The Vanishing Quaker

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A peace sermon

Last month I was the guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Southold, and this is the text of the talk I gave. It's not exactly what they heard, since I started ad-libbing a bit, but this is what I wrote for them to hear.

So, you’re a Peace Church now, are ya? Now you done it. You don’t know what you’re in for.

This is probably the easiest time to become a Peace Church, but the worst time to be one-- we are in the middle of a war no one likes started by a President even fewer like.

Easy you say? Well, someone on the LIE shoots you the bird for your bumper stickers, your neighbor gives you dirty looks on his way to the VFW hall, and the kids get ragged at school because Real Men join the Marines. Tough life being a peacenik, eh?

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

How about being a Mennonite in Germany when the Gestapo is breaking your door down to see if you’re hiding any Jewish neighbors.

A Quaker in London when it’s raining V2 rockets?

A pacifist Baptist running an Underground Railroad station when the Civil War breaks out?

Those were Peace Churches under the test, and you haven’t seen the test yet.

You are against ALL violence, even self-defense. Because you’re a Peace Church.

You are against ALL war, even those considered just war or in defense of the nation. Because you’re a Peace Church.

You cannot join the military, the ROTC, or even the police. A cop might have to use that gun, and you can’t take the chance. Because you’re a Peace Church.

Any of your members sign up for the military? Throw them out. Because you’re a Peace Church.

Jail or supporting the government in an unjust action? Jail. Because you’re a Peace Church.

One of your daughters was horribly murdered. Through your grief and rage you remember that justice is not vengeance or death. Because you’re a Peace Church.

Quaker Peace Testimony is clear, but it is not absolute. It’s not generally advertised that it came about largely to reassure King James II that The Religious Society of Friends was not about to join any of the wars and revolutions around him. Essentially, it was to take the heat off of Quakers who were seen as potential enemies of the Crown. But, it was not simply a cynical bowing to the Crown or expedience. It was the opportunity for Friends of the time to make clear their views on war and violence.

There are two key parts to the Peace Testimony.

First is that the signers announced that their beliefs and spiritual state had “taken away all occasion for war.” They had come to the point where they had no need for violence themselves and had found a better way. "I told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James' doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars."

Many religious traditions have this end of reaching a state of grace, Nirvana, or other place of peace. These traditions realize that peace is not simply the absence of war, or of winning one, but starts with the inner peace of understanding one’s self and being at peace with that self, one’s world, and the Creator of that world. True peace is attained as more become at peace with themselves, and perhaps with their God.

In Quaker terms, we don’t bother to define God, because, well, God is God, and if we understood God, it would be more like having a beer with the boss and not worshiping God. So, we don’t bother with all those doctrines and dogmas. Besides, it seems God has other things to do than hang out down here, and he hasn’t been seen around for 2,000 years. Weeping Madonnas and the face of Jesus on a pizza don’t count.

So, we simply accept the concept of God, and then believe that “There is that of God in all of us.” We call this temporal experience of God “The Light” and pretty much leave it at that. As your measure of the Light increases, you become closer to what might be traditionally called a state of grace, and you are lead to a unity with God (whatever God is) the community of fellow believers, the community of mankind, the planet, and ultimately the cosmos.

Unity. That is the key to all Quaker belief and practice, and everything proceeds from this concept of unity. All of our testimonies and actions come from unity. Starting with unity with God, and then, naturally, unity with all God’s creation.

We have no set beliefs on the sources of good and evil, heaven and hell, the afterlife, or that sort of thing. There’s no way to know what happens after death, so we concentrate on our life here and now, assuming that any afterlife will take care of itself. Quakerism in practice becomes a lifestyle, as many churches preach, but few follow up on.

So, the Testimonies– Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality– are not rules or documents we subscribe to, but witness of where have come to. We take many paths to God and the Light, and these are the places that all of our paths cross.

The second significant part of the Peace Testimony is that they saw no need to fight with “outward weapons.” But, they did not see any need to give up fighting. The fight will continue with the inward weapons of their commitment to peace, their relationship with God, and the strength of their beliefs and commitments.

Now, this is all well and good that we have these marvelous inward weapons, but just how handy are they when faced with a line of tanks and machine guns? Or the swords and cannon of the 17th century? Not very good at all, and that’s where it gets a little complicated.

