Why would a Quaker do a crazy thing like that?

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 naïve 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 Quak​erQuak​er​.org to pro­vide a Chris­t­ian Peace­mak­er watch on both Non​vi​o​lence​.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 Freethe​cap​tives​now​.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?

  • Lots of very good ques­tions, as usu­al, Martin.
    One short sug­ges­tion for an answer:
    Prophet­ic wit­ness isn’t for­tune telling but a sign point­ing to what’s ahead. It requires a strong sense of his­tor­i­cal coher­ence and pur­pose and imag­i­na­tion, a sense that the sto­ry of Cre­ation has a begin­ning and direc­tion and an end. A Peo­ple with his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion and vision can be prophet­ic only because they know how it turns out and can name the signs of the times for what they are.
    But mod­ern peo­ple — includ­ing most con­tem­po­rary Friends —  can’t tell whether what is hap­pen­ing now are signs of the end-times or of the begin­ning of the King­dom or mean­ing­less abber­a­tions or what.
    It’s like we’re dri­ving a bus with the wind­shield paint­ed black, we’re dri­ving into the dark with no head­light to show the way ahead. At best, we have only a rear-view mirror.
    Con­trast this to Fox and his ear­ly com­rades. They had an amaz­ing­ly and auda­cious abil­i­ty to place what was hap­pen­ing in 17th Cen­tu­ry Brit­ian into the sto­ry of what was hap­pen­ing with God’s entire cre­ation, not only in the con­text of what had hap­pened (e.g., the apos­tosy) but what was going­to hap­pen (e.g., the Apoc­olypse of the Word). The set­backs they had had a pur­pose and were endurable because they point­ed to what was coming.
    Your ques­tions are direct­ed most­ly to Insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism, but I think their rel­a­tive impo­tence reflects this prob­lem. They — like us — have no long-term, prophet­ic vision of the world that is becom­ing, and there­fore can’t tell us whether the wit­ness of either the Chris­t­ian Peace­mak­er Teams or al Quae­da are signs point­ing towards any­thing. Thus, they — and we — can’t tell whether this is a big deal or not, or, more impor­tant­ly, why.

  • Hi, Mar­tin!
    You write, “Let’s remem­ber that insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism began as sup­port of mem­bers in jail for their reli­gious wit­ness,” and that’s the sen­tence quot­ed from this post­ing on the Quak­erQuak­er site as well. But I’m not sure it’s exact­ly true.
    If my mem­o­ry serves, Quak­er com­mu­ni­ties were func­tion­ing in a formally-organized mode to facil­i­tate the trav­els of Quak­er min­is­ters, before the seri­ous per­se­cu­tion began: they were rais­ing mon­ey among them­selves to fund the min­is­ters, and then trans­fer­ring the mon­ey to the min­is­ters either direct­ly or through Mar­garet Fell.
    And even before that, there were groups of Seek­ers who had good com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion before Fox came to them and stirred them up to be Quak­ers; they were, in essence, using the Quak­er method of cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment to make deci­sions; and they con­tin­ued in their old orga­ni­za­tion­al sys­tem after becom­ing Quak­ers. Indeed, to some extent the Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion­al sys­tem is sim­ply an adap­ta­tion of what those Seek­ers were doing long before.
    This would sug­gest then, that the sort of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion that enables a bunch of peo­ple to func­tion as a com­mu­ni­ty, and make dif­fi­cult deci­sions as a com­mu­ni­ty, and do fundrais­ing and resource allo­ca­tion as a com­mu­ni­ty, was what came first in the his­to­ry of Friends, and that this sort of insti­tu­tion­al devel­op­ment then pro­vid­ed a basis out of which sys­tem­at­ic relief of per­se­cut­ed Friends’ suf­fer­ings could arise.
    It also sug­gests that, before there could be sup­port of Friends impris­oned for their wit­ness, there had to be some insti­tu­tion­al under­stand­ing of who it was that was wit­ness­ing as a Friend, rather than as, say, an Inde­pen­dent or a Ranter, and that was there­fore enti­tled to Friends’ aid.
    And it fur­ther sug­gests that Friends had this under­stand­ing of who was bear­ing wit­ness as a Friend and who was not, because they were already sup­port­ing the ones who were doing it as Friends in their travels.
    Now, I don’t know the details of Tom’s sit­u­a­tion, and I don’t want to pre­sume. But let me ask: Might Lan­g­ley Hill Meet­ing have been able to find words to say in Tom’s sup­port, because it had already pon­dered Tom’s wit­ness and unit­ed to sup­port it when some ear­li­er ques­tion of finan­cial or logis­ti­cal sup­port came up? Could the fact that oth­er Friends reli­gious bod­ies did not find their tongues in a time­ly fash­ion, be due to the fact that they had not pre­vi­ous­ly pon­dered Tom’s wit­ness and unit­ed to sup­port it?
    Could it be that we Friends need to con­sid­er a min­istry, and unite to sup­port it, when the min­istry first takes shape, in order to be ready to uphold the min­is­ter in a time­ly fash­ion when he then encoun­ters persecution?
    I don’t know the answers to these ques­tions, but a “Yes” to each of them seems to me rather reasonable.
    Since you are an FGC Friend, Mar­tin, and are talk­ing about the fail­ure of FGC bod­ies to sup­port an FGC Friend’s wit­ness in a time­ly fash­ion when he ran into trou­ble, I would call your atten­tion to FGC’s Trav­el­ing Min­istries Pro­gram. Due to lim­i­ta­tions in staff and fund­ing, and a gen­er­al lack of atten­tion giv­en to it, this pro­gram does not present­ly do all that much. But it is at least poten­tial­ly capa­ble of prod­ding FGC bod­ies to come to grips with an FGC Friend’s reli­gious wit­ness before any cri­sis aris­es. And I think that may be the key.
    Maybe if FGC Friends like your­self were to push their year­ly meet­ings to take that pro­gram more seri­ous­ly, and give it more sup­port and more atten­tion, we’d all be more ready when the next Tom Fox becomes a martyr.
    Just a thought.

