Expanding our concepts of pacifism

My blog­ging pal Wess Daniels wrote a provoca­tive piece this week called When Peace Pre­serves Vio­lence. It’s a great read and blows some much-needed holes in the self-satisfaction so many of us car­ry with us. But I’d argue that there’s a part two need­ed that does a side-step back to the source…

Eric Moon wrote some­thing that’s stuck with me in his June/July Friends Jour­nal piece, “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Tes­ti­monies.” His arti­cle focus­es on the way we’ve so cod­i­fied the “Quak­er Tes­ti­monies” that they’ve become ossi­fied and tak­en for grant­ed. One dan­ger he sees in this is that we’ll not rec­og­nize clear lead­ings of con­science that don’t fit the modern-day mold.

Moon tells the anec­dote of a Friend who “guilti­ly lament[ed] that he couldn’t attend protest march­es because he was busy all day at a cen­ter for teens at risk for drop­ping out of school, a pro­gram he had estab­lished and invest­ed his own sav­ings in.” Here was a Friend doing real one-on-one work chang­ing lives but feel­ing guilty because he couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in the largely-symbolic act of stand­ing on a street corner.

I don’t think that we need to give up the peace tes­ti­mo­ny to acknowl­edge the entan­gle­ment of our lives and the hypocrisy that lies all-too-shallowly below the sur­face of most of our lifestyles. What we need to do is rethink its boundaries.

A mod­el for this is our much-quoted but much-ignored “Quak­er saint” John Wool­man. While a sense of the equal­i­ty of humans is there in his jour­nal as a source of his com­pas­sion, much of his argu­men­ta­tion against slav­ery is based in Friends by-then well-established tes­ti­mo­ny against war (yes, against war, not for peace). Slav­ery is indeed a state of war and it is on so many lev­els – from the indi­vid­u­als treat­ing each oth­er hor­ri­bly, to soci­etal norms con­struct­ed to make this seem nor­mal, to the economies of nation states built on the trade.

Woolman’s con­cep­tu­al leap was to say that the peace tes­ti­mo­ny applied to slav­ery. If we as Friends don’t par­tic­i­pate in war, then we sim­i­lar­ly can’t par­tic­i­pate in the slave trade or enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of that trade – the war prof­it of cot­tons, dyes, rum, etc.

Today, what else is war? I think we have it hard­er than Wool­man. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry a high per­cent­age of one’s con­sum­ables came from a tight geo­graph­ic radius. You were like­ly to know the labor that pro­duced it. Now almost noth­ing comes local­ly. If it’s cheap­er to grow gar­lic in Chi­na and ship it halfway around the world than it is to pay local farm­ers, then our local gro­cer will sell Chi­nese gar­lic (mine does). Books and mag­a­zines are sup­plant­ed by elec­tron­ics built in locked-down Far East­ern sweatshops.

But I think we can find ways to dis­en­gage. It’s a never-ending process but we can take steps and sup­port oth­ers tak­ing steps. We’ve got­ten it stuck in our imag­i­na­tion that war is a protest sign out­side Dunkin Donuts. What about those tutor­ing pro­grams? What about reduc­ing our cloth­ing con­sump­tions and find­ing ways to reduce nat­ur­al resource con­sump­tion (best done by lim­it­ing our­selves to lifestyles that cause us to need less resources).

And Yoder? Wess is dis­heart­ened by the sex­u­al mis­con­duct of Men­non­ite paci­fist John Howard Yoder (short sto­ry: he reg­u­lar­ly groped and sex­u­al­ly pres­sured women). But what of him? Of course he’s a fail­ure. In a way, that’s the point, even the plan: human heroes will fail us. Cocks will crow and will we stay silent (why the denom­i­na­tion kept it hush-hush for 15 years after his death is anoth­er whole WTF, of course). But why do I call it the plan? Because we need to be taught to rely first and sec­ond and always on the Spir­it of Jesus. George Fox fig­ured that out:

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had noth­ing out­ward­ly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy con­di­tion’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. …and this I knew exper­i­men­tal­ly. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowl­edge of God, and of Christ alone, with­out the help of any man, book, or writing.

