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The Quaker Confessional

Some things that feel odd at the time just get odder after the fact, in hindsight.

There's this thing that has happened to me a number of times since I became a Quaker. I haven't heard any other Quakers talk about it, but I bet I'm not alone in having experienced it. For want of a better name, I've come to think of it as the Quaker confessional.

Talk to any average person on the street, and if they know one thing about Quakers beyond the oats, they know that Quakers are opposed to war. Probably they think of bonnets, opposition to slavery, and serious Christianity too, but they will almost certainly know that Quakers are opposed to war.

Which certainly makes sense where I'm concerned, since it was "war and the rumors of war" that suddenly and dramatically convinced me to become a Quaker.

What I mean by the "Quaker confessional" is this: from the time that I became a Quaker in my heart--which was well ahead of my becoming formally a member of the Religious Society of Friends--I have found myself sought out on occasion to hear a type of confession, generally from members of the National Guard or another branch of the military.

Typically, what happens is that the soldier in question approaches me privately--some of these exchanges happened in the context of my psychotherapy practice, so we were already private--and expresses a deep respect and admiration for Quakers and their principles. They talk about how much they hate war and violence, and about their opposition to the current war. And they talk about the personal pain they feel at the knowledge that they are going to be sent there to serve.

If asked, I say that I became a Quaker on September 11, 2001, because that is the day that the peace testimony entered my body with the force of a freight train at high speed. But by the time the United States began bombing in Afghanistan, less than a month later, I had already begun to hear these impromptu confessions. The later invasion of Iraq picked up the pace, at least for a while.

My sense is that, at least for some members of the military, I've been sought out for a form of expiation, purification. These are experienced soldiers, mainly--my conversations with students thinking of entering the military have had a very different feeling to them.

I find myself thinking of the ritual purification required of, and available to those in antiquity who had taken human life. We have nothing to take that place in modern secular society, at least that I'm aware. Except, maybe, for private discussions with Quakers?

What is particularly odd about this, in hindsight, is that I began hearing these Quaker confessions when I had been attending Quaker meeting for less than a month. True, I had been a practicing psychotherapist for many years, and presumably I'm a good listener. And, true, I talked at length about my conversion to the peace testimony (and to Quakers) with the other members of my religious community. It would not have been a secret that I had a strong interest in peace, nor that I would be willing to listen to those who had something on their hearts.

But I wasn't exactly seasoned as a Friend. I wonder how much that mattered? And I wonder how much other Quakers have experienced this phenomenon.

And I wonder how well I served the Spirit of Peace in the ways I held and listened to the confidences I heard in the early days of war.

It is probably already clear that I care about and respect very much a number of men and women who have made the decision to become soldiers. I can't help it: I recognize that, though we see the world differently, many of them have entered their professions with the most idealistic of intentions. In the case of soldiers who have seen combat, it seems to me that I can almost hear their anguish at having taken life, running like a silent river beneath the surface of our conversations. (I find it easier to be a bystander to this pain when it is given words; harder by far when it is denied.)

I know that soldiers have faced pain that I have not; terror that I have not; grief that I have not. My empathy is fully engaged when I am listening to a veteran speaking of their experiences of war, and I think that this is more true since I became a Quaker than it was before, as a knee-jerk liberal (who was, in fact, sometimes a jerk about it).

But I fear, looking back on my early experiences, that I may have bent over a little too far backwards, seeking to accommodate views that I did not share--I may have over-expressed my respect, and under-expressed my concern.

Maybe not. Maybe the Spirit of Peace did a pretty good job guiding me, a novice in the waging of peace, in my conversations with veterans of the terrible art of war. Maybe it is good that, with so little seasoning or eldering as a Friend to guide me, I instinctively allowed love to be the first motion, and stayed close to that guiding spirit of love throughout those conversations.

Maybe it is always more powerful to be peace than to preach peace.

But maybe I should have done more, or I should do more now. Maybe I need to weigh out carefully what the role of a Friend--no longer a newbie Friend, but a Friend of some years--should be, when asked inside the Quaker confessional to listen to a soldier's heart.

Maybe a little more plain speech was called for from me, and maybe a little more plain speech is called for now. Not that the respect and the tenderness should be set aside: these are still men and women who know terrible things that I have never, myself, learned in the flesh.

But maybe that just makes it harder for them to allow in the quiet voice of Peace, and maybe that just makes it more important for me to share what I have heard that voice say clearly within me.

What is that? What is it that I fear I have not spoken clearly, when it may have been my job to do so?

Is it my job to say words like this?
My friend, I know you have tried to do what you believed was right. I know you are a person of great integrity. I have seen your compassion and I know your heart. I love you.

