Church. Because More was a devout Catholic, he honored God and the Pope over the king and thus, he was beheaded.
Last year, many pro-democracy advocates protested in Hong Kong’s streets. Formerly a colony of England, Hong Kong transitioned back towards Chinese control in 1997, but the Sino-British joint declaration stated that the economic and social conditions as well as individual freedoms such as choice of occupation, freedom to travel, religious freedom would be upheld. The idea, generally, was to have one country but two systems of rule. In 2019, mainland China passed a bill to shift jurisdiction of criminals in Hong Kong to China. Protests erupted, Hong Kong citizens declaring this bill akin to legalized kidnapping, wanting to take a stand against tyrannical Chinese policy and fight for greater personal liberties. China has not taken this resistance well.
There’s a connection here between Thomas More, a Hong Kong Lawyer named Margaret Ng, Nazi resistance fighters, prosecutors in the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, and even the Civil Rights Movement. Ng, with her defiant challenge to the court, recognizes that law is not perfect and requests that people in power should humbly consider their position. She suggests that as a lawyer, she is accountable to the people.
“Laws that protect rights tend to win the people’s trust in their government, and trust facilitates good governance. So elected representatives have the duty to speak up to the government of the day: to advise and counsel, to admonish and to warn, constantly: do our laws take rights seriously? The law is not perfect and lawyers know more than anyone else how imperfect the law is. So why should people respect and obey the law? …we can ask people to obey the law if it is the best approximation to justice. Which implies that we are duty bound to listen to criticisms of the law, and make sincere efforts to make the law better, and correct mistakes as much as possible. Justice is the soul of the law without which the rule of law descends to the level of rule by force, even if it is force by majority.”
Who determines what is just? What exactly is justice? Usually those in power make the final decision, though in some governments they are informed by the populace or elected by the people. In some cases, there are checks and balances to limit power and to provide accountability to individuals and institutions, for as Lord Acton famously said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Looking back just 75 years to the close of World War 2 and the Nuremberg Trials provides a case study in unjust laws and the responsibility of the individual when faced with these laws.
In the winter of 1946, Otto Ohlendorf, head of Einsatzgruppe D, a paramilitary organization utilized for mass killings of the Jews during the Holocaust, stood as a witness at the International Military Tribunal. Just a year later, in 1947, Olendorf and the Einsatzgruppen faced the court in the 9th Nuremberg Trial.
Even though Ohlendorf was a top Nazi who planned and executed horrific war crimes, he claimed he was innocent because in the end he was simply following orders. Judge Michael Musmanno and the court did not abide by these excuses, claiming that every individual has a responsibility to question the justice of the law, especially people in positions of authority. The Judge asked Olendorf:
“Now, didn’t the question of morality… enter your mind?…Let us suppose that the order had been—and I don’t mean any offense in this question—suppose the order had been that you kill your sister. Would you not have instinctively morally appraised that order as to whether it was right or wrong—morally, not politically or militarily—but as a matter of humanity, conscience, and justice? (As Musmanno recalled later), “He was aware that a man who would kill his own sister made himself something less than human.” But if Ohlendorf had said he would not have killed his sister, he would have admitted that he was capable of making a choice. All he could do was avoid answering the question.”
Everyone has agency and the ability to make choices; individuals have the responsibility to speak and even act against unjust laws. Though, that begs the question, “Who determines what is just?” and “What is justice?”
Ohlendorf was proud of the fact that he had murdered so many perceived enemies of his state. He believed in the rule of law and obedience to authority but his perverted sense of justice led him to commit war crimes and atrocities against humanity. In this case, the IMT attempted to establish a bar of justice grounded in the ‘higher law’ of human rights.
There were some, unlike Ohlendorf, that stood up to the Nazi’s unjust laws and, like Margaret Ng, took a strong stand against the state. Individuals like Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose resistance movement risked their lives and were eventually executed for creating a secret newspaper that spoke against the Nazis and called Germans to action against injustice. During trial, one member of the white rose declared the role of the individual, quoting a Kant disciple:
“And thou shalt act as if
On thee and on thy deed
Depended the fate of all Germany,
And thou alone must answer for it.” (3)
Dodd Impact gave the 2019 Malka Penn award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature to Kip Wilson’s book, White Rose, calling readers to consider the rule of law and the role of individual responsibility in holding lawmakers accountable for injustice. Her story is based on the true individuals and events of the Nazi resistance movement.
I can learn much about the role of the individual from Thomas More, Margaret Ng, Hans and Sophie Scholl. These people took individual responsibility for transforming society but also worked collectively as a part of a social movement. I can also consider what responsibility I should have today by considering the negative example of Otto Ohlendorf, who perpetuated injustice by declaring he had no individual responsibility to question atrocities and acts of genocide.