If young Fox had found a human hero that actu­al­ly walked the talk, he might have short-circuited the search for Jesus. He need­ed to expe­ri­ence the dis­heart­ened fail­ure of human knowl­edge to be low enough to be ready for his great spir­i­tu­al opening.

We all use iden­ti­ty to prop our­selves up and iso­late our­selves from cri­tique. I think that’s just part of the human con­di­tion. The path toward the divine is not one of retrench­ment or dis­avow­al, but rather focus on that one who might even now be prepar­ing us for new light on the con­di­tions of the human con­di­tion and church universal.

The Quaker Peace Testimony: Living in the Power, Reclaiming the Source

The Quak­er Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny is one of the pop­u­lar­ly well-known out­ward expres­sions of Quak­er faith. But have we for­got­ten its source?

In a meet­ing for wor­ship I attend­ed a few years ago a woman rose and spoke about her work for peace. She told us of let­ters writ­ten and meet­ings attend­ed; she cer­tain­ly kept busy. She con­fessed that it is tir­ing work and she cer­tain­ly sound­ed tired and put-upon. But she said she’d keep at it and she quot­ed ear­ly Friends’ man­date to us: that we must work to take away the occa­sion of war.

Read con­tem­po­rary Friends lit­er­a­ture and you’ll see this imper­a­tive all over the place. From one brochure: “We are called as Friends to lead lives that ‘take away the occa­sion of all wars.’ ” Yet this state­ment, like many con­tem­po­rary state­ments on Quak­er tes­ti­monies, is tak­en out of con­text. The actor has been switched and the mes­sage has been lost. For the peace tes­ti­mo­ny doesn’t instruct us to take away occasions.

The Quaker Peace Testimony: Living in the Power

The clas­sic state­ment of the Quak­er peace tes­ti­mo­ny is the 1660 Dec­la­ra­tion. Eng­land was embroiled in war and insur­rec­tion. A failed polit­i­cal coup was blamed on Quak­ers and it looked like Friends were going to be per­se­cut­ed once more by the civ­il author­i­ties. But Friends weren’t inter­est­ed in the polit­i­cal process swirling around them. They weren’t tak­ing sides in the coups. “I lived in the virtue of that life and pow­er that took away the occa­sion of all wars,” George Fox had told civ­il author­i­ties ten years before and the sign­ers of the dec­la­ra­tion elab­o­rat­ed why they could not fight: “we do earnest­ly desire and wait, that by the Word of God’s pow­er and its effec­tu­al oper­a­tion in the hearts of men, the king­doms of this world may become the king­doms of the Lord.”

For all of the over-intellectualism with­in Quak­erism today, it’s a sur­prise that these state­ments are so rarely parsed down. Look at Fox’s state­ment: many mod­ern activists could agree we should take away occas­sion for war, cer­tain­ly, but it’s a sub­or­di­nate clause. It is not refer­ring to the “we,” but instead mod­i­fies “pow­er.” Our instruc­tions are to live in that pow­er. It is that pow­er that does the work of tak­ing away war’s occasion.

I’m not quib­bling but get­ting to the very heart of the clas­sic under­stand­ing of peace. It is a “tes­ti­mo­ny,” in that we are “tes­ti­fy­ing” to a larg­er truth. We are acknowl­edg­ing some­thing: that there is a Pow­er (let’s start cap­i­tal­iz­ing it) that takes away the need for war. It is that Pow­er that has made peace pos­si­ble and that Pow­er that has already act­ed and con­tin­ues to act in our world. The job has actu­al­ly been done. The occa­sion for war has been end­ed. Our rela­tion­ship to this Pow­er is sim­ply to live in it. Around the time of the Dec­la­ra­tion, George Fox wrote a let­ter to Lord Pro­tec­tor Oliv­er Cromwell :

The next morn­ing I was moved of the Lord to write a paper to the Pro­tec­tor, Oliv­er Cromwell; where­in I did, in the pres­ence of the Lord God, declare that I denied the wear­ing or draw­ing of a car­nal sword, or any oth­er out­ward weapon, against him or any man; and that I was sent of God to stand a wit­ness against all vio­lence, and against the works of dark­ness; and to turn peo­ple from dark­ness to light; and to bring them from the caus­es of war and fight­ing, to the peace­able gospel.

