Category Archives: Signs of the Times

Midway City Update: Quaker David, Goliath & the Two Witnesses

The little church challenging the huge California Quaker megachurch (described in the blog post, David vs. Goliath, the “Friendly” Version, of January 30), won a round in court on January 31; but its reward was only a reprieve. The struggle over an aborted effort to help the homeless continues.

Joe Pfeiffer. The sign is valid for at least seven more Sundays.

Orange County superior court judge Thomas Delaney denied the motion from the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW), based in Yorba Linda, California, to dismiss a lawsuit by the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, California. The lawsuit  seeks an injunction to stop EFCSW from closing the Midway City church and firing its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.

Recap

In late 2017 and early 2018 Midway City took in several of the many thousands of homeless people who cluster and camp across Orange County, just south of Los Angeles.

Hostile neighbors complained to Orange county about signs of homeless people staying on church property, in violation of county codes. When an inspector wrote Pfeiffer a letter about it, he promptly but reluctantly complied, sending the homeless visitors on their way.

Cara Pfeiffer, right, with Friends at Midway City.

But when a copy of the inspector’s letter arrived at the EFCSW office, members of the Elders Board, made it the basis for a secret decision, taken March 27, 2018 to close the church, fire pastor Pfeiffer, and oblige him, his wife and their four foster children to vacate the parsonage behind the church.

Pfeiffer and his wife Cara were told of their removal and eviction in June. They were also told to vacate the parsonage within weeks.

The church’s membership, barely 30 people, rallied behind them and resisted the closure order. It was delayed for months, then on October 12, 2018, Midway City filed suit, asking the Orange County Superior court for an injunction to stop the closure and the firing.

EFCSW filed a motion for summary judgment, which argued that the Midway City lawsuit did not raise any issue the court had jurisdiction over. It insisted that EFCSW was a “hierarchical church” with total power over member groups like Midway City: EFCSW  owned the buildings and property, controlled the agendas and conduct of meetings, and could remove pastors at will, without appeal. Its brief claimed the First Amendment religious liberty provision protected the denomination from legal interference. It cited precedents where courts had declined to take up cases involving church doctrine and internal practices.

Midway City countered that EFCSW had in fact frequently violated its own rules with secret meetings and decisions that were not subject to review by the whole body, contrary to its own and other Quaker traditions. They also contended that EFCSW did not really own its buildings and property. Such violations they said, were subject to judicial remedies.

Court Hearing

At the January 31 hearing, Judge Delaney agreed that there were real questions about whether EFCSW’s actions followed its own rules, and thus summary judgment was not warranted. He scheduled another hearing on March 30 to consider the issues involved. Midway City won the day, but the reward was only a two-month reprieve.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Delaney.

What moved the judge? There were technical arguments about passages in the EFCSW book of Faith and practice, regarding quorums for meetings, and about various kinds of property deeds. Such is the nature of most civil litigation.

But there were also in the case file papers of a different sort. Two of these stand out: statements by veteran EFCSW pastors which bring a very different perspective on that body’s life. The two were from James Healton, of Sacramento’s Friends Community church, and Joe Ginder, from Long Beach Friends.

Their statements combined personal witness with long experience both in EFCSW and among Quakers. They directly challenged one of the denomination’s main claims, that it was a hierarchical church, governed by a Board of Elders at the top which was, for all practical purposes, sovereign.

This challenge proved to be risky, as we shall see. But first let’s hear from them directly:

James Healton:

I am the pastor at Sacramento Friends Community Church. Since 1974 I have been a member of the EFCSW . . . . I have served as a local pastor therein since 1982.

During the last twenty years, a number of changes to Faith and Practice were adopted by the Representatives. On the governance side of things, the trend was increasingly toward concentration of responsibility in fewer hands. Those who recommended these changes defended them on the basis that it was increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers to fill all the boards, committees and offices. Despite this trend, we were never told that the Elder Board had replaced the Representatives as the ruling body of the Yearly Meeting, without appeal.

I was present in the Representatives meeting when the language in Faith and Practice . . . was adopted, under the heading, “Essential Business of Representatives”. I asked for and received assurances during the meeting that the words, “The final decisions and actions on the following must be approved by the Representatives”, implied no limitation on what other business the Representatives were free to consider but only a limitation on what other bodies (including the Elder Board) could act upon. We never understood this language to mean that the Representatives could not discuss and decide upon any other matters of concern to them. I had not heard that there was such a limitation implied by that language until I heard it from the attorney for EFCSW . . . .

Moreover, Faith and Practice says that “Other business may be introduced from any of the local churches, Elder Board, and other boards, committees and task forces.”  . . . Again, this indicates that the Representatives have the right to bring any matter they choose before the assembled Representatives. If a church wishes to propose a decision to the Representatives different from one taken by the Board of Elders they are free to do so under the rules governing EFCSW the corporation. This would, of course, include the possibility of an appeal to the Representatives.

In all my years in the EFCSW denomination, I do not recall an instance where a church was closed against the decided will of its members. If pastors were removed by the Yearly Meeting it was on account of serious moral failings or because the local church was divided over their leadership and the Yearly Meeting was asked to step in to settle the matter. To my knowledge it was never the case that pastors were removed because of things like “poor leadership skills, lack of discernment as a minister, an ineffective ministry, inability to increase the membership of FCC, poor decisions” or even “misuse of church property … “ as has been alleged against Pastor Pfeiffer. Dealing with such matters was left up to the local church unless Yearly Meeting staff or other people were asked to help or offered their help.

In the case of Midway City, there was not an offer to help them meet the city code requirements. They were simply told that Joe Pfeiffer was fired, their church was no longer a church in the EFCSW denomination and they had to vacate the premises. Of course, had the church failed to meet the code requirements, there would have been possible grounds for discipline but the church did meet the city’s expectations. Again, this severe a response to a church in need is unprecedented in my experience of more than forty years in EFCSW.

I note that the charges against Joe Pfeiffer and Midway City Friends Church that they violated Faith and Practice were for actions after they had been removed from membership in EFCSW denomination by the Elder Board of the corporation.

These alleged violations all amount to one charge against them: that they objected to, and sought remedy for, the actions the Elder Board had taken against them.

The closing of Midway City Friends Church and removal of Joe Pfeiffer as its pastor represents a sharp departure from what I have known and from what I understood to be the relationship between the local church and EFCSW as a whole. I would also add that though

Pastor Joe Pfeiffer is unafraid to speak his mind I have never known him to be intentionally rude or mean-spirited in his remarks. He has high ideals that sometimes make us feel uncomfortable but it is always clear to me that he is motivated by good will toward others, including those with whom he may, at times, disagree. . . . They did, however object when Midway City Church was closed. To me this indicates that their motive was not to divide the body of EFCSW or vindicate themselves but to protect the interests of their flock and to defend the historic balance between EFCSW oversight and the rights of its constituent churches.

