To Promote Racial Justice, It’s Time to Move On from “Anti-Racism”

Not to ban the slogan. But to close it like a book, and put it on the shelf with others that have been read, which delivered value, and have become part of a reference collection.

In the almost sixty years since I was drawn into racial justice work, many such slogans have come and gone: like best-selling novels, page-turners in their day, then outpaced by new events, new stories and new mottos.

When I came along, it was all “Desegregation,” “integration,” “civil rights,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  Back in The Day, they were stirring, often thrilling, and not a few sanctified with the blood of martyrs.

They didn’t disappear either. But they were elbowed aside, particularly by “Black power, just as ”Negro,” a term of respect which Dr. King spoke  with pride til the day he died, was replaced by “Black” (which in turn is now jostling with “people of color”). And there have been many others.

For that matter, there was a long succession of similar mottoes before my time, going back over 250 years:

Among Friends there were manumissionists, such as John Woolman, urging owners to free enslaved individuals; then anti-slavery advocates, succeeded in the 1830s by abolitionists, radicals who aimed not so much at individuals as at the slave system.

After the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction, there was a long slow progression through guarded euphemisms like “Intergroup relations“ and “human relations” toward the more candid “inter-racial cooperation;” but not until after victory in World War Two did “human rights” enter the discourse.

Some of these terms receded because they were shown to have downsides: “Black Power!” centered African-American agency and justified anger; but it was vague about concrete goals, and some of its advocates slid into the dead-end of violence.

Today, many pretend not to notice, but “anti-racism” carries issues of its own:

  • It’s negative, against, against, against. There was a season for that, after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. But again, to construct justice, concrete goals are required.
  • It has become a coalition-buster, in a time when knitting together often fractious groups with similar needs and aspirations has never been so urgent.
  • Then, even more troublesome has been its impact on too many progressive whites. It has exacerbated our most self-defeating feature, the penchant for circular firing squads. I have seen way too much of this even in my small corner of the “progressive” subculture, liberal Quakers.

Why? Since too many of us fear actual conflict, yet can’t avoid the echoes of events mostly happening beyond our cultural bubbles, we displace our anger and fear at the forces outside, and dump them over each other instead, pretending they are the real adversaries. Continue reading To Promote Racial Justice, It’s Time to Move On from “Anti-Racism”

Quaker House, 9-11 and Me: Arguing With God

I’ve said that when I was Director of Quaker House (2001-2012) I had the best Quaker job there is.

But I didn’t always feel that way. In fact, my initial stance was emphatically the opposite.

Now that the job is open again, it’s worth describing how and why that changed for me.

This is a true story, which I hope will speak to a Friend who may not know it now, but is the right one to fill the post in what is likely to be a very challenging time.

The story begins with “No.”


                      I

“No,” I said. “No thank you.”

I said this to Chris Olson-Vickers. Chris was a mild-mannered social worker in Richmond, Virginia. She was also a Quaker, who in August of 2001 had agreed, perhaps rashly, to host an impecunious co-religionist  in need of shelter during the mid-Atlantic Quakers’ regional assembly, called Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

That impecunious co-religionist was me. Laid off and low on cash, I was too strapped to stay on-campus nearby, where our sessions were underway. I was packing lunches and avoiding the cafeteria.

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Art by john Allder Stephens

On this evening, besides putting me up, Chris was also feeding me dinner. With the meal she had offered – not job-hunting advice; she is too cultivated for that. Rather, she was exercising a Quaker prerogative and “laboring” with me.

It was opportune, she had said, perhaps even providential, that I was unemployed and under her roof. Because she knew of a job opening. A Quaker job. One she thought I had the skills to fill.

At first I was all ears. What job? Where?

But at her answers, I shook my head emphatically. “It’s called Quaker House,” Chris said. “In Fayetteville, North Carolina. Next to Fort Bragg.”

“No,” I repeated. “Not a chance.”