But I think I am hearing you say that there is a feeling rising up in you that what you are required to do as a soldier is wrong. I know you think that we live in a world where doing terrible and even wrong things is sometimes necessary.

But I think I'm hearing you say that your heart is arguing with your head right now, and, with or without reasons, that your spirit, your soul, is rebelling against the call to war.

And if I am right, and you are troubled in your soul about what you are going to be asked to do, then I think you have a terrible choice to make. It is a worse choice than any I have ever had to make, and I am not qualified to tell you that you must do it. But I think there is that within you that may require it of you.

If you come to believe that you are being used to take life, and that the taking of human life is (as I admit I do believe) simply and always wrong... you must stop. You must not do it. Even if you go to jail. Even if you lose the respect of those who love you. Even if you die, perhaps. Because your soul is more precious even than your life. And you have to do what is right, once you know what that is, regardless of the cost.

(I am not sure I live up to those words. Actually I know that I don't, though I'm trying to do better.)

I'm not sure of much beyond the truth that has been spoken so often, that there is no way to peace, but that peace is the way; that piling up the bodies in a terrible human sacrifice to peace or safety or justice buys us nothing worth the price, but leads instead to more of the same.

And I'm sure, too, that there is a Source out there that is peace. One great reason to lead each other away from the pits and screes of violence is that that's the way back to that Source that is calling to us all the time.

Perhaps the best and greatest reason to work for peace is that it brings us closer to God, and that closeness to God is more joy than can otherwise fit into a human heart.

I guess that I can only hope to stay quiet in myself, tender and neither stupidly arrogant (as I can sometimes be) nor overly conciliatory and mealy-mouthed from not wanting to hurt or offend the feelings of a friend. I guess that I can only pray to be helped to be tender and real and open to the leadings of the Light, whenever I next find myself within that Quaker confessional booth, hearing the heart of a friend.


Babette said…
Cat- I appreciate your searchings.

When this war broke out, some of us in the Asheville, NC reached out to Veterans for Peace and took some training with them for the Peace Hot Line which was being run by Chuck Fager down in Fayetteville. I had been a draft counselor during the Vietnam War and thought I could resume that work.

What I discovered was that I could not do so because the current military is completely enlisted, not drafted as they were in Vietnam times. That was just my personal choice. I know that there are many in the military who come to a conversion experience to pacifism because of their war experience and many Friends support these people, as the HotLine does.

So indeed, yes, I believe that you (and WE FRIENDS) are called to deep listening around the peace testmony and the military. I wish we collectively did more of the type of healing work that you are doing.

I really appreciate the place that you are coming from, from love, from understanding that many in the military are simply doing what they feel is their patriotic duty.

I wanted to share with you the Fox quote which an elder gave me when I was concerned about what to do with a gold charm bracelet which had been my mother's... I found it more and uncomfortable to wear or even think about as I sank deeper into my Faith

"wear it as long as you can" said Fox... referring, I believe to William Penn's sword.
Magaly Guerrero said…
I served in the United States Marine Corps for over 10 years. I went in with that "idealistic" passion you so well described. I came out... well, different, but understanding a lot more about things that "need to be done" in order to protect those who can not protect themselves. Though I'm still confused as whom "those" who need protecting really are.

Many Pagan friends have asked me how I can say that I'm against war and was also a member of the military. All I can say is that I love this world and everybody in it, but I'm a selfish human, who wants to keep those who are closer to her as safe as possible. Once I believed serving in the military could do just that. Today, my beliefs about this issue are way too complicated to express here. Or who knows, maybe I'm just afraid that I won't like my own explanation.
Hystery said…
I teach about war in my college classes and tell them that I am a pacifist. When I teach them the history of any war, I spend a good portion of my energy on explaining what pacifists were doing during the war in the Revolution, in the Civil War, the war in the Philippines, the Spanish American War, the world wars, Vietnam, etc.

I'm not sure if it matters and like you, I don't know how far I can push it particularly when one of my students tells me they are now enlisted or that they served. What is my place? That I don't know, but I do want them to know that courage does not belong solely to the warriors nor is pacifism the province merely of the deluded. I tell them that I do not accept any history that tells me that "there was no choice." The history may be complicated and tortured but there are always choices. All good things that ever happened in our history began with acts of solitary conscience.
Anonymous said…
Cat-Thank you (I think) for opening the subject that I've had the hardest time with in my being Quaker.

I have been to war. I know the deamons associated with war and fought personally with most of them.

I also know the joy and exilleration of war, which can become habit forming. The knowlage that you will give your life for your country and fellow soldier and he that he will give his for you.