Joseph Ginder:

I have been a member of EFCSW since 1986 and pastor of Long Beach Friends since 1996. . . . I’ve been a representative to the Yearly Meeting / Annual Conference Business Meeting nearly continuously since 1987. The Yearly Meeting is a traditional term for the annual gathering of local Friends church representatives to decide upon the business of the EFCSW denomination as a whole. . . . Prior to coming to Long Beach, I grew up at Anderson First Friends within Indiana Yearly Meeting, soaking up Friends ways from my seniors. Many of my ancestors have been Quakers since the beginning of the movement. . . .

About hierarchy. I read a claim that the EFCSW denomination is a hierarchical church because our Faith and Practice invests authority in some that is not given to all. This is a distortion of the Friends way of doing business. Our Faith and Practice speaks clearly to this. We expect leaders to lead rather than to rule. We do not empower individuals or small groups of leaders to make decisions that disregard the sense of other members in good standing. We empower individuals and small groups to act and lead on behalf of the larger group when the larger group is not meeting, or when the smaller group has followed the Friends manner of making decisions within the larger body as a gathered people of God.

The Friends approach for a group of leaders to take on important decisions is to build unity and listen before taking a controversial direction, at least when a matter requires no urgent action. We always expect our leaders to act to try to build unity. Friends were cast out of a hierarchical church because we did not simply accept the decisions of the few in hierarchical leadership, despite their claim to divine right.

Rather, we held decisions up to the light of scripture and the leading of the Spirit. For this we were persecuted and imprisoned, some unto death. As a representative to the EFCSW denomination representatives business meetings, I have never agreed to or believed we were approving changes to our Faith and Practice which would allow a small group of leaders such as the current board to make decisions that could not be questioned or re-examined by our representatives.

The list of items of “Essential Business of Representatives” in Faith and Practice . . . is a restriction on committees and leaders, not on the representatives! Those who say otherwise are simply in error. [also] any EFCSW church can bring business before representative sessions. Several churches have not been allowed to bring items regarding FCC-MC to the representatives sessions in the past two years.

This is clearly in violation of our Faith and Practice. The representatives in session are the highest authority of our organization and can consider whatever business they choose; all of our churches have access to bring business to the representatives.

The elders board is not exempt from the Friends Way of Doing Business. Faith and Practice, p.33. This way of doing business embodies the value of building unity and seeks to prevent a few from imposing decisions unilaterally upon others without going through our business process of discerning the mind of Christ together. . . .

This description of our way of doing business applies between the Elder Board and other members, not just between members of the Elders Board. . . . We should never hear, “We didn’t have to ask you” as an excuse for excluding stakeholders from participating in the Friends way of doing business as has been done with FCC.

This statement directly contradicts Friends teaching. We are not a hierarchical church and never have been. While FCC (or the corporate elder board) cannot change the Faith and Practice of EFCSW without agreement of the Representatives. . . as Friends we do not empower one group as superior and relegate another as subordinate. Jesus is our Head. We are all subordinate to Him . . . .

I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that the foregoing is a true and correct. Executed this 15th day of January 2020 at Long Beach, California.”

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer came away from the court hearing with a sixty day extension of their residence, and eight Sundays for their church to gather in the home they had built and maintained for nearly ninety years.

Call to Worship on February 2, from the Midway City Facebook page; “Worship with us this morning as we explore Micah 6 and the habits of life that please the Lord and the ones that make his anger burn. Justice is at the center of a life pleasing to God.”

 

EFCSW Annual Conference

Later that same day, EFCSW opened its 2020 annual conference,  with a dinner for representatives from its 39 member churches in California, Arizona and Nevada. As noted by Joe Ginder, in most similar Quaker bodies, such events are called yearly meetings, and extended over several days, with a mix of business sessions, worship, family reunions, and social events. EFCSW had discarded that tradition, and compressed the gathering into one tightly scheduled Friday evening, followed by a Saturday morning session.

Among the attenders were Joe Ginder and James Healton. As they arrived for the opening dinner, they were taken aside by a member of the Elder Board, and shown a letter on a smartphone, addressed to them. The letter sternly rebuked them for submitting the statements, and warned them not to speak openly about the Midway City case during the annual conference. They were taken aback.

Ginder and Healton complied with the letter’s strictures. The evening went as planned.

Saturday morning was similarly programmed, with 35 minutes set aside for a “business session.”

As the meeting was getting underway, Cara Pfeiffer appeared, but members of the Elder Board quickly surrounded her and, despite her protests, firmly ejected her from the room.

Reports indicate that the “business session” lasted not much more than fifteen minutes, although it included formal approval of a $1,200,000 three-part budget, and a pre-selected slate of nominations for various boards. No one spoke about Midway City.

–Well, that last sentence is not quite right. In a packet of “Advance Reports,” Midway City was mentioned in print twice. The Elder Board’s report noted that “A challenge over this past year has been the ongoing legal issue related to the closing of one of our churches. Unfortunately, this issue has occupied a significant amount of the staff and elders’ time and energy. Continue to pray with us for a God-honoring resolution to this issue.”

Then under “Annual Budget,” EFCSW Chief of Staff Ron Prentice reported that “The 2019 General Administrative budget projected a year-end balance between income and expenses. However, the legal costs for the defense against the claims by FCC Midway City and the increase of one staff position from part-time to full-time are the two primary factors that caused our expenses to exceed our income by $111,000. As we look to 2020, the increases to personnel and our legal expenses have been included into our budget projections for the New Year.”  There were no reports that either item was discussed. (The letter read to Healton & Ginder reportedly told them that if they tried to speak about Midway, they would be ruled out of order.)

The business session was followed by a “Prayer initiative and Time of Prayer,” then adjournment for lunch and departure.

Testimony by ECSW staff in pre-hearing depositions made clear that they believed the nine-member Elder Board acted with full authority for EFCSW, 364-plus days per year, except for the abbreviated session on that one Saturday morning. The board also prepared the agenda for that annual half-hour. The Board’s meetings were private, and there was no appeal from their decisions. We have seen what happened to those, like pastors Ginder and Healton, who spoke of when practices were different for that body. Their temerity in submitting affidavits dissenting from the Elder Board’s understanding could be hazardous both to their jobs and the churches they served.

Joe Pfeiffer advised me that late this week there will be a court-sponsored mediation meeting between Midway City and EFCSW officials, to see if a non-judicial resolution is possible. Pfeiffer insists that would be his preference, but says EFCSW Elders have turned aside several such suggestions already.

And lest it be entirely forgotten, this multifaceted melodrama will continue to play itself out against the backdrop of a vast city in which thousands still sleep outside each night, and their number continues to increase.

