On April 29 of this year, I was blessed to attend the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq (CPWI) in Washington, D.C. The opening convocation at the National City Christian Church featured Kathy Kelly, who has been to Iraq 24 times as a witness, and Noah Baker Merrill, a member of Putney (Vt.) Meeting and co-founder of Direct Aid Iraq. Each spoke powerfully to those gathered, often making clear the stark differences between the security and comfort here and the utter chaos and devastation of daily life in Iraq. In spite of the darkness they saw, living out their communion with God meant witnessing to Life in spite of war. In Noah’s words, “We must be captives of Love, instead of death.” To express this point from another perspective, he told of a Zen master who, when given opportunity to read the Bible, responded to his Christian friend by saying, “None of this makes sense without the resurrection of Christ.” Noah challenged us in the audience, saying, “Show me the resurrection; show me life triumphing over death.”
The Christian Peace Witness for Iraq describes itself as “an ecumenical, ad hoc group of partners who are called and committed to raising a Christian voice for peace.” As it states on its website:
We can end the war and occupation in Iraq responsibly and completely, support an Iraqi-led international effort to rebuild Iraq and care for five million Iraqis displaced due to the war, support our troops by bringing them home safely and providing for their physical, mental and spiritual healing, end all use of torture of any person held anywhere, promote regional stability through diplomacy with Iran and Afghanistan, and work for peace and justice in Iraq and security and well-being at home. (http: //christianpeacewitness.org/ourcommitment)
Throughout the day, the organization provided training in direct action, legal advice, and talking points for peace-related issues present in current events. Included concerns were torture, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli/Palestinian situation, the status of Guantanamo Bay, and more. During the various trainings, some key leaders of the organization met with staffers in the White House to share their concerns. In the evening, the program continued, and the audience more than doubled in size to hear the encouraging words of Tony Campolo, a renowned preacher and scholar of sociology and Christianity; Dianna Ortiz, a survivor of torture and now prominent voice against torture; and various clergy from local and distinguished churches. The culminating act of the night was a march to Lafayette Park and on to the gates of the White House where various acts of witness were planned. Though Iraq was the gathering issue, it was clear that peace in general was the larger purpose. This event was merely one annual action of a burgeoning network of progressive faith communities inspired by their relationship with God to work for peace and justice.
Being at the event made me ask myself: What have I done to truly live out my faith? Am I taking the risks that faith asks of me? I know I sometimes am afraid of going it alone—not simply because of the weight of bearing the task with only one set of shoulders, but afraid that the world will come to identify me, Stephen, with the task. I stop because I know myself; I know my ego. I don’t need celebrity or acclaim, and more importantly, it takes away from the cause. Standing in this tension between claiming our witness and humility, I wonder: Does this tension remain when we move together as a community? Can I witness personally and in pure faith without you holding my witness accountable?
In talking with Noah later, I asked if there were any other Quakers consistently involved in CPWI. He smiled shyly and said, “Nope, just me.” Noah did, however, have a minute in support and recognition of his call to ministry from his home meeting, as well as an elder present, so in a sense he wasn’t alone, and he was held accountable.
A month or so earlier I attended the annual meeting of the Peace Alliance, whose cause is to establish a Department of Peace in the U.S. government. There, as well, I found only a few Friends were involved—Lynn McMullen and Anne Creter, most actively—very few Quaker witnesses to a cause that appears distinctly in line with the Peace Testimony. In my own life, I experienced a similar trend working with the World Student Christian Federation (the oldest global student and youth movement witnessing ecumenically for social justice and peace). I was the only Quaker there. Why are so few Friends involved in these causes?
Noah and I explored this question and came up with a framework comparing personal witness to institutional witness. The concern we generated is that we, as Quakers, assign our personal responsibility to institutions and to structures that exist to interact within the means of the world to make change, but these means are vulnerable to the ways of the world. With the serious downturn of the economy this past year, we can plainly see how insecure they are, and how deeply this affects us. At this point, American Friends Service Committee (one of the “partners” listed as supporting CPWI), Friends Committee on National Legislation, and many of our yearly meetings and Quaker institutions are in deep financial trouble. We all know how constrained our institutions are by the world of money, the world of Mammon; but what we still possess is the ability to make personal investments. Even when we don’t have money, or even jobs, we do have time and an opportunity to have greater faith.
