Wednesday, February 23, 2011

As others see us: Quakers as "suicide cult"

I’ve recently been wondering how Quakers (I happen to be one) are perceived by the vast majority who aren’t.

Today, while reading the New York Times, I got an unusual and troubling glimpse from reading a story about a Navy midshipman, Ensign Michael Izbicki, who has just emerged successfully from the surreal experience of explaining why he is a conscientious objector.

After a two-year legal struggle, he has finally been discharged from the Navy.

It’s a bizarre, ironic story, reminiscent of “Catch-22” in many ways.

What especially caught my attention, given my interest in how Quakers are perceived, was this paragraph about Izbicki's inquisition at the hands of the Navy:

“One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.”

Alas, the commander is not named in the story. We need to talk. Nor does the story expand on the commander’s Jonestown/Quaker comparison, but allow me to speculate.

First, a little history is in order. The infamous Jonestown mass suicide of 1978 in northern Guyana resulted in the deaths of more than 900 Jones followers, who drank poisoned Kool-Aid and died. It was the largest mass suicide in the history of this country.

My speculation about the commander’s thinking goes like this: Because Quakers follow a testimony promoting peace and refraining from and opposing participation in war, they are, in effect, committing suicide at the hands of this nation’s murderous enemies.

That, in itself is a contradiction. Suicide, by definition, is death at one’s own hands. When one knowingly chooses to die at the hands of someone else, that is commonly referred to as martyrdom. The pages of history are full of those who put their lives on the line to die for a greater good. One died on a cross 2,000 years ago. But that, commander, is another story.

The U.S. military would have us believe that its members are martyrs to such a good. It’s a tough sell, and Ensign Izbicki wasn’t buying it, especially when he was told that, from a submarine armed with nuclear missiles, he might be called upon to kill innocent civilians.

In my view, joining the armed forces is more akin to suicide. First, one increases the chances of being killed for politically ginned-up causes. If you don't believe me, dip into "War is a Lie" by David Swanson who lays out the lies our nation's leaders have told to justify going to war.

Moreover, on-duty military personnel are literally killing themselves (ie. committing suicide) in shocking numbers. In 2009, the suicide rate in the military was higher than the civilian average. Fifty-two Marines and 48 Sailors committed suicide in 2009, according to official reports. As of November of that year, 147 soldiers had taken their lives. Air Force officials reported 41 active-duty suicides in 2009.

Then there is the rate of suicides among veterans. Veterans Administration records show there are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans receiving some type of treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department. (Statistics aren't available for veterans not being treated.)

As ensign, Michael Izbicki was already agonizing over the possibility that he might be called on to mash a button that would lead to the obliteration of civilian populations. If he were ever forced to live with performing such a deed, it is entirely conceivable his “service to our country” might drive him to suicide too.

As I say, commander, we need to talk. Might I suggest, sir, that you and your colleagues might just be commanding your own Jonestown. Call it a "military cult."

But don’t believe me. I’m not a “mainstream Christian.” I’m just a member of a Quaker “cult.”

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Blogger Mark G said...

It never ceases to astound me, that because I am a pacifist, people assume I hate the military, and because I am a Quaker, I am Amish!
It does make me wonder why the commander's name is not printed, perhaps out of fear of retribution?
In no way are the Quakers related to the cult in Guyana, Quakers are not in a cult, anymore than Catholics or Presbyterians are in a cult.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Liberata said...

I have a follow-up question: Considering that Kadhafi is brutally cracking down on his own people now, why would/should Friends not support humanitarian military intervention by the UN or some other coalition forces to aid the rebels in Libya? If ever there were a case where such intervention could be justified, this seems like it.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Dawn said...

Dear Liberata, Do you see the contradiction in terms: humanitarian military? US military is not t rained for humanitarian support. Our soldiers are taught to kill, to be killing machines and to dehumanize the "enemy". Humanitarian aid and teaching conflict resolution and alternatives to violence are helpful, but our military is not equipped to provide such services.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would urge some caution here. We really have no idea why this Navy commander said this. I would hesitate to
Make so many assumptions about his or her comment, itself at least second hand.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Joan Gunn Broadfield said...

In the article you connect with, I did not see the quote you referred to. I find it useful often, when I see something in the NYT, to submit a comment of my own experience. I am grateful that the Center on Conscience and War, which argues and supports many CO requests from those serving in the military, is vigilant for ALL CO's, has a great website (was NISBCO from the 1940s). Interesting that current war in IRaq does NOT fit 'just war' according to Vatican...

3:11 PM  
Blogger Troutlover said...

every armed intervention anywhere has been presented as an exception that pacifists should recognize and support-some alway have fallen for this line. Consider the "fighting Quakers of Nantucket during the War of 1812. ( You can find them in Moby Dick as the Pequod's owners.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeremy Mott says ....
The reason why many Friends would
not support----much less participate in----a so-called "humanitarian" ion in Libya is
actually fairly simple: one does not do evil so that good may come,
because, when one does this, usually
evil comes. As a practical matter,
one can easily see many ways that
evil might come from any miilitary
intervention in Libya.
Friends and other pacifists have always remained, as far as possible, outside the ordinary
public consensus that promotes
violence as a "solution" to violence---because the practical effect of violence against violence is still more violence.
In doing this, we will seem weird
to the general public, but we
must stand our ground, because we
are right. Look at what has
happened in Afghanistan since, in
2001, the U.S.A. decided to solve
the problems of Al-Quaeda and the
Taliban by invading and occupying that nation. Things in Afghanistan
are worse than ever. There can
be little doubt that Libya is similar. The United States has no
special power to discern right and
wrong, and the U.S. military would almost surely be unwelcome there.
There are countless nonviolent ways in which the United States, or European nations, or the United Nations, can intervene in Libya.
Even those who believe in going to war should support these first.
Jeremy Mott

3:52 PM  
Blogger David Carl said...


Historically Friends have not always opposed all use of arms. At one point, Fox even urged Cromwell to attack the Pope. I don't know that there has ever been a consistent and unified position across the Quaker spectrum. Quakers fought in both the revolutionary and civil wars. I know one birthright Friend who served in the Air Force. However, we do tend to peacefulness. For myself, this starts with the individual turning to the inner light and providing the invitation and opportunity for others to do the same.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a traditional conservative Wilburite Friend I have nothing to do with the utterly weak and cowardly philosophy of pacifism, but am a wholeheartedly nonresistor as early Friends were.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"humanitarian military intervention????" I do not support murder and war in any form. Friends are to be nonresistors. Military intervention has never "humanitarian." The only point of the military is to kill.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just War is "just war." War is only about killing. Wilburite Friends only believe in nonresistance.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

I'm curious about how our Wilburite Friends respond to Quakers being referred to as a Jonestown "suicide cult" by the naval commander. Do you see pacifist Friends in that way?

6:10 PM  
Blogger Mark G said...

My belief is that no person has the right to take another person's life, the teachings of Jesus do not go hand in hand with violence, he spoke of peace, but I am not completely "christocentric", thankfully we attend different Monthly Meetings for varying reasons.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Mostberg said...

Of all the things I ever thought about Quakers, suicide cult would not be one. Self-righteous and naive maybe, but hardly suicidal. But speaking of misconceptions, the truth is that most people in the military do not kill anyone during their time of service. They are really more like cops and they, like cops, do a lot of protecting and just plain rescuing and helping out. I was one and my most hazardous duty was delivering mail and supplies to other ships. We were part of a rescue team for refugees off Indonesia many years ago. Quakers could help out in that way themselves. They could help free the civilians of N. Korea from their own tyrants by silent protests on site there, perhaps at their missile launching locations. That would be dangerous, of course, but it would be a contribution to peace and justice.
Marv O.

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus said to love your enemy, which doesn't seem like it would go with fighting them. But according to the commander, pacifism is inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. How does he manage to keep both of these in mind?

