Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On Quaker Life and the Peace Testimony

"I know plenty of Quakers who have served in the military. I know plenty of Quakers who have marched against war. I wouldn’t consider one group of Friends better peacemakers than the other." – Katie Terrell, editorial, Quaker Life magazine.

I’m like Katie in this (and far different from her in many other ways). And her recent editorial, (read it please – and the entire Quaker Life issue when it’s available) has certainly stirred the Quaker pot, as evidenced on Quaker Life’s Facebook page. As I pondered what she wrote, I was reminded of a section of my book Sacred Compass that deals with this issue to some extent – the issue being, in my eyes, how Quakers (indeed how Christians of all stripes) have arrived at different conclusions about how to live out the peace testimony. And how we can learn to respect another’s decision if we trust that God is working in others as God is working with us.

For myself, I am today a firm adherent of the traditional understanding of the Peace Testimony – that Christians should not participate, under any circumstances, in making war on others. But, I did not arrive at this place easily. And so I offer the following from Sacred Compass.
Why don't we all have the same leading about the same issue? I think it's because Christ, our Inner Teacher, knows our teachability. The Spirit works with us where we are and within our own capacities for growth. Yes, God might stretch us. We will probably feel such spiritual stretching most when we’re lead in a way that others are not. But as the Psalmist says, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go.” You. In your way. God will not teach anyone else in your way; everyone is taught differently.
I turned eighteen at the height of the Vietnam Conflict. This meant I was supposed to register for the draft, which I did. Since I was a Quaker, I had the choice of signing up as a conscientious objector, but I couldn’t. At that time I was ambivalent about war. Four of my uncles served in the military, and my mother’s father fought in the Spanish-American War, yet I didn’t feel led to that same way. I had been accepted into college and knew that as long as I kept my grades up I wouldn’t have to decide whether or not to go to war for at least four years. So I registered and got my student deferment.

My friend Bob Gosney, who I met in seminary a few years later, found his way opening very differently. After initially not registering for the draft, he registered and applied for conscientious-objector status. He felt his participation in war went against his call to live in love and with nonviolence toward others, so he acted to keep himself out of the war. But Bob’s application for conscientious-objector status was denied, and he refused induction into the military. He didn’t flee to Canada to avoid prosecution, but rather stayed and took his lumps. He found himself in federal district court facing a five-year prison sentence and a ten thousand dollar fine. However, the Selective Service System had the court case dismissed and reconsidered his application. He was found to be a conscientious objector and served two years of alternate service working at a state institution for mentally handicapped people.
Mark Peterson, now my son-in-law, found way opening for him in a still different way. His draft lottery number was high enough that he was in no danger of being drafted. But he was raised Lutheran, and as he looked over his life’s and faith’s call, he felt led to serve. This call is consistent with the two-kingdom theology (we are citizens of two kingdoms—the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth that sometimes needs to take up arms) of his Lutheranism. So he joined the Air Force, where he served in Vietnam and then stayed in as a career military man.
Mark, Bob, and I were all strongly religious. We each wanted to do what God called us to do. But we each saw a different way opening. Why was that? Was there one right way and one of us found it, while the other two messed up?
Each way was the right way because we approached it with prayer, study, and a deep desire for God’s leading. Each one of us was led by the light we’d been given. What light I had at eighteen came from an evangelical Quaker congregation that was conservative politically and my family with much the same convictions. I could have registered as a conscientious objector, but I didn’t have any clear leading either to go to war or to be a conscientious objector. I was led safely into student status.
Bob, on the other hand, was affiliated with a group of Friends that, like many other Quakers, was
against the war (any war—not just Vietnam), and was raised with a biblical and social understanding much different from my own. His faith was saturated with calls against the war and for peace.
Lutheran Mark Peterson saw national service as a way to be a Christian. He still feels the same way—that his service in the military was a major part of his living out his faith.
What these three stories show is that we have to be led by the light given to us. We can’t be led by another’s light; it will be unable to really light our way because we don’t own or understand it. Neither Bob’s way nor Mark’s way could have been my way—I wasn’t in a place to own or understand either one. God worked with me in God’s time and not the government’s, the church’s, or my family’s.
These stories also show a need to respect others whose ways are not our ways. This respect grows from faith, especially when we have the chance for faithful dialogue with others whose way led them to a place that we ourselves would not go. Listening to each other with spiritual ears wide open helps us to understand each other.
And, I would add, to hear the voice of God more clearly for ourself and not worry about hearing the voice of God for others. A sort of different way of worrying about the log in our eye instead of the mote in an other's.
-- Brent
excerpt from Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment, © 2008 by J. Brent Bill, published by Paraclete Press, Orleans, MA.