In a more mainstream setting, this could, maybe should, have been the end of it. But as I said, Chris was not simply giving helpful advice. Rather, she was doing religious work, in a form we both understood then, and I understood better later. The fact that, to an outsider, it might have sounded like an argument, did not change its essential character.

Quakers call it “discernment.”

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Chuck and books, in Pennsylvania 1999

After all, many of the key divine-human encounters in the Bible are a lot like arguments, if you listen behind the euphemized antique language.

So Chris pushed past my demurral.

Wait, she persisted. This was not just any job. It was a Quaker peace project planted near one of the largest U. S. military bases, in the midst of a thoroughly militarized city. It had been lifting up the Quaker Peace Testimony in Fayetteville since 1969.

In particular, it had helped many dissident GIs to find legal ways out of the military, and there were plenty more calling it all the time.

All very admirable, I agreed. But it was not for me.

There were any number of reasons.

At the top of the list, I readily admitted, was unabashed regional prejudice. For seventeen years, from the late 1970s to the middle of 1994, I had lived in northern Virginia, which was in the South despite cosmopolitan pretensions and nearness to Washington DC.

I tapped my chest significantly : That experience, I told her, put me deeply in touch with my Inner Yankee. In mid-1994 a chance came to move to Pennsylvania: I had leaped at it like a prisoner of war spying a hole in the stockade fence.

I was still there, in beautiful Happy Valley. That’s what folks around State College, home of Penn State University, call their mountain-secluded stronghold in the center of the state.

I liked the area. The woman I lived with was rooted there like an oak. We were part of a lively  Quaker meeting there. So why would I want to move?

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Next to the old Orthodox Friends cemetery in Bellefonte, PA, near State College.

Okay, I had been laid off from teaching English classes that Spring; that was an issue. But stuff happens. This too shall pass.

Besides, I raved on, North Carolina?  I hadn’t lived there, but knew all I needed to know about it: it was a Four-H state –

It had Heat. Humidity. Hurricanes.

And Jesse Helms. 

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Jesse Helms, longtime reactionary U.S. Senator from NC.

To repeat, no thanks. They could keep him, and the rest of it.

There was more like this.

But none of it fazed Chris Olson-Vickers.

You need to apply for this job, she said again. Chris had grown up in Fayetteville, still had family there. She knew Quaker House’s good work firsthand.

But the job had been vacant for a year and a half; hardly anybody had even applied. If they can’t fill it, she said, the board would have to close Quaker House down.

Which would be a darn shame, because there was still so much to do. There wasn’t any other place like it, she said. This wasn’t just personal, about filling a slot. This was about Quaker witness.

My turn: I said my heart went out to the board, but that didn’t change my conviction. I had grown up on military bases too, I conceded. But that only showed that the military wasn’t for me, and enough was enough.

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From there, I switched to two other lines of defense:

For one thing, I pointed out, if what Quaker House did was counsel GIs about military rules and regulations, I knew nothing about those, except that they filled many fat volumes that I had never opened.

Chris shrugged. You could learn, she said.

Besides, I pushed on, the board would be unlikely to hire me, because of my ornery reputation among Quakers. For eleven years I had published an independent Quaker newsletter. It had repeatedly rattled various closeted Quaker skeletons, poked sticks in sleeping dogs, upset various institutional applecarts, otherwise ruffled feathers and mangled metaphors right and left.

Some of this reporting might have been the Lord’s Work, but little of it was what could be considered good career moves. Somebody on the board was sure to be ticked off about something or other.

Chris was equally unimpressed by this ploy. If anybody on the board remembered these old controversies, she was sure that for the project’s survival, they would set it all aside.

If I had only been arguing with Chris, I think I could have prevailed. By the time we were finished, she had badgered me into agreeing that I’d at least send a resume to Quaker House, if only to get her to leave me be. What could it hurt? She said.

Right. What could it hurt? All the most likely outcomes I could imagine would get me off the hook:

Somebody else would apply, who lived closer and really was ready to move. They’d hire them, with my blessing.

