This Is No Time to Abandon Our Vision

by Janet Nagel

Member, Durham Friends Meeting

Speaking as a Quaker, radio personality Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, has challenged the validity of pacifism and has given many of us occasion to ponder his argument. Scott's October 11 commentary in the Wall Street Journal is titled "Even Pacifists Must Support This War." In it he explains that he's been a Quaker since the late 1960's, when he saw pacifism as a "compelling alternative to the perpetuity of brute force." However, his subsequent experience as a war correspondent showed him the "fatal flaw" of nonviolence: "All of the best people," he says, " can be killed by all the worst ones." That's why, he believes, many pacifists enlisted for combat in World War II and why it seems to him that, " -- in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American pacifists have no sane alternative now but to support war." He expresses his belief that the United States is the best hope for liberty and democracy in the world and his conviction that criticisms of its exploitive and oppressive foreign policies have no relevance to the "crimes of psychotics" committed on September 11. Recalling the failure of appeasement to stop Nazi aggression, Scott concludes:

Only American (and British) power can stop more killing in the world's skyscrapers, pizza parlors, embassies, bus stations, ships and airplanes. . . . It is better to sacrifice our ideals than to expect others to die for them.

Scott seems to believe that no one should die for pacifist ideals but it's legitimate for others-Americans, Britons, Afghans-to die for the war ideals driving the military response. An American imam offered a different view when he explained that in his faith the deaths of one million innocent Iraqis attributed to U.S. actions against their country do not justify the deaths of 5000 innocent Americans; and the deaths 5000 innocent Americans do not justify the death of one innocent Afghan. Who will say this is not so?

As a war correspondent Scott was perhaps standing too close to the trees to view the forest. Can it be that the lessons of the terror in Israel and Northern Ireland have been lost on him? Sadly, he envisions that the only alternative to "war" would be for Americans to "impose a unitary religious state, throw women out of school and work, and rob other religious groups of their rights, so that we have the kind of society the attackers accept." Here he makes the classic error of confounding passivism-acquiescence, subservience and appeasement-and pacifism-nonviolent noncooperation and the endeavor to resolve conflict through evenhanded, insightful reconciliation of differences. As Gandhi and Martin Luther King amply demonstrated, nonviolent resistance is not passive. Not only does it require great courage but also great imagination, empathy, ingenuity, integrity and soul force.

Through history many have answered the doubts raised by Scott and shared by so many. The following statement from British Friends at the beginning of the last century seems to speak directly to our present condition:

We are deeply convinced that the testimony for Peace, which we believe has been entrusted to us as a Society, is not an artificial appendage to our faith, which can be dropped without injuring the whole, but rather an organic out-growth of our belief as Christians and as Friends, which cannot be abandoned without mutilating our whole message for the world.

We believe in common with other Christians, that in Jesus Christ, the Divine Word, which in all ages had been the 'Light' of men, took human form. We have seen in him the revelation of the priceless worth of being human in the sight of God, and know that in virtue of his "Light" shed abroad in every human soul, all persons, of whatever race or nation, are members of one family. Upon this sacred human personality, war rudely tramples, virtually regarding men, women and children as things, as obstacles to be got rid of, if they are enemies; or, if they are our own soldiers, as military instruments whose consciences may be disregarded. As Christians we cannot be parties to putting ourselves or others in such a position. Further, since the Divine Light within us is the Light of Christ, we cannot separate it from the spirit of his teaching, when he was here on earth. We cannot claim his authority for impulses within us which lead us to act in opposition to that teaching, which he summed up in love to God and love to all people.

In so far as we have grasped and been obedient to these leadings, we have been enabled to see a splendid vision of what human unity is, and of what human fellowship may be, and have of necessity been filled with a profound sense of the evil of violating this fellowship. This vision has brought us a renewed faith in the power of spiritual forces to build the structure of humanity, and to redeem it from error and wrong. It is only spiritual forces that can do this, the powers that touch people's hearts, that convince their minds and win their loyalty and set free the uniting forces of humanity. The very refusal of all violence, if it springs evidently and sincerely from a deep reverence and love for 'that of God' in an opponent's nature, will be potent to reach and win his soul. Those who see this, even if dimly and amid much perplexity, must hold fast.

We have so valued this vision and recognized its authority that war-the 'arbitrament [i.e. arbitration] of self-assertion and passion', with all its abrogation of moral restraint, its denial of discriminating justice, its responsibility for atrocities, its destruction of all the divine possibilities of human life-is for us an impossibility.

Backed by these convictions, we hold the moral law of gentleness and forgiveness and love to be unconditionally binding upon us now. It seems a poor and pitiful thing to believe in principles except when they may have to be applied, in forgiveness only when there is nothing to forgive, in love only for those who love us. It is our present sinning and stricken world that needs these redeeming messages in word and life. May we be faithful to the vision! It bears with it a grave but splendid responsibility.

(Statement on Friends' Peace Testimony, London Yearly Meeting, 1912, 1925 in Christian faith and practice in the experience of the Society of Friends. London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, 1959 Revision, entry 623. Carried forward from the 1925 Revision of the London Yearly Meeting book of discipline. In reproducing it here a few wording changes were incorporated by J. Nagel to reflect contemporary gender-inclusive usage.)