We do not despise the military, we lament the necessity for its existence. We do not join or support the military in its adventures or its defenses, but we work to reduce the causes of war. Should war break out, we do not fight, but we do not shirk from other assistance to efforts at defense, and we work to reduce the damages of war. We are not pacifists because we are weak, or traitors, or cowards, or lazy, or can’t handle screams of pain or the sight of blood. We are pacifists because to actively join in the violence is to accept and legitimize the violence and we must follow our path. If we do not follow our path in times of danger and peril, there is no point to that path at all.

But, the testimony is not absolute, and as John Woolman, one of our earliest theologians said, “There are times when you are a coward if you don’t fight, and other times when you are a coward if you do.” Almost half the Quakers drafted in WWII went to war, causing many rifts in the Religious Society of Friends, because of what they considered the greater evil. Traditional Quaker theology talks of differing amounts of The Light in each of us, and it takes a lot of Light to make a true pacifist. WWII was a practical test of this belief.

Our pacifism is not negatively “against war” but positively “for peace.” What we do is attempt, in whatever way we can, to “remove the occasion for war.” And not just war, but all violence. This may at times seem hopeless, but it can work, and has worked. As pacifists, we are deeply involved with alternatives to violence projects, nonviolence and peace and reconciliation training, and “witnessing” our faith in nonviolence and true justice.

But my purpose here isn’t to teach Quaker theology but to talk of peace work.

Which brings me to the Lamb’s War.

Early Quakers were on a quest to restore the Christian Church to its earliest roots, which included the pacifism that was assumed until it became the official church of the Roman Empire, and as an arm of the Empire required it to indulge in its wars.

They were well aware of church/state issues, and had the questionable advantage of having lived through rulers who imposed Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Puritan rule. Unlike many other Protestant thinkers, however, they did not believe in absolute separation, but that they should involve themselves in the affairs of state, with a delicate balance of involvement, but not a formal state religion. The state was seen as the legitimate temporal arm of God, but for secular purposes only and one’s religion was still one’s own business.

They rejected Augustine’s apology for Christians indulging in Just War and considered war occasionally necessary for the state, but not for true primitive Christians.

The Lamb’s War, however, was different. It was the war fought for peace and justice and was fought with spiritual weapons of Biblical authority. While Quakers are not apocalyptic and have no interest in “End Times” theology, some of the imagery of Revelation is just too good ignore.

The Lamb’s War, in essence, is simply speaking truth to power. Somebody has to stand and say “No!”

But, the Lamb’s War is not just a war of words. That won’t work. Words mean little with a trillion dollar budget spent on preparation for and waging war. Words mean little when the fear of unseen enemies and glorification of the military is used to cow the populace into accepting this budget. Words mean little when facing the guns of an invading enemy.

The evidence that peace is better than war is as undeniable as the evidence that slavery and racism is wrong and women should be able to vote– other battles in the Lamb’s War that have been successfully fought. And the war is fought by bringing forth that evidence at every chance, and by our example.

So, who are our heroes of the Lamb’s War?

Quakers, like William Penn, Lucretia Mott, Chuck Fager, Bayard Rustin, and Rufus Jones.

Those who have been influenced by Quakers, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was a close friend and associate of Lucretia Mott. Martin Luther King, who had Bayard Rustin as one of his closest associates, Jane Addams, whose meeting with British Quakers opened her eyes to the possibilities.

And those who are not Quakers at all, like the Alberts Schweitzer and Einstein, Sister Helen Prejean, and so many other leaders of the peace and social action organizations today. William Jennings Bryan is remembered more for being on the wrong side of the Scopes trial and bimetallism, but we could also remember him for his constant battles for economic and social justice, and as a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State when we entered WWI.

Even soldiers have been occasional allies in the war. Besides the conscientious objectors we now see in the news, we remember William Tecumsah Sherman, who in his more lucid moments warned us all of the horrors of wars he committed his troops to. Smedley Butler, who enlisted as a Marine and became its most decorated general, with TWO medals of honor, and retired to warn us of the dangers of sending the Marines into Central America to save the world for United Fruit. Eisenhower, who knew far more about war than any politician or pundit gassing about today, as President preached of the dangers of building a permanent war machine.

But it won’t be easy, this Lamb’s War. It never is.

The Air Force just told Boeing it didn’t need any more cargo planes and immediately a dozen Congresscritters rose up to demand it buy them anyway. “3oo hundred jobs in my district...”

The entire Congressional delegation in NJ rose up to scream to the heavens that the world would end if Ft. Monmouth was closed.

You know that $5,000 trip to China Dave Koeppel is being hounded about? Chump change. That’s a cocktail party in DC when Lockheed is looking to sell something. Or a half day’s fee to a lobbying firm. Jack Abramoff wouldn’t pick up the phone for a lousy 5 grand.