The peace tes­ti­mo­ny is actu­al­ly a state­ment of faith. Not sur­pris­ing real­ly, or it shouldn’t be. Ear­ly Friends were all about shout­ing out the truth. “Christ has come to teach the peo­ple him­self” was a ear­ly tagline. It’s no won­der that they stretched it out to say that Christ has tak­en away occa­sion for war. Hal­lelu­ji­ah!, I can hear them shout. Let the cel­e­bra­tion begin. I always hear John Lennon echo­ing these cel­e­brants when he sings “War is over” and fol­lows with “if we want it.”

Obvi­ous­ly war isn’t over. Peo­ple must still want it. And they do. War is root­ed in lusts, James 4:1 – 3 tells us. Mod­ern Amer­i­can greed for mate­r­i­al things with ever more rapac­i­ty and blind­ness. We dri­ve our S.U.V.s and then fight for oil sup­plies in the Per­sian Gulf. We wor­ry that we won’t be pop­u­lar or loved if we don’t use teeth-whitening strips or don’t obsess over the lat­est T.V. fad. We aren’t liv­ing in the Pow­er and the Deceiv­er con­vinces us that war is peace.

But the Pow­er is there. We can live in that Pow­er and it will take away more than occa­sions for war, for it will take away the lusts and inse­cu­ri­ties that lead to war.

Speaking Faith to Power

When you’ve acknowl­edge the Pow­er, what does faith become? It becomes a tes­ti­mo­ny to the world. I can tes­ti­fy to you per­son­al­ly that there is a Pow­er and that this Pow­er will com­fort you, teach you, guide you. Ear­ly Friends were pros­e­lytis­ing when they wrote their state­ment. After writ­ing his let­ter to Cromwell, Fox went to vis­it the man him­self. Cromwell was undoubt­ed­ly the most pow­er­ful man in Eng­land and any­thing but a paci­fist. He had raised and led armies against the king and it was he who ordered the behead­ing of King Charles I. And what did Fox talk about? Truth. And Jesus.

George Fox stood as a wit­ness just as he promised, and tried to turn Cromwell from dark­ness to light, to bring him from the cause of war to the peace­able gospel. By Fox’s account, it almost worked:

As I was turn­ing, he caught me by the hand, and with tears in his eyes said, “Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day togeth­er, we should be near­er one to the oth­er”; adding that he wished me no more ill than he did to his own soul. I told him if he did he wronged his own soul; and admon­ished him to hear­ken to God’s voice, that he might stand in his coun­sel, and obey it; and if he did so, that would keep him from hard­ness of heart; but if he did not hear God’s voice, his heart would be hard­ened. He said it was true.

This then is the Quak­er Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny. I don’t think it can be divorced from its spir­i­tu­al basis. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, many lead­ing Friends tried to dilute the Quak­er mes­sage to make it more under­stand­able and palat­able for non-Friends. A line of George Fox was tak­en out of con­text and used so much that most Friends have adopt­ed “that of God in every­one” as a uni­fied creed, for­get­ting that it’s a mod­ern phrase whose ambi­gu­i­ty Fox wouldn’t have appre­ci­at­ed. When we talk about peace, we often do so in very sec­u­lar­ized lan­guage. We’re still try­ing to pros­e­ly­tize, but our mes­sage is a ratio­nal­ist one that war can be solved by tech­no­crat­ic means and a more demo­c­ra­t­ic appor­tion­ment of resources. Most con­tem­po­rary state­ments have all the umph of a floor speech at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, with only throw-away ref­er­ences to “com­mu­ni­ties of faith,” and bland state­ments of “that of God” hint­ing that there might be some­thing more to our message.

