MARCH 6, 2003
For the past month or so, partly out of fear about a coming war, partly because I've wanted to find some silence, and partly because my sabbatical research project is a book on violence and religion in America, I've been attending Sunday meetings of the Society of Friends around Philadelphia. What I've heard is a Quaker constancy that poses a quiet challenge, like a deep underground stream, to national policies that tilt toward war.
Constancy describes the Quaker meetings well. The "church growth" movement hasn't arrived here, and never will. Mostly we sit in silence. There's no clergy, no music, no sermon, no prayers, no liturgy, no creeds, no sacraments. Over the long haul, a cradle-cultivated Lutheran like me would miss those things. But in these times, breathing as the primary act of worship seems to make a lot of sense. The prevalence of silence gives each sound -- the rustle of winter clothing, a throat clearing, a bird singing outside, significance. The hour goes by very quickly.
Words take on inestimable worth. A few Sundays ago, at the Swarthmore meeting, the silence was broken when a venerable Friend stood to utter a concern, in a voice barely audible. Will participating in meetings someday expire? In his own life, he testified, attending meeting has been a true solace for the inevitable loneliness of living. A long silence followed, until a woman stood to speak hope into the stillness. She narrated how she recently participated in a regional gathering of Quakers led by a group of energetic young people. They were deeply grounded in the tradition, she affirmed, and they drew upon the tradition to speak clearly against any up-coming war. Her words were simple, but consoling.
After yet a longer silence, another speaker shared that she's aware of her own complicity with the looming violence, by the privilege that comes from living in the U.S., and by her lifestyle that depends on cheap oil. It's hard to argue with her, and nobody did. But another older woman stood to speak, and shared that although she had spent her life teaching peace, she was still frightened by the prospect of the coming war. Nevertheless, "we can take a positive approach" she suggested. Such an approach would not primarily react to the current crisis, although public protest may be warranted, but rather continue working patiently to build trust with the long goal of peace in view. Her words seemed very wise to me.
Such local wisdom is matched, of course, by the Quakers' national and international organization. The American Friends Service Committee recently worked with a coalition of peace groups to deliver a petition to Congress with over 50,000 signatures. This "Campaign of Conscience," along with manifold other sources of information about Iraq and peace-building, can be found at http://www.afsc.org/iraq/guide/Default.shtm.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, history suggests that the Quaker commitment to peace will not waver. That constancy is a deep stream of living water, a testimony to the public in a time of shallow threats and posturing power, based on irrational and arrogant assumptions of national innocence, both Iraqi and American.
Jon Pahl is a professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.