An American/Orange County homeless camp: here today. Gone tomorrow. Back the day after.

 

 

David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the Continue reading David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

Ken Bradstock, Edward Hicks & Me

Ken Bradstock had something valuable to say. A lot, actually. Enough to fill a book.

I hope he got it down, on paper or on disk, whatever, before he died on January 22.

If I remember right, I first noticed Ken during the bad days of turmoil among North Carolina pastoral Quakers. Ken had been a pastor among them for awhile, and seemed to fit the profile: no city slicker,  a former marine, deputy sheriff turned PhD’d therapist and  hospice worker, from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hardly a radical. But somewhere along the line he read some Buddhism and also climbed off the “Christian” homophobia train, and the combination put him and the small group he then clerked in the crosshairs when the troubles came to North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

Ken Bradstock

But that’s not what I want to recall about him here. After that whirlwind passed, he and I corresponded  many times, via emails and Facebook. Struck by his vivid writing, I soon recruited him to write an essay for what was a called the “Narrative Theology” rubric in the journal Quaker Theology. Called “The Land” (online in full here)  I urged him to regard it as the first chapter of a book: memoir, autobiography, whatever. That became a standard, drill sergeant-style closing to my emails: “Write the damn book!”

He often replied: “I’m writing the damn book!” I hope he got enough of it finished to be a testament.

Here’s an example of why my hopes have been so high. An email exchange from 2017, which began when I sent him a photo of one of the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings by Edward Hicks, along with a special message from Hicks.

A print of the painting had sat for some weeks on a chair at the rear of Spring Friends Meeting, where I attend. Usually my phone (and its built-in camera) come to meeting with me, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the happenstance display.

The “special message” from Hicks was from a few years after his death in 1849. It came through a Progressive Quaker who was also a spiritualist medium, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York. It too is online, here.

Ken enjoyed the peculiar “spirit post.” But there was more to say:

From: Ken Bradstock
To: Chuck Fager
Sent: Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Subject: Re: Hicks’ Paper

I got interested in Hicks and the paintings after seeing one in Reynolda Manor in Winston-Salem. It’s not my favorite but I was awed.

One short story about the power of the paintings: I was leading a therapy group in the Child and Adolescent Psych unit at Baptist. We had a 13 year old kid who had severely sexually abused his sister and he was a hard case. They’d had him for months with no break-through. One of the kid’s defenses was to use his considerable intelligence to evade and attack with sarcasm. He was cold and they thought he might be a sociopath.

Edward Hicks was deeply affected by the Orthodox-Hicksite schism in 1827. He painted more than sixty versions of this biblically-based image of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” presumably to visualize his hopes for its repair. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the paintings became celebrated favorites of devotees of folk art.

I was doing a session with color copies of the Peaceable Kingdoms where in they picked the animal that they thought described them the best and then explained why to the group. Then they were asked to draw their own Peaceable Kingdom.

He suddenly got up and left the group with his drawing in hand and sought out a resident. Two hours later, I saw him in what looked like an intense conversation with the resident. The next day, the resident approached me quietly and asked what I did to the kid.

Edward Hicks, a self-portrait

Of course I didn’t do a thing, the painting reached his soul. The team asked me to describe the technique using the paintings. They said that he’s had a complete break-through, realizing what he’d done to his sister and had opened up to the resident for almost three hours. They finally could work out a discharge and follow-up plan with his treatment.

This was the most dramatic result I had with the paintings but there are many more in more subtle ways and more incremental steps toward healing. The tone of the groups working with the paintings were fairly identical. On one extreme, there would be a stunned quiet and on the other a sort of focused curiosity.  . . .

No wonder I kept shouting at him, “Write the damn book!”

A bonus: Here’s a snippet from “The Land,” about the family farm where he spent much of his childhood:

As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my mind to this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.

They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical Orthodoxy.

I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the land.

I hesitate to begin a description of her here because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.

Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under the house she used for a root cellar.

That damp room encased in stone would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s awe for her.

Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.

I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air. . . .

(Full text of the essay is here.)

 

 

 

The Hungarian Religious Resistance: a Mirror & a Beacon to Our Own

A report in The Guardian on December 28 compellingly describes the small, marginalized religious resistance to the self-described ”Christian” authoritarianism of the current Hungarian regime. In this sketch there is much to learn and reflect on for those Americans who feel called to a similar path.

The anti-democratic drive of the Viktor Orban government to undermine Hungary’s independent courts, media and other democratic processes is well-known. So is its unremitting hostility to the homeless poor, refugees, immigrants & LGBT persons, and incitement of anti-semitism.

What was less known, at least to me, is how much this burgeoning tyranny has been wrapped and sanctified in religious terms, as an expression of “Christian liberty,” intended to protect a version of “Christian culture.”  Also new to me is how similar its rationale is to reactionary evangelical/fundamentalist movements in other countries.

The Advent Statement logo.

Early in December a band of Hungarian religious dissenters responded by issuing what they call “The Advent Statement.” As I read it I noted that, if one replaced “Hungary” with the “US administration” & its cronies, much or most of its text could be an “American Advent Statement.” See if you agree:

We are calling,” it says, “for resistance to an arrogance of power that makes the concept of “Christian Liberty” a slogan for exclusionary, hate-filled and corrosive policy; a power that destroys the social fabric and eliminates useful social institutions; a power that systematically threatens democracy and the rule of law. We are concerned about the arrogance of power that mixes the language of national identity with the language of Christian identity in a manipulative way. We cannot let our freedom, given to us by grace in baptism, be taken away.

We are concerned by the narrow political usage of the concept of “Christian Liberty”. Our goal is to restore the dignity of this biblical and theological concept. Christian liberty includes freedom from causing harm to the other person and to ourselves, freedom from abuse, exploitation, ignorance and freedom for protecting the other person’s dignity and rights, as well as our own. In this light, we cannot be indifferent to the current state of affairs we experience in Hungarian society. . . .”

Their bill of particulars should also sound familiar to American ears:

Orban & the flag.

The authoritarian exercise of power is spreading around the world but especially before our eyes in Hungary. We are witnessing manipulation of electoral law and the use oflegislative and executive power in order to provide legislative protection for the corruption inspired by the state. This is a strategy of power that deliberately eliminates political differences of opinion through the eradication of independent media, spreading fake news, discrediting and character assassination, and harassment by authorities.
Because of this, in the name of Christian liberty we would like to be prepared to speak up and act unambiguously. . . . ”

One major difference between the two countries is that in Hungary (as in some other European nations), many churches are subsidized by the government, through allocations from taxes. These payments become an ongoing form of hush money:

Alexander Faludy, a vicar who spent years in forced exile during the time of Communist rule, acknowledges that “The state funding is important of course, acting as both a carrot and a stick” . . . . [Something like that is happening here too, see: “How Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups,”  For that matter, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush pushed through increases in federal aid to churches.]

