After reading Barak Obama’s address to the Nobel Prize community, I am left wondering what a unified Quaker response might look like. I wonder about the response, because of the numbers of Friends that I can imagine who voted for him. I wonder about what that response may look like, because I am a firm believer in a public witness that entails actions, and not just words. All I can share with those of you who have chosen to read this posting, however, are the thoughts of one Friend.
It is my assumption that Barak Obama is a person of integrity. During the election, and during his first year in office, I have been shown no reason to think otherwise. I believe he was humbled by the Nobel award he just received. I also believe he thinks it perhaps minimally justified by his morally obligatory stand against torture of enemies at the hands of the United States and its client-countries, his willingness to take a stand against an unwarranted invasion of a sovereign nation by the United States, and his willingness to engage in dialogue with those nations who were once labeled as, or held in the same esteem as, those states deemed “The Axis of Evil.” Indeed, during his speech, he highlighted these differences between the former administration and his own. A close friend of mine told me he firmly believed that Barak Obama deserved the award because of just such circumstances.
While I admit that there are some major differences between this administration and the last, when it come down to the finer points of the American government and its capacity to wage war, it seems to me that Barak Obama and other American presidents from both parties are cut from the same cloth. (I was immediately alarmed when Obama pulled out the tired example of Nazism and labeled his enemies as “evil”) That being, that the United States will not only protect its own interests, but will flex military muscle in order to protect a standard of living here at home, and export the values of quasi free-market liberal democracies to those nations whom might otherwise be offended by those values.
Yet, if Barak Obama is the man of integrity that many of us believe he is, then he must at some deep level believe in the concept of just war and the primacy of liberal democratic values as the primary vehicle for the expansion of just societies - not just the marketplace. After reading his address, it is of my opinion that, as a man of integrity, Barak Obama has issued a challenge to pacifist Friends, who post a belief that coercive force can never be justified. I propose that Barak Obama went to great lengths to justify the use of force, and to properly place the responsibility of using such force squarely on the shoulders of “the world’s sole military superpower.” Not only that, he properly called for other responsible nations to share in the cause of this “just war” against terrorism.
I say this because, when a person of integrity, no matter where he or she is from, digs deeply into themselves and struggles with the example of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, then still comes to believe that as the person bearing the responsibility for action he or she must act with force - It can be stated they are making reasonable, moral decisions. I say moral, because it may be rightly assumed that coercive force and military action may be deemed morally appropriate when matters of justice, equality, and the often unbalanced scales of peace are in question. More importantly, it might be appropriate when innocent human lives are at stake.
As a Christ-centered participant in the Religious Society of Friends, however, I believe that myself and others must respond in a quite different manner than other reasonable persons of integrity may feel obligated to respond. I must, however, make one point that is significant to my own proposal. I fully understand all of the political and moral arguments for and against the use of military and coercive force as a means to a just end. I am in disagreement with the proposal leveled by Barak Obama and so many others that a war can be considered just. However, it would be just as wrong for me to exclude militarists from dialogue as it would be for me to exclude a religious fundamentalist or non-theist from dialogue concerning properly displayed religiosity or tenets of theology. In a world where the most moral actions are often facilitated by introspection, all must have a place at the table because of the injustices or privilege that may have brought them to their view of reality, clouded or otherwise.
As one Quaker whose perspective fits somewhere along a spectrum of Quakerisms, I will state that Barak Obama has made an intellectually sound and reasonable decision to carry out his purpose in Afghanistan. I can differ with Obama, or George Bush, or any other president on the manner of action which they order to be carried out, but arguments made from political or abstract moral considerations are always debatable. Indeed, if many Friends are willing to say that there is no possibility of knowing a spiritual Truth, they must agree that all Truth is relative, including political truth. As such, a morally justified case for war can be made just as easily and intellectually as can the moral case against it. For years Friends have spent much time and money on persuading militarists of the impropriety of their assumption about coercion and war, without providing any example of an alternative. Ridding the world of cluster bombs may be a worthwhile idea, but it is far from an alternative to war.
The world still works under the assumption that justice can only be ensured through the threat of force. It may safely be said that such justice is always the justice of those in power who can make good on the threat of force. This is as true of political liberals as of conservatives. Whether by tanks or ballot boxes, legal use of coercion rules at the end of the day.
Much of the pacifism practiced in the United States is a pacifism of privilege, where Friends and Mennonites and many others state they are against the use of force while taking advantage of all the benefits bestowed upon them by the fact of the military and economic superpower status of the American Empire. As such, the question remains, what are Friends offering as an alternative to Barak Obama’s preferred means to reaching a just end? In the end, troop withdrawals and conversations with moderate Taliban leaders may sound good, but Afghanistan is not going to be pacified, or find justice in any of the actions that Democrats or Republicans may propose. It will certainly never find a justice that meets the United States’ vision of justice. The values of liberal democracy only play well in Peoria or Paris. They do not play well in Kabul. And, they will not last without the threat of American military action, just as opponents of the debacle in Iraq have been saying for years. As such, you can pull out all the troops, but will that meet Barak Obama’s standard of justice? He has called this an action against evil, and how does a person of integrity walk away from a battle with evil?
Quakers must offer an alternative. A community of peace that lives, not in a state of political pathology, but of a peace that is formed by the story of our souls. We must be a people of peace because we can be no other way, but instead are part of a story that realizes that it is war that is evil, not combatants, and that we act justly by serving both our neighbors and enemies without distinction. Even if our enemies are labeled conservatives.
The idea of martyrdom has long passed for most Christians, but the example of Tom Fox looms large, or should loom large, in our collective Quaker psyche. When asking the rest of the world to find peace, we must be living lives that act out such a peace on a daily basis, not only pointing out the injustices leveled against the innocent by our own government as well as others, but by refusing to participate in the privileges of living within the heart of the empire. Much of what has passed for peace and justice work in the United States has been about bringing marginalized Americans into their proper place as fellow exploiters of the world’s resources. Much of the freedom that Americans try to export is the freedom for others to consume on the same level as American citizens enjoy. Now is the time for Friends to be truly plain, and truly equal.
I propose voluntary self-sacrifice, not in the manner of Tom Fox per-se, but in the manner of Jesus as recorded in the Greek Testament, and that proposed by Paul’s letter to the churches of Rome and Phillipi. Jesus, who emptied himself of privilege and lived a life that provided an example for others, and Paul, who exhorted messianics in Rome to present themselves to the God of Peace “as a living sacrifice.” Both lived the life of non-violence, as did Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. centuries afterwards. Both counted on alternative economics as the means to reflect the justice of God. Both spoke out against the assumptions of empire. And both, as did so many others who have sought justice, went on living out an example of justice that excluded violence and privilege. And, all did so on the basis of a Truth that non-violence is the desire of a God who makes it to rain on both the just and the unjust. Such should be the example of Quaker communities.
I do not know if such an example will end war. I do know that much of the world has forgotten what peace and justice really look like, and sorely needs such a reminder. We are a muddled race of beings, beset by the sin of our fathers and ourselves. We can never legislate peace, and we have never legislated a just means of fighting just wars. It is time that our efforts turn away from legislation and elections, and more toward the formation of alternative Quaker communities that live in a manner that suggest peace is possible, if only in as much as we ourselves are able.