Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Are Quakers a People of Power?

A few things need to be said about politically centered non-violence, and the liberal Quaker tendency to rely upon nation-states as the primary means of achieving an end called peace. I am picking primarily upon liberal Friends because many of the more mainstream folks who attend “Quaker Churches” here in Ohioana are less concerned with a meaningful Peace Testimony than they are about keeping some members comfortable in their fond memories of “necessary wars.” Interestingly, the story I have to begin this rambling op-ed concerns a Church of the Brethren member, and not a Quaker.

I just started work at a dairy farm in the county I live in, and the owner of the farm is a devout Christian. He attends one of the local Brethren Churches that boasts a sizeable congregation. He is very involved in missions, but more importantly, he and his family are generous enough to open their homes to troubled young women who have made a few bad choices. One such woman stayed with them for several years, and many others have been helped along the path of life through the extended hand of this farmer's family.

When we were working together the other morning, I asked him about the Brethren witness to peace. He replied that his church had a broad vision of peace, but did not preach that war was always wrong, and he personally felt that war was a necessary evil. His concern was justice, especially justice for oppressed nations and peoples. I don’t believe this man is a leftist, but he does not seem like an overly politicized conservative either. I don’t know his political views or his social views, other than the ones I’ve seen him live out. His values seem to include loving his neighbor, and if possible, to be at peace with apparent enemies of justice. Yet I have to wonder, what happened in this Brethren congregation (and many of the congregations of Indiana Yearly Meeting), that overturned the idea that loving God, neighbor, and enemy were the desire of the Creator for humanity.
I think the idea that political power is a good thing, and must be used in a manner that the early church (and Jesus too, I guess), couldn't conceive of. The early Church was only pacifist because they would have been stomped out if they had tried to exert political power or engage in violent revolution. The second option was certainly attractive to many throughout the empire. Yet I contend that such power, once acheived (per Constantine), is to the degredation of Jesus' ministry.
Of course, the political infrastructure of liberal democracy seems like such an attractive way to make progressive values a force in the nation, and the world. "We all have a say" in democracies, and we have opportunities to empower the disenfranchised by insisting that governments listen to their (our) voices, and then act upon their (our) demands. We all love empowering the disenfranchised, as long as they respond to our loving kindness by fully participating in the liberal project. It’s not just voting that counts, but that the new voters elect the right persons with the right values.
But what are the values we are investing ourselves in when we rely upon political process to mandate progressive responses to injustice. The values of the ballot box, and of maintaining a powerful voice for all that is right, whether liberal or conservative or middle of the road, are not only coercive in their very practice, but protected and enacted by the threat of violence. The very fact that India is a nuclear power and uses force to maintain public order and national sovereignty shows that Gandhi’s efforts poured living water upon the tree of liberty, but that tree has not borne fruit.
While Martin Luther King Jr. is fully representative of the Exodus narrative, and exuberant social commentators insist that the liberation of marginalized African-Americans has been realized, the realpolitik of empire has used the narrative in ways that have delegitimized valid outcries concerning the failure of liberal democracy to truly empower a great majority of the community. Indeed, the only real progress in race relations beyond the scope of personal relationships and a plethora of street fairs has been that African-Americans have achieved equal status as American consumers.
The point I am trying to make amidst all this harsh language, is that the mandating of social justice, peace, or equality through the ballot box (or limited boycotts that fail to address the injustice of the economy as a whole), is not only an act of coercion in itself, but is only made possible, and then protected by, the threat of, or use of, militarism or police forces. It fails to address the core necessity of loving the oppressor until reconciliation is possible. And in the meantime, communities of Quakers, and Brethren, Mennonites and others, must live out the progressive values that we are championing by inviting the marginalized, the oppressed, and the broken into communities that practice what they preach. Not only must we establish Quaker communities intent on living out the justice we want so badly for the world, but we must establish Quaker communities that reflect upon the world what justice, peace, and equality look like. How can we call for an end to racism and economic injustice when much of our denomination reflects the lifestyles of a privileged class? How can I personally call for an end to war when I am mired in a economy that thrives on coercion as a means of keeping markets open in order to feed an insatiable American consumer appetite?
If we don’t begin living lives of radical “otherness” - of radical commitment to justice and equality and peace at the expense of comfort and power, we are destined to become a people who think that violence on our own part might be necessary to limit injustice. Just like the farmer who, having the means to do good (and he certainly does good), cannot understand the audacity of enemies that fail to respect reason and continue to misbehave. Voting is a sensible thing, and peace is reasonable, until voting fails to resolve issues without violence, and peace becomes a liability to political power. I know people who are dedicated to nonviolence, who, if the right to unlimited birth control options is overturned, or limits upon various other rights find their way into our society, will believe that physical coercion looks mighty necessary. After all, no one is going to infringe on my rights.
I see violence in our future as Quakers. I see violence because if all of our peace and justice eggs are in the political basket, we are doomed to assuming the oppressor's terms as our own in our desire to maintain power over our own political futures, and the futures of others. We will have forgotten what it means to be a people of peace, because we have politically evolved into a people of power. Film at 11.


julie said...

I agree with you, more or less, but I was confused by this sentence:
"I think the idea that political power is a good thing, and must be used in a manner that the early church (and Jesus too, I guess), couldn't conceive of."
Is the idea that 'political power is a good thing' one that could not have been conceived by the early church?

lawson said...

Excellent Discussion! Are Quakers a people of power. I do not think Quakers have been a people of power for a long time. The many fractions in the Quaker movement seem to have killed that power. I am dismayed that Quakers can be atheists, agnostics, Free Thoughters, Buddhists, etc. Why don't they just be what they are and not claim the Quaker title? At ESR I see this as being a profound problem. How can one be Quaker and not believe in Jesus? Not believe in God? we have certainly lost our power. Thank you for the wonderful blog.