But as a beleaguered Job noted in the Bible, “the Lord giveth & the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). He wasn’t talking about government funding, but the sentiment applies: the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, whose President, Pastor Gábor Iványi was instrumental in drafting The Advent Statement, saw its state funding withdrawn after the Orban regime consolidated its power. And maybe that’s why the larger Protestant groups in Hungary have not signed on to it.

Beyond direct funding, Vicar Faludy added, “there has also been a  comprehensive instrumentalisation of the churches [by Orban] through the power of prestige. The idea of participation in public life, for people who grew up under communism, when churches were systematically placed at a civil disadvantage, was very tempting. I think that in 2010 [when Orbán was re-elected prime minister] there was a sense of hope in the churches. Church leaders thought: ‘This government may be far from perfect but it’s a way of getting things done, for example of making sure there’s a Christian ethos in the schools.’ From speaking to people in the churches, I think they thought they could ride the tiger.”

Pastor Ivanyi speaks out in Hungary.

After 10 years in which Orbán’s grip on civil society has been relentlessly strengthened, Faludy says: “At best, the churches have chosen quietism rather than prophetic vocation.”

Of course, In the U. S., many prominent evangelical leaders are definitely not “quietist.” Rather, they clearly ARE “riding the tiger,” galloping, they believe, straight toward a promised land where their kind of “religious liberty” will be exercised to ban abortion, roll back LGBT rights, gain government support for their “Christian” schools & much more, so (with the rare exception of, say, editors of Christianity Today magazine), they show no inclination to get off.

Similarly, there’s as yet been no stampede among Hungarian churchgoers to join the Advent Declaration’s public dissent. And this should be no surprise to its authors:

“[Orban] is turning the Christian message on its head,” says Iványi. “Is there any other Christian country in the world where it is written in the constitution that you can be jailed for being homeless? Is it a Christian country where asylum seekers are not given the basic resources they need to survive? Is it Christian to use power to abolish media freedoms, the independence of judges and academic autonomy?

“In ancient Israel, the prophets spoke out against corruption and wickedness. We are now compelled to speak out. We might not be Isaiahs or Jeremiahs. But we take courage from their example.”

Yes, courage. Iványi and his cohorts will need it. The prophets they cite may now loom large in the Bible and the gospels. But in life, theirs was a lonely and frequently fatal career path.

It was also the path Jesus took, frequently denouncing the tiger-riding religious bigwigs of his day as the spawn of those who killed the prophets. And you see where that message got him.

I salute Pastor Iványi and The Advent Statement. And beyond courage, I wish them (& their American counterparts) stamina and determination:  the stories of the prophets also show that it took time, often lifetimes, of endurance, protest and lamentation for their prophecies of greater justice even to begin to come to pass.

A Visit to Debbie’s House

This is a Megabus, seen from the upper deck pretty far back. It’s heading from Fayetteville, NC to Durham NC, just after dark Saturday December 7, 2019. This ride finished up a long and full day for me.

The day started with a chilly sunny gathering at the cemetery of the VA hospital in Fayetteville.  I joined in with nine other stalwarts huddled around the grave marker for Beryl Mitchell, for the 12th in a series of annual outdoor gatherings.

Beryl Mitchell, has been here since 1974. That December she was murdered by her Army Green Beret husband on Fort Bragg, and she lay here in an unmarked grave until 2007. (More about Beryl Mitchell & her magic end  here.

Christine Horne, at Quaker House

That autumn, Beryl’s daughter, Christine Horne, called me at Quaker House in Fayetteville, asking for help with planning a proper memorial for her mother, including the placement of a formal marker. In turn, I asked for help from the kick-butt feminists of the Fayetteville Chapter of National Organization for Women, and we did help. They are a remarkable group, and have been for decades, (They were social justice warriors long before SJW was cool.)

At the conclusion of the memorial, a group of us gathered at the new marker with a wreath and released a bunch of lavender helium balloons.

The whole experience, while very solemn at one level, was also exhilarating for us all. And we decided that those of us who could, would regather there yearly and remember Beryl, and the many other victims of domestic violence against women, both generally and especially in connection with the military.

I missed this meetup the last two years, and was determined to be there this time. It was a bigger deal for me to get there now, due to health problems which prevent me from driving, along with the general complications of life. But I made it. (That’s me holding the round NOW sign.)

Also there, with other old friends it was wonderful to see again, was my particular buddy Debbie. (She’s in the middle, in the black tee shirt with the peace sign, and the windblown hair. It was cold.)

From the cemetery we went to a leisurely lunch, and then Debbie took me to her house to chill for awhile until the Durham bus was due. On the way, though, she made a detour to a friend’s place where  an acquaintance had rescued a possum with pups, and asked Debbie to add it to a menagerie in her mini-wildlife preserve/backyard, which she was glad to do.

Debbie has lived on the outskirts of Fayetteville for decades, on a sprawling lot with many trees, with her husband Chuck (that’s Chuck Liebers, not to be confused with Chuck Fager). They’ve raised several kids there, who are all out of the house now.

Debbie is relieved to have the children elsewhere, but she’s hardly finishing raising things . Besides a flock of chickens, a couple of dogs, cats here & there), there’s now the brood of possums (their preferred cuisine, even the little ones, she tells me, is raw chicken wings, of which they eat every bit).

Debbie has also raised considerable hell hereabouts: domestic violence is but one of her many issues. We’ve already seen her concern about domestic violence, and there’s lots more; we’ll mention a couple presently.

Indeed, one appeared not long after my arrival, when I looked up at a TV screen as we settled in what she calls the Daddy Shack, and saw this brand new report:

I thought at first I might be hallucinating, but others (and my camera) confirmed that it  was for real.

Well, with politics out of the bag, and those of us remaining confirmed liberals, I also showed them this new ad, the first “Liz-mas Carol,” which is rapidly going viral, and, regardless of candidate preference, I think is hilarious:

In fact, by Saturday night, there was a second “Lizmas Carol” up, which you can see here  to the tune of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” if you want additional guffaws.  (Speaking of Saturday Night, the highly paid SNL crew will be very hard-pressed to produce more laughs in its cold open than 45 and the Lizmas Carolers did today, likely both for free. UPDATE: They flunked.)

Anyway, if there was any doubt, finding a new occupant for the White House is tops on Debbie’s agenda; there’s no getting around it, but we won’t dwell on it here.

As the clock swept toward time to go, I strolled around Debbie’s back yard to get ready.  And I kept seeing very interesting stuff.  Like this sign & shrine, with its cat-headed Buddha turning his back on a ringing endorsement of science. Debbie used to be a churchgoer, but she quit a few years back, and says she feels “much more spiritual” now.