  • Raye

    Mar­tin, Friends,
    The response (or lack there­of) to the ques­tions about the rea­sons Tom Fox was in Iraq, is relat­ed, I think, to how Friends do (or do not) build each oth­er up in the faith.
    These days we have the bless­ings of mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy that enables Friends from around the world to cor­re­spond quite rapidly.
    Do we not also need more face to face con­tact with Friends who are so aware of the King­dom of Heav­en, who are so much a part of the King­dom, that they inspire oth­ers to move, to act, to risk, and to make real the words, “on Earth as it is in Heaven?”
    The apos­tles, and much lat­er, George Fox and ear­ly Friends stood on street cor­ners, in syn­a­gogues, tem­ples, steeple­hous­es, cour­t­hous­es. This is much more imme­di­ate, and risky, than elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions and newsletters.
    They con­duct­ed them­selves in a man­ner that inspired those around them to be bold, even when it meant impris­on­ment, loss of liveli­hoods, and some­times death. While I am not well acquaint­ed with most Friends, I sense that many of us, espe­cial­ly U.S. Friends, are not so bold. Has no one inspired us? Have we not tru­ly been bap­tized by the Spirit?
    Bill Taber wrote about catch­ing prophe­cy. If I recall cor­rect­ly, it was in “The Prophet­ic Stream.” Again, if mem­o­ry serves, he had observed that it is help­ful for Friends to spend time with those whose prophet­ic wit­ness is rec­og­niz­able. There is prob­a­bly a bet­ter term than “rec­og­niz­able.” But I pray the mean­ing of what I am try­ing to con­vey is clear, anyway.
    Aren’t some of us being called to live vis­i­ble lives, and speak direct­ly to those around us, to stir the Seed with­in oth­ers? Jesus spoke of us act­ing in ways that bring glo­ry to the Father.
    Friends who are walk­ing in the Light, lis­ten­ing to our Guide, will know if they are the ones who need to respond. And they will respond, with words sup­plied by the Spirit.
    It is false humil­i­ty to hide behind the “I’m only human” ban­ner. Cer­tain­ly, some num­ber of us need to look close­ly at our lives and be will­ing to shed things, and habits that would impede our abil­i­ty to inspire oth­ers. That will be tough, espe­cial­ly here in the U.S. But the Spir­it is ready and wait­ing to hold us, show us what we need to see, guide and strength­en us as we change.
    When we do change, we will stand out, we will be hard to ignore, we may attract insult and abuse. We may lose friends and gain enemies.
    If we don’t, we will not be act­ing as friends of the Lord, nor ser­vants. We’ll have no voice, we’ll have no part in build­ing up the King­dom. We will blend in, unno­ticed and inef­fec­tive. And what is to be done with salt that has lost its saltiness?

  • Aj

    Oh, I wish I had an intel­li­gent, artic­u­late com­ment that would sound like I knew what I was talk­ing about. But I don’t: so I’ll add what God’s been reveal­ing to me in my dai­ly walk (lit­er­al­ly — I’m lis­ten­ing to some great stuff on my head­phones on my morn­ing pup­py walk), and I hope it relates somehow.
    I’ve been real­ly sen­si­tive to the fact that I am not part of a wor­ship gath­er­ing or denom­i­na­tion that acts as a cor­po­rate body: we do not have the same pur­pose, the same mis­sion, the same heart. Some view church as an event, some see church as a social club, oth­ers feel church is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of being part of a rad­i­cal counter-cultural lifestyle.
    Gregg recent­ly preached a ser­mon on pio­neers and set­tlers in the church: pio­neers point out where God is lead­ing us while set­tlers set up the orga­ni­za­tion and oper­a­tions that keep the set­tle­ment going. Both have strengths and weaknesses.
    Quak­ers seem to be a pret­ty squab­bly set­tle­ment: so when one of our own goes out, do we even notice? If a pio­neer comes back to be in our midst, do we even hear him/her talk­ing? Or are the ‘set­tlers’ argu­ing too loud­ly and stak­ing out their own ter­ri­to­ry so that they don’t notice? It seems like the blo­gos­phere has pro­vid­ed some­what of a Neu­tral Zone for larg­er dis­cus­sion and discernment.
    If I for­get Tom’s expe­ri­ence, I cease to learn from it. I pray that God con­tin­ues to redeem Tom Fox’s expe­ri­ence to speak to us and trans­form us into God’s people.

  • Chuck Fager

    A few thoughts on the “insti­tu­tion­al Quak­er response” to Tom’s captivity.
    At the begin­ning, there was con­fu­sion not only among Quak­er groups but in CPT: the first sig­nals we got from them were for every­body to keep qui­et — no real expla­na­tion was offered, but the impli­ca­tionw at that there were behind-the-scenes efforts afoot which loud­mouthed out­siders might upset.
    This seemed unlike­ly to me, and I (plus a few oth­ers) con­sult­ed some non-CPT experts with expe­ri­ence in hostage and emer­gency work, who alo knew Tom.
    Their coun­sel was just the reverse: that the high­er the cap­tives’ pub­lic pro­file could be drawn, the greater the cost would be to the cap­tors of harm­ing them, so the bet­ter chance they would have of sur­viv­ing. (And in ret­ro­spect, Ithink this coun­sel has been borne out; 3 out of 4 did get out alive; I only wish it had been all 4.)
    So the ini­tial con­fu­sion reflect­ed, in my view, more a lack of expe­ri­ence in deal­ing with such sit­u­a­tions rather than theological/moral/ecclesiological disarray.
    How many of us, after all, regard­less of the­ol­o­gy, have tried to save the life of a hostage late­ly? Not me, for sure — I was on a very steep learn­ing curve.
    And in the begin­ning, until the sec­ond exe­cu­tion dead­line passed in Decem­ber, KEEPING THEM ALIVE was my over­rid­ing pri­or­i­ty. That trumped and shaped all talk of the­ol­o­gy, moral­i­ty, eccle­si­ol­o­gy, etc. It also put a lid on pub­lic crit­i­cism over the stum­bles of var­i­ous groups. And in ret­ro­spect, this still seems like exact­ly the right pri­or­i­ty, from all those points of view too.
    Once the sec­ond dead­line passed, the con­cern of John Stephens and I, on http://​www​.freethe​cap​tives​now​.org, became the keep­ing of a dai­ly vig­il for the four.
    Along the way, dur­ing the almost three months of dai­ly updates, var­i­ous com­ments about the the­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter of what was hap­pen­ing cropped up, but again, the focus was still on stay­ing on top of a sit­u­a­tion which could change fatal­ly at any moment; and did in the end.
    At this point, I can say the the big Quaker-related orga­ni­za­tions don’t seem to to have led the way on all this, and oth­ers may draw their own con­clu­sions about the mean­ing of that.
    For me, though, my sense is that Friends of var­i­ous stripes are only now begin­ing to grap­ple with the con­text and impli­ca­tions of Tom’s wit­ness. I think this is all very scary. And I don’t lim­it the fear to any one branch.
    Dur­ing my trav­els this sum­mer I have men­tioned him fre­quent­ly, and not­ed that he is much less vis­i­ble than I would have pre­ferred. So I bring him up often. As my labors are main­ly in the unpro­grammed branch, that’s where their impact, if any, will like­ly be felt. But there is wodk on this, I sus­pect, for all.

  • Hi Chuck,
    Thanks for map­ping out your own response and how it evolved. Just to make it clear for read­ers: Chuck and John Stephens were the two “friends of Tom” who put togeth­er and main­tained Freethe­Cap­tives­Now site. They got it up and run­ning quick­ly and kept it going over the long wait of Tom’s cap­tiv­i­ty. It was an excel­lent resource.
    I would say your pri­or­i­ty list was right. The first few days of chaos were under­stand­able, I don’t fault any­one for that: our reli­gious soci­ety is rather rusty on the how-to’s of sup­port­ing mem­bers jailed by hos­tile forces.
    I thought that explain­ing “why a Quak­er would do a crazy thing like that” was one way to sup­port his release. There were a lot of claims that he must be a spy and on the face of it I can see why some would think his actions too crazy to be explained by sim­ple spirit-led wit­ness. Explain­ing Quak­ers to the world was one way to counter that. It was alos impor­tant to try to keep his sit­u­a­tion in the fore­front of Quak­er and peace activist con­scious­ness. I’d like to join the cho­rus thank­ing you and Stephen for all you did. We’ve had our dif­fer­ences (’nuff said) but it was good know­ing you were on the job at Freethe­Cap­tives. Thanks too for the post here, it’s very helpful.
    Chuck, if you get a chance I’d be curi­ous to hear how your orga­niz­ing relat­ed to your work at Quak­er House. The odd piece about our cri­tiquing Quak­er insti­tu­tions is that you and I are both “pro­fes­sion­al Quak­ers” very emeshed in var­i­ous insti­tu­tions. It’s not incon­ceiv­able that I would have done my work on behalf of FGC or that you might have done it as Quak­er House or that either of us might have found some spon­sor­ship under anoth­er body. But we didn’t. Why?