Pacifism that Doesn't Pull Punches

As far as I know, I come from a long line of bad Quakers. Only two stories have come down to me from the 325 years of my family’s Quaker life in this country. One tells of my great-great-grandfather, who fought for the South in the Civil War, was captured, turned coat, and went west to fight the Indian wars. The other tells of a great-grandmother who loved music; on a domestic’s meager salary, she managed to buy an organ.

Then there is my father. After two years at Westtown, he asked to be transferred to Culver Military Academy. A teacher in plain dress said, "I hope thou knowst what thou dost." He seemed to; he was happy at Culver.

My father was happy, too, with his thought that the world had grown better, that World War II was the final big war. But if my father was a pacifist, he found no room for his pacifism in Quakerism.

From his youth, my father hunted. It was part of Ohio farm life, and it stayed with him. Skulls, with cobwebs in eye sockets, loomed on our basement walls: mountain sheep, antelopes, an elk. My father was a conservationist, but when his fellow hunters used conservationist rhetoric to justify hunting, my father countered: "I do it to see the blood run."

Suburbs have swallowed our farm, but old ways die hard, and my father had advised the farm hand, who loved him, to burn brush on a gray day after rain, to minimize visible smoke. I took a walk the morning after he died, and nearing the top of a hill, felt rather than saw the fire on the other side. The farm hand and I stood looking at the tall, wide pile of brush and assorted burnable old farm things—shutters, a broken chair, fence posts. Things I recognized from their former lives. It was a big fire. It was just right.

For humans, the weather in New York City on September 11, 2001, was perfect. After the planes hit, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic, and as I walked north up its middle, beginning at 29th Street, it had the feel of a street fair or parade. We walked calmly. No one looked back. When I got to Central Park I passed a woman on a bench, facing north. In each other’s faces we saw the fire, so big we did not need eyes to see it. We were on the rise of the hill, feeling it.

And for some group of people that might, if we look closely from far enough away, have a little bit of us in them—that fire on the other side of the hill was just right.

Pacifism can include fire’s rightness, and the pleasure of the flow of blood. Early Quakers knew "that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men (as James 4: 1-3), out of which lusts and the Lord hath redeemed us." (James says, "What causes fighting and quarrels among you? Is not their origin the appetites that war in your body?") George Fox’s Journal goes on: "All bloody principles and practices, we, as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons." But there is room in our Peace Testimony for a deeper knowledge of inner wars, and from there a more fully lived redemption. There is room in our meetings for business; watch your feelings closely: these meetings can be excellent training grounds for a pacifism that intimately embraces the reality of violence.

Pacifism that embraces the reality of violence is possible for everyone. For my father. For every human.

We don’t need to make room for all of humanity in this pacifism; the room is already there. God is very big. But we must notice and tend it; pacifism is a tender green shoot.

I have an idea. God breathes in paradox because paradox is not paradoxical; it is only very close to the place where all things are one. Searching is first; then teaching. But then, we might find that the best way to point out pacifism’s spaciousness is consciously to limit membership in our monthly meetings to those who utterly deny all outward wars and strife. It might be that the best way to hold out to everyone a clear vision is to minute our clarity for ourselves: that peace is only possible through sitting through every possible feeling, locating our angers, our fears, even our joys, firmly in our own hearts, and sitting long enough with them that we come out the other side, maybe not yet able to love our fellow hu-mans, but at least able to treat them with love.

It is very difficult. Pacifism means living with the deep things in us, the things that not only predate Quakerism, they predate being human. We try to escape; sometimes by placing those feelings outside ourselves and fighting with outward weapons, sometimes by adopting a pacifism that pretends they don’t exist. I want a pacifism that includes all of humanity by including all that is human, among those things our blood-lust; a pacifism that holds this humanity in God’s endless spaces, with our communities’ help—and maybe with an organ trill or two.