Or a board member would recall an old grievance and not let it go. “Fager?” I could see them thinking. “Wasn’t he the one who wrote that inflammatory article about–(whatever)?” And then putting their response: “Over my dead body,” into proper passive aggressive Quakerese:

“Er, Friends, I believe that is a name which would not have occurred to me.”  

I’ve used that sentence myself, and more power to him. Or her.

On the upside, in the meantime perhaps I would find other work, so if they called I could graciously decline.

In any event, I grudgingly kept my word to Chris, sent in the resume when I got back to Pennsylvania, repeated most of the above caveats about it to my woman friend, and then thought about it as little as possible.

And if I had been arguing only with Chris, I’m sure that would have been the end of that.

                                     II

Not thinking about that resume in the next few weeks was relatively easy. That’s because while I was without full-time work, I did have a contract gig, doing research for a union organizing drive among Penn State teaching assistants. So I was busy digging into the seamy side of a large, rapidly expanding, and very secretive university.

Penn State is a hybrid institution, partly public and partly private, and its managers skillfully play both sides of that fence to conceal the maximum amount of inside information from just about all outside scrutiny.

My big achievement in that project was to discover and publish the salary of its president, a number which was as closely guarded as any secret the CIA is hiding. The magic number, about $500,000 as I recall, turned up in an obscure corner of an obscure IRS document filed by an obscure university research foundation.

I’ve done a lot of investigative reporting, and it’s always a thrill to lift the veil on some hidden item which should be public anyway.

But my triumph was short-lived. No sooner had my contact at the local daily paper published the number, backed up by my source, than Penn State’s lawyers/lobbyists swung into action. They interceded with the IRS to get the obscure foundation exempted from that reporting requirement in the future. The CIA could hardly have reacted more swiftly or effectively.

That work was absorbing and often fun. But by the end of the month I was ready for a break. My son Asa had graduated from high school that spring, and had been selected to do a year-long tour with Americorps, starting in a few weeks. I proposed a trip, one of those life-transition journeys a parent and child get to take if they’re lucky.

I had squirreled away enough cash from the research gig to bring it off, I thought. We would be on a tight budget, driving my car, staying mainly with friends, and looking for low-cost attractions, but we could do it.

Where did he want to go? I had asked. Maine, he said. Where in Maine, I wondered – how about Portland, recalling his interest in  the novels of Stephen King? He shrugged. Just Maine would do.

Let’s get there by way of Canada, I suggested and he agreed. So off we went just after Labor Day, heading for Maine by first going northwest to Ontario, and then up to Montreal.

Montreal was especially appealing. It was still warm, and on the night we rolled into town, wondering at the French signs and the general European air, we stumbled onto a noisy street dance, downtown on Ave. St. Denis. Asa took off to find the mosh pit, and I sat by, content to people watch, and bask in my linguistic acuity when, after an hour or so, I figured out that a banner reading “rentrée” meant “back to school.”

samaritans-montreal-copyFrom la belle province we headed to central Maine, where we stayed with Arla Patch, a fine Quaker artist, went to the beach, and visited the Sabbath day Lake Shaker community.  And it was somewhere on that leg that Asa and I fell to talking about generations, and their sense of identity.

He told me he envied mine, the veterans of the Sixties. We knew what we were after, he said, like stopping the Vietnam war and segregation. We had a sense of direction, a center. “Look at my generation,” he pleaded. “What direction do we have?”

I did my best to reassure him. The notion that my peers and I had things together is mostly retrospective eyewash, I said. We were a bunch of kids trying to make sense of a lot of violence and hate. And many of us, his father included, had spent years trying to find, or create, some sense of direction, a sense of what Quakers call centeredness.

I couldn’t say that process had ended, either. And anyway, I would not wish something like the Vietnam war on anybody.

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Under arrest – anti-Vietnam war protest, Boston, circa 1973.

We never did get to Portland, to drive past Stephen King’s house. We might have given it a shot when we left, because our plan was to visit my brother in Brooklyn, before heading back to Pennsylvania.