Debbie’s place is something of a hoarder’s stronghold, but one which includes a developed, if freewheeling sense of design. The camera came out again when I spied an old wringer washer posing amid a copse of bamboo, it joined the lineup.

When I turned, Debbie’s board fence was revealed to be home for a display for loads of more or less antique tools.

Then a section of the back wall . . .

. . . caught my eye, as it had been made another shrine of sorts, melding sun gods with a slogan tree.

There was lots more, but no more time; Megabus called. I’m sorry I missed the sign at the end of the driveway advertising eggs for $3 a dozen hard-gathered from Debbie’s pampered poultry flock. I need to ride the bus back soon and get another array of photos. I puttered over these most of the way back on the bus, shown here passing under the neon bridge that marks entry to downtown Durham . . . .

. . .  All this kaleidoscope seemed to flow together naturally somehow, a day beginning with death, segueing into conviviality, which showed up politics as having crazy comedic aspects, and down-home art all around. Hope your weekend turns out as well.

A recipe for calming parental panic about the military draft

I just read a long thread on a Quaker Facebook page, filled with semi-hysterical advice-giving about elaborate steps for paranoid parents/grandparents to take NOW to keep their precious sons  out of the iron clutches of the military draft, and smooth their path into the safety of C. O, (Conscientious Objector) status.

Threads like this pop up regularly. And this one, like most, was so full of misinformation and  irrelevant rehashings of what various folks did in the Vietnam years (which were about another war, in another century, in a different millennium), that it moved me to dash off this post as a public service, in hopes of helping quell the spreading panic.

First of all, There is NO draft today.

That means there is no law authorizing a draft. That also means there are NO legal provisions or procedures for males authorized by such a law,  even those who are “registered” on the list for Selective Service, to get themselves classified as C. O.s. None.

To get new rules about C.O.s, Congress would have to pass a new draft law & have it signed by the president, like any other law.

But what would such new rules look like?

NOBODY KNOWS. And NOT ALL “drafts” are or were the same.

In my day, for awhile they didn’t draft married men; then they did. They didn’t draft people preparing to be clergy. The draft age also changed. During the Civil War, a draftee could pay $300 and be legally exempted.

I won’t talk about what happened to me with the draft in 1965. It is not relevant to today, because the draft law I faced expired decades ago. Kaput.

To repeat my query, what would a new draft look like? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. There are some “model” draft plans around, but they are just ideas. The big question is what would Congress want a new draft to be? That’s the group that counts, but there’s no clarity about that.

The draft is not a “hot issue” in Congress. It isn’t like Republicans
want a draft that is all vanilla, and Democrats want it to be all chocolate. Or raspberry. It’s been more than 40 years since a Member of Congress had to deal with a real draft. The few members that old likely have largely forgotten it.

So if there was a new draft, it would come out of a political debate that’s not simple to predict. Libertarian Republicans say they hate the idea. Antiwar Democrats should oppose it too. Strange bedfellows. But events like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor can create an almost instant stampede. In fact, such a new draft might have no provisions for C. O. status at all.

That’s right, there’s no guarantee.

But chill out, people. The present law calling on 18 year-old males to register with Selective Service was passed almost 40 years ago. All it amounts to is putting their names on a list.  And of all the millions of American males who have registered under that law, not one — exactly ZERO, ZIP, NONE — has been drafted, C. O. or not.

Why not? Because, to repeat, there is no law permitting men on that list to be drafted. The list sits there, and every day some more men on it age out of eligibility for the nonexistent draft.

So the time to worry about this is IF or when a new draft law starts moving through Congress.

When will that be? Quien sabe?? But it can be said that nobody important is pushing for it now.

So how can you, if you are a young person of anti-killing-or-dying-in-war convictions, prepare now to escape this potential unwritten future draft?

Some well-intentioned folks have prepared elaborate To-Do lists, involving certified letters from Friends Meetings or other Worthy Sources, all notarized & mailed to themselves & kept in  vaults, etc.

Hey — worth a try.

I suppose these testimonials won’t do any harm. But for my money they’re no more valuable insurance than spending an evening each month baying  at the full moon. Or drinking lots of  chamomile tea.

Because there’s no draft, and no C. O. rules, there’s no assurance that any paper (or used teabags, or recordings of your lunar serenades) will be of any use.

There’s only one exception to the situation I’ve described above. If a young American (or their paranoid parents/grandparents) is/are really TRULY DETERMINED to become legally, officially classified & certified as a C. O., today, there is still ONE  official, legal way to do it.

I know what that way is, and if you want to know it too, as a public service, I’ll tell you.

No charge.

Are you ready?

Okay, here it is, and I’m not kidding:

Join the Army.
Or the Navy, Marines or Air Force.

Then apply for C. O. Status.

Yes, join the military. Because all the military services (and only they) DO have established, approved, legal regulations and procedures for granting official C. O.  Status. (Do you doubt me? If so, here are the Army’s  regs, to read for yourself. )

Before I retired, I helped many soldiers prepare C. O.  applications under those regs. And some of them succeeded. Others are now carrying on such preparation assistance.

But there’s a catch: not all such applications succeed. The military evaluates claims. Only about one in every seven or eight is accepted. But those troops whose claims succeed do become the only truly official legally certified C. O.s in America today, just like I said.

The only ones.

Now, if you think it’s a crazy idea to join the army to be able to apply for official C. O. Status — you’re absolutely right. It would be totally nuts. I said that’s the only legal way to do it, and it is. I didn’t urge anyone to do it.

But I also say again it’s the only available legal path to C. O.  status today. And so I repeat to young anti-war Americans (& their paranoid parents/grandparents), who don’t plan to enlist, and who do not face a draft today, or in the foreseeable future — CHILL OUT & worry about something real, like global warming.

If a serious move for a new draft starts in Congress someday, you’ll soon hear about it from reputable groups like Quaker House (quakerhouse.org) or other peace organizations. 

Until then, keep cool, have a cuppa, then maybe practice singing “Hey Jude” to the Cheshire Cat on the horizon. (Doing it under your breath is okay too.)

You’re  welcome.

“Passing the Torch,” Author Speak #5: “I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil . . .”

From Marian Rhys, “Life: The Great Balancing Act,” in Passing the Torch

Marian Rhys

Despite [a youthful] service-work connection with Friends, it was not until my early twenties that I became engaged with them on any regular basis. By that time, I had begun to feel the need for some spirituality in my life, and started attending Westwood Monthly Meeting in Los Angeles, where I had moved in 1968. I joined the meeting after about two years, eventually serving as treasurer and on Ministry and Oversight Committee.

But it was attending Pacific Yearly Meeting that really drew me to Friends. I experienced Yearly Meeting as a wonderful gathering of highly energized, dedicated and spiritually centered people. Worship sharing sessions seemed infused with truly meaningful discussions about important issues: what are our values? what does it mean to lead an ethical life? how do we address the suffering in the world?

