Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pacifism, Not Passivism

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."
For traditional peace churches like Friends, the above passage appears contradictory to our teachings. Jesus is, as we know, described as the Prince of Peace. We insist on lifting up the commandment of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to build our own Peaceable Kingdom, where, as we are well aware, the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

A middle ground may exist. Jesus' words may not demand division, as much as prepare us for change and confrontation. Most houses of worship, regardless of faith, are intimidated by the very mention of change and ours are often no different. The Peace we think we are due may be not much more than genuflected artifice and wishful thinking. Reform is good for us, which may be the sword Jesus noted.

Anger is sometimes a byproduct of confrontation, but it is possible to condition ourselves to see things in their proper context. In our Meeting family, it may seem as though strong opinions in any form are always destructive. That said, we cannot confuse pacifism with passivism. One could certainly never confuse staunch pacifists like George Fox, Margaret Fell, or John Woolman as passive. But with the passage of time, their crusading spirit has been replaced by the Church of the Perpetually Nice.

One of the most disconcerting experiences of my life was seeing my usually forceful, opinionated grandfather slowly succumb to cancer. By the end, he became very passive and resigned, two qualities he had fought against for most of his life. I remember wishing that he would show even a glimmer of his earlier energy, but he gave it his very best.

During Quaker unprogrammed Worship, we open the floor to anyone with a leading to talk. Past columns of mine have been devoted to the problems this can create, while always seeking to concede that gathered Meetings for Worship, however rare they may be for us, are awe-inspiring and transformative. I know that insisting upon a kind of spiritual perfection in flawed humanity may be too much to ask, but once again I do think we do not often demand a higher standard within ourselves.

This past First Day, a middle-aged woman, a visitor, rose to give something tantamount to a rant. To her, the earth was being destroyed in various catastrophic ways, each of which needed to be explained in great detail. Some months ago I wrote about the distinction between certain activist Friends and those not inclined to wear their causes on their sleeve quite so prominently. It was Friends like the one I have here described that I was referencing and critiquing.

Too often the continuity and pacing of unprogrammed Worship can be derailed by someone with an ax to grind. I would argue that this should not be confused or rationalized away as ministry. I would never identify myself as an environmentalist for this very same reason. Brevity and restraint are essential to any cause and those who think otherwise ought to step outside themselves and observe the impact they make on onlookers. They might be shocked.

Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. I've made this argument multiple times as have many gifted Quaker writers. During Worship, I was pleased to hear a Friend give voice to this concern. He believed, as I do, that conflict can strengthen, not weaken a Meeting. Our Utopian liberal view that multiple points of view are the ideal formulation must follow through with the other half of that argument. Namely, when disagreements arise, other parties must listen with an open mind and not bolt for the exits. If we do not allow this exchange of honest expression, we are hypocrites through and through.

Liberal Friends have drifted away from its earliest moorings. I find nothing wrong with a crunchy, neo-hippie ethos, but I do find it in complete contradiction to the firebrands and revolutionaries who began the movement in 17th Century England. We owe them a substantial debt and I wonder at times whether we do their legacy a great disservice. The latest incarnation of George Fox would, I'm certain, be mistaken for a troublemaker and strongly encouraged to form a clearness committee. As we know, Jesus was given the same treatment by the authorities of his time, though hostility often greeted him more than good intentions. We know how that story ended.    

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