I will have to set with this to see if I can offer anything constructive. Your notion to "lead with love" is correct. The problem I have had in talking to "civilians" about war experiances is the lack of a common language. Words and phrases evoke in me feelings and emotions associated with the enviroment of war that I can't expect someone who hasn't experianced it to even catch a glimps without long explanations.

See I can't even "set".
Don't teach peace,don't preach peace, be peace!
Thank you--Babette, Magaly, Hystery, and Glenn.

One of my favorite writers, Alan Gurganus, has one of his characters in The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, explain that nothing in life is as much our own as our scars: our lived experiences, and the painful reminders of them.

For me, it's the personal spiritual experience of life itself that always speaks the most eloquently. Maybe we have nothing of greater value to offer one another than our experiences.

Anyway, I appreciate the personal note and the willingness to own vulnerability and pain that I read in each person's words. To my ear, Truth is deeply personal, and I feel grateful for it.

I think the question is, how do I respect the integrity of those who are choosing something I see as such a powerful force for evil, while finding ways to witness about that evil--even as I recognize that there is so much I do not know in my own body about the nature of war and a soldier's life?

I don't have an answer. I guess that's for the best, since one size is not going to fit all. Somehow, though I do want to keep witnessing, that war is never a good idea--never an acceptable response--while remembering how protected I have been, and how many terrible choices I have never been asked to make.

It's not that the answer--choose peace--is open to question, to my way of thinking. It's that, having taken 41 years of my life to figure that out, even with the advantages I have been given and the choices I have _not_ been faced with, I lack the chutzpah to condescend to those whose choices have been different.

It is worthwhile to remember that many of that first generation of Quakers, including James Nayler, were soldiers before they were Quakers. Spirit chose to give a generation of soldiers the peace testimony.

If they were good enough for God, damn straight they'd better be good enough for me...
Anonymous said…
Cat-I think you nailed it with this statement: "For me, it's the personal spiritual experience of life itself that always speaks the most eloquently. Maybe we have nothing of greater value to offer one another than our experiences."

Our experiences are how we catagorize life, value and judge life. When a person experiences something they bring thier whole self to the experiance. This includes past hurts and joys, because everyones life is different they will take different things away from any experience. By sharing we can perhaps broaden awareness and prespectives without having to suffer the pain (personal pipe dream?).

"the question is, how do I respect the integrity of those who are choosing something I see as such a powerful force for evil, while finding ways to witness about that evil--"

At some level isn't this what wars are about? Running out of options, I believe that as long as we can talk there is hope.

Still more to say butnot the time.
Yewtree said…
I think it's a difficult line to walk in those conversations - if you had been "preachy", they might have clammed up and reacted badly, and become more determined to follow the military path; whereas your active listening may have helped them move on to the next stage of their journey. Also I suspect each situation is unique because each person has a different set of experiences.
Anonymous said…
Cat-I keep comming back to this post and it reads different each time. Each time a different sentance pops out and take me to a different place.

I think,Cat, that you need to remember that soldiers, like
quakers are not all cut from the same cloth. There are very few statements that you can make that will apply to all.

That said, yes it is your job to speak the truth as you see it, with love and respect. A soldier will have a different world view from yours by training alone. He is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for you, without your asking, wanting or appreciating.

Tom Fox, Quaker saint and Marine "jar head" come to mind.

Glenn, that you keep coming back to this post honors me more than I can say.

I keep coming back to it, too, and it keeps taking different shapes in my own mind as well.

Today in meeting for worship, for instance, I found myself reflecting that a lot of what we're called to do, we Quakes, in trying to approach closer and closer to the Light, is like sailing into the wind, where you have to tack back and forth between two points.

I think that, in seeking to do right, we humans wind up taking back and forth between one point of the compass, which is something like love and tenderness--and humility... and another, which is something like truth and integrity.

But when in doubt, we should sail closer to love. Trying to speak Truth without coming from love and humility is probably a doomed impulse.

Or maybe it's not a general rule; maybe it's just a rule for me. But I'm pretty sure that I'm steering best by Spirit when I tack closer to love and tenderness than any other navigational guide.

Bright blessings, my friend.
Rebecca said…
I like the sailing metaphor. It sounds right to me.

A resource that might be helpful, Cat, is the book War and the Soul, by Ed Tick. This link is to the organization he founded, doing the work he explains in the book:
Anonymous said…
The sailing metaphore is "right on" I think as human I often don't hear or think right. It's eazy to mistake truth for wishful thinking or love for lust(the list could go on). We must always be vigalent in aligning our truth with the TRUTH when we speak truth to power.

I think that some of the problems soldiers have is when thier truth dosn't bare up under fire and they have nothing to replace it with.

Thanks also to Rebecca for the contact to soldiers heart, looks like a fine organization that is really needed now.


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