Volume 3, Number 63
30 January 2003

What should Quakers be Talking About?

Dear Friends,

I have just returned from a Quaker Peace Conference, where many heartfelt thoughts were expressed. Several of the delegates, recently returned from Iraq, had communicated in friendly fashion with ordinary Iraqis. While their conversations had been guarded — because no one knows when one will be heard and reported — nevertheless they came away uniformly believing that Iraqis are warm to Americans and want peace.

Others had been to Latin America, where peace initiatives are sorely needed in Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, and other countries. One Friend had bicycled from Canada through South America on a peace mission. Also Africa, where Friends have joined in peacemaking activities in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Alternatives to Violence, a Quaker program which I believe to be our most significant contribution to conflict resolution, was described. Presentations were also made on the history of the Iraqi war (now going on for twelve years); Quaker House (confronting the military); counseling conscientious objectors; ramifications of the Patriot Act; and taking away the occasion for war.

All these were good programs, placing a religious emphasis on peacemaking. God's name was evoked frequently. So, what was missing?

Missing were discussions of the hard forces in peacemaking. Among these I would list the following:

  1. How do we interpret the Peace Testimony in the light of current events? Is military force ever justified (for example, hypothetically to prevent the 9/11 attacks or future terrorist events)?
  2. What is the responsibility of Quakers, if any, in the suffering of peoples who live under brutal dictators? Should they be removed from office? If so, how?
  3. Specifically, should Saddam Hussein — who viciously gassed his own people — be removed. If so, how?
  4. Suppose Bush's threats were enough to cause Saddam's following to overthrow him nonviolently. Would we retroactively approve Bush's policies?
  5. Is torture ever permissible? Suppose we had strong reason (99%) to believe that X, at large somewhere, was about to drop a hydrogen bomb on Chicago, and we had strong reason (99%) to believe that Y, who is in our power, knows the details. Would it be permissible to torture Y to make him tell what he knows?
  6. How would Quakers resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute?
  7. What is the background of war in Africa, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland (pick one)? How should it be resolved?
  8. How should the United States president have responded to the 9/11 attack? How should Quakers respond?
  9. Does economic globalization relate to peace or war? How?
  10. What is the role of corporations in the pursuit of peace?
  11. Before World War II, Quakers undertook a peacemaking mission, to talk to high Nazi officials. The story goes that they were kept waiting in a room bugged by the Nazis. But the Nazis heard nothing because the Quakers sat in silence. Should Quakers try to contact Saddam Hussein now?
  12. Quakers have gone several times to visit Chiapas and the Zapatista rebellion. Should they also communicate with the Mexican government to hear their side of the story? Could the Quakers actually participate in negotiating a peace?

It is questions such as these that Quakers ought to address in a peacemaking conference. While the one I attended was topnotch in bringing out Quaker sensibilities toward peace, its main fault was that it displayed an aura of agreement. Much information was assembled and passed on. But there was not much to discuss.

I am sure you can think of many more. I am also aware that individual Meetings are sometimes discussing such questions. But I do not believe the practice is widespread among Quakers.

At the end of World War II, I remember Quaker conferences on the prospects of a third World War, on how Europe should be reconstructed, on whether defeated Germany should be converted into an agrarian state, and the like. Somehow, I believe that interest in discussing such questions has ebbed, and I do not know why.

I do not suppose that Quakers will all be agreed on resolutions for these questions. Indeed, the point of a conference may be to bring out differences. Another point — probably the main one — should be how our spirituality as Quakers affects our thinking on these and similar issues. What does it mean to be a Quaker, facing such world problems?

If any of you know of such discussions taking place, or would be interested in organizing them, please let me know.

Also, please let me know which (if any) of these questions ought to be taken up in some future TQE?

