Peace requires justice. Justice requires law. Law requires government. Not only within nations, but also between nations. – William Penn, 1693 (As paraphrased by Paulette Meier in Timeless Quaker Wisdom)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. – Romans 13:1, 4
Along with millions of others around the world, I have watched with great sadness and outrage as peaceful demonstrations in Libya have been brutally suppressed by the autocratic regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Out of the brutality of Gaddafi’s security forces has emerged what is probably best described as a civil war, with Gaddafi’s strongholds in the west of Libya squaring off with rebels, primarily in the eastern half of the country.
As the atrocious behavior of the reigning government in Libya has escalated, many around the world have called for military action to halt the violence and assist the rebels in removing Gaddafi from power. On the twelfth of March, the Arab League approved a resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. According to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this caused a “sea change” in international opinion. Yesterday evening, the United Nations Security Council joined the Arab league, voting to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
As crushing violence continues across Libya, many have written in favor of a no-fly zone, while many others have opposed it for a variety of reasons. Both sides have rational bases for their positions, but I have not yet been exposed to a conversation about this crisis from a Christian perspective – particularly not from a perspective that holds war-making to be contrary to the Spirit and teachings of Christ.
I have sought such a perspective, because I am deeply concerned about the situation in Libya, and as a citizen of the United States I am – in at least a very small degree – a shareholder in the most powerful military apparatus the world has ever known. As a citizen of this democratic state, I also theoretically have a small amount of authority in determining how this military force is – or is not – employed. In short, as a citizen, I feel a responsibility to to give broad guidance to my elected representatives in the hope that they will direct our military forces to act with wisdom and justice.
As a disciple of the Crucified Savior, I am skeptical of the very idea of military intervention. If I had my way, I would like to see the military budget entirely eliminated. I believe that Christ would be more glorified by a nation dedicated to peace-making and humanitarian efforts rather than the accumulation of military might and imperial ambitions. The very fact that we have a military force ready to project US power in North Africa does not reflect my highest ideals as a Christian citizen of the United States.
Nevertheless, those forces are there. They are equipped and prepared for most eventualities, and they stand ready for orders from the president. A president who, at least in theory, is in some small measure answerable to me. As a Christian who believes that it is important to participate fully in our democratic society, this presents a great dilemma. I am opposed to the very existence of our military structures and hardware, yet I am responsible in some degree for their use (or non-use).
In my search for a Christian response to this crisis, I went where I often go when I need to become better informed on an issue: Friends Committee on National Legislation. FCNL is the Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill, and by and large they represent my values. I can normally expect them to provide me with a well-informed, spiritually grounded and compassionate analysis of a given issue. In this particular case, however, I was disappointed. The statement that FCNL issued on their official blog amounted to little more than shrilly repeating their slogan, “war is not the answer.” The author of the post seemed to reason that the use of force is universally wrong and that the United States has no authority to use its military might to impose order in other countries. To impose a no-fly zone would be to “attack Libya,” pure and simple.
I do not think it is that simple. Most Christians I know – many of whom are Quakers – reject violence on general principle. Nevertheless, almost all of them still recognize the legitimacy of an armed police force in our cities and towns. While this might not be the method we would prefer to maintain an ordered society, most of us see armed law enforcement as a sad necessity. Even if we ourselves do not feel it is right to personally carry weapons and enforce order through the threat (or use) of violence, most of us would call the police if we felt threatened.
And yet, for many of us who are willing to lean on the violence of the police for our own protection, there is a reticence to take this logic to its international conclusion. Is international policing possible? If so, it would look a lot like war – just like intra-national police forces often look a lot like military units when they fight against organized crime. Where is the line between the legitimate authority of law-enforcement and the illegitimate use of violence by the state? I do not feel like we have a clear sense of this as Christians in the pacifist tradition.
I know that there are some Christians who do not believe that it is our role to involve ourselves in the political process. I also recognize that there are some Christians who truly are ready to die – and watch their neighbors die – before calling on armed authorities to impose order by force. This essay is not directed at these brothers and sisters.