The freedom of living the Power

We actu­al­ly share much of the peace tes­ti­mo­ny with a num­ber of Chris­tians. There are many Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians who read­i­ly agree that there’s a Pow­er but con­clude that their job is just to wait for its return. They define the pow­er strict­ly as Jesus Christ and the return as the Sec­ond Com­ing. They fore­see a world­ly Armaged­don when peace will fail and thou­sands will die.

That’s not our way. Friends pulled Chris­tian­i­ty out of the first cen­tu­ry and refused to wait for any last cen­tu­ry to declare that Jesus is here now, “to teach his peo­ple him­self.” We keep con­stant vig­il and rejoice to find the returned Christ already here, deep in our hearts, at work in the world. Our way of work­ing for peace is to praise the Pow­er, wait for its guid­ance and then fol­low it’s com­mands through what­ev­er hard­ship await us. When we’re doing it right, we become instru­ments of God in the ser­vice of the Spir­it. Christ does use us to take away the occa­sions for war!

But the wait­ing is nec­es­sary, the guid­ance is key. It gives us the strength to over­come over­work and burn-out and it gives us the direc­tion for our work. The slick­est, most expen­sive peace cam­paigns and the most dra­mat­ic self-inflating actions often achieve much less than the sim­ple, hum­ble, behind-the-scenes, year-in, year-out ser­vice. I sus­pect that the ways we’re most used by the Spir­it are ways we bare­ly perceive.

Quak­er min­istry is not a pas­sive wait­ing. We pray, we test, we work hard and we use all the gifts our Cre­ator has giv­en us (intel­li­gence, tech­nolo­gies, etc.). There are prob­lems in the world, huge ones that need address­ing and we will address them. But we do so out of a joy. And through our work, we ask oth­ers to join us in our joy, to lift up the cross with us, join­ing Jesus metaphor­i­cal­ly in wit­ness­ing to the world.

The modern-day Pres­i­dent order­ing a war suf­fers from the same lack of faith that George Fox’s Cromwell did. They are igno­rant or impa­tient of Christ’s mes­sage and so take peace-making into their own hands. But how much do faith­less politi­cians dif­fer from many con­tem­po­rary peace activists? When I block­ade a fed­er­al build­ing or stand in front of a tank, am I try­ing to stop war myself? When I say it’s my job to “end the occa­sion for war,” am I tak­ing on the work of God? I feel sad for the woman who rose in Meet­ing for Wor­ship and told us how hard her peace work is. Each of us alone is inca­pable of bring­ing on world peace, and we turn in our own tracks with a qui­et dis­pair. I’ve seen so many Quak­er peace activists do real­ly poor jobs with such a over­whelmed sense of sad­ness that they don’t get much sup­port. Detached from the Spir­it, we look to gain our self-worth from oth­ers and we start doing things sim­ply to impress our world­ly peers. If we’re lucky we get mon­ey but not love, respect but not a new voice lift­ed up in the choir of praise for the Cre­ator. We’ve giv­en up hope in God’s promise and despair is our ever-present companion.

Our testimony to the world

It doesn’t need to be this way. And I think for many Friends it hasn’t been. When you work for the Pow­er, you don’t get attached to your work’s out­come in the same way. We’re just foot­sol­diers for the Lord. Often we’ll do things and have no idea how they’ve affect­ed oth­ers. It’s not our job to know, for it’s not our job to be sucess­ful as defined by the world. Maybe all the work I’ve ever done for peace is for some exchange of ideas that I won’t rec­og­nize at the time. We need to strive to be gra­cious and ground­ed even in the midst of all the undra­mat­ic moments (as well as those most dra­mat­ic moments). We will be known to the world by how we wit­ness our trust in God and by how faith­ful­ly we live our lives in obe­di­ence to the Spirit’s instructions.


Related Reading

Again, the link to the 1660 Dec­la­ra­tion is the first stop for those want­i­ng to under­stand Friends’ under­stand­ing on peacemaking.