But just as we were climbing into the car, on that lovely Tuesday morning, Arla Patch came out, looking worried, a phone held to her ear, to tell us that something crazy had just happened and it was on TV right then. Something about the World Trade Center. We better come see.

What?” I said, annoyed at the delay, and reluctantly followed her inside to take a look.

It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

                                 III

Later that day, the car angled southwest across Vermont, aimed well away from Brooklyn and New York City.  The radio kept repeating the awful reports over and over, as if the reporters still could not quite believe what we had all seen, and at some point I turned to Asa. “God help us all, son,” I said, “but I think your generation just found its direction.”

Back home in Pennsylvania, I struggled through the next days, like everyone else, to make sense of what had happened. Only one thing about the aftermath seemed clear to me: the U.S would soon be at war. Where and when were obscure, but this had felt to me like a bottom-line certainty even before we finally rose and left Arla alone with the smoke on her television screen that morning.

This certainty was not a sign of any prophetic gift. It came, I think, more from my roots in a military family. Many of the reflexes of that culture were ingrained: You (whoever “you” were, who hijacked those planes, we still weren’t sure) don’t get away with attacking the Pentagon, the nerve center of all the US military. Somebody will soon face some heavy payback from the armed men and women whose headquarters and stronghold are in that building. 

And chances were very good that when this war started, there would be many more of the innocent killed in their frenzied, fiery search for the guilty. U.S. revenge would be painted on some part of the world in a very broad brush of death.

And me? What would I do in the face of this impending war? The attacks had shaken me, truly, but had not undermined my basic Quaker pacifist convictions. I had just seen murder, on a huge scale. But more murder was not an answer to murder. That was my conviction on September 10; it remained so on September 12th. I also sensed that I would have some small part in struggling to frame and lift up some voice for an alternative. Hell, any serious Quaker (or Christian?) would.  Right?

But what alternative? And how to raise it?

I didn’t know. But Quakers in circumstances like these are taught to wait for “way to open.” Our spirituality is that if we are properly attentive, we will be given “leadings,” which will point us in the way to go.

I’m a Quaker in large measure because that has happened to me. In our literature such experiences are often described in terms of mystical ecstasies or compared to the rush of romantic infatuation. These are as much metaphors as markers, however; it doesn’t happen according to any specific schedule or formula. John 3: 8 applies: “The spirit is like the wind: it blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from, or where it’s going.” 

I knew all this well enough from my own experience. I was about to learn it again.

                                  IV

An email from a stranger named Bonnie Parsons came only a few days after the return from Maine. Smoke was still rising from the wreckage in Manhattan and Washington, and those with their hands on the levers of political power were already taking advantage of the calamity to serve many other ends, but above all the ends of war. Afghanistan was the first target.

Bonnie Parsons said she wanted to talk to me. And it turned out she was not really a stranger: Bonnie Parsons was the Clerk of the Board  of Quaker House in Fayetteville-Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

At this point, we can skip a chunk of chronology. Contemplating Bonnie’s email, I could almost hear the teeth on the gears of Providence grinding into place somewhere above my head. Heaving a sigh at the computer screen, I knew that if Quaker House wanted to talk to me, they would likely want to hire me.

Even with my checkered past, I made a strong competitor for a Quaker job that nobody else wanted. And if they did make an offer, I knew I would take it.

But what about all my objections? My complaints to Chris Olson-Vickers?

They remained, but were no longer of any consequence.

As with the premonition about the coming of war, this was another case where the models from a military background made more sense than the softer language of typical Quaker spirituality. Reading Bonnie’s email, I felt like an old, out of shape army reservist suddenly being called back to active duty.

Such calls come when you receive orders. The tone of such communications is direct, curt, and unmoved by complaints and objections.

In the military, you don’t follow your bliss; you follow  orders. And it’s not about self-fulfillment — or God help us, “transformation” — it’s about a mission, one likely formulated, as they say, somewhere way above your pay grade. And in pursuing the mission, people can get hurt or killed. For that matter, from your lowly perspective, the mission, as far you can understand it, might be stupid, pointless or even self-defeating.