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

Please Note: My purpose in asking the "hard" questions of TQE #63 was to encourage Meetings to hold discussions on them, not that a discussion should take place in TQE. At age 82, I have too many disabilities to allow me to spend time creating the interchanges that I would like to see happen. That must be left to others. Hence I only excerpt longer letters. This message applies to some replies (below) that have been truncated. — Jack

Regarding your proposed question 3. "Specifically, should Saddam Hussein — who viciously gassed his own people — be removed. If so, how?", please see the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on January 31, 2003 entitled "A War Crime or An Act of War?" by Stephen C. Pelletiere. Mr. Pellettiere writes about the very real questions that exist about the events at Halabja in March 1988 near the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

I am now not certain we can confidently assert with our president and many others in the government that Saddam Hussein, no matter what other terrible acts he may have committed against his own people or anyone else, is guilty of this particular charge. Keep up the good work, Jack!

— Stuart Ashman, Virginia Beach (VA) Friends Meeting.

Note: Will Candler, another reader, also drew my attention to the Pelletier article, I have looked it up, and I quote it below:

"But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

"I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair ...

"Immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas."

Concerning other atrocities, George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal (2/4/03) writes that "John Burns wrote in the New York Times last week that Saddam may have been responsible, through wars and internal repression, for the deaths of as many as 1 million Iraqis. An estimated half-million young Iraqis were killed in his 1980s war with Iran, which he eventually lost. The Gulf War, which he also lost, took another large toll." — Jack

In our meeting our peace and social concerns committee put out a call to see who would be interested in joining ongoing discussion groups (to meet monthly or so for the indefinite future) on the issues of war, peace, nonviolence, and the peace testimony. About 40 people signed up — an overwhelming response, in our meeting which has about 80 people in attendance on a typical Sunday. We put out a series of questions as samples of what might be discussed:

  • How do we interpret the Peace Testimony in the light of current events?
  • Is military force ever justified (for example, hypothetically to prevent the 9/11 attacks or future terrorist events)?
  • What about the use of force by police — is it consistent with our Testimony?
  • Does warfare ever bring about a conclusion that we are happy with, in retrospect?
  • What can we learn from the history of nonviolent direct action, and how can this be brought to bear on today's apparent momentum toward war in Iraq?
  • What guidance do those of us involved in civil disobedience receive from the Peace Testimony?
  • How do we keep grounded in the spiritual basis from which the Testimony arises?

This seemed to attract people to the groups. We have only met once (broken down into groups of more manageable size) but I have high hopes for good discussions.

— Roger Conant, Mt. Toby (MA) Meeting.

I think that the largely-similar political and foreign policy views expressed by vocal Quakers and the way those views are expressed may drive people with different views away from Quakerism. For example, sneering and angry comments are often made by Quakers about Bush and Republicans. Republicans and Bush-voters who are not a bit thick-skinned might very well feel uncomfortable in some Quaker meetings, just as ardent Democrats might feel uncomfortable in a church where there is a lot of verbal bashing of Democrats. Sometimes, I wish there was a sign in front of Quaker meetings that said: "Welcome Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Non-Voters." I went to a Presbyterian church in Florida not long ago where there was no politics: just a suggestion to pray for our leaders. It was cheerful and uplifting.

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.

Your piece, "What should Friends be talking about?" was sent to me by two different Friends. It's excellent. I like the cast of your mind, and the questions you raise.

— Phil Mullen, Central Philadelphia (PA) Meeting

Jack, I see you are continuing to be the Quaker gadfly. Your questions are good ones. I think most of us feel we have answered those questions for ourselves in our own lives — I certainly do, although I am always ready to listen to what those who are not committed to the way of non-violence have to say.

— Carol Reilly Urner, who spent a lifetime on Friends' and other good works in the Third World, now in Whittier (CA) and Portland (OR).

Is there a listserv available for discussion of such issues?

— Linda Hoopes Atlanta (GA).

Note: If anyone knows of any, please let me know, and I will pass it on. — Jack

This is not quite a response to any of your questions, but I think it might be worth an article on the impact of removing dictators (not merely deterring them) in terms of nuclear proliferation. As I understand it, Brazil, Chile and Argentina while under military or undemocratic regimes had openly pursued nuclear programs. Once the elected civilian governments came into power, they abandoned these programs. The people/voters did not support the development of these weapons.

