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A Peace Testimony: Roots and Fruits

Not too long ago, I wrote what I saw as the first of a two part post on my personal peace testimony. Mostly, this post is the continuation of that one; having spent time talking about what my peace testimony has not asked of me, I'm going to try to explain what it has.

First, though, I think I need to say a little bit about what "testimonies" are, at least as I understand them, for those out there who may not be familiar with how that term gets used among liberal Friends.

I've fairly often come across people online who self-identify as Quaker, because "what they believe makes so much sense to me." Often these are people who have taken the Belief-o-Matic quiz on religions, that lists a series of religious groups as a result, and lets you know you're 59% Unitarian Universalist, or 85% Pagan, or 92% Quaker. (For enquiring minds, my result this morning is that I am 100% Liberal Quaker and only 89% "Neo-Pagan.")

With all respect to the developers of Belief-o-Matic, that's a terrible way to choose a religion. And it is particularly a mismatch with what I understand the Religious Society of Friends to be about. For while it is possible to list some of the major testimonies of Quakers over the centuries, and in fact, our various regional copies of Faith and Practice or Books of Discipline will often list them, becoming a Quaker is not a matter of following a series of bullet-points, or ticking off a list of beliefs on a checklist. Yes, Friends are well-known for their opposition to war... but no one is a Quaker because they are opposed to war (or swearing oaths, or drunkenness, or any of the host of other human activities Quakers have historically stood in opposition to).

Instead, we are opposed to war because the Spirit that rises up within us, as Friends, so powerfully witnesses within us that war is wrong that we cannot be anything but opposed to war. We are opposed to swearing oaths not simply because it is in the Bible ("But let your communication be, Yea, yea; nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.") but because there is within us, both as individuals and as a gathered, discerning body, a strong sense within us that to do otherwise goes against God's will for us as a people. We feel, both individually, and as a gathered witness over time, a powerful "stop" to acting in a manner that does not follow these promptings of Spirit--and this is not an intellectual or emotional understanding only, but something that, when attended to, begins to more and more clearly come to seem rooted in the deepest spiritual core within each of us.

To me, that's the nugget of truth in the famous folk-tale regarding the exchange between William Penn and George Fox.

Legend has it that, early in the convincement process, Penn--a gentleman, in an era when gentlemen wore swords both as a mark of rank and as a token of their willingness to defend their "honor"--asked Fox if he had to stop wearing his sword. Fox's reply is said to have been, "Wear it while thou canst, William."

The story concludes that, not long afterwards, out for a ride among friends, Penn found himself restless and unable to continue until he tore off his sword and his formal wig--another sign of rank--and threw them down in the road, after which he rode away, never looking back.

The story is apocryphal; it never happened. But like folk-tales and folk-music the world over, it contains a germ of experiential truth: William Penn did not stop wearing a sword because George Fox or any other Quaker told him to, or even because he "agreed" with the testimonies on peace or equality of his day, but because God would not let him rest until his conduct testified to the spiritual Light that had been given him.

That, in my understanding, is what a testimony is: a place where individually and collectively, Spirit has taken the Religious Society of Friends, and so trumpeted a truth in our ears that we are unable to rest without acting on it. "Agree" or "Disagree" are frail things in comparison.

So. All that is certainly in accord with the experience I had of the breaking in of the peace testimony in my own life; a physical, visceral transformation that went from the soles of my feet to the roots of my scalp. But, from the inward drama of my convincement, I would have predicted at least a little outward drama in my own expression of my peace testimony, now I've got it. I had imagined, in the days after my transformation, that I'd be feeling propelled to participate in anti-war rallies, acts of civil disobedience, and the activist equivalent of the climactic aria in an opera.

I expected at least a dramatic gesture. But I have never yet felt the slightest urge similar to Penn's legendary casting off of sword and wig.

What did I experience instead?

Week after week, I would sit in Quaker meeting, feeling gratitude for being among others who knew in their bones that war was wrong. And I would be grateful to hear of the many forms of anti-war activism members of my meeting were engaged in. And I would feel wracked with grief over mounting violence as the buildup to the war continued despite the activism. I would pray. I would cry. But I did not feel any pull to jump up off of my bench and chain myself to the fence around the White House.

This puzzled me.

Instead, I heard and felt a voice like a cool wind blowing through me, and the voice was saying exactly what I would have predicted it would not.

"Do less," the voice said, like the rustling of leaves in a quiet forest. "Do less."

So I tried to do less. I tried to slow down, and wait for that voice to stir me--not to "outrun my guide" as I've heard Friends express it.

Small things happened. I helped to run a debriefing group for survivors of 9/11. I was teaching a pastoral counseling course at Cherry Hill Seminary, and the Pagan clergy I was working with needed help, coaching, in how to sort out the trauma, anger, and grief suddenly flooding their communities. (Paganism in the United States, paradoxically enough, has two deep tap roots in the peace movement and in the military. In a post 9/11 world, that made an explosive mix.)

