Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Quaker in the back of the room

Before I began attending Quaker meetings in the mid-Sixties, I was an “almost-Unitarian.”

When I returned from civil rights work in Mississippi in 1964, the Unitarians were among the most eager to learn of my experiences there.

To this day, as they say, “some of my best friends are…” Unitarians.

So when one of those friends told me that the congregation of the First Unitarian Church here in Portland was meeting to consider replacing “just war” theory for “pacificism” as its guide for responding to war, I accepted her invitation to observe.

A large downstairs room was packed. I purposely sat in the back with the coffee urns, carrot sticks and cheese dip.

The minister welcomed everyone, noting that the meeting was the largest of its kind ever for the congregation. Then the group dove into respectful but intense debate. An advocate for a “pacificist” position spoke, followed by one for the “just war” stance.

Clearly George W. Bush’s militarism had prompted a deep and growing concern.

We next broke into small discussion groups to try to allow each person to speak and to measure opinion.

Five neighboring Unitarians gathered me into their group. I introduced myself as a Quaker but excused myself from discussion or voting.

They would have none of it. They wanted to hear what I had to say. I reluctantly agreed to share my perspective but only after I had listened to them.

At the end of its discussion, the little group voted, feeling that they had to choose one side or the other. They were divided.

Then they turned to me. I began by saying what all Quakers do…I represent only myself, not all Quakers. That said, Quakers hold to a “Peace Testimony” grounded “…in the virtue of that life and power that (takes) away the occasion of all wars,” in the words of Quaker founder George Fox.

Early Quakers, invoking Christ’s teachings, put their conviction clearly: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world.”

But Quakers also believe that each person needs to seek that “still, small voice within” to decide matters of conscience. While most Friends, as we call ourselves, have chosen to object “conscientiously” to war, a few have chosen to fight. After 9/11, some, most notably Scott Simon, a Quaker and an NPR "Weekend Edition" host, publicly broke with the testimony.

The important point, I explained, is that Quakers, unlike Unitarians, do not begin by analyzing armed conflict through an intellectual “Just War” screen. Our litmus, if it can be called that, begins with cleaving to peace for as long as each of us can or will.

When the discussion groups reported to the whole group, the congregation was also torn. In a final show of hands, a substantial majority deemed the entire deliberation to be an exercise in “false dichotomy.”

The Unitarians’ struggle cast new light on my own Quaker beliefs. Quakers have a deep conviction about peace. It seems impossible for anyone to have such a conviction about “Just War.” The Unitarians certainly didn’t, although one man vowed to leave the congregation if it declared itself “pacifist.”

Moreover, if Quakers were to address such a “weighty matter,” they would assuredly have done so “out of worshipful silence.” Quakers conduct all business, even the most mundane, only after first “settling into the silence,” seeking guidance to be found there.
The Unitarians, with no such tradition, threw themselves into debate and discussion.

The Unitarians also seemed to believe that it was important for the congregation to take a position, if it could. And they were willing to vote and count hands. Quakers famously strive for a unified “sense of the meeting” through discussion and reflection, and never through potentially divisive voting.

I came away from the Unitarian meeting feeling that, for all they share with Quakers, particularly on matters of social justice, the Unitarians saw peace from a very different perspective.

Days later I regretted that I had not shared A.J. Muste’s assertion: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Quakers chose that way 350 years ago. It has made all the difference.

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Blogger John said...

I'd like to expand on a few of the points that Rick's thought-provoking essay raises.

First, I was struck that the meeting was held to consider replacing “just war” theory for “pacificism” as the congregation's guide for responding to war.

I think many Quakers, like me, wince at the term "pacifism", which all too often connotes "passive". The term many of us prefer is "non-violent action," which can range from working with victims in war zones, as Tom Fox died doing in Iraq, to the kinds of actions that Ghandi and Martin Luther King led to liberate victims of oppression.

As Rick notes, individual Quakers have broken from our testimony against war from time to time, most notably in the Civil War and the Second World War.

Most important, as Rick notes, Quakers have a very different approach to considering such a "weighty matter." Rather than debating the intellectual and religious merits, we sit in silence and try to listen for the leadings of Spirit -- that higher power that transcends us as individuals. We strive to come to unity -- which is not necessarily the same as consensus, but rather a "sense of the meeting" that all can accept, if not enthusiastically embrace.
Such an approach often takes much more time than simply voting, but it usually results in outcomes that are more satisfactory over the long term.

Coming to unity on difficult issues may take a long time and many meetings. Deciding to renouce slavery took Quakers over a hundred years, and more than a full generation of Friends. It happened person by person, and Meeting by Meeting.

Unfortunately, most people are too impatient to do the difficult work that reaching unity requires. And sometimes, particularly when time seems to favor the powerful against the weak and to perpetuate injustice, reaching unity and justice through non-violent means seems all but impossible.

But shortcuts often have proven illusary. Rick's quotation from A.J. Muste is a fitting summary. “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

8:17 PM  

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