— Paul Laskow, Chestnut Hill (PA ) Friends Meeting.

Re your questions about war, peace, and the responsibility of Quakers toward dictators. It's wonderful to be invited to a serious dialogue on these issues. But these are hard questions for me, and I'm unclear on many points. From the time I decided to become a Quaker (about 11 years ago, after 7-8 years as a regular attender), I made clear to my Friends that I could not accept pacifism as a general rule for nations or myself .

— Fred D. Baldwin, Carlisle (PA) Friends Meeting.

It will be very interesting to see what you turn up. They are all good questions and you are right that they deserve much more serious attention by Quakers (or pacifists generally), than they get. I think the key and very difficult issue is the need for the International Criminal Court, or some such to get real teeth. (I am reinforced in this opinion by observing that the Administration has decided not to join.)

— Will Candler, Annapolis Friends Meeting

Any organization, be it social or commercial, should be primarily responsible to the constituency that empowers it... so a private company should mainly be responsible to the needs of investors (capital) and employees (labor), while social organizations, e.g governments should be looking after the interests of the society as a whole (e.g. peace or war, public health, the environment, etc.). Where the interests intersect, or conflict, is often where the problem lies, but in a "market economy" the interests which are backed with the greater resources or power will be the ones to succeed. Maybe that's a bit Darwinian, but it is, generally, how things work out. In the case of Iraq, control of the second largest oil reserves in the world is bound to be a big (but generally undisclosed) issue, both for the private and public organizations involved. It is much harder to make the case that Iraq is in some way uniquely dangerous because of the threat of terrorism, morals of the Saddam Hussein, etc.and is therefore in need of immediate attention on the part of the Western world. In fact, I think that an attack on Iraq — especially if it is without the support of other countries in the region — might have the unintended consequence of increasing the terrorist threat against the West by the disenchanted, (largely Muslim) part of the world.

— Tom Selldorff, Weston (MA).

Re: the Peace conference, thee lamented the lack of serious engagement there with some "hard" issues, and asked where they were being engaged among Friends. Here are some of your items, with pointers to places where such engagement is at least beginning. Look at the Quaker House website, www.quakerhouse.org, and click on the new link "The Quaker Peace Testimony Reconsidered," which will take you to a paper that offers a theological and historical take on just this question. These points, by the way, were presented in a workshop at the FWCC conference. Then, if thee wants more, return to the Quaker House home page, click on "Updates and Reports," and then select from the list displayed the title, "Some Quaker Reflections on the Current War," which grapples with many of these issues from a somewhat different angle. And for still more, go to this page of the Kimo Press website.

— Chuck Fager, Director, Friends House, Fayetteville (NC).

Your letter speaks to my condition. I left our midweek Peace discussion group because it wasn't aiding me in becoming clear about what I should do post 9/11. I've returned recently because I feel I have become more clear and want to spend more time in the Silence, holding in the Light those influential in and out of world governments. But I am again feeling frustrated with the discussion. Maybe it has to do with us not addressing the really tough issues.

— Stuart Greene, Annapolis (MD) Friends Meeting.

During the Cold War, there was a lot of statesmanship going on to avert the ultimate danger. I think what alarms the world right now is that Bush is not a statesman who seems conscious of all the consequences of his actions. Friends' influence can promote statesmanship.

— Trudy Reagan, Palo Alto (CA) Friends Meeting.

I would also love to know about discussions on the issues you raise -- thanks for what you do.

— H. Cook, Summit (NJ) Friends Meeting.

As a Quaker; I'm wondering what we can do? Tom Friedman says we must entice Saddam Hussein out of Iraq, but how? How about a Mafia contract of a billion to eradicate him?

— Patty Ruger, Dade City (FL), Purchase (NY) Friends Meeting.