And your lowly perspective may even be right. But orders are orders.

You won’t find this image in any books on Quaker spirituality that I know of, but that day, and still, I could almost hear God speaking, in the tones of an old, profane first sergeant:

sgt-abe-as-god-copy

Oh, so you don’t like Carolina? Fayetteville’s not in your pretty mountains? Too hot and humid, you say? Scared of hurricanes, and you’ll miss your girlfriend?

Tough shit, soldier. Get in line. 

And you’re asking how long your tour will be?

Til further orders, asshole, what did you expect? There’s a war on, or will be in a minute. 

And oh, yeah — I voted for Jesse Helms. Four times. Or was it five? You got a problem with that, soldier?  

Suck it up and drive on.

That’s who else I had been arguing with when I was complaining to Chris Olson-Vickers. And as any soldier knows, those are arguments you don’t win.

I went on the Quaker House payroll December 1, 2001, and moved in over New Year’s 2002. Sure enough, it was the right place, the best place for me. Stayed til the end of November 2012; it, and the wars, wore me out. Which the best job is supposed to do.

We didn’t stop the wars, alas. But we kept at it, and I was able to pass on Quaker House to able successors who kept up the witness; which is how the story is supposed to end.

And which is what needs to happen again now. Maybe you’re the one. Or you know who it could be. (The full job announcement is here.)

Besides, if God talked tough, She was also merciful:  Shortly after I got to North Carolina, Jesse Helms announced his retirement.

– – – – – –

“It’s not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It’s the one that says ‘To Whom It May concern,’ said an anonymous Belfast resident.”

– from War, the Lethal Custom, by Gwynne Dyer.

“I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life, … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life. What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?”

– Participant in a Harvard longitudinal life-study, in his 60s; from The Atlantic, June 2009

Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

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Chuck Fager retired as Quaker House Director Director in 2012.

On September 21, 2019 Quaker House observed its 50th anniversary, and today it is still working with soldier war resisters, military families and veterans. 

Now — A Great Quaker Job Is Open

Help Us Fill The Best Quaker Job There Is

Are you worrying this week about Russia invading Ukraine and starting a European/NATO war?

What about China vs. Taiwan (& the U. S.)? And/or the Uighurs?

Then there’s the rise of authoritarianism in country after country that used to be at least sort of democratic? (Like the USA.)

Or have you been obsessing over Congress? Especially about who will come out ahead in the scramble for the big federal bucks?

Well, on this last, you can stop speculating. I’ll  tell you right now who’s going to win that race:

The war machine. It always wins, whoever occupies the White House and the Pentagon.

Last I looked, Congress had just upped the war budget again, $25 billion beyond the increase the White House had requested. 

And that’s why, among all those other things, we still need Quaker House in Fayetteville NC. Continue reading Now — A Great Quaker Job Is Open

Tom Fox & Thanksgiving Past: 2005

Christian Peacemakers
Kidnapped in Baghdad

When I saw that headline, John Stephens had already called me with the news: Quaker Tom Fox and three other members of the Christian peacemaker Teams’ group (CPT) in Baghdad had been kidnapped.

John’s call came just after Thanksgiving, late November, 2005. I was driving south from New York City, headed back to North Carolina.

    A few months earlier, in the summer of 2005, John had been an intern at Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I was Director. When he applied for an internship, I asked for a letter of reference; it came by email from Tom Fox, in Baghdad.

John described in his essay how he knew Tom, from work. I met Tom at Langley Hill Friends meeting in McLean, Virginia, where we were both members. I didn’t know him especially well, but his children were the same ages as my younger two. The four of them grew up in that meeting, conspiring to torment a generation of First Day School teachers, on many a First Day morning. Tom was also very kind to me at some moments of personal need.

Tom’s path to Iraq and a lonely death there was straightforward. We talked about it in August, 2005 when I saw him for the final time.

It was at the annual sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, our regional Quaker conference, in Harrisonburg Virginia.