These powerful words help us to see why we must stand against war. But the question remains, how shall we do this? In the face of the massive destructiveness of 21st century war technologies, how can we intervene to touch hearts and convince minds to trust nonviolence? September 12 was too late for American pacifists to convince their fellow citizens and their government to respond nonviolently to the September 11 attacks. Scott points to an important consideration when he says peace activists make the mistake of preparing for the last war instead of the next one. However I think the mistake is more accurately characterized as reacting in ineffective ways to the current war rather than creating conditions that reduce the possibility of the use of force in the next conflict.

At the same time there is much to learn from the past. It seems to me that if we would live in that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars we must do more than try what love will do in the midst of ongoing violence. We must also exercise discernment. We must study the beast that has swallowed us in order to understand the contemporary realities of the psychological, political and economic forces that hold humanity in thrall to the irrationality of violence.

In a 1993 interview with David Cayley on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's program Ideas, German linguist Uve Pörksen made the following observation about newspaper articles he studied from the Nazi era:

What I read there was like a net which had laid above the heads [of the people] of the city. It was very strange because there was no connection between what we regard as the reality of 1934 or 1935 and what was the description and the language in the papers of that time. And then I thought, maybe we are living in a very similar way, in a cloud of words which determine our conscience and we don't notice it.

And just the Nazi time is an example for me that people follow language-paroles, slogans-an idiotic interpretation of the world which only exists because there exists this net, these nodal points of key words which explain history and [the] present day for them."

I think my unease about the national response to the terrible events of September 11, and the unease I sense in others, is that, without being able to name or clearly define it, our consciousness seems to keep brushing against ineffable constraints that challenge logic-a psychic net carefully woven by our schooling, government officials and mass media to contain and direct our thinking. The net strains to keep us from questioning how a "war" can be fought against terrorism any more than "war" can be waged against drug abuse, criminal behavior or poverty. A cloud of words obscures our view of the extreme disparity between the wealth of the world's privileged elites and the deprivation of the exploited underclasses of every nation. It diverts our attention from the immense financial gains garnered by members of those elites from the production and deployment of the horrifying array of weapons periodically unleashed on bamboozled recruits, ensnared conscripts and innocent civilians.

Exhortations to patriotism and consumerism fail to explain or reassure as we struggle with the stark consequences of the September catastrophe. Somehow, decades of huge federal expenditures on "defense", "intelligence" and emergency preparedness did not produce the protection or resources that were promised. And those responsible for American foreign policy-one of the pre-eminent constitutional responsibilities of the federal government-appeared to have scarcely a clue about the complex political fallout of decades of self-serving U.S. strong-arming around the world. The only immediate action our government was prepared for was to remove more of our constitutional rights, augmenting the onerous restrictions legislated while we were still reeling from the Oklahoma City bombing.

As a leading media figure Scott Simon, wittingly or unwittingly, is one of the weavers of the net intended to contain our awareness. Looking at his commentary, as with everything we read and hear, we must question each assumption and assertion. Before the appearance of his Wall Street Journal article Scott delivered the annual Parker Lecture on September 25. There he elaborated his pro-war thesis more fully, urging us to accept a series of fraudulent compromises intended to set aside questions about the morality of our nation's use of force: Yes, America committed the atrocities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden (he calls them "terrible punishments"), but look how we compensated for them after the war. Yes, America committed a huge mistake in Vietnam and our CIA has maliciously meddled in the affairs of other nations, but look at how far we've come with civil rights in our country. Why, we're even protecting the rights of American Muslims instead of interning them like we did Japanese Americans in 1941. (Except, of course, those unfortunate persons of Middle Eastern decent who regrettably must be imprisoned and stripped of all rights in order to protect the rest of us.)

In his lecture Scott also asks us to believe that all the exertions of U.S. military might in the past decade have been "...in the defense of Muslim peoples." Maybe he's swallowed a camel! And how do we justify the way the U.S. used the Muslim people of Afghanistan to harass the Soviet Union and then abandoned them and their devastated land to civil war and brutal repression? Instead of criticizing the sickening hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy, we're encouraged to accept another fraudulent compromise: the sudden beneficence of the "liberation" of Afghanistan.

For me, the events following September 11 fail utterly to validate the use of military force. Rather they spotlight the barbarity and senselessness of war. They reveal the dark power of mass mind-molding that corrupts our humanity and erodes our good sense. They expose the many failures of the U.S. government to protect the welfare of Americans and everyone else on the planet.

Although the path to nonviolence was not taken this time, the current tribulation holds lessons and insights to build upon for the future. The shock of terrorism in America has reminded everyone of the ultimate uselessness of material idols and the indispensability of God's love for us and of our love for each other. At the same time the failures of arrogant power have perhaps never been more easy to see. As we recognize these failures and open our minds and hearts to divine leading may we find ourselves able to draw on greater reserves of spiritual force to build ever-widening trust in the way of nonviolence and the power of love.

Some resources for study and reflection:


Janet Nagel
Last modified: Fri Nov 30 13:36:39 EST 2001