Right now, our nation and communities face challenges of racism and inequity, a lingering pandemic, and many other issues that individuals can and should consider, question, learn about, and take informed action to promote justice; humbly acknowledging that if justice is a concept defined by popular opinion, it will continue to change over time. We all have an individual responsibility to consider what our role is in the rule of law and even resistance movements.
The non-violent protests in Hong Kong are also reminiscent of civil disobedience movements and sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement. In my role as a University Supervisor, I observed Teacher Candidate Taylor Dobbins lead a class of highschoolers to consider issues of civil responsibility. She asked her students if they thought non-violent protests were effective or if they thought, as Malcom X did, that non-violence was a form of weakness. Taylor drew their attention to politician and civil rights icon John Lewis and his 2016 sit in on the Congress floor to protest Gun Control. They evaluated pictures and videos, discussing the effectiveness of Lewis, white college student Jim Zwerg, and the Freedom Riders non-violent protests and sit-ins to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that segregation of interstate transportation facilities was unconstitutional. The majority of the students concluded that non-violent protests were effective and used historical empathy to consider if they would have the courage to participate in this event in the past or events like it in our own time.
We must embrace the tensions of patience and urgency, humility and confidence, learner and leader, obedience and resistance as we figure out our individual responsibility as it relates to our collective society.
At the closing of April, UNESCO promotes World Book and Copyright day. Consider reading Dodd Impact’s Malka Penn award winners to inspire yourself and people in your immediate circles to consider pressing social issues from a variety of perspectives. Additionally, taking some time out to learn about non-violent civil resistance in Hong Kong today, in medieval England or Nazi Germany, or in our own recent history could provide some wisdom on how to address injustice today.
1 Margaret Ng, Photo from In full: Hong Kong barrister Margaret Ng’s mitigation plea given before she was sentenced over a peaceful 2019 demo. (2021, April 16). Hong Kong Free Press. https://hongkongfp.com/2021/04/16/in-full-hong-kong-barrister-margaret-ngs-mitigation-plea-given-before-she-was-sentenced-over-a-peaceful-2019-demo/
2 Ohlendorf Defends himself on Trial [Photograph]. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/photo/defendant-otto-ohlendorf-testifies-on-his-own-behalf-at-the-einsatzgruppen-trial
3 Measure of a Man: How One Man Took on Nazi Death Squads By Andrew Nagorski retrieved from http://dev.historynet.com/ben-ferencz-nazi-death-squads.htm
4 Image from: Hornberger, J. Holocaust Resistance: The White Rose – A Lesson in Dissent. Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-white-rose-a-lesson-in-dissent
5 Mitchell, J. (2017, May 23). History: Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson. Mississippi Clarion Ledger. https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/local/journeytojustice/2017/05/23/history-freedom-riders-arrested-jackson/339873001/
6 Eckelmann, S. (2008, July 24). Freedom Rides. Encyclopedia of Alabama. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1605
Abdullah, H., & Burke, L. V. (2016, June 22). Civil Rights Icon Rep. John Lewis No Stranger to Sit-Ins. NBC. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/civil-rights-icon-rep-john-lewis-no-stranger-sit-ins-n597291
Baker-Smith, D. (2014). Thomas More. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thomas-more/#PriWri
Clay, G. (2016, Oct 26). Thank you, Freedom Rider. The Undefeated. https://theundefeated.com/features/thank-you-freedom-rider/
Duhaime, L. (2007, May 7). The Trial of Sir Thomas More, 1535. Duhaime. http://www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum/LawArticle-112/1535–The-Trial-of-Sir-Thomas-More.aspx
Eckelmann, S. (2008, July 24). Freedom Rides. Encyclopedia of Alabama. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1605
Hong Kong: Jimmy Lai sentenced to 14 months for pro-democracy protests. (2021, April 16). BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56770567
Hornberger, J. (n.d.). Holocaust Resistance: The White Rose – A Lesson in Dissent. Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-white-rose-a-lesson-in-dissent
In full: Hong Kong barrister Margaret Ng’s mitigation plea given before she was sentenced over a peaceful 2019 demo. (2021, April 16). Hong Kong Free Press. https://hongkongfp.com/2021/04/16/in-full-hong-kong-barrister-margaret-ngs-mitigation-plea-given-before-she-was-sentenced-over-a-peaceful-2019-demo/
Joint Declaration. (2007, July 1). Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau. https://www.cmab.gov.hk/en/issues/jd2.htm