Spiritually, Baltimore Yearly Meeting had long been home to both of us. The body operates three summer camps, and Tom had been active with them, 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 period.

At the yearly meeting sessions, he frequently worked with the children’s program. Indeed, if it had not been for his leading toward CPT and Iraq, any biography of Tom would have been much more about youth work than peace witness as such.

When we met in Harrisonburg in 2005, Tom was between tours in Iraq, and we shared a meal and did some catching up.

We talked first about kids, as older dads will do.  In the early 2000s, our sons 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.” Tom and I chuckled ruefully about that.

We also talked about work. From that same faith community, Tom and I had traveled somewhat parallel (winding) paths, trying to get the meaning 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 seeking had led, after a series of conventional jobs, to Fayetteville and Quaker House, a long-standing peace project hard by Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military bases.

Tom had grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then, to avoid the Vietnam draft, won a spot and did twenty years in the Marine Corps band in Washington DC, playing bass clarinet.

Band members wore uniforms, but skipped most combat training for band practice; their mission  was making music at top-level soirees for Pentagon and  Washington bigwigs – so Tom was about as unmilitary a soldier as one could feature.

He began attending Friends meetings during this time; we met at Langley Hill Meeting in McLean Virginia, near CIA headquarters.

After the Marine band, Tom became a baker and assistant manager at a growing health food supermarket, where he met John Stephens. Tom was good at all this, and his bosses wanted him to move up in management.

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

CPT sets out to bring the “weapons of the spirit” into the front lines of conflict, places where death and life are but a hair’s breadth apart. Tom’s first assignment took him to Iraq. For a respite, he visited the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

Work in Iraq was dangerous, in a region where conflicts  seem hopelessly intractable. Tom stuck with it. Then, as the Iraq occupation shifted from the foolish illusion of “mission accomplished” to the grinding facts of guerilla and civil war, he headed back there.

After Tom was kidnapped, along with Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Sooden, and British pacifist Norman Kember, the late, unlamented 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.”

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 had talked frankly about them over our last August supper. Tom was calm but clear about it: kidnapping, 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 torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison to reporter Seymour Hersh. They had also seen other unarmed humanitarian workers in Iraq kidnapped and some killed.

But there’s more to it than simply experience. The Christian Peacemaker Teams take their identity seriously. Their namesake, after all, was another unarmed troublemaker in an occupied Middle Eastern nation, who was tortured and then suffered a gruesome public execution. One other phrase that comes to mind is Matthew 10:24: “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord.”

Impending Execution of Captives

But such quotations roll too easily off the tongue. When John Stephens called about the kidnapping, I wanted Tom and his colleagues released, safely, and NOW. But what, John and I asked each other, could we do to help free them from 6200 miles away?

John was calling from home in Virginia, where he does web work as a  consultant. We kept returning to this question over the next few days — and we were not the only ones — intensity was rising as a deadline for the captives’ execution approached.

John Stephens.

Experts in crisis situations advised informally that the best approach was to raise the prisoners’ public profile, and seek as much public outcry for their safety as possible. That would raise the political cost to the kidnappers of harming or killing them. There were no guarantees, we understood that. But it was an alternative to blind panic or paralysis.

Talking this over with John on the evening of December 1, an idea surfaced: what about creating a website and an online petition calling for their release? John’s career had shifted from stacking organic produce to computers. His skills as a webweaver, and such was the accessibility of the internet that within only two hours, he had a site, www.freethecaptivesnow.org up and running, with a petition and links to public statements calling for the release of the four captives.

For the first several days of December, there was a growing international chorus of such statements, even from very militant Muslim groups, supporting the CPT workers and their release. Our online petition, along with another, soon gathered more than 50,000 signatures from around the world. There were vigils and rallies. While we were terrified for our friends, the swelling response made this a tense but hopeful period.

The deadline passed, but a video showed they were still alive.