I was particularly impressed with the older Friends I met, the World War II generation (and even older): in California, Lloyd and Eula McCracken, Ed and Molly Morgenroth, Russ and Mary Jorgensen, Red and Madelaine Stephenson, Bob and Marie Schutz, Earle Reynolds; and in the midwest, Louis and Nancy Neuman, and Raymond and Sarah Braddock. Howard and Anna Brinton were speakers at the first yearly meeting I attended, in 1971; Howard’s book, Friends for 300 Years, had just recently been published, and I bought a copy at the gathering and read it avidly.

The men in this generation had been conscientious objectors in World War II, and many couples had met while doing service work for the AFSC in Europe, after the war. These people were still vibrant and politically radical, even in their old age, taking part in civil rights and anti-war marches. Some of them were war tax resisters or were living deliberately ‘simple’ lives rather than — like most people in their generation — trying to acquire as many material goods as they could afford. And most of them had worked in lower-paying careers in social service work.

Earle Reynolds and his daughter Jessica, on the Phoenix, circa 1958.

Earle Reynolds has remained one of my heroes. He, along with his wife Barbara, had sailed his small ship, The Phoenix, into the atomic-weapons testing site in the South Pacific. When asked whether he was worried about the military detonating a weapon while he was in that area, he replied, “That’s their problem, not mine.” People like this were great role models for me, in my mid-twenties.

The most memorable event of my Pacific Yearly Meeting attendance, though, was the Meeting for Business in 1971, when the Peace and Social Concerns Committee, clerked by Earle, brought a minute endorsing amnesty for men who had evaded the draft by moving to Canada, but also (for balance, in a good Quaker way) for soldiers like Lieutenant Calley who had committed war crimes.

There were about 400 attenders at that Meeting for Business, and considerable discussion followed, much of it contentious. Many Friends were strongly opposed to granting amnesty for war crimes, while others argued for compassion and understanding for those (mostly young) soldiers who had, under the duress of war, committed acts that they normally would not have. Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not yet been identified or named, some Friends clearly grasped the concept.

Eventually, the committee was tasked with doing more research on the amnesty question and bringing back a modified minute on the following day. In those pre-internet days, research meant going to the library and poring over books.

Pardons were one thing; amnesty was another.

The committee, and Earle in particular, spent many hours at the library, returning to the next meeting with some interesting information: the president does not have the power to grant amnesty, Congress does, and amnesty cannot be granted for what are called “common crimes” such as murder, although persons who are convicted of such crimes can be granted pardons by the executive branch.

At this subsequent meeting, a modified minute was brought forward, urging amnesty for the draft evaders and pardons for the soldiers committing war crimes. The minute was approved with little discussion this time, and there was a tangible sense of spiritual unity in the meeting such as I have rarely experienced. This incident introduced me to the idea that perpetrators of evil suffer just as do victims, albeit it in a different way.

Yet I had my struggles with Friends, even in those early years. I went through a crisis of faith in 1972 when I read about the tortures being perpetrated in the South Vietnamese prisons — tortures funded by U.S. taxpayers. Although we did not have photographs of these atrocities, as we did thirty years later from Iraq, I had a good enough imagination to visualize them, and they made me sick.

I was never able, though, to get Friends, as a group, to address the issue of human evil. Although I did meet a few individuals here and there, who had experienced some struggles with the issue of evil, I did not find anyone who seemed to have been as deeply affected by it as I had, who could not get it out of their mind. When I brought up my struggles over the torture issue in a discussion group at PYM in 1972 or 1973, another Friend told about her social work with a family headed by a single mother, whose new boyfriend refused to let her daughter from her previous marriage sleep in the house at night; the child had to sleep outdoors, under the porch.

I was horrified at this tale, as were several other Friends. Yet no one seemed to really be willing to address the issue of the evil that this incident represented. One Friend proposed that we all go and rescue this child. “Sure,” I thought, “that’s really likely to happen. And even if it did, what about all the other abused and neglected children, of which there are no doubt millions, all over the world?” Other Friends simply responded by saying that we all need to perform social justice work, and eventually situations like this would get fixed.

But clearly, there was way too much evil in the world to fix. People were suffering, horribly, in many ways. Millions of people, every day, day in, day out, year after year. I was overwhelmed by it all; I thought about it constantly, for years. Yet virtually no one was willing to talk about it; I did not maintain ongoing relationships with the few people I encountered who at least admitted that it was an issue, and Friends as a whole simply refused to discuss it, most offering only useless platitudes like those put forth in that discussion group where I had first brought up the issue.

So, I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil, and tried to find other individuals here and there in my life, who were willing to acknowledge the existence of evil, and talk about it.

My first successful step in this direction was in 1983, when I started attending self-help groups. There I met people who had suffered and survived abuse and even torture, including many who had learned to cope with the wounds. Invariably, it was spirituality, of one kind or another, that had helped them through this process. . . .

What came of Marian Rhys’s continued grappling with the issue of evil in Quaker circles (and beyond)? Her answer is in the pages of Passing The Torch.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; (more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

5. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

 

 

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.

And having had what some call a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.

“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And its our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”

The remains of the reputed “Ozymandias” statue in Egypt.

This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.

We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.

A Torah scroll, filled with stories, one of the oldest existing copies, in the possession of the Samaritan community.

Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual storys role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.

Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call bold” or ground-breaking.”

In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.

Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. Ive dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.

Were a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.

Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. Its a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.

What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that,  Ill leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:

8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they dont.

 And 4:12:  So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.

(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

“Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #3: “I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. . . .”

Helena Cobban

I was born into a very traditional (Church of England, Conservative-voting) family of the British upper middle class.

Helena Cobban

I was 14 when the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 broke out. As I recall it, just about all the news coverage on our grainy black-and-white television and in the two newspapers my father took, the Times and The Daily Telegraph, was solidly pro-Israel. The British conservative elite was still smarting from the rise of that upstart, President Nasser, in Egypt, and was delighted to see him “taken down a notch.” Besides, the Israelis were “modern”. They were “like us”. They had “made the desert bloom”, etc. . . .

In fall 1970, I enrolled at Oxford. In the hurly-burly of the matriculation week, I connected with some intriguing student social-justice networks. One was a feminist group. A couple were leftist/Marxist. One was the Oxford University Arab Society. I established lasting connections with people in all three types of group. One ardent Trotskyist at Oxford with whom I worked closely was Alan Adler, who had earlier attended the most elite Jewish boarding school in Britain, Carmel College — a place from which he was notoriously expelled because he had tried to establish there a cell of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fateh. (Tragically, a few years later, Alan died by suicide.)

Many of the Oxford leftists at the time were Jewish, and most of the ones I knew shared the concern I was developing for the long-usurped rights of the Palestinians, including their right to return to the homes and farms from which they had been expelled in 1948. . . .