I helped a non-profit I worked with cope with a non-performing treasurer, who perhaps was guilty of petty misuse of funds. I helped a Pagan group deal with a hugely divisive conflict over funding structures and financial aid, and essentially clerked a meeting of that group as it teetered at the brink of schism... and worked with others, quietly, to bring it back from the brink.

I taught English in a small rural high school, and got a few kids interested in reading, hopefully helped a few kids feel respected and seen in a world that often hadn't wanted to do either for them; I mourned students' choices to enter the military even as I prayed for their safety and understood their generally very honorable reasons for making the decisions they did.

None of these things were dramatic, and perhaps none of them were very different from what I might have done before I became a Quaker. Gradually, gradually, I am coming to understand that for me, at least, the peace testimony is a practice that is very, very ordinary.

To some extent, I do worry, continually, that Spirit is asking more of me than I am allowing myself to hear. I admit, I like the fact that my life is comfortable, and I am glad it is not showing signs of becoming less so because I am a Friend. Have I chosen not to hear the voice of God where it conflicts with the voice of convenience?

How can I know? How can I be sure? So I keep questioning myself.

But I do see signs of change and transformation, even within my testimony of the ordinary. What I do these days is not very different from what I've ever done. But how I do it, whether other people can see it or not, does seem to me to be different--different at the root, at the heart.

"We live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion for all wars," wrote George Fox, seeking to describe the source of the Quaker refusal to bear arms. The Quaker concept of the Kingdom of Heaven is of something not far off or only present after death, but of something that is present here and now, if we can learn how to be open to it. And, though I might not name that power "Christ," I find myself in agreement with Fox that it is to the degree that I am open to that kingdom and living in that life and power that I am living out my own peace testimony.

I go to Quaker meeting, not so much to experience peace as to practice it, for peace is much more than the absence of war. I strive to so open myself to the motions of the Spirit I find there that my heart becomes large enough to remember how it feels to listen to that Spirit when I leave meeting for worship behind each week. I am trying to learn how to let that Spirit wash away the cynicism and defensiveness and crushing need to be right that I have built up like armor over the decades, so that I can feel the free movement of the breath of Spirit during the week, reminding me of who I am meant to be: the generous, compassionate, empathic version of me that is God's version of Cat.

The more time I spend with God, the nearer I feel Her within me. And the more easily I remember that the noisy, opinionated, jarring, and sometimes frightening and infuriating beings I share my life with are reflections of that same Spirit I am trying to love.

In addition to being a Quaker and a Pagan, I work with wool. I love to take a fleece and clean it, card it, spin it into yarn, and knit it up into something beautiful and warm. And I've compared the process of scouring a fleece--of taking the filthy, greasy raw fleece as it came off the sheep's back, and plunging it into bath after bath of scalding hot water to soak the muck away--to what happens to me in worship.

In listening for the voice of Spirit, I soak away the things that stand between me and other human beings. I soak them away, rinse upon rinse, and I learn (as John Woolman put it) to let love be the first motion--ideally, the root of every act of every day.

And so I try--failing often--to remember that the people I'm in conflict with are people. I try to like every single one of my students, and sometimes, I do struggle. ("You want to like them? Why?" I remember another teacher once asked me. How could I answer him? Because, I might have said, if I don't love them, what is the point? Is my job really about where to place a semicolon or an ellipsis? How sad that would be!)

It gets easier with practice.

I am slower to anger than I once was. Less likely to assume the worst about other people, or to swear at the stranger who cut me off in traffic, less likely to rant or enjoy a self-righteous rage, toss off a belittling remark or snap at someone who has annoyed me.

On the one hand, it's not much to show for nine years of Quaker practice. On the other hand, without this, this bedrock on which to build, I doubt that any other witness I might try to hold up for peace would stand for long.

I think the bottom line is that my truest, deepest expression of my peace testimony is the plainest and most basic notion of Quaker teachings, or of the other world religions that teach something similar. It's not especially glamorous or dramatic.

I'm trying to love my neighbor. And I'm trying to love God with the whole of my heart and my mind and my being... for real. That's all.

So far, it's been enough to keep me occupied.


T. Thorn Coyle said…
Was trying to explain this to a client the other day. If going to help the orphans in Guatamala is what her spirit leads her to do, then she would. For those who are not led there, spirit shows up in the things we are doing - for her, dealing with customers at her shop, taking care of animals, engaging her practices spiritually and in realms of physical sustainability ... whatever.

The action doesn't matter. The connection of spirit to action is what matters. The connection of spirit *through* action is what matters. For some people, it looks like "the big thing" because that is where spirit leads. For others, it looks "small", but the impulse is the same.

[Wrote about this in my recent blog, too, that practice is everywhere and every time.]