At present, I write primarily to the majority of us who do feel called to engage in the political process. We feel responsible for the decisions of our policy-makers, and we are willing to avail ourselves of the sword that the governing authorities wield, even if we do not feel clear to wield it ourselves. How are we to weigh these issues?
It is not enough to simply say that we are against war. First, I believe we must get clear on what we actually believe constitutes “war,” as opposed to a legitimate police function on the international level. I also believe that, if we are to oppose the use of force, we have a responsibility to propose – and demonstrate – alternative solutions to violent intervention. If we cannot offer such solutions, how can we reasonably deny the imperfect means of others who desire to halt the bloodbath in North Africa?
On the 15th, I flew from Greensboro, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon and spent a number of days with my cousin, Ben, who lives in the city. It was a blessing to be able to stay with him, relaxing for a few days without any responsibility beyond waking up at a certain point in the day, reading, and working on my backlog of email. Within a few days, Tyler Hampton, an attender at Detroit Monthly Meeting, arrived in the city and spent a couple of days with Ben and me, before Tyler and I made our way together to Northwest Yearly Meeting. It has been a pleasure to have Tyler as a traveling companion on this leg of the journey. We have been able to support one another as we experience a new Quaker culture and mingle with hundreds new people. I am grateful for his presence here this week.
On Sunday morning, we attended West Hills Friends Church with my aunt, Thea. It was an extremely friendly meeting, with a simple service, which began with a few people gathering early in the meeting room and holding silent worship for about fifteen minutes in anticipation of the arrival of the rest of the congregation. The programmed service consisted of several hymns, led by an electric-guitar-playing man at the front, rock and roll style, a brief message brought by a missionary couple who were back in the United States from the Middle East, a very humorous sermon by the pastor, and then a period of open worship, which was followed by a time of prayer requests and announcements. The sermon was full of humor, often seeming more like a stand-up routine than the usual message delivered in many churches, and the congregation was very responsive, clapping, cheering, and slapping the benches. Quite a different way to do church!
That afternoon, we rode down to Newberg, Oregon, where Northwest Yearly Meeting held its annual sessions on the campus of George Fox University, and that evening Tyler and I were able to attend a gathering of Northwest’s Young Adult Friends at the home of Bruce Bishop, former youth/YAF leader for the yearly meeting, and present director of communications for the yearly meeting. It was a good time to meet with younger Friends, tell them about why I am traveling this summer, and invite Friends into conversation with me.
That evening, Colin Saxton, Northwest’s superintendent, spoke to the body of the yearly meeting. He spoke on the subject of repentance, reminding us of Jesus’ message that we are to “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Colin reminded us of the very real presence of Christ with us and of our need to repent and accept Christ’s call to complete obedience and discipleship, learning of him and taking on his easy yoke. He reminded us again and again of the real presence and leadership of Christ among us today in the Church, emphasizing that Christ’s presence as Friend and Lord is, “no peripheral doctrine – this is at the core of a Friends understanding of the teachings of Christ.”
I was very impressed by Colin’s message, and I was blown away by the fact that he spoke on repentance, a concern that had been weighing so heavily on my heart for weeks, becoming rather a theme of my travels among Friends from the Conservative, FGC, FUM and EFCI traditions. The wind of the Spirit is blowing through the branches and it is shaking every leaf. The Lion of Judah has roared, who can but tremble? The Word of the Lord has issued from Zion, who can but prophesy? Repent, Friends! Repent and turn from your waywardness and return to the bosom of Christ, the safety of your God’s care. Fall on your knees, hear and obey that which God has in store for us as a people.
Colin spoke for the Sunday night evening session, but the primary speaker for the week was Tony Campolo. Campolo was quite an impressive speaker, speaking three evenings in a row, and getting better each night. The first evening, I felt that he was laying the groundwork for the subsequent nights, pulling some of his punches, making us laugh, and preparing us for the lashing that he intended to give us in the two sermons to follow. The first evening, he focused on God not merely as a notion or idea, but as a transforming power that enters into us and changes us. He said that joy and love are signs that Christ has entered into us and saturated our being. He challenged our ideas of success, reminding us, in the words of Francis of Assisi, that “the poor and oppressed are sacramental,” and he told us that “the way to build the Church today is the same way that they built it in the first century: by people loving people and accompanying them into the household of faith.”