I graduated from Oxford in 1973, not brilliantly, and after a few months’ consideration I decided, yes, I really did want to become a foreign correspondent. I followed in the footsteps of many male British adventurers before me, picked up my notebook, and decamped to a foreign clime.

What better place to launch my career than Beirut? My friends from the Oxford University Arab Society had contacts and relatives there; and I was on my way.

My journalistic experience? At the elite girls’ boarding-school I attended I had hand-produced (and “published” in five blurry carbon copies) three issues of a small satirical magazine; and at Oxford I was on the editorial collective of a short-lived counter-culture magazine called the Oxford Strumpet. Ah well, chutzpah and ignorance stepped in to persuade me I had a career plan.

Beirut, pre-civil war – Wikimedia Commons

Beirut was then a bustling hub of commerce, with numerous banks and businesses working hard to provide services to the massively growing Middle Eastern oil industry.

I launched my career by working as a copywriter in a local high-end advertising agency, racing twice-daily from my desk there to attend immersion classes in modern standard Arabic that were held at the Jesuit university in another part of town. Eight months later, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and I was ideally placed to turbo-charge my career in actual journalism.

By the time I was 23, I was regularly getting front-page stories about developments both in Lebanon and further afield published on the front page of the London Sunday Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The work was exhilarating, exacting, and sometimes fairly dangerous.

The work of a good reporter is also, I think, more than a little bit Quakerly. As a reporter, you need to look around you and listen very closely, and scrupulously record the truth as you see it. You need to be able to interact respectfully with people with whom you may (personally) disagree very strongly, both in order to record their sayings and their actions accurately and in order to be fair to them.

In doing this, you need to set your own emotions and judgments aside while you are “getting the story,” and try to stay pleasant and open. (I worked for a short while for the Reuters bureau there. They had a rule of thumb that, since their product gets used by newspapers in many other countries that have different needs, any story you write should be structured so that an editor using the story in any place could cut the story to the length he/she needed at the end of any paragraph, and be left with a journalistically “balanced” story. There’s discipline!)

Beirut, during the civil war.

So my journalism career was advancing very well until one day in 1981, when my then-husband was covering the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran from the Iranian side, I was covering it in Baghdad from the Iraqi side, and our two small children were home with their nanny in Beirut… and she contacted me in a panic to tell me one of the local Lebanese militias had put a sniper onto our roof, which of course made the whole building into a valid military target.

I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. I took the first car I could back across the desert to Amman (a 17-hour drive), flew back to Beirut, scooped up the nanny and the children, and took them all out to the safety of London.

So that was the end of my burgeoning career as a Middle East correspondent. I was stranded in London with two small children, no career, and as it happened a broken marriage.

I turned to writing books, with the first two being on the PLO and on the history of modern Lebanon. To support myself and my kids while I wrote them, I had to come here to the United States where I got fellowships at well-heeled universities that allowed me to do the writing. . . .

When I went to Lebanon in 1974, I did not intend to become a war correspondent, but that is what I soon became, both there and in the early months of the massive war waged between Iran and Iraq from 1980 through 1988. My position as a Western correspondent in Lebanon was distinctive. The war erupted eight months after I arrived; and shortly after that I married a nice Lebanese man whom I had met there and had two children, born in the late 1970s. He also worked in the media, as a cameraman for international news agencies. . . .

All the other Western correspondents were males. They lived either in swanky hotels or in nice apartments where they and any family they had were cared for either by staff or by their wives. As for me, I was trying to run the household and look after the kids while also doing a job that involved crazy, irregular hours and often, a degree of danger.

Later, I came to see that many of the experiences I had had in Beirut gave me powerful insights into the nature of war. They underlined for me, above all, that wars inflict the greatest damage on women, children, and the vulnerable, and that most of this harm comes not from actual physical impacts of weapons but from the shattering of basic services.

I learned early on during the Lebanese civil war to manage when the electricity was cut off. We could gin up paraffin lanterns and cook over little paraffin stoves. But when the water was cut off, life was really, really hard. I would trudge down to the well in the basement of our building and haul jerrycans of water back up to our seventh-floor apartment. Every drop was so precious it would be used multiple times. Finally, after being used, say, to boil pasta and then wash the floor, the last remnants would get re-used to flush the toilet. . . .

And how does this experience of war, its human toll, personal turmoil and human rights work lead Helena Cobban to Quakers?

The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Previous Authors Speak posts:

1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

 

 

Quaker House at 50: We tried everything to stop U.S. torture. Even Bible study.

In 2004, like the rest of the world, at Quaker House we began to learn about U. S. torture in the “War On terror.”

An exhibition parachutist shows his stuff at a ball game near Fort Bragg. summer 2019.

In one way, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Situated next door to Fort Bragg, we knew that besides being home to the 82nd Airborne Division (Airborne means they troops jump out of airplanes to get to their targets), Bragg also was headquarters for many of the most secret military units: Green Berets, Delta Force, “Jaysock” (the Joint Special Operations Command), and others.

And as torture information leaked out, in bits and pieces, this data was like dots. And connecting the dots produced lines that were like a spiderweb, and many of those lines (not all, but many) crossed and pointed to eastern North Carolina.

There was a county airport not far from us, where a CIA front company called Aero Contractors sent “torture taxi” planes across the Atlantic, to carry detainees who were blindfolded, shackled and spread-eagled on their cabin floors, drugged and diapered for long flights to secret locations called “black sites,” and sometimes Guantanamo. There the unspeakable and illegal was done to them by U.S. government agents. This reality was supposed to stay unknown.

But it didn’t. And soon, to our packed agenda of war protest, we added torture. There were vigils, letters, articles, a few arrests, al that sort of thing. Plus we organized or joined in several conferences. Hopes rose when the now-disgraced president who green-lighted all this malign madness left Washington in early 2009, succeeded by one who promised “Hope & Change.”

Our own hopes in this matter rested on accountability: we didn’t have to write Congress demanding new laws–torture was already a federal crime, a felony.  Give us some law and order! Hopes rose further when the new president ordered a halt to torture.

But there, change was denied us, and hopes were dashed. The perpetrators of torture had walked free during the previous regime; the new boss said we would look ahead, and leave them alone.

Which was to say, U.S. torture was simply put on “Pause,” not truly stopped. The perps were still there. And sure enough, one of the main architects of the torture program was eventually promoted to head the CIA. The laws against torture were made a dead letter; impunity reigned. still does.

A mockup urging repentance for torture advocacy on Kiefer Sutherland, the star of the TV series “24”, that popularized torture from 2002 to 2011. (It didn’t work.)

Furthermore, under the influence of highly effective popular entertainment like the show “24”, which ran for nine seasons and more than 200 episodes, frequently featuring torture, public opinion swung solidly in its favor — provided that the U. S. was doing the torturing.