And that’s our key problem. We are addicted to spending on war, and the money is over there. We don’t profit from peace. We don’t have the staff that the American Manufacturers Association has to lobby and feed PACs. We have to work for a living and peace is a sideline for most of us, not our job.

Face it, if world peace broke out tomorrow, our economy would crash.

Just to put things in perspective, the American Friends Service Committee has an annual budget of about $50,000,000. Exxon made $50,000,000 last Friday.

We’re spending about $80,000,000 per month in Iraq, and that’s a drop in the bucket in our total defense spending. The money is spread around everywhere, and it’s not just Halliburton, Northrop and General Dynamics getting it. Sure, the oil companies drool when a carrier fleet moves and the planes and support ships suck fuel up like it’s free. But it’s not just the big stuff or bombs and bullets– there are thousands of small companies making brass buttons and shoelaces and the parts for the big stuff. Even here in Southold there is at least one company that once subcontracted defense parts, and maybe still is.

Here in Congressional District 1, our share of Iraq alone looks like $1.3 billion. You might think of the other things Suffolk County could do with that kind of money.

And Quaker House is trying to find the money to put one additional staffer on for 500 bucks a month.

So, we are outspent, and can’t have large professional staffs pushing our peace agenda. We have to do it all part-time as we worry about our own jobs and families.


Chuck Fager, head of Quaker House and a well known Quaker historian, gave a talk a few years ago about the Hundred Year Lamb’s War and made some excellent observations.

One was to steal a few tricks from the military. They spend a lot of time “refighting” past wars to prepare for the next ones. How many of us have spent any time researching past peace movements? I bet everyone here can name a bunch of generals from major wars, but can anyone name as many successful peace workers? We have over 300 war museums, but only one peace museum. We have thousands of statues generals on horses, but how many of peaceworkers? We have to do at least minimal work to prepare ourselves for working for peace.

The military spends a lot of time training and securing its base. Two things we aren’t that good at doing. True, we don’t have a pile of people on the payroll with little to do but train between battles, but we can put up more of an effort.

War is made exciting, safe, and cheap for us. We can read the news about our “successes,” and don’t have to fight over there or even pay for it now. Defense, honor, glory... But where is the propaganda for peace? Where is the simple notion that we are better off not fighting than fighting?

The military also works closely with its allies. Here in town, has anyone asked across the street if there are any Pax Christi or Catholic Peace Fellowship supporters we can work with? Any Witherspoon Society support at the Presbyterian church, or work on a Methodist Peace Fellowship? And that’s just the religious groups we should be working with. There are other peace groups all over the county, state, and country that we have to work with to get anything done.

As a religious organization, there are a number of groups we can ally ourselves with as a counterpoint to those voices of militarization. Every Church a Peace Church, Sojourners, Fellowship of Reconciliation. I’ll be posting lists of organizations on my blog as I find them.

Probably the most important thing we can do is consider peace work as something similar to, well, eating.

We all eat, and we all prepare food, to some extent. Some of grow our own food, or take cooking courses. Others balk at anything more than making coffee or a sandwich. But we all manage to feed ourselves every day.

Same with peace work. Every day there is some opportunity to do some small thing, even just thinking about how things could change Some of us will be great activists, but all of us can and must do one small thing a day, just to keep the idea alive. Going to a rally or march once a year and coming home thinking you’ve done something doesn’t really cut it. Bumper stickers and signs are a good start to keep the idea out there, as are small, nonconfrontational comments in normal conversations. Remembering to write letters to the editor and to legislators are a bit more work, but they are important. Joining the groups and attending the meetings are necessary to keep the community active and to keep morale high.

And training and understanding of conflict resolution and alternatives to violence are essential. If we are to work at all for peace, we must be able to provide the realistic alternatives.

Lucretia Mott had three great struggles in her long life– the end of slavery, women’s rights, and the end of warfare. She saw some advance in women’s property rights, but women didn’t get the vote until 40 years after she died. She saw the end of slavery, but racial segregation lasted another hundred years. And we’re still waiting for the end of war.

So we very likely won’t see the end of the Lamb’s War, but we will win some battles and some truces.

Think small- it’s nice to dream of and end to war, or just the end of war in Iraq, but that won’t happen any time soon. Nor will there soon be peace in Darfur, Timor, Chiapas, Uganda, Somalia... But if each day we all live to make just one tiny movement toward peace, it will come. If not for us, for the generations to come. Find just one more person to bring to peace work, and you have doubled your own efforts.


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