A letter to a Friend about 21 years in the Foreign Service
I joined the Foreign Service 21 years ago, and you asked me if it might be a good career for you too. You went further and asked if one could be a Friend and work for the government. I told you that I would let you know, since I was just getting started. Sorry about the delay in getting back to you, but I wanted to make sure of my answer.
Public service has always been a strong drive in my life. Before the Foreign Service, I was an assistant professor at a state college, and before that, a high school teacher and a child welfare worker. So you could say that I’ve worked for the government for 35 years. During meeting for worship a few days ago, a weighty Friend rounded on me, saying I was trying to work for both God and Mammon and I must fail. After meeting she advised me to call a clearness committee to help straighten out my life. Nick, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been eldered this way. Being a Friend and working for the government seem incompatible to some Friends, and being Friends, they let you know it.
I had my own worries 21 years ago, and I sought guidance from my meeting in Charleston, West Virginia, from my colleagues, and, most importantly, from my wife. I looked for examples of Quakers who had dedicated themselves to public service in the government. John Bright, the British liberal member of Parliament, gave me special help through his life and letters. The question was there: can you work for the government and not be corrupted or compromised? I thought of William Penn’s advice: "True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it: not hide their candle under a bushel, but set it upon a table in a candlestick." If you live an intentional life, I believe you cannot be corrupted or compromised—unless you want to be. "What if you are ordered to do something that you don’t think is right?" asked one Friend. "That’s easy," I answered. "Fight it if you can. Quit if you must."
But in truth, government work seldom places you in such a dilemma. Once I was assigned to work with asylum seekers from El Salvador, to give the State Department’s advice to the court on whether or not they qualified for asylee status. "So I decide each case?" "No, you just refuse them all." "But that’s immoral," I declared. "Wow," was the answer, "would you tell that to the deputy assistant secretary (a political appointee)?" So I did, and she angrily replied, "Well, we don’t want you to work with us either!" So I went on to another assignment working with human rights.
The Foreign Service isn’t always an easy job: my offices have been bombed, I have had friends killed and maimed, my windows have been splattered with red paint, I’ve been called a genocidal murderer on Belgrade TV, and I’ve been picketed by my own meeting! (I would have joined them on several occasions, but we’re not allowed to involve ourselves in local politics. I save my own protesting for when I’m back in the U.S.—I’ve picketed the State Department twice.)
But there are compensations: I’ve helped remove the sanctions on Haiti; set up a UN peacekeeping force; participated in the Dayton peace process; written two UN Security Council Resolutions; and pressured other governments to release a priest who was being tortured, a nurse who was being held hostage, and missionaries being held by rebel bands. I was part of an effort to remove a U.S. military base deep in the Andes, and I have ad hoc lectured U.S. generals and colonels on human rights at the Joint Warfighting Center.
Ten thousand immigrants, the great majority dirt poor, came to the United States with my name on their papers. A hundred thousand visitors and students came as well. I worked hard to get changes in laws and regulations that I thought were wrong. The central poster on the wall in my office is from American Friends Service Committee: "No Human Being Is Illegal." I’ve taken a lot of criticism for that poster, but that means it’s having an effect.
Among the greatest supports I have on this job are the local Friends meetings. In Wellington, New Zealand, Friends joked when they found out where I worked, "We finally got one! Or does he have us?" Toronto Friends opened their hearts to my family. The Lima, Peru, worship group was precious to us, even as terrorists dynamited buildings (including the embassy) and power stations. While visiting U.S. prisoners high in the Andes, I attended an Evangelical Friends Church, a little thatched hut with "Jorge Fox" written on a blackboard behind the Friends pastor.
Nick, I’ve never hidden my religion. In fact I’ve probably worn it on my sleeve more than I might have, both to keep me honest with myself and also to make certain my colleagues know where I’m coming from. There are a few other Friends in the Foreign Service, but not many. (One of them surprised me when he turned up as the dreaded inspector coming to check out my operation!)
Have I compromised my pure principles? Yes and no. Policy doesn’t drop like manna from the heavens, or even from the president or secretary of state. Policy is created over time and over many tables, much like Quaker committee minutes. Views, even dissenting views, are respected, and experience is taken into account. Some final decisions have made me heartsick; some have been victories for common sense, reason, and the Light. As always Rufus Jones guides me: "There has always been another group (in the Society of Friends) who have held it to be equally imperative to work out their principles of life in the complex affairs of the community and the state, where to gain an end one must yield something; where to get on one must submit to existing conditions; and where to achieve ultimate triumph one must risk his ideals to the tender mercies of a world not yet ripe for them."
Would I do it again, Nick? Would I recommend it as a life? Yes, I would. Government, at least government in the U.S., Canada, and a handful of other countries, is not Them. It is Us. There are times I step aside to meditate and reflect. But there is never a time when I would step aside for fear of dirtying my hands. If you care about others—and that is our great commandment—then you must work either inside the system or outside the system to make it better. There is much to be said for either side, and there is enough work for all.