  • From left: James Loney (Canada), Harmeet Sooden (New Zealand), Tom Fox (USA), and Norman Kember (UK), January 21, 2006 hostage video

    After December 8, when a second deadline for executing Tom and the others passed without killings, momentum shifted. The flurry of statements died down; news reports dwindled and became routine.

From Baghdad, this meant an ominous silence about our friends, amid the noise and cries of ongoing civil war. For John and me, at our website, a frantic effort to beat a deadline was replaced by keeping a vigil.

Every night for the next thirteen weeks, either John or I (or both) would scan dozens of wire service reports for news of Tom and the others.

This work was disorienting and humbling for me. My partner Wendy had only recently moved in. I lay down beside her every night, warm with  domestic tranquillity, but with a head full of mocking echoes the latest brutalities in the war; peacenik privilege, one might call it. I could only imagine what was happening to Tom and the others. (The reality, we learned later, was awful: every night they were chained together with no  relief.)

We posted about what we found: with only a few exceptions, the news was “no news,” which we hoped was “good news.”

The exceptions were when the gloomy videos of the four were released; at least they were still alive, but looking increasingly haggard. Then, on March 7, 2006 a new video showed only three – minus Tom.

On March 10 came the dispatch we dreaded most: confirmation that Tom had been murdered. (We were told that early reports he had been tortured were not confirmed by a later autopsy.) The only relief from this loss appeared on March 23, when the other three captives were freed by British commandos.

Who killed Tom Fox? And why?

Tom Fox, in a hostage video, about five weeks before he disappeared.

Few other than the ones who pulled the trigger know the truth, and one wonders how much even they understand. Speculation abounded, of course, with many of my more left-leaning friends imagining a CIA-sponsored conspiracy to silence these noisy pacifist dissenters. Yet from the reading and interviews I have done, the most probable guess seems much more mundanely sordid: it was likely all about money.

The videos showing Tom and the others were issued by a previously unknown group, “the Swords of Righteousness Brigades.” This name is very likely a fake, a cover for a criminal gang, which simply kidnapped them for ransom. There was, as John and I learned while keeping our vigil, a sizeable kidnapping industry in Iraq. Many Iraqis have been thus abducted for profit, as well as citizens of numerous other countries.

James Loney felt the ransom was wanted to help finance the guerilla insurgency. Many other observers feel that while the kidnappers are Muslims, and many have likely suffered from the invasion and occupation, these crimes appear to be only loosely connected to religious or political grievances. Rather, they are more a specimen of organized crime gangs mushrooming in a devastated and lawless society.

From this “profit-seeking” perspective, taking CPT team members was not a particularly good “investment”: the group has pledged not to pay, and not to ask anyone else to. Moreover, none of the four had a personal fortune to plunder. But the gang likely figured that regardless of such brave declarations, given enough pressure, someone would eventually cave in and pay. (Harmeet Sooden later told a New Zealand press conference that he suspected a ransom had been paid for him and the other survivors, despite vehement government denials.)

But if the kidnappers were after money, why kill Tom? There are a number of hypotheses:

  • One, to show the friends and supporters of the other three that the kidnappers meant business. Some other hostage killings – for instance, that of longtime relief worker Margaret Hassan, an Iraqi citizen originally from Ireland – were evidently staged to show recalcitrant governments that ransom demands were truly life and death matters.
  •  Or two: because Tom was an American, and as a veteran had a US military ID card, he was a certified “enemy,” and one for whom the US government would not pay. That made him disposable.

    Tom’s military ID opened doors, and may have been his death warrant.
  •  Or three: if the kidnappers couldn’t get ransom from Tom’s family or government, maybe they recouped something by selling Tom to another Iraqi insurgent gang, one willing to pay for the privilege of shooting a military-identified American. (It is all-too easy to imagine their derision at his protests that he was a musician, not a fighter.)

Again, no one knows, but these are plausible explanations for the inexplicable.

With Tom’s death and the freeing of Jim Loney, Norman Kember and Harmeet Sooden, our www.freethecaptivesnow.org website morphed into a memorial and an archