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?