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.