As others see us: Quakers as "suicide cult"
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.”