I like details and specific decisions, and it sounds like Jack is similar to me in that respect. I'm thrilled to see Jack and others asking more specific questions for us all to deal with. I'm hearing some of this discussed elsewhere as I talk to Friends who think any military action is contrary to God's purpose, Friends who are proud to have served in the military, Friends w/children currently in the military (including in our meeting), etc. His note is a reminder to me that we need more discussion of this in our own meeting. Thanks for passing it along. I may take some of his questions and use them for discussion at our next Friendly 8's gathering.

— Susan Lee Barton, Midwest Regional Field Secretary, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas.

I raised the same objections at the FCNL annual meeting last fall when the priorities statement had nothing to say about how Friends should deal with terrorism. This has spurred me on to write a paper, perhaps for the Friends Journal, titled, "On Sentimental Pacifism." Tom Hamm tells me that American Friends left no record of how they responded to the War of the Tripoli Pirates. John Punshon is going to see what if anything English Friends said on the matter.

— Herb Fraser, Friends Meeting, Richmond (IN).

There are no simple solutions to your questions. I pray daily for the innocent people that I killed in World War II. I pray for those that we killed in Hiroshima. I was there a couple of weeks after it was bombed. As a business executive, I refuse to design or sell product for companies making weapons of mass destruction. Many in the business have not agreed with me. They do seem to respect me. People like working in an environment where there are principles and where people care.

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr., Friends Meeting of Louisville (KY).

Fox once argued: that Cromwell should march his armies to destroy the Pope, that the Irish deserved Cromwell's ravages suppressing their rebellion for being such an ungovernable lot, that military actions to suppress slave rebellions in Bermuda and Native Americans in the King Philip wars were justified. Only that Quakers should not serve as they were providing an example to win the world over to Christ's ways.

— Jim Booth, Red Cedar Meeting, Lansing (MI),

I wonder how different the scenario would have been, and could be now, were a new and prosperous home granted to the dispossessed Palestinians. I imagine an offer of a area of comparable size to that lost, but within the borders of the USA, and financial arrangements to transport Palestinian volunteers to their new home in the USA, and some starting funds to give them a chance to get situated. I imagine US passports for all, or long-term visas, if preferred.

— Mark Helpsmeet, Eau Claire Friend Meeting (Wisconsin)

We have had a discussion group in our Meeting that has met almost weekly since 9/11 without directly addressing any of these questions. The nearest we came was in considering FCNL's request for guidance on its legislative priorities for the new Congress, was to encourage one participant to send in a personal response. Your questions are difficult, and there is an understandable temptation to return to considerations of the principles that underlie our testimony, while the challenge of 9/11 and the proposed war on Iraq is for Quakers to be able come to clearness on how the Peace Testimony is actually to be applied to a difficult situation.

— Will Candler, Annapolis (MD) Friends Meeting.

Your questions in Letter 63 remind me of the tall file cabinets stuffed with notes of the Peace and Social Order Committee of the typical Meeting, also typically not having even one Member with the professional background or competence to address (well) any of them. Only you forgot all the domestic issues! Black reparations, drug policy, prison construction, school vouchers, welfare reform, etc., that we're constantly weighing-in on with sanctimony rather than solutions, because life is short and we're cardiologists or agronomists or business people and honestly naive about all those other things and easily duped (I fear) — as much by our good intentions as by the 'spin doctors' and media hype surrounding these issues.

— John Janda, Orange County (CA) FriendsMeeting.

Note: I try to write about one thing at a time. For my views on other issues mentioned, see TQE Home. — Jack

After reading your several questions concerning the actions to be taken, I offer the solution drilled into many Marines: "If in doubt, empty the magazine"

— W.Hibbs, (old) Marine, Philadelphia (PA).

I don't think I can help organize such a conference, but I would certainly recruit for, attend and participate in such a one, whenever/wherever. The TQE's are great, keep on keeping on. I believe you are doing God's work.

— Tom Webster, Santa Barbara (CA)


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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