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good Wilburite friend of mine, Robert Koehler, who writes scholarly articles in Sociology, Anthropology, Ethic Studies, and History granted me the greatest insight into the meaning of nonresistance and Jesus I have ever heard. Robert told me the meaning of Jesus is nonresistance. Jesus, who lived a perfect sinless life, never used violence to prevent his own death. Jesus gave his life so all people would see violence as against God's will. Jesus came to bring this message to the world. This is a great re-visioning of Christ's message, but one I believe. Jesus is, as often proclaimed, the Prince of Peace.
Therefore, I also wholly reject pacifism in appropriate favor of nonresistance.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

I'm going to need some help here. We have:
Passive resistance
Anti-war resistance
And I suppose passive-aggressive. The last one is a joke, but would someone please lay out the difference, say, between non-resistance and pacifism? Is one a technique and the other a belief. Are they really opposed to each other, as suggested above? Non-resistant, frankly, sounds like passive, and that's no joke. Was Jesus passive? His teachings certainly haven't been in my life. I have actively tried to love my neighbor, just for starters. And I do resist, peacefully and lovingly, those who don't.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said .....
Pacifism is a much newer word than
non-resistance; but the meaning is the same. In the first half of
the 1800's, abolitionist Friends
used passive resistance to struggle against slavery. This was far from
being weak and cowardly. If you wish to check this out, simply read one or more of Peter Brock's
books on the subject. They are the classic texts on Quaker pacifism, and the pacifism (or non-resistance if you prefer) of
the Church of the Brethren, and Mennonites (who, even today, would
never use the word pacifism.
I think it would be helpful
if EVERYONE who blogs on such an important topic as this had read
Peter Brock's books.
Of course it is true that many Friends have supported wars at one time or another. However, even these Friends have often refused to fight in them. This limited
conscientious objection used to
be called "I-A-O". (Regular civilian conscientious objection was labeled "4-E" or "I-O.") I-A-O
conscientious objection was, for a
long time, the province of Seventh-Day Adventists.
Like Rick Seifert, I believe
that, as a practical matter, a
"humanitarian intervention" is a
"just war" or in the end, JUST
WAR. Friends, we should not be in the business of proving ourselves
RIGHT. That is something we cannot do. We can try, in fear and trembling, to to the Right thing.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nonresistance is the philosophy the first Christians followed before the Church changed policy. In primitive Christianity, if you committed any violence in any form you were severely reprimanded. Any form of violence was not tolerated and participation in the military was NEVER permitted. Later, the Church (Catholic) changed philosophy and war an violence on behalf of Christ was permitted. Only in recent times did the weak policy known as "pacifism" emerge.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pacifism and nonresistance are not at all alike! They are exceptionally different. Nonresistance never allows violence and seeks only love, pacifism accepts violence and sometimes lacks love. To engage in violence is a denial of love and love the Prince of Peace.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Liberata said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I haven't read Peter Brock, but I have read John Howard Yoder.

4:21 AM  
Blogger Mark G said...

All of us have some correctness and some fallacy in our beliefs, at least in my opinion. Friends should spend less time proving these to others, and "let their life shine". A Friend can say one thing and do another, I myself am guilty of this. The Spirit needs to be listened to, there is a time for ego and a time for Spirit, usually the Spirit wins out!
I use the term Pacifist because more people know what that is, be it good or bad, the term is recognized. In my life, never is any form of violence tolerated. Do I live like this? I TRY, do not succeed that often, but I try.
Many Friends and other Peace Church members drove ambulances, worked in Hospitals, delivered food etc... they refused to pick up arms, these Friends and others should be applauded, their courage was deep and strong.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another little known fact connecting Quakers to Jim Jones - he was from the Richmond, IN area (home to Earlham College), graduated from Richmond high school, and his wife Marceline Jones is buried in Earlham cemetery. Other than those facts, I am not aware of much else that links Jim Jones and his "People's Temple" cult to Quakerism.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Tom and Sandy Farley said...

