Interviewing the next head of AFSC

This week's Friends Journal feature is my interview with Joyce Ajlouny, who is leaving her role as head of the Ramallah Friends School to become the next general secretary for American Friends Service Committee.

I interviewed her by phone from my back porch on a snowy day and very much enjoyed conversation. I’m fascinated by the challenges of an organization like AFSC—one that has to balance strong roots in a religious tradition while largely working outside of it. How do you balancing the conflicting identities? It’s not unlike the challenge of a Friends school like Ramallah's.

I was also particularly moved by the genuine enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about engaging in honest conversations with people with whom we have strong disagreements. In this polarized age, it’s tempting to try to stay in the safety our bubbles. Joyce seems to thrive stepping out of that comfort zone:

I think we’ve learned from this last U.S. election that we need to listen more. This can often be a challenge for people who are very passionate about the positions they take. Sometimes the passion is so overwhelming that it sort of overrides that willingness to listen to other narratives. This is something that we really need to work much harder on. Truth is always incomplete. We always have to look for other truths. We need to break through some of these boundaries that we’ve put around ourselves and seek a wider spectrum of perspectives.

I think AFSC will be in good hands with Ajlouny.

Liz (Betsy) Klein(top) aka Mom

My mom Liz just passed away tonight. It’s not unex­pect­ed. And sad­ly, giv­en her health, it’s per­haps not even so trag­ic; she’s been declin­ing for years from Alzheimer’s and all but stopped eat­ing in recent weeks. I’m sure I’ll find voice to tell some sto­ries in the months ahead, but for now I’ll share some pic­tures. She would have turned 85 next month.

A note about names: she was born in late sum­mer 1930 as Eliz­a­beth Ann Klein­top. In her adult life she went as Bet­sy and took the last names of her part­ners. In her late 60s she decid­ed to take back a vari­a­tion of her last name and overnight Bet­sy Kel­ley became Liz Klein.

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, 1902

I began Conrad’s clas­sic tale as a follow-up to last month’s State of Won­der by Ann Patch­ett. Her hero­ine trav­eled to the most remote reach­es of the Ama­zon; all sto­ries that make the trip from the bland­ness of civ­i­liza­tion (Min­neso­ta in Patchett’s case) owe a debt to Conrad’s clas­sic tale of a steam­boat trip far up the Con­go Riv­er.

The book cer­tain­ly has its odd­i­ties, start­ing with the nar­ra­tive voice: we are lis­ten­ing to a sto­ry told aboard a ship on the Thames that is wait­ing for a change of tide to send it on its way out to sea. The narrator-within-the-story, Mar­lowe, tells the entire tale in flash­back, with Con­rad only occa­sion­al­ly com­ing up for air to the deck of the Thames boat (Heart of Dark­ness was writ­ten as a three-part ser­i­al; I assume these nar­ra­tive breaks are the stitch­ing between install­ments).

I had heard much about this book over the years so I was curi­ous to see the exact nature of the deprav­i­ties upon which the infa­mous Kurtz had indulged him­self. But two-thirds of the way through the book I real­ized we were nev­er to real­ly learn them. We know there’s a remote camp by a lake and an African tribe that regards him as some kind of demi-god, and we hear tell that he’s law­less toward oth­er Euro­peans and single-minded in his quest for ivory. But these are all bare­ly more than hint­ed glimpses.

The sto­ry turns out to be not so much about Kurtz as it is about Mar­lows’ imag­in­ings as he gets deep­er into the con­ti­nent and gath­ers clues about the mys­tery man at the top of the riv­er. I found this to be a relief, as Con­rad seems almost as unin­ter­est­ed in flesh­ing out the Africans along the way. Kurtz is a bril­liant civ­i­lized man; in the jun­gle his sav­agery is unleashed and he becomes a force unto him­self.

I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of any­thing high or low. I had, even like the n******, to invoke him – him­self his own exalt­ed and incred­i­ble degra­da­tion. There was noth­ing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked him­self loose of the earth. Con­found the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or float­ed in the air.

Yes, this is a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of a psy­chopath. If this were a mod­ern Show­time or AMC tele­vi­sion show, this would be the start of the action: the pro­duc­ers, writ­ers, and actors would leave lit­tle gore or deprav­i­ty to the imag­i­na­tion. But for Con­rad this is the moral­i­ty tale at the heart of the book. Short­ly after being found, Kurtz con­ve­nient­ly dies and our nar­ra­tor sails back down­stream, going (we are help­ful­ly told) twice the speed as before, back out to the ocean and civ­i­liza­tion.

More: 

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.