It Needs A Little Salt
We can proclaim our principles (We're for Peace! We're for Justice! We're for Simplicity! We're for the Earth!, etc.)
We can denounce the evils we see (or think we see) around us. (Abolish the Death Penalty! Stop the War! End Racism! Don't wear bright colors!).
But the question can be asked - is all this stand-taking a form of faithful witness, or just self-indulgence? Do we really promote peace by being "for" it? Can we really stop wars by protesting them? Is more required of us? And if so, what? Do Friends have a moral obligation to work "effectively" on these issues? If so, what would be "effective"? Civil disobedience? Electoral politics? Acts of service?
One could say (I, myself, often say) that we are not called to be effective but to be faithful. But if I knew how to really have an effect on the war in Iraq and to shorten the suffering by one day or save a single life, then the argument could be made that it would not be faithful to neglect than one effective action and turn my back on that one life or that one day of suffering. So "effectiveness" and "faithfulness" may not be antonyms.
But neither are they synonyms. We can't be faithful just by trying to be "effective". Perhaps one can't even be effective just by trying to be effective. Jesus told his Friends/Disciples in Matthew 5:13 (NIV)
13"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men...I hear this as a warning against (among other things) false realism.
Some of my "realistic" Friends occasionally become quite taken with the urgency of some particular action: flooding Congress with letters, flooding the streets with protesters, getting out the vote for some good candidate or (more often, sadly) against some bad candidate. Often these things are very reasonable to do. I have been on many peace marches in my time and expect to be on many more. I always feel that it is a good thing when I find my way to the monthly peace vigil other Friends of my meeting hold at Washington Square Arch in New York City. I also almost always vote. When elections seem close and the difference between candidates seems relatively large I tend to vote for liberal Democrats against less-liberal Democrats in primaries, and I tend to vote for Democrats against Republicans in general elections. On other occasions, I cast "symbolic" votes for candidates who have little chance of winning but seem to point the way toward much better policies than anything served up by Democrats or Republicans. (I admit it; I voted for Nader in 2000, but I did it in New York State, not a swing state).
But, quite frankly, I don't put as much energy into such things as I might have once. And - - especially in the area of electoral politics - - I would be very much opposed to the Religious Society of Friends taking a corporate stand equivalent to my individual stand. I wouldn't want my Meeting as a Meeting to be campaigning for the good guys, even if I really thought they were good guys. The issue here isn't our tax exemption; that's a practical matter and I don't think we should let it interfere with political activity if the Lord were leading us toward political activity. I admire the stance of the Catholic Worker, which refuses tax exempt status in order to be free of any government restrictions on their witness. But I don't think the Lord is (usually, anyway) leading us as a people to take partisan political stands that are advanced through traditional political activism.
To some folks, this might seem "unrealistic", "utopian", "idealistic", and even "self-indulgent". I could be (I have been) accused of seeking only my own vain purity rather than real change that would benefit real people. But I think these arguments are themselves unrealistic, that they vastly overestimate what can be accomplished by a tiny group like ours through political action, and that they vastly underestimate the one power we do have going for us: the power of faithful obedience to God's leadings and faithful witness to God's Kingdom.
There are no "pacifist" political parties of any real influence in America. We sometimes caricature the Republicans as warmongers and the Democrats as peacelovers. But a lot depends on what wars and what causes we're talking about. It may even depend on what Democrats and what Republicans we're talking about. So whoever I vote for in the next election, if that person wins there's a good chance that he or she will be leading the nation into a war, or even fail to extricate us from the current one. I can still make my judgements as to who is going to try the hardest to find other ways and vote for that person. And I will. And so will lots of other people who are not pacifists, not Quakers, not Christians. More power to them. This kind of voting has its place; but it's not the kind of peacemaking or peace witness to which we are particularly called as disciples and Friends of Jesus. In fact, if we get too enthusiastic about supporting candidates and about doing-what-it-takes to get them elected, we risk forfeiting our credibility as consistently principled advocates of peace, humanity and justice.
As a Christian pacifist, as I understand the term, I am not so much committed to some particular "pacifist" foreign policy as I am to thorough nonviolence in my own life, and consistent opennes to all my neighbors in this world who others may want to define as "enemies". Because we have renounced war for ourselves, and because we try to treated all people, however hated, despised, or feared, with respect and love, we Friends will often be in a position to give service where others have not, and to know people who others do not, and to understand the struggles of people who are generally not understood. We will be friends of the friendless, and even be friends of people who are enemies to each other. This makes us potential bridge builders and reconcilers. If we feed hungry people before the wars, tend to the wounded during wars, and consistently refuse to fight in the wars, then we may have a role in helping the growth of international and inter-group cooperation and understanding. We may also have a role in picking up the pieces once wars have burned themselves out. Once the combatants get sick of killing each other, they have often, historically, turned to principled non-combatants to pave the way for peace. But if - - in a misguidedly "realistic" campaign for certain candidates, we end up becoming just one more group of partisans with its own axe to grind, then we may undermine that more basic mission. Wouldn't it be great if I could talk to my Conservative Republican Congressman about victims of torture, without him suspecting that I am just trying to advance the fortunes of his Democratic opponent in the next election?
Why did I call this post "It needs a little salt"? Because that's what the world needs and that's what we - - as His disciples - - ought to be.