Quak­er His­to­ri­an Jer­ry Frost talked about the peace tes­ti­mo­ny as part of his his­to­ry of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Quak­erism (“Non-violence seemed almost a panacea for lib­er­al Friends seek­ing polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly rel­e­vant peace work”). Bill Samuel has writ­ten a his­to­ry of the peace tes­ti­mo­ny with a good list of links. Lloyd Lee Wil­son wrote about being a “Chris­t­ian Paci­fist” in the April 2003 edi­tion of Quak­er Life.

If wars are indeed root­ed in lust, then non­vi­o­lent activism should be involved in exam­i­nat­ing those lusts. In The Roots of Non­vi­o­lence (writ­ten for Non​vi​o​lence​.org), I talk a lit­tle about how activists might relate to the deep­er caus­es of the war to tran­scend the “anti-war” move­ment. One way I’ve been explor­ing anti-consumerism in with my re-examination of the Quak­er tra­di­tion of plain dress.

For rea­sons I can’t under­stand, peo­ple some­times read “Liv­ing in the Pow­er: the Quak­er Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny Reclaimed” and think I’m “advo­cat­ing a retreat from direct­ly engag­ing the prob­lems of the world” (as one Friend put it). I ask those who think I’m posit­ing some sort of either/or dual­i­ty betwen faith vs. works, or min­istry vs. activism, to please reread the essay. I have been a peace activist for over fif­teen years and run non​vi​o​lence​.org [update: ran, I laid it down in 2008), a promi­nent web­site on non­vi­o­lence. I think some of the mis­un­der­stand­ings are generational.

The Lost Quaker Generation

The oth­er day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a thirty-something Quak­er very involved in nation-wide paci­fist orga­niz­ing. I had lost touch with him after he entered a fed­er­al jail for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Plow­shares action but he’s been out for a few years and is now liv­ing in Philly.

We talked about a lot of stuff over lunch, some of it just move­ment gos­sip. But we also talked about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. He has left the Soci­ety of Friends and has become re-involved in his par­ents’ reli­gious tra­di­tions. It didn’t sound like this deci­sion had to do with any new reli­gious rev­e­la­tion that involved a shift of the­ol­o­gy. He sim­ply became frus­trat­ed at the lack of Quak­er seriousness.

It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of frus­tra­tion than the one I feel but I won­der if it’s not all con­nect­ed. He was drawn to Friends because of their mys­ti­cism and their pas­sion for non­vi­o­lent social change. It was this com­bi­na­tion that has helped pow­er his social action wit­ness over the years. It would seem like his seri­ous, faith­ful work would be just what Friends would like to see in their thirty-something mem­bers but alas, it’s not so. He didn’t feel sup­port­ed in his Plow­shares action by his Meeting.

He con­clud­ed that the Friends in his Meet­ing didn’t think the Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny could actu­al­ly inspire us to be so bold. He said two of his Quak­er heroes were John Wool­man and Mary Dyer but real­ized that the pas­sion of wit­ness that drove them wasn’t appre­ci­at­ed by today’s peace and social con­cerns com­mit­tees. The rad­i­cal mys­ti­cism that is sup­posed to dri­ve Friends’ prac­tice and actions have been replaced by a bland­ness that felt threat­ened by some­one who could choose to spend years in jail for his witness.

I can relate to his dis­ap­point­ment. I wor­ry about what kinds of actions are being done in the name of the Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny, which has lost most of its his­toric mean­ing and pow­er among con­tem­po­rary Friends. It’s invoked most often now by sec­u­lar­ized, safe com­mit­tees that use a ratio­nal­ist approach to their decision-making, meant to appeal to oth­ers (includ­ing non-Friends) based sole­ly on the mer­its of the argu­ments. NPR activism, you might say. Reli­gion isn’t brought up, except in the rather weak for­mu­la­tions that Friends are “a com­mu­ni­ty of faith” or believe there is “that of God in every­one” (what­ev­er these phras­es mean). That we are led to act based on instruc­tions from the Holy Spir­it direct­ly is too off the deep end for many Friends, yet the peace tes­ti­mo­ny is fun­da­men­tal­ly a tes­ti­mo­ny to our faith in God’s pow­er over human­i­ty, our sur­ren­der to the will of Christ enter­ing our hearts with instruc­tions which demand our obedience.