The use of force to prevent violence from starting may- or may not - become another form of violence. The goals of creative response to conflict include both reduction and prevention of violence as well as increase in active nonviolent responses.

In Kosova in the summer and fall of 1999 and fall of 2000, we observed the NATO military from the US and about 20 other nations acting primarily as police and in areas where ethnic tension remained as local security and violence prevention. The Kosovar people we met were strongly appreciative of the NATO and UN presence that stopped the genocide there.

This experience may have misled the US military to expect a similar response in Iraq.

After 9/11 the US could have gained much international cooperation by treating the attacks as crimes and seeking the arrest of the surviving attackers.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to come to the defence of the military..I am a college instructor in the Norfolk Virginia area. Several of my students are in the Navy, when the earthquake in Haiti occured, they were gone for 4 months working on humanitarian efforts to help the victims. I was amazed at the work the U.S. military did to help. They received almost no credit in the media. Many lives were saved because of their work. We as Quakers should be the last to make broad generalizations about the military or any other group.

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ...
To the Friend who worked in the military in Indonesia, how long did
this work last? I don't think it was undertaken for a long period.
However, Friends Peace Teams
has been working in Sumatra for more than five years, helping the people
there to rebuild their lives in the
aftermath of the civil war on that
island. This is an example of
Quaker peace work at its best.
Jeremy Mott

3:35 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

I think this thread has finally exhausted itself. Here at the tail end I'm still left wondering (and holding in the Light) that unnamed Navy commander who compared Quakers to a suicide cult. I'm not any clearer on the differences between "non-resistance" and "pacifism," or the array of other terms cited. They all are reflections of Jesus' teaching that we should love our enemy (which means, presumably, not killing him or her or their children). In the context of this blog, it also means loving (and not killing) oneself.

Thank you, everyone, for your contributions to the thread.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Alec Macph said...

May I preform thread necromancy?

In the context of rejecting suggestions of military action against Gaddafi (I have to pick a spelling, you know), from Quaker Faith and Practice (24:22):

>> [...] The failure to take evil and conflict into account as elements in our human condition and an obsession with the need for peace and harmony have led pacifists badly astray... Christian pacifists [are] not exempt from the temptation to sacrifice others for the sake of peace.

If I read the article correctly, Izbicki sought an honourable discharge. If so, I'm left wondering why he wished release from his military commitments *and* for there to be no restrictions to his future liberty/opportunities. Furthermore, did the military pay for his university education?

See, for instance, the path taken by Corder Catchpool in 1916 (QF&P 24:23):

>> Corder Catchpool (1883-1952) served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War, but on the introduction of conscription he returned to England to give his witness as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for more than two years; later he worked for reconciliation, especially with Germany. He told the Court Martial which sentenced him at Dovercourt on 28 March 1918: [...]

That said, it would be bizarre to compare Jim Jones to Quakers. Maybe Gandhi ;)

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Carl said... "Historically Friends have not always opposed all use of arms. At one point, Fox even urged Cromwell to attack the Pope. I don't know that there has ever been a consistent and unified position across the Quaker spectrum."

Excuse me Friend, when exactly did George Fox urge Cromwell to attack the Pope? I have studied Fox Works (not just his Journal) and I somehow missed that... Attacking the Pope seems inconsistent with the rest of Fox teachings on the subject (example, he said he was in that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars, etc.). Also Quakers did have a unified position against war and fighting please see the Declaration of 1660 and how it ends. Early Friends believed that if ever a Quaker changed position he would have apostatized from the Faith. It is true that later some Quakers did take part in wars but were disowned for it. Of course later after the schisms, etc. one can find Quakers denying these testimonies but are they really true to the Faith as taught by Jesus, the Light to Early Christians and Early Quakers? I would advice everyone to read the book "Historical Writings of Quakers against War" (QHP 2002). None-resistance and pacifism are related terms. Personally I prefer the term peacemaker as it shows that we are active in what we do. Christians are in a war but our war is spiritual not carnal. God Bless!

2:35 AM  

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