Rethinking Pacifism:

When you sit alone, silence seems normal, but the
silence of a hundred people
feels charged, alive somehow. The Quaker meetinghouse in Washington, D.C., is
full this Sunday, as it has been every week since September 11. As we sit facing
one another on rows of benches arranged around a central open space, sunlight
dapples the floor and birds chirrup outside.

Maurice Boyd, a longtime meeting member, stands to speak. His voice sounds a
little unsteady. "I find my Quaker peace testimony stretched to its limit right
now." Boyd's hands grip the back of the pew in front of him. "Quakers were able
to resist joining the cry for vengeance in the twentieth century," he says. "But
now here is Osama bin Laden and people like him, people who want to destroy us
and all that we hold dear." He pauses and takes a breath. "I'm in a crisis of the
soul. I don't know how much further I can go along the road--the road of peaceful
resistance. I can only ask you to hold me in the Light."

Quakers like Boyd believe that each individual possesses an "Inward Light" or
inner voice; listening to that voice in others requires peaceful action as well
as respectful dialogue. Boyd's struggle demonstrates the questions that Quakers
throughout the nation are grappling with within their own faith. His willingness
to speak about his doubts exemplifies the Quaker ideal of openness, quietness,
and listening--a deep contrast to the shrillness with which they've been
denounced in recent articles. In Boston, Quaker marchers were baited with taunts
of "loser" and crude gestures. More prominently, Washington Post columnist
Michael Kelly called pacifists "evil" and "on the side of the murderers."

The Religious Society of Friends--commonly known as the Quakers--began in
mid-seventeenth-century England with an itinerant preacher named George Fox. The
Friends are essentially a mystical sect within Christianity, though today the
movement includes many non-Christians, even atheists, who have been attracted by
Quaker activism in the fields of peace and civil rights. Fox believed in an
"inner light," that of God, in each person, which meant that everyone has direct
access to God and that ceremonies and rituals only served to distract one from
the inward voice. Many of the 100,000 Quakers in North America today still meet
in silence.

The Quakers' belief in equality, peace, and consensus building has gotten them
into trouble over the years. Their refusal to fight or to recognize the military
draft landed them in prisons on both sides of the Atlantic during the First World
War. Even after the federal government recognized the Society of Friends as a
"peace" religion and eligible for conscientious-objector status, they still faced
contempt and suspicion for their beliefs. By calling Quakers and other pacifists
nefarious traitors, Michael Kelly and like-minded critics are following a long
tradition of trying to silence these already quiet voices.

About 30 people are crammed into the small Terrace Room of the meetinghouse
for one of the "worship sharings" that Ken Forsberg, a member of the Religious
Education Committee, has been organizing since September 11. At a regular Quaker
meeting for worship, attendees sit silently unless they feel moved by the Spirit
to speak; but a worship sharing is like a meditative discussion and personal
concerns or worries that would not be shared as part of a meeting are welcome
here. Forsberg speaks up and describes the Salt March scene in the movie
Gandhi. No one has room to sit comfortably, yet no one fidgets. The
thought of the marchers, row upon row, being beaten down by the British soldiers
hangs in the air. How, Forsberg asks, does that sort of nonviolence apply to the
current situation? Can the Quaker peace testimony shape foreign policy--and
should it?

Forsberg, now 37 years old, holds a doctorate degree in government from
Cornell University, where his studies focused on international relations. He has
been attending the meeting for five years, although he considers himself an
atheist--a "nontheist," as he puts it. He has no answers for the questions he
asks in worship sharing. Although he feels uncomfortable with the U.S. bombing of
Afghanistan, he does not identify himself as a pacifist. Force may be appropriate
in some cases, he says, as long as the motivating factor is love.

"If someone is sick enough to kill people, it's not at all obvious to me that
the way to be loving toward them is to let them kill people," he says. "Or even
by trying to stop them but not using force--because somehow that's against your
religion--if using force is the quickest way to get the gun out of their hands.
You don't necessarily then shoot them in the head, though. That's not very loving
either."

Opinions on the new war vary widely among the assembled worshipers. Someone
says that although it "tears him up inside," he sees no way out but the current
action. Another feels that pacifism is a hard enough ideal to live personally,
let alone to impose on others. Many denounce the current campaign in Afghanistan
as appallingly illogical in both human and military terms. No one spouts the
naive homilies--"Jesus said don't kill, and he meant it" or "Make peace, not
war"--that many attribute to Quakers.

Whether the D.C. Quakers fall on the side of absolute pacifism or a controlled
use of force, the question is always a matter of practicality, not
sentimentality, and of love, not vengeance. And no one questions the importance
of talking about it and listening to one another.

Sara Satterthwaite, another longtime attendee of the D.C. meeting, works at
the Bureau of National Affairs. She was at home on September 11 and had been
looking forward to getting out in the world and talking with people she knows
about the horrifying events of that day. But she found that conversation didn't
come easily.

"One of the first responses I got from someone was about 'bombing them into
the Stone Age,'" she says. "I was at that point still feeling the need for
mourning or grief--stillness, shock, holding the moment. Those things were there,
and the idea of grief and mourning was shared--but there was a tight association
with 'Let's get them.' I felt first surprise," she recalls, "then disappointment,
that I couldn't have the conversations I really wanted to have with the people I
valued."

A few days after the worship sharing, Neil Froemming, who has attended such
meetings for five years, described the pressure he feels not to speak out against
the war. He attributes this socially enforced silence in part to a
village-under-attack mentality. If the village is in imminent danger, there is
room for just one leader, only enough time for one person to make critical
decisions; the rest must follow along unquestioningly if they are to survive.

Froemming also believes that another factor behind the social pressure not to
speak out is Americans' inability to look at themselves honestly. "You don't
really want to be aware of the fact that you've got it better than other
people--and not through any particular virtue of your own," he says, pointing out
that as Americans we "got it better" by using violence to protect ourselves.

Satterthwaite would also like Americans to find the courage to look at
themselves "in the mirror of other countries" and show "the maturity to be
willing to hear what we don't want to hear. I'm not saying we're immature because
of it," she explains. "We're human because of it. It's very hard to ask someone,
'How'd I do?' and really listen."

The language Quakers use to describe their ideals may sound quaint--who looks
for "inner light" in others these days? But whether we find those others across
the room or across the globe, the Quaker approach to conflict is one that most
Americans would like to claim is their own: Respect your fellow humans, listen to
them, and have faith in the marketplace of ideas. Today, as opinions about the
war crescendo to ever higher decibels, the Quakers are one of the few groups
simply listening.

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