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.


Ray said...

Really enjoyed the piece. Do you have another book on the horizon? 'Sacred Compass' was a great read. I think Phil Gulley for introducing me to it. Peace.

FYI- I have your blog listed as one I follow and recommend on my blog site:
Hope you'll become a follower.

Brent Bill said...

@ Ray. Thanks! I am working on a new book -- Awaken Your Senses: Exercises in Experiencing the Wonder of God. It'll be released by IVP in February 2012.

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said...
This is an interesting compilation
of different stories of dealing with
the Vietnam-era draft. It sounds
as though a draft counselor, like me,
might have written it.
A few questions present themselves.
For one thing, what happened to you
when your student deferment ran out?
Was the draft over by then? If so,
deferment, as a practical matter, was not a deferment but an exemption, an exemption available only to privileged people (college students). Was that the sort of
witness you wished to make?
For another thing, did you really wish to make any sort of witness at all? The other two men certainly made a witness for their convictions; but you didn't. This is not a crime, of course, but you might admit it to yourself. In this, you are like the majority of
the men who were of draft-age
during the Vietnam war years: you got yourself out of your legal
obligations, without endangering
yourself at all. I still think
that this pattern of "non-service"
by the older baby boomers affects
our national life: witness prom-
inent draft dodgers like Paul Wulfowitz, Dan Quayle. George W.
Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, etc. I doubt if they ever tried
to figure out what the Light told
them to do.
For the record, I was recognized
as a conscientious objector by
Selective Service without a lot of
trouble, and served in alternative service as long as I
could. Then I resigned, and spent
16 months in prison. Of course, I have no idea whether this course of action was an effective enough
witness to help end the war. But
that was its purpose.
Jeremy Mott

Anonymous said...

When we take the time to know one another in that which is eternal the different choices made become less important than our friendship.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Brent,

I find the quote troubling for this reason: it wasn't until nearly all Quakers came to see slavery as evil, that real ethical change could take place. It will be the same with the military and war.

Were all Quakers who owned slaves bad? NO. But all of them who participated in slavery were perpetuating an evil system.

In my opinion most humans who participate in the military and war are good.

There is the inherent problem! They help continue an evil system that needs to die.

Until all Quakers and other seekers(and then hopefully more and more humans) see that serving in war is wrong,
war will never leave us.

And yet war is far worse than slavery ever was! As a teacher of American literature/history, year after year, the more I studied and taught the more I realized that war nearly always leads nice, even good men to do evil acts. The first laws that are violated by every war are the 10 Commandments and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

I agree with you that the whole issue is not easily arrived at. The way of Jesus, the way of the cross (instead of the way of the sword) goes against not only our basic nature but against even our good sense of justice.

However, keep in mind (as the MCC poster emphasizes) there are no "just" wars--just killing, just torture, just inequality, just suffering, just nationalistic lying, just...

In the Light,


Brent Bill said...

@Jeremy -- "what happened to after..." Ah, a good question. The draft did not quite end, rather the lottery came along and my birthdate had a high number. So yes, in essence, I was granted an exemption. Privelege is a word I have struggled with... coming from a working class factory family whose father worked every bit of overtime he could (and took other jobs on the weekend to make ends me for the six of us), but yes, I was to the extent that w/ student loans and good enough high school grades, I could get into our church college.

"Did you really wish to make any sort of witness at all?" -- regarding the peace testimony, a Christians role as a citizen, at the time, probably not. As I've admitted before, I was pretty morally ambivalent about such things. My family and Evangelical Quaker traditions were such that military service was almost seen as a duty. Yet, it was something I struggled with -- I did not want to serve it the military, but could not articulate the reasons as an 18 year od (too self-absorbed, perhaps?) The May of freshman year the Kent State shootings occurred just 30 miles away from where I was in college. That was a beginning for me to consider thinking more deeply about these things that I had theretofore.

I will say that for me, I did not go to college to avoid the draft. I really wanted to go to college. If I had been drafted, I most probably would have served. It wasn't that I wasn't thinking at all about this in the context of faith -- it was just that I was hearing so many messages (from my past, my congregation, from Friends) that were often loud AND contradictory. I wanted to do what God wanted me to do (had since my early teens) with my life -- but was unsure of what that was. Unsure, at least, that I could make no firm statement for or against.

I am pleased that some folks had reached such moral clarity. But I am also pleased that God worked with me in God's time.

Brent Bill said...

@ Daniel. I hope you read the entire editorial from which Katie's quotation was lifted. I think it's really good.

And, while I would agree with most everything you said ("The way of Jesus, the way of the cross (instead of the way of the sword) goes against not only our basic nature but against even our good sense of justice" and so forth), I still have to maintain that my agreement is because I have come to that agreement through God working with me. I did not get there because people argue one side or another.

Certainly, the argument continues -- just war/no war. I'm on the no war side. But ... and this is a big but ... I am also willing to say that my way of understanding what Jesus said (about peace and everything else) comes from my faith experiences have had very different experiences and have reached different conclusions.

Do I think they've reached the wrong conclusion? Yes. But they, as faithful to Christ in their way as I am in mine, think I have reached the conclusion. The most I can do, at this time, is bear witness to the Truth as I have seen and experienced it and follow the Light that I've been given. And trust that God continues to work in me -- and all others who endeavor to be Jesus followers.

Were I able to wave a magic wand that would cause all Christians to lay down military arms, I guess I would not. Not until they owned that radical stance in their hearts and souls. Will that day come -- I hope it will, God willing.

Until then I can only say, "Here I stand. God help me."

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ...
Brent Bill, I know that my questions to you were very tough. But that is
part of the job of the counselor: to ask the tough questions. I'm sorry that you did not have a counselor to do that with you, nor someone in the
(evangelical Quaker?) college which you attended. Nor were you prepared to counsel yourself in this way.
Of course, this was not at all
your fault. In your Friends church,
in your college, there should have been some education about the Peace Testimony of Friends. This
did not happen often in any Friends churches then; and I think it doesn't happen often in any
Friends meetings of any kind now.
We Quakers have a lot of work to do on this matter----and the outcome will be determined by God,
not us.
Again, for the record, note that I did not easily or quickly reach moral clarity either. Yes, I was
always determined not to serve in the military; that was the ordinary stance in my meeting. But
most young men got deferments or
exemptions; and I gave my student deferment up and sought conscientious objector status.
This took me about a year to obtain. Then I started alternative service, with the Church of the Brethren (since AFSC and other Quaker groups no longer
wanted young Friends by 1966).
But after only a few months in BVS, though I had no objection to
BVS in itself, I decided I could no longer co-operate with the
draft in good conscience;; so I
quit. Just about every young man
who had to deal with the draft
had a similar or more convoluted story, I think. The war and the
draft, put together, made the times very rough for many men.
Let us pray for peace, and no
renewal of the draft.
Jeremy Mott

Brent Bill said...

@ Jeremy. Thanks so much for your "tough" questions. Actually, Jeremy, I did not find them so much difficult as trenchant and probing. They are questions I've asked myself many times.

I do wish I would have had wise counselors on behalf of the Friends peace testimony. I am happy that I, at least, had wise counselors in Christian faith that taught me to think, feel, and question. And, I also am grateful to have been born into such a confusing moral time (though is any time less or more morally confusing that any other for the person who wants to follow Jesus?). The times forced me to at least consider the issues -- even if I did not do it well.

I am also grateful for the wisdom I've found in the statement of Isaac Penington --
"…, oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see the several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning, and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices. For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that: and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk."

It reminds me to be humble in the face of where I have been led and allow God to work with others as God will. I, like you, pray for a time when peace is the norm, when God's kingdom is firmly in place, and when people see that the Peace Testimony is part and parcel of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not just some quirky Quaker addendum.

Thanks so much for writing -- and your efforts in peacemaking.


Jeremy Mott said...

Brent: I have read that Isaac Pennington was an outspoken opponent
of the Peace Testimony, at least when it was first "propounded" by
other leading Friends. So I suppose that the quotation from him is an expression of this opposition. Do
you, or another reader, agree with
this theory?

Brent Bill said...

Jeremy -- hmmm, your hypothesis is interesting. It's not one that I've heard before, so I'm not sure what I think. I guess I read this statement of Penington as something much broader than his feelings about the peace testimony, though perhaps he did pen it in response. I had long read it to how we are each taught in the school of Christ as we able to absorb the lessons and so should not expect others to be where we are, but should rejoice that the same Lord who teaches us also teaches them. On all issues.

I'll have to do some research!

Always learning and always being taught (hopefully),