Tom Fox And The Last Supper

Tom Fox And The Last Supper

Tom Fox’s path from suburban northern Virginia to Iraq and a lonely martyr’s death was straightforward. We talked about that path  in August, 2005 when I saw him for the final time. 

I met Tom in the early 1990s at Langley Hill Friends meeting in McLean, Virginia, near Washington DC. We were both members. I didn’t know him especially well, but his children were the same ages as my younger two, and the four of them grew up in that meeting, conspiring to torment a generation of First Day School teachers, on many a weekend morning. 

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Tom was also very kind to me at some moments of personal need. After my separation in 1993,  Tom volunteered to help me move from the old house to an apartment. He spent a long day in punishing midsummer heat, hauling and unpacking, uncomplaining when the air conditioner was almost the last appliance to get installed and cranked up.

Our last talk was at the annual sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, in Harrisonburg Virginia.

Tom had been active with the BYM camps, serving as cook at one. He had also been a “Friendly Adult Presence” (or FAP) with the yearly meeting’s youth group, even filling in as interim youth staffperson for a time. At yearly meeting sessions, he frequently worked with the children’s program. 

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Chowing down at BYM’s Camp Opequon, near Winchester VA.

Indeed, if it hadn’t been for his leading toward the Christian Peacemakers Team and wartime Iraq, any biography of Tom would have been much more about youth work than peace witness.

When we met in Harrisonburg, Tom was between tours in Iraq. Over a meal, we did some catching up, talking first about kids, as older dads will do. 

His Andrew and Kassie, my Guli and Asa, are in their thirties now, scattered across the continent, but still in touch. A few years earlier, our sons had started a Quaker Hip Hop group called the Friendly Gangstaz Committee. The band caused quite a stir in our small, staid Quaker world, with its startling, shouted renditions of well-worn hymns like “Simple Gifts” sand the “Lucretia Mott” song. Tom and I chuckled ruefully about those days.

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We also talked about work. From that same faith community, Tom and I had traveled somewhat parallel paths, trying to make contemporary sense of texts like, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” (Matthew 5:9) and “seek peace and pursue it.”(Proverbs 34:14) 

How do you “pursue peace” in a violent world? My own efforts had followed a winding path to Fayetteville NC and Quaker House, the long-standing peace project hard by Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. bases.

Tom had grown up in Chattanooga, then did twenty years in the Marine band in Washington DC. He played bass clarinet – and was about as unmilitary a soldier as one could feature. He began attending Friends meetings during this time. My first memories of him was being at meeting in a khaki uniform.

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Tom in 1969, a high school photo.

After the Marine band, he became a baker and assistant supervisor at a health food supermarket. He was good at this, and his bosses wanted him to move up in management.

But Tom heard a “different drummer,” especially after September 11, 2001. With a war on, he felt called to “pursue peace” in a concrete way. After much prayer and reflection, he joined the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). 

CPT sets out to bring the “weapons of the spirit” into the front lines of conflict, places where death and life are often but a hair’s breadth apart. This was dangerous work, in a region where conflicts seem hopelessly intractable. In these places, CPT takes their identity seriously. Their namesake, after all, was another unarmed troublemaker in an occupied country, who was tortured and then suffered an brutal public execution.

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One other phrase that  comes to mind is Matthew 10:24: “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord.”

Tom’s first CPT assignment, in 2004, took him to Iraq. For a respite, he visited the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

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A protest in Baghdad, April 2005.

In 2005, as the Iraq occupation shifted from the foolish illusion of “mission accomplished” to the grinding facts of guerilla and civil war, he planned to head back there. 

After Tom was kidnaped in November, along with three other CPTers, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh sneered that “part of me likes this,” because, “I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality.” 

Tom Fox in occupied Palestine, in a protest against the Israeli “Separation Wall.”

What’s striking in this comment is not only the mean-spiritedness, but also the ignorance. Tom certainly knew the reality of Baghdad’s dangers, firsthand. He talked frankly about them over our last August supper. Tom was calm but clear about it: kidnaping, torture, murder were daily fare on all sides there. 

How could he be so offhand about it?

I don’t know, except to say: that was Tom.

Illusions? Not in CPT. It was a CPT team, after all, that brought the first reports about the U.S. forces torture and abuses at Abu Ghraib prison to reporter Seymour Hersh. They had also seen other humanitarian workers there kidnaped and some killed. They were aware that their turn could come any day.

But more about that in due time.

From Tom’s Journal/Blog

 Pressure Cooker 

“People’s homes are like the cells of a prison. And Iraq is the prison.” A friend of CPT here in Baghdad gave this assessment of his country during a recent visit. His neighborhood is adjacent to an area that has been the scene of daily clashes between insurgents and Iraqi National Guard troops.

“Things are such in my country that we can’t trust anybody. We don’t know if we are with a friend or an enemy.” Another friend used these words to describe how it feels to travel the roads outside of Baghdad.

Those of us here on the ground see a different picture of Iraq than the one being painted by the American government and some American media. It is also a different picture than the one being painted by some Arabic media and governments. It seems as if both Western and Middle Eastern governments and media are using broad brushstrokes to try and paint over each other’s vision of events in this troubled land.

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Tom with Iraqi refugees, Spring 2005.

One analogy that seems relevant is that of a pressure cooker. For decades, the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein kept a lid on all the religious, ethnic and cultural tensions that exist in Iraq. Sunni and Shi’a have issues of trust that stretch back for centuries. Many of the Kurdish people of the north feel a need to create a separate country. There are tribal cultural issues that create tension within the country as well. Saddam and his henchmen repressed all of these tensions without doing anything to work on solutions. The lid of the pressure cooker was put on so tightly that when the Coalition forces blew the lid off in March of 2003 everything spewed all over the “kitchen”. What seems to be happening right now is that the Interim Government of Iraq and the Multinational Forces are trying to scoop up the mess, throw it back into the pot and push another lid on it. They are recreating the same unresolved issues of conflict that have plagued the country for more than twenty years.

—  Wednesday, November 17, 2004

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