The second evening, Campolo took us deeper and laid greater challenges before us. The primary message of that night’s sermon was the distinction between power and authority. Power, he said, is the ability to coerce. Authority, on the other hand, he defined as, “commanding obedience through loving sacrifice. Jesus, he reminded us, had great authority (see Matthew 7:28-29), but he rejected power (see Matthew 4:1-11). The “Constantinian Heresy,” Campolo explained, was when the Church began to exercise power, rather than the authority that comes from sacrificial love. He drew our attention to Philippians 2:5-11, as an exposition of Jesus’ sacrificial love. The love of Jesus on the cross is the heart of the Gospel, the message: it is through sacrificial love that we gain authority. The Church does not speak with authority, explained Campolo, because it has not paid the price. It is not living sacrificially. The phenomenon of politicized religion is a case in point: we resort to power when we have no authority. Campolo went on to call us to a commitment to social justice, saying that “Jesus never allowed the second commandment to be separated from the first.” Campolo ended the evening with a direct call for concrete action on the part of those in attendance. He issued a call for everyone there that evening to begin to support a child in the Third World through Compassion International, and he called on young people to give him their name and address, to commit to a year of service among the poor.
For the last evening session, Campolo began with an explanation of Jesus’ saving work on the cross, explaining that Jesus reaches out through all time and both forgives us of our sin, and cleanses us of our sin, liberating us from it. He then went on to talk about how the term “fundamentalism” was once a respectable term, but soon became tied up in a lot of things that it was never meant to be about. He went on to say that the term “Evangelical,” a word that was to replace the word “fundamentalist,” has now taken on many implications that are more political in nature than religious. He suggested another term, “Red Letter Christians,” to denote Christians who take the teachings of Jesus as their guide and baseline.
During the previous evening’s session, Campolo had briefly touched on homosexuality, condemning “the oppression of gays,” but on this final evening he engaged us extensively on this very sensitive issue. Campolo explained that he is a “conservative” on the issue of homosexuality, believing that it is contrary to the intention of God for the human creation. But, he pointed out that his wife held an opposing view on the subject, and that they occasionally debated the issue publically, “to show that it is possible to differ on this issue and not get a divorce.” He said, “it’s crazy to split over this issue,” insisting that it is important that Christians not break unity, but instead hold together and keep wrestling. Furthermore, Campolo decried “the horrible oppression of gays” as “unacceptable,” even though he “disagrees with the lifestyle.”
To conclude, Campolo reminded us of the story of the rich young man and challenged us to accept the full implications of the Gospel, not just the parts that we think we can fit into our lives without completely giving ourselves over to Christ. “We’re all willing to be Christians up to a point,” he said, “but tonight Christ is going to call you to go beyond that point… to the cross.” Campolo urged us to give over everything to service to God, saying that scripture condemns retirement (citing the parable of the rich fool). He called retired people to account for being, “an enormous waste of the Church’s resources,” and called upon those who no longer worked for money to give everything they had, treasure and time, to the work of the Church of Jesus Christ. Addressing the other end of the age spectrum, Campolo encouraged parents to instruct their children, not being afraid to “tell their kids what to do.” As he explained that “everyone else is telling your children what to do with their lives – school guidance counselors, teachers, MTV,” and called on parents to give firm guidance to their children, I heard several high school aged Friends behind me say, “amen!” Every youth, he concluded, should feel that he or she is on a mission from God. All of us must be obedient to the teachings of Jesus and live out the call of the Church in the world.