And while you and I should consider more personal investment, this is not to say there is not a balance to be struck. In the words Steve Cary offered to the final session of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in March 1979, I found this advice:
How far should I go in making my witness? The answer is just so far as I can continue to feel the humanness of my adversary and exercise toward him the same loving compassion and understanding that I want for myself. It is a spirit that limits, just as at the same time it is a spirit that compels, that turns back our timidity, that says “take a stand” when others say “wait, let’s be careful, all the evidence isn’t in.”
What am I risking? How am I directly feeling the humanity of both those I strive to serve and those I strive against? Does the degree of my organizational witness enhance this or take away from it?
The message I heard at the event is that the ability to make another kind of investment—in the people around us, in the needs we see and feel before us—is a secure investment that continues to pay off in spiritual dividends and personal transformation. For Noah, his journey brought him to work with the people of Iraq, and he was transformed. As I walked away from my conversation with him, I felt my mind had been opened to the true connection between the risks of personal investment and the rewards of personal transformation. Writing a check to (insert your Quaker institution here) does not transform our lives. That kind of distanced contribution leaves us, as individuals, still in the security and comfort of being of the world but not in the world. As Friends, we cannot allow ourselves to feel faithful simply by standing behind institutions that were started by Friends. We can show faith in them, but they do not exist as testaments to our personal Faith. We are called, continuously, to be a “peculiar people” as we once were known; to be in the world but not of the world. That, to me, seems the logical result when we are fulfilling the task presented by George Fox:
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.
To travel in that broader world, I offer that we must learn new languages, and learn to translate. Noah learned a new language while witnessing in his journey over the world, a language different from that of the FGC-styled Quakerism he grew up in. I do not mean Iraqi-Arabic; I mean the language of social justice and liberation theology that is spoken in these broad ecumenical Christian circles. This was a common theme in the CPWI gathering: the challenge and reward of translation—the need to make oneself vulnerable by risking, trying new things, and stepping outside of comfort.
As an example of this, Tony Campolo spoke to his experience of being white and Italian in an African American church in West Philadelphia. He talked about how his congregation communicated directly with the preachers in front of them while they brought their messages, and how he learned to love this style. He also provided a more mainstream, Protestant Christian phras-ing of Noah’s statement: “Be captives of Love instead of death,” based on the Easter story. “It’s Friday night,” he said, “But we know that Sunday’s coming!”
Not all Quakers identify with Christianity, but I would argue that as a tradition sprung forth from the Christian Gospel, and as people living in a country so deeply formed and influenced by Christianity, we risk “reinventing the wheel” and duplicating efforts if we do not learn the language used by groups who share our concerns, and who tap the same divine root to find reason for those concerns. And if Friends are interested in having heated conversations over theology, why just have those arguments among the different Quaker branches? We can argue with non-Quakers! Who knows, we may even come to see intra-Quaker differences in a new perspective when dwarfed by the broad denominational differences that exist in the wider world. At the very least, working in this broader context we would be a lot more effective in pursuing our shared values of peace and justice, and better prepared to handle the challenges of true diversity. And we do desire diversity, don’t we?
This event shook me in many ways—by what it was, but also what it wasn’t; by who was there and (surprisingly) who wasn’t; by the things spoken and, more importantly, how they were said. The speakers reinforced in me the truth that we cannot know and serve God fully until we have come to fully identify with the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. And we can’t do that while remaining in our insular communities with our sense of security, since those we hope to help are abiding in insecurity of one kind or another. Let us pray that our faith tradition is not a safe one, that our witness (if properly held) transforms the world as well as our very lives, and that we abide in the larger circles where the Spirit is at work, regardless of the names and clothes Spirit wears.
Here are some queries concerning our witness to our poor, oppressed, and war-torn brothers and sisters, adapted from the first chapter of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet