Challenging Certainty

I believe that Friends are called to reflect anew on our relationship with animals.

This concern dates back at least to John Woolman, who wrote, "Be careful that the love of gain draw us not into any business which may . . . bring unnecessary trouble to any of God’s creatures." I expect that only decades from now, our routine use of animals for food, clothing, cosmetic, and even medical research will be seen as barbaric and unscientific. The more we learn about animals, the harder it is to accept the ways we have comfortably defined them as inferior creatures to be harvested for our use. Animals evince feelings and empathy; they can be self-sacrificing. We deny those traits in ourselves if we are closed to beholding them in animals.

I do not like the term animal rights; it seems to ask us to regard animals as the same as humans. But you do not have to believe that animals are equal to humans to believe that they are fellow passengers on the planet and entitled to fundamentally decent treatment. I do not think that vegetarianism, plastic shoes, and homeopathic treatments have to be the ultimate moral choices, yet I respect those who make them. I think that Friends can usefully reflect on the ways we can make the welfare of animals a guiding principle. It seems to be a natural progression from Friends’ opposition to slavery.

I believe that Friends are called to be part of the spiritual family that includes and supports gay and transgendered people, and anyone with an orientation that may differ from a perceived majority.

Laws are changing; public attitudes are changing even more swiftly. But while these changes proceed, Quaker meetings have an important contribution to make as an association of people who already live in that light, and count themselves as blessed and enriched by such membership.

I understand that this worries some people who feel that such inclusiveness will lead to the sanctioning of any living arrangement—from those adults who want to cohabit with multiple partners (which sounds like an awful lot of work, but nothing that I consider worthy of prohibition or disdain), to those who are sexually attracted to children (which, call me hard-hearted, I am still glad to see outlawed). I do not believe that everyone who is opposed to same-sex marriages and families is a bigot, though some are. Some gay people are not enthusiastic about same-sex marriage—they consider it an imitation of a failed family model developed by straight people. I prefer to believe that those opposed to same-sex marriage are people who will eventually become reconciled, then tolerant, and, finally, guests at the wedding of a gay friend.

I believe Friends are called to welcome immigrants.

Demeaning terms like legal and illegal should be left to the newspapers, and not carried into Friends communities. In fact, I am sometimes not even comfortable with the term "immigrant," which seems to sanction a different identity for people who might come from opposite sides of an arbitrary border. I use it here only for clarity.

I am concerned that Friends have allowed pacifism to become politicized and predictable.

This can turn spiritual thinking into a political agenda, and come perilously close to adopting a creed. George Fox warned against that. So many Friends routinely say, "One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter," without grasping how this rhetorical construction lumps together Nelson Mandela, the late John Garang of Somalia, and Palestinian kids who throw stones at Israeli soldiers, with a cold and deliberate mass murderer like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or the people who blew up schoolchildren in Beslan as a supposed blow for freedom.

So many Friends who invoke the bromide, "You can only make peace with your enemies," will make more rationalizations for the behavior of vicious brutes like Taliban officials or Saddam Hussein than they will for the principled ideals of people like Sam Brownback, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Hillary Clinton, who honor conscientious moral qualms about abortion. There is sometimes too much certainty among Friends on signature issues. This can be a sign of closed minds, as much as of stalwart convictions. It smacks of imposing a creed.

I think, for example, that the relationship many Friends have made for decades with environmentalism may now close them to hearing an increasing number of environmental thinkers, including James Lovelock, Patrick Moore, and Steward Brand, who have come to believe that nuclear power may be the safest and cleanest source of energy. The Earth must support six billion people without adding to global warming; this may be a few billion more than wind farms, solar panels, and bicycle power can practically support in the foreseeable future. Nuclear power may not turn out to be the best source of energy, but I don’t believe that Friends should reflexively reject it because it challenges a 30-year-old assumption that nuclear energy will lead to nuclear weapons. Friends ask others to examine their basic beliefs, and Friends ought to be willing to do the same.

I believe Friends are called to regard the costs as well as the achievements of nonviolence.

This does not necessarily mean supporting armed force, which some Friends—myself included—have done in particular circumstances. The world has enough spokespeople for that view. It does not mean considering war to be moral. But I do think Friends should try to be lucid and honest about what nonviolence can and cannot achieve as they assert its importance.

Nonviolence has accomplished much over the past century, including, but not limited to: Gandhi’s peaceful revolution in India (though this also cost millions of lives); the U.S. civil rights movement; the overturning of apartheid in South Africa (though the African National Congress was pointedly not pacifist); Corazon Aquino’s defeat of the Marcos regime in the Philippines; and the toppling of tyrannical communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe (though we should recall that those regimes, with their vast prisons, secret police, and open repression of religion and dissidence, had many apologists among Friends, who became infatuated with their anti-imperialist bombast).

On the other hand, I think that pacifism—its rhetoric sometimes borrowed by isolationists, ideologues, and bigots from Charles Lindbergh to Pat Buchanan—had no satisfying response to the genocide and mass murder in Bosnia and Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur, nor to the Holocaust, which was the defining event of the 20th century. Pacifists have been helpless in the face of too many crimes against humanity to assert that they have a practical alternative to bloodshed.

It was in covering the siege of Sarajevo that I encountered the flesh-and-blood cost of pacifism: it may allow the best people to die, while the worst ones prevail. I just do not see that leading to a better world, or even one in which pacifists can survive. Friends have often been sterling about pointing out the ways in which military action is cruel, misguided, murderous, wanton, witless, and wrong. Friends should be equally enterprising in confronting the ways in which pacifism can sometimes abet and rationalize cruelty, repression, and genocide.

I do not believe that Friends should be more patriotic.

Quite the contrary; it is important for the Religious Society of Friends to embody an identity beyond nationhood (my family and I rooted for France in the World Cup, and I wish that all nationalism were left at that level). But how many Friends in the U.S. realize that they often sound like partisans and apologists, if not patriots, for any regime that will thumb its nose at the United States? People who point out the moral senselessness of an assertion like, "We had to bomb the village to save it," may not realize they are slipping into the same kind of illogic by saying that Fidel Castro can be excused for jailing thousands of political prisoners to save his country from U.S. influence.

It is easy to be a Friend in the United States. If there is a Friend in prison for his or her beliefs, I do not know his or her name. And please don’t tell me—because my sense of humor is not that good—that the U.S. criminal justice system is indistinguishable from North Korea’s gulags because Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal are in prison. That’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It’s closer to comparing a few mealy potatoes to the Irish Potato Famine.

Friends must seek to improve themselves and the world. But I do not share the view of many I hear in meeting who so casually assert that the guiding influences of U.S. culture are always racist, homophobic, and misogynist. To a remarkable degree, principles embodied by Quakers have been exposed to and accepted by millions of people in the United States. Quakers can speak truth to power in this country and wind up on All Things Considered, Larry King Live, or the bestseller list, not in prison. As U.S. Friends are called to new challenges, it is only reasonable—it gives us a sense of proportion—to be grateful that we are part of a society in which we are able to freely live by its principles and to have an impact.

Scott Simon

Scott Simon hosts Weekend Edition-Saturday on National Public Radio. His most recent book is Pretty Birds, a novel set during the siege of Sarajevo. He is a former member of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill., and Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.). He now irregularly attends Friends meetings in New York City (Morningside, Fifteenth Street) and other places. He is the author of two recent Friends Journal articles: "Reflections on the Events of September 11" (Dec. 2001) and "To Friends Journal Readers: A Response" (May 2003). He has been asked to speak about some of his dissonant ideas at various Quaker schools and forums, and he is grateful for the warmth, courtesy, and fellowship with which he has been received.