But back to my friend, the ex-Friend. I feel like he’s just anoth­er eroded-away grain of sand in the delta of Quak­er decline. He’s yet anoth­er Friend that Quak­erism can’t afford to loose, but which Quak­erism has lost. No one’s mourn­ing the fact that he’s lost, no one has bare­ly noticed. Know­ing Friends, the few that have noticed have prob­a­bly not spent any time reach­ing out to him to ask why or see if things could change and they prob­a­bly defend their inac­tion with self-congratulatory pap about how Friends don’t pros­e­ly­tize and look how lib­er­al we are that we say noth­ing when Friends leave.

God!, this is ter­ri­ble. I know of DOZENS of friends in my gen­er­a­tion who have drift­ed away from or deci­sive­ly left the Soci­ety of Friends because it wasn’t ful­fill­ing its promise or its hype. No one in lead­er­ship posi­tions in Quak­erism is talk­ing about this lost gen­er­a­tion. I know of very few thirty-something Friends who are involved nowa­days and very very few of them are the kind of pas­sion­ate, mys­ti­cal, obedient-to-the-Spirit ser­vants that Quak­erism needs to bring some life back into it. A whole gen­er­a­tion is lost – my fel­low thirty-somethings – and now I see the pas­sion­ate twenty-somethings I know start­ing to leave. Yet this exo­dus is one-by-one and goes large­ly unre­marked and unno­ticed (but then I’ve already post­ed about this: It will be in decline our entire lives).


 

Update 10/2005

I feel like I should add an adden­dum to all this. As I’ve spo­ken with more Friends of all gen­er­a­tions, I’ve noticed that the atten­tion to younger Friends is cycli­cal. There’s a thirty-year cycle of snub­bing younger Friends (by which I mean Friends under 40). Back in the 1970s, all twenty-year-old with a pulse could get recog­ni­tion and sup­port from Quak­er meet­ings; I know a lot of Friends of that gen­er­a­tion who were giv­en tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties despite lit­tle expe­ri­ence. A decade lat­er the doors had start­ed to close but a hard-working faith­ful Friend in their ear­ly twen­ties could still be rec­og­nized. By the time my gen­er­a­tion came along, you could be a whirl­wind of great ideas and ener­gy and still be shut out of all oppor­tu­ni­ties to serve the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends.

The good news is that I think things are start­ing to change. There’s still a long way to go but a thaw is upon us. In some ways this is inevitable: much of the cur­rent lead­er­ship of Quak­er insti­tu­tions is retir­ing. Even more, I think they’re start­ing to real­ize it. There are prob­lems, most notably tokenism — almost all of the younger Friends being lift­ed up now are the chil­dren of promi­nent “com­mit­tee Friends.” The biggest prob­lem is that a few dozen years of lax reli­gious edu­ca­tion and “roll your own Quak­erism” means that many of the mem­bers of the younger gen­er­a­tion can’t even be con­sid­ered spir­i­tu­al Quak­ers. Our meet­ing­hous­es are seen as a place to meet oth­er cool, pro­gres­sive young hip­sters, while spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is sought from oth­er sources. We’re going to be spend­ing decades untan­gling all this and we’re not going to have the sea­soned Friends of my gen­er­a­tion to help bridge the gaps.


Relat­ed Reading

  • After my friend Chris post­ed below I wrote a follow-up essay, Pass­ing the Faith, Plan­et of the Quak­ers Style.
  • Many old­er Friends hope that a resur­gence of the peace move­ment might come along and bring younger Friends in. In Peace and Twenty-Somethings I look at the gen­er­a­tional strains in the peace movement.
  • Beck­ey Phipps con­duct­ed a series of inter­views that touched on many of these issues and pub­lished it in FGCon­nec­tions. FGC Reli­gious Edu­ca­tion: Lessons for the 21st Cen­tu­ry asks many of the right ques­tions. My favorite line: “It is the most amaz­ing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quak­er] lead­er­ship pro­grams – they’ve disappeared.”