Within  a few years, the outcome was plain:  torture may have been wrong, but the American public above all planned to forget about it. This forgetting, or corporate amnesia,  was aided and abetted by its government, from the highest levels. It still is.

Some of us, an ever-diminishing band, kept trying. For several years, some of us periodically picked up trash along the roadside outside Aero Contractors.

There were more conferences and reports, most of which were presented to local, state and federal officials. While mostly polite, it was evident they didn’t want to hear about it, and some defend torture to this day.

It’s pretty quiet now, we’re older, energy is flagging and shouting into the wind is tiring. But a few have not forgotten.  What other countries’ experience has to teach suggests that it typically takes decades for a society to begin to face up to its own atrocities and war crimes, if it ever does.

Last spring, when a peace pilgrimage stopped to have a religious vigil outside the now heavily-protected site of Aero Contractors (the CIA front company is still there, even bigger, but more well-hidden), most of those passing by who took our flyers didn’t know what we were talking about.

Patrick O’Neill, a stalwart protester, during an Easter Week vigil outside Aero, Spring 2019. The poster he’s carrying shows Khaled el Masri, a German citizen who was snatched and put on an Aero torture taxi to five moths of abuse in a black site, before it was admitted that he was not the person the CIA was searching for. His life was all but destroyed by the experience. No one was brought to account.

Torture, along with the war, was strongly supported by many religious Americans, notably evangelicals. Many such are in the  military, even at high ranks. As an outreach to such, I even ventured into Bible study. I’m pasting it here, because I think it has wider and continuing relevance. If and when this segment of the public awakens from its amnesiac trance, it will still be apt. For others it’s brief.

From, “Patience & Determination,”
a Pamphlet from Quaker House, 2009)

                                             I

Most biblical translators seem reluctant to write the word “torture.” Yet there are places in the scriptures where softer terms read more like evasions. The spirit of torture hovers over many passages, like buzzards circling the lonely figure of Job, alone on a dung-heap.
Indeed, the entire book of Job can be seen as a meditation on the relentlessly inflicted suffering that is of the essence of torture, with Job as the archetypal torture victim. He is innocent and faithful; yet he has been stripped of everything and left bereft and in continual pain, wailing and scratching his sores.
Job’s condition is not accidental. It results from an arbitrary exercise of power, without warrant, limit, or foreseeable end. Worse, as he sees clearly, its source was supposed to be the font and guarantor of justice, not its destroyer.
Yet not only translators shy away from calling such treatment what it is. Job himself confronts a claque of commentators – one is tempted to call them spin doctors – who fill pages like memos to the White House, explaining that what he is enduring is really only a new set of enhanced interrogation techniques, and anyway he must have deserved it.
The victim is not having it. These rationalizations only reinforce his sense of what’s happening:

19:1 Then Job answered: 2 “How long will you torture me, and break me in pieces with words? . . .”

Only one among a score of versions in an online Bible collection (The New Living Translation) boldly renders the Hebrew here as “torture.” In the King James, Job merely sniffs that the apologists “vex my soul”; the Catholic Douay-Rheims version says they “afflict” him. Others speak of “torment,” which at least is closer.
But Job interrupts, at 21:6: “Know then,” he continues, “that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. . . .”
And when his vivid rage is momentarily spent, he begs,

21 “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,’ for the hand of God has touched me! 22 Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?”

A searching question; and whether Job gets any real explanation of what has happened to him (I think not) has been debated by Bible students ever since the book appeared.
Further, Job’s cries for relief and vindication are more than an individual lament. For those with ears to hear, they echo as loudly for us today as they ever have down the centuries.

                                             II

There is torture in the New Testament as well. And here again, translators typically shy away from rendering the term. This is harder to understand in the gospels, because the Greek term used there unambiguously refers to torture as we think of it today.
This specificity should not be surprising; torture was a frequent feature of life and “justice” in Jesus’ world. When demons confront him, for instance, they are expecting it:

Matthew 8:28 “When Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to [torture] us before the time?”

Luke 8:27: 27 As Jesus stepped out on land (from the sea of Galilee), a man of the city who had demons met him. . . . 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torture me.” (Jesus didn’t torture him. Instead, he banished  the man’s demons.)

For that matter, the scourging of Jesus (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15) certainly qualifies; and what else was crucifixion but execution by extended, public torture?
So again, torture was a feature of Jesus’ world, though he did not inflict it. Small wonder then, that when his followers were trying to consolidate their movement after his death, it turns up in a list of general exhortations in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:3 “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

As with Job, though, only one translation of Hebrews in twenty (The New Revised Standard Version) ventures to say it plain. While the Greek term here is different from that in the gospels, and less exact, it still refers to excruciating suffering inflicted as part of persecution. This is clear enough from an earlier verse from the same epistle,

Hebrews 11:37 “The [early martyrs] were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, [tortured] . . . .”

Here the typical rendering is “tormented.” Yet isn’t it a plausible argument that being sawn in two would be somewhat more than “tormenting”?
The earlier, more explicit term reappears in one more New Testament book, Revelation. The most vivid passage, in Chapter Nine, recounts a vision that for some readers at least, evokes surreal parallels with the more repulsive abuses of our own day, especially when carried out by those charged with upholding law and justice:

Revelation 9:1-11:
1 “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit;
2 he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.
3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.
4 They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
5 They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.

Some imaginative [Bible prophecy” writers are able to see texts from Revelation being played out in almost every current upheaval. And right on time, here they are seeing “locusts” as drones.
6 And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7 In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;
9 they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.
10 They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months.
11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.”Would that this woe were the worst, but there is one more passage to contemplate. It is one of the repeated climaxes of the same book, describing the wrath of divine judgement:Revelation 14:9 “Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, ‘Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands,
10 they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tortured with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
11 And the smoke of their torture goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’”Such passages have long been a burden to those who can’t see the justice in applying an infinite punishment for the limited evil that even the most fiendish humans can do. Nor are these doubts eased by the pious admonition of verse 12 that “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”
Perhaps that’s why translators prefer “torment” to torture here, although there is no real ambiguity in the underlying Greek. Who wants to think about the worst human torturer in history being subjected to even a worse torture, unendingly, as an endless quasi-pornographic spectacle for the angels and the Lamb, the Lamb who represents the One who is supposed to combine justice with mercy?
I doubt there are many who want to contemplate such a scenario. And for those who were forced to, like Job, perhaps the best response was his:
21 “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,’ for the hand of God has touched me!”Have pity, yes. But remember, as Hebrews charges us. Remember, and then act to banish the demons.

On September 21, 2019 Quaker House will observe its 50th anniversary, and is still working with soldier war resisters, military families and veterans.  You are invited to join in. Details here.