“Never in my life have I been more uplifted and sustained by a sense of the power and loving presence of God than in those two months in the mountains of Central Vietnam. Yes, throughout the years, Friends have found repeatedly that reaching out to ’that of God’ in others can be very creative in situations of conflict and violence.”
Marjorie Nelson wrote these words in 2008, reflecting back on her capture by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front in 1968, while the United States was at war in Vietnam. Nelson was in Vietnam out of her deep passion for Friends’ peace testimony. She spent altogether two years at the Quaker Rehabilitation Center in Quang Ngai, South Vietnam, as a member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) team offering physical and occupational therapy, a prosthetics workshop, and day care for refugee children. There she treated many Vietnamese civilians who had lost limbs due mainly to land mines and artillery weapons. This work in Quang Ngai was one way some Americans acted to rectify the damage our nation did to the people of Vietnam and made visible their own willingness to risk their lives in service to a way of being grounded in compassion rather than in violence.
While Marjorie Nelson’s story is dramatic, it is also illustrative of the profoundly alternative response to violence and hatred that can arise when individuals and communities attend to the promptings of the Inward Light and turn their lives to a path rooted in all that is holy. Friends’ testimony to peace and justice arises when hearts are focused, in small ways as well as large, on living as fully as possible in accord with the way Jesus showed and the vision of a New Creation that can be realized here on earth when we are faithful to God’s guidance.
This call might take many forms. My call is to engage, then to write and speak about who we are as Friends as we span across the spectrum from devoted to Christ Jesus to non-theist. For too long we have held each other at an often hostile distance. If we are to be patterns for others, this is not the pattern I believe we are called to uphold to the world. My life was turned on end, years ago now, as I was drawn into relationship with the evangelical Friends I so distrusted. Now I cherish the mutual support and ongoing challenge we bring to each other’s lives, and hope that more can follow this example.
The Inward Light is a both a powerful symbol and a living reality. In the expectant silence of worship, in personal meditations, or in the course of the day, this divine reality may make us aware of ways our words or actions damage others. If we are willing to listen and sit with this truth, this same Light always points to a new way. Thus, a central Quaker discipline is the practice of discernment, of inward attention to the motion of the Spirit in the heart and faith to follow the direction given, even when only one step is made visible.
I have often found the discipline of discernment difficult, as it requires self-knowledge and honesty about even the darker places of the soul. I have benefitted greatly, especially in regard to major decisions, by clearness committees and now by an ongoing Anchor Committee, all of which have helped me sense this divine guidance and test it in community. Ultimately, this attention to the Light has brought me to a place where, at least at times, my life better reflects Friends’ practice and the fruits of the Spirit – love, peace, patience, joy, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control – evident in word and behavior.
Turning & Obedience
Obedience, in early Quaker usage, is a call to complete faithfulness to the Inward Guide. Margaret Fell (often called the Mother of Quakerism) wrote “obedience to the cross of Christ is the power of God” in one of her most important pamphlets. This almost gruesome statement is not a call to take on suffering, but to let loose the demands of the ego and weep with those who suffer, finding in the tears a touchstone for action.
The Inward Guide, Christ, will never condone harmful actions. The true Guide will show us the words and path that lead to a life centered in what George Fox named as ”that Life and Power that took away the occasion of all wars.” Fox went on to tell the commissioners and soldiers who promised to release him from prison if he would take up arms, “I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.” I don’t use this language that came so easily to Fell and Fox, but I do know that there is a Power that I can trust completely. When I turn towards it and follow where it leads, way opens. I have been able to take on tasks I thought well beyond my capacity. This does not mean the way is always smooth, and in fact I have come to recognize that fear is an important marker for me to discern the movement of the Spirit: Surprisingly, there is a quality of fear that is a sign telling me “this is the way.” I have never regretted following it.
Be Patterns, Be Examples
Reliance on the law of God rather than human demands is what Fox and Fell would have us learn and practice. This is work we all might do, not just those called to public action. The more we pay attention to the still small voice within and turn to the Inward Guide, the more we will be led not only into acting more justly to each person we encounter, but also into behavior that prods and encourages them to live in such a way as well. Thus we see Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) in 2015 taking action against a bank with Quaker roots but currently supporting mountaintop coal-mining, and successfully pressing its leadership to act more justly and stop tearing apart the earth.
This stance of reliance on the Inward Teacher and following that Light that leads all into compassion, mercy and justice, can call us into the unexpected as well. One such example is Rachel Cunliffe, a Friend who has worked to oppose the death penalty for decades. Within that work, she found herself more and more involved in listening: listening to the families of victims, listening to the man on death row that she corresponded with for years. She extended this listening stance to the district attorneys and many others in the criminal-justice system, learning of the traumas they faced in their work and coming to know deeply how much she had to care for the souls of those who were part of a distorted system as she did for those who were harmed by this system. I find this a modern-day equivalent of John Woolman, the anti-slavery activist who would quietly talk with slave owners out of concern for the harm that vicious system did to their well-being.
George Fox’s call in 1656 to “be patterns, be examples” follows his admonition to live “in the power of life and wisdom.” A life so led is the consequence of being transformed through worship and attention to the still, small voice within whereby the Spirit opens the way to act with justice and mercy, to speak truthfully and love our enemies. It may be a call to hold others in prayer. It may be a call to a way of life that might tear a person from end to end in many ways but that is inevitably filled with and fueled by a rich joy.
Queries for Discussion:
As you read through this essay, choose one idea or sentence that rings true for you. Share with the group an experience you have had that relates to that sentence/idea.