Ryan Sutton said…
This makes a lot of sense to me, that the burning spirit within yourself that says, "WAR IS BAD" (ok, understating), is seeking to manifest itself in more mundane ways. As you say, peace is more than the absence of war, peace is something we strive to live everyday. Peace IS the mundane, and one of the most effective ways we can witness to others is not from conflict filled rhetoric and rallies, but by being a living example. And this indeed does have repercussions that can change the world. As humans, we often look to each other for our cues and examples.

I also have some thoughts about being filled with such a spirit that to be anything BUT that is impossible. When we encounter those areas in our life that reach down inside us, despite our efforts to rationalize or run, that still hold THAT much power to sway, we know we've found who we are and where we truly wish to be. I could write a whole post asking why we choose to try to ignore that and embrace the status quo.

Great post, Cat!
Anonymous said…
Ghandi said "Non-violence is not the crude thing it has been made to appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of non-violence, but it is its least expression. The principle of non-violence is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody." Non-violence is a spritual condition that, when present, cannot help but manifest itself in our demeanor and our outward behavior.

Ghandi's inclusion of "undue haste" on that list is what really brought the concept home to me. How can undue haste be violent? Because it removes my focus from where it should be: that of God in everyone and everything that surrounds me (for in the Spirit we live and move and have our being). Undue haste slips me back into the normal mindset of the world with its focus on "what I need to to today, right now" and out of the mindset I aspire to, which is one of continual and unending love and appreciation for everything around me.

Thanks for the post.
Yewtree said…
Great post.

Sometimes the small things are what needs doing. It might not be epoch-making, but it all helps to make the world a better place.
Mary Ellen said…
To have a teacher who knows you and cares is often transformational - and perhaps you won't even have a clue of the effect on your students as they move out into the world. I think that trusting that light you have is the key thing ("and more will be granted thee . . ."). This is a lovely piece.
Hystery said…
Peaceful thoughts without deeds don't count for much in a violent world. I struggle with the fear that I'll never be doing enough and fulfilling my obligations as a human being. I contrast myself to famous peace-makers and wonder at my deficits. But what if I have chosen the wrong models? I'm not good at community organizing and I do not have an activist's personality. That kind of work leaves me eroded and depressed. Historians have focused much attention on public figures, community leaders, and activists. But that is only the visible shell of pacifism.
"Peaceful thoughts without deeds don't count for much in a violent world"--this is true, but only if we avoid taking a narrow view of what are deeds, and if we acknowledge that some deeds in the name of peace, without a peaceful heart behind them, may not bring peace in their wake.

It's probably easier to understand what I'm driving at if we look at the reverse: it's easier to see, for instance, what impact growing up surrounded by family and others who constantly belittle, shame, and perhaps even abuse someone in childhood can accomplish--the opposite of peace, yes? Kids become the messages they are surrounded by, all too often, so that if someone is raised in a manner that affords them no dignity or respect, they are more likely to act in ways to deny others basic dignity in their adulthood. There, the absence of peaceful thoughts, reflected in a thousand unthinking deeds of petty violence, create a child who will help to shape a more violent world.

Most of us, I think, see that clearly.

But if we focus only on the doers of great deeds to bring peace, we risk failing to see the ways that people who bear themselves consistently in peaceful ways, respecting and affirming the dignity and worth of those around them, are sowing the seeds of peace. When I say to a student, "Good job in class today," or just make eye contact and smile in a way that recognizes their humanity, that is not a very visible seed of peace... and yet, in my years as a teacher, I have watched many students who came to my school angry and violent and ashamed become more peaceful and loving people, because of having been surrounded by countless small acts of respect at school, even when home was a place that was far from peaceful.

It's easier to see the lack of some kinds of peace-making than to see their positive effects. I suppose it is like the presence of certain trace minerals in the soil--a microscopic thing, on the one hand, but something that can render a field virtually barren if they are missing.

A lot of the peace-making that goes on in the world is like those trace minerals: it's hardly recognizable, and yet it is vital. And without a heart that is peaceful, how many of those small opportunities would sail past me, unheeded? There is a way that the small, inward movements of love and peace do need to come first. I'm not denying the importance of larger, more visible efforts, and I hope to be faithful to such leadings, if and when I receive them.

But for now, I'm realizing how important it can be to do the small things, but to do them every minute, genuinely and naturally, because I have found myself standing with a heart that has peace enough to share.
Hystery said…

I've had a bit of an impediment in cyber-communication for a couple days. Kind of emotionally tone deaf. I reread my post to you and realized it might not have been clear that I was agreeing with you. We need to expand our vision of what constitutes peace-making. Lately, I'm teaching myself about the peace-makers who never get their fair share of credit- teachers, parents, social workers, nurses, ethical business people, compassionate bosses- gentlefolk of all kinds who live peace every day. The deeds that you write about are the deeds we need. Mighty activists can do nothing unless someone raises and educates children capable of compassionate conviction.
kevin roberts said…
You know, Belief-o-Matic always tells me that I'm an Orthodox Jew.

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