The remarkable thing about all of Campolo’s sermons was the sense that, by and large, he was preaching Quakerism to Quakers. It occurs to me that it is probably a very good thing for us to hear true, inward Christianity preached to us by outsiders from time to time. But Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting are most certainly Quakers. Indeed, it has been refreshing to find such an intensely Quaker body: both Christ-centered and distinctively Quaker. Friends here seek to live and preach the “whole gospel,” which I heard described as, “not only the verbal witness of Jesus Christ, but also peacemaking and social justice.” Friends of all stripes, pastoral and unprogrammed, could learn a great deal from the way in which Friends in Northwest hold together the tensions of the Quaker understanding of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. They recognize “that of God in everyone,” but at the same time are strongly missional, seeking to liberate the oppressed Seed of God in their own hearts and in the hearts of seekers outside of their fellowship. They are firmly biblical in their worldview, but avoid to a great extent the pitfalls of placing the written word, interpreted legalistically, as a higher authority than the Spirit of Christ, which inspires us to rightly interpret the Scriptures and be changed by them. They are committed to social justice and peacemaking, but do not separate that from a clear witness to the saving power of Messiah Jesus, whose Spirit takes away all occasion for war.
I was pleased to see that the character of Northwest’s business sessions were mature, grounded, and centered in the Spirit of Christ. While I was in attendance, I saw the approval of a minute condemning torture, as well as the approval of a series of amendments to their Faith and Practice, which is under revision currently. There was approval of a section of the Faith and Practice which allows local churches, with permission from the yearly meeting, to forgo using the name “Friends” in their “common name,” that is, what the church is referred to as in everyday conversation and on the meetinghouse’s sign. There was also discussion of a minute calling on the governing authorities of the United States to correct the present situation in which illegal immigrants are being separated from their spouses and children, breaking up families through deportation. There was discussion on this minute, but as there was not enough time to come to unity on it, it was laid over for a later meeting. The sense that I felt rising in the body was that Friends should be addressing, first and foremost, the question of how we ourselves are feeling called to act to ameliorate the present situation. How are Friends called to reach out to our Latino brothers and sisters in Christ?
The worship style at Northwest’s annual sessions was interesting. Each evening session was begun with several songs, led by a group up on the platform, with lyrics projected onto a large screen hanging above. Following these songs, we would hold about five minutes of silence, before that night’s speaker rose and presented. There were other times, too, where there was music and brief open worship, including during the business sessions. I found it quite nice to have time for musical worship in the midst of business meeting.
Apparently there was a yearly meeting reorganization that was completed last year, the most remarkable result of which is that Northwest’s missions and peacemaking are now organized into one function. Evangelism and peacemaking/social justice are not separated. For example, both Christian Peacemaker Teams and a new meeting-planting mission in Russia are under the care of NWYM’s Board of Global Outreach (Friends in Northwest use the term “board” to refer to what many Friends would call a “committee”).
To sum up, I have had a wonderful time at Northwest Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions. I am very impressed with the vibrancy, rootedness, friendliness and strong character of this body of Friends, and I look forward to continued contact with them in the future. I am particularly excited to think about ways in which my own yearly meeting, Great Plains, might move into closer relationship with Friends in Northwest. With all that we have in common, I hope that way will open for us to deepen our ties and come into greater partnership in living out and sharing the Good News of Christ Jesus.
It occurs to me that where Friends are very privileged and protected by Caesar’s might, we are far more likely to set up “reasonable” arguments for the Peace Testimony, as a matter of public policy, or to abandon it altogether.
The third alternative, to justify the Peace Testimony as a recognition of an inward reality, requires that we confront the question: “are we living in the Life and Power that gives forth this testimony?” When we are not ourselves in the position to live out the peace testimony, when, instead of putting our lives on the line, we hide behind the walls of Empire, we are loathe to justify our doctrine by the Light, which would convict us in our hearts. It is easier for us to ground our testimonies in “reason” and liberal “sensibility,” or to abandon it altogether, than to really examine what it is we believe – and, more importantly – what it is we are living in the terrifying Light of Christ that demands that we purify our lives and turn away from our own comfort.
We Friends can stand with integrity on our Peace Testimony if we are speaking out of our experience, and if we are living faithful, vulnerable, endangered lives. Of course we hide behind “reasonable” arguments when we are not putting ourselves in harm’s way. We can only proclaim peace from a position of vulnerability.