Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You're a Quaker? – So What Do Ya'll Believe? You're Pacifists, Aren't You?

In the World, Of the World

I have a part-time job with a literacy group. A year or so ago I approached some of our state legislators about getting a small grant for materials. That is a pretty easy sell, so one of our state senators and I quickly settled into a get-acquainted conversation. I didn't know he was an ordained minister, and when I mentioned I'm a Quaker, he perked right up – asking the question that titles this piece.

I stumbled rather badly. I'm not used to talking about it, I didn't yet have an “elevator speech,” so I mumbled in an ineloquent and distressed way through the “SPICE” list of Quaker testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality). I was evading, of course, and soon enough admitted that, while that is what most people think when they hear “Quaker,” I do not meet the ideal.

I don't consider myself a pacifist. I grew up in a Methodist family, which makes me a convinced Quaker, not “birthright.” While no one in my family was enthused about war, we didn't have that tradition of pacifism. And since it is so strongly associated with Friends, I find I need to look at this.

Just what does it take to make a pacifist?

Take it as given that most people abhor war and its close partner, state violence against civilians. But there is a sliding scale of upset and outrage. For the truly sensitive, it might be as little as someone seizing a US fishing boat working in their territorial waters. And the greater the provocation, the easier it is to get many, many people exercised.
There is no question that I would defend my family or myself with deadly force, and I think most people would agree. But, there is a strain of pacifist that would rather die than take the life of an aggressor – that it would be better for the one who is “right with the Lord” to die early than deprive a miscreant of his chance at later redemption. It seems a bit extreme to me, but logically it's a rational argument, and it sets the opposite end of the spectrum from self-preservation.

I came of age as the Viet Nam war dragged on, and eventually I faced those alternatives that grew out of my crumbling confidence in our leaders. Participate in a war, or at least a military, in which I had no faith? Leave the country? Claim to be a conscientious objector? In the end, I took what was for me the path of least resistance, a short stint in the Navy that was possible by avoiding any advanced training. I ended up in an A6 bomber squadron on the West Coast, an untrained “squid” who needed placement somewhere useful.

I was the only college graduate in the enlisted ranks of the squadron, and they offered me a plum: Intelligence. Probably the best billet I could get, working with a small group of really smart people and a relaxed atmosphere behind a door locked to everyone else in the squadron. People couldn't believe I turned it down.

Being stationed on the West Coast, the squadron was headed for a cruise in the Gulf of Tonkin. Outside the war zone, I would not have had a problem with the job. But once on station, the job meant creating the radar maps used to guide the pilots and pinpoint the bombardier's targets. First thought: what if I got it wrong? Second thought: even if I got it right …. So, I ended up mopping floors, cleaning toilets, cooking, filling out paperwork. No great pacifist moments here, but at least I never hurt anyone. I was bothered, but relatively content with minimal cooperation.

It might surprise outsiders, but we have not talked much about these things, at least our Meeting. At least two from our Meeting were conscientious objectors who did alternative service of far greater benefit than scrubbing floors and cleaning heads for the US Navy. I'm sure Friends in general think my decision was part of my journey, probably different from theirs, but they're happy that we're on the same general path now.

But, are we? As I said, I need to explore this now, and honestly, I don't know where this will lead. What am I?

Roger W.

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