Looking back at Friends’ responses to the Christian Peacemaker hostages
When four Christian Peacemakers were taken hostage in Iraq late last November, a lot of Quaker organizations stumbled in their response. With Tom Fox we were confronted by a full-on liberal Quaker Christian witness against war, yet who stepped up to explain this modern-day prophetic witness? AFSC? FCNL? FGC? Nope, nope and nope. There were too many organizations that couldn’t manage anything beyond the boilerplate social justice press release. I held my tongue while the hostages were still in captivity but throughout the ordeal I was mad at the exposed fracture lines between religious witness and social activism.
Whenever a situation involving international issues of peace and witness happens, the Quaker institutions I’m closest to automatically defer to the more political Quaker organizations: for example, the head of Friends General Conference told staff to direct outsiders inquiring about Tom Fox to AFSC even though Fox had been an active leader of FGC-sponsored events and was well known as a committed volunteer. The American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation have knowledgeable and committed staff, but their institutional culture doesn’t allow them to talk Quakerism except to say we’re a nice bunch of social-justice-loving people. I appreciate that these organizations have a strong, vital identity and I accept that within those confines they do important work and employ many faithful Friends. It’s just that they lack the language to explain why a grocery store employee with a love of youth religious education would go unarmed to Badgdad in the name of Christian witness.
The wider blogosphere was totally abuzz with news of Christian Peacemaker Team hostages (Google blogsearch lists over 6000 posts on the topic). There were hundreds of posts and comments, including long discussions on the biggest (and most right-leaning) sites. Almost everyone wondered why the CPT workers were there and while the opinions weren’t always friendly (the hostages were often painted as naive idealists or disingeneous terrorist sympathizers), even the doubters were motivated by a profound curiosity and desire to understand.
The CPT hostages were the talk of the blogosphere, yet where could we find a Quaker response and explanation? The AFSC responded by publicizing the statements of moderate Muslim leaders (calling for the hostages’ release; I emailed back a suggestion about listing Quaker responses but never got a reply). Friends United Meeting put together a nice enough what-you-can-do page that was targeted toward Friends. The CPT site was full of information of course, and there were plenty of stories on the lefty-leaning sites like ElectronicIraq and the UK site Ekklesia. But Friends explaining this to the world?
The Quaker bloggers did their part. On December 2 I quickly re-jiggered the technology behind QuakerQuaker.org to provide a Christian Peacemaker watch on both Nonviolence.org and QuakerQuaker (same listings, merely rebranded for slightly-separate audiences, announced on the post It’s Witness Time). These pages got lots of views over the course of the hostage situation and included many posts from the Quaker blogger community that had recently congealed.
But here’s the interesting part: I was able to do this only because there was an active Quaker blogging community. We already had gathered together as a group of Friends who were willing to write about spirituality and witness. Our conversations had been small and intimate but now we were ready to speak to the world. I sometimes get painted as some sort of fundamentalist Quaker, but the truth is that I’ve wanted to build a community that would wrestle with these issues, figuring the wrestling was more important than the language of the answers. I had already thought about how to encourage bloggers and knit a blogging community together and was able to use these techniques to quickly build a Quaker CPT response.
Two other Quakers who went out of their way to explain the story of Tom Fox: his personal friends John Stephens and Chuck Fager. Their Freethecaptivesnow.org site was put together impressively fast and contained a lot of good links to news, resources and commentary. But like me, they were over-worked bloggers doing this in their non-existant spare time (Chuck is director of Quaker House but he never said this was part of the work).
After an initial few quiet days, Tom’s meeting Langley Hill put together a great website of links and news. That makes it the only official Quaker organization that pulled together a sustained campaign to support Tom Fox.
So what’s up with all this? Should we be happy that all this good work happened by volunteers? Johan Maurer has a very interesting post, Are Quakers Marginal that points to my earlier comment on the Christian Peacemakers and doubts whether our avoidance of “hireling priests” has given us a more effective voice. Let’s remember that institutional Quakerism began as support of members in jail for their religious witness; among our earliest committee gatherings were meetings for sufferings–business meetings focused on publicizing the plight of the jailed and support the family and meetings left behind.
I never met Tom Fox but it’s clear to me that he was an exceptional Friend. He was able to bridge the all-too-common divide between Quaker faith and social action. Tom was a healer, a witness not just to Iraqis but to Friends. But I wonder if it was this very wholeness that made his work hard to categorize and support. Did he simply fall through the institutional cracks? When you play baseball on a disorganized team you miss a lot of easy catches simply because all the outfielders think the next guy is going to go for the ball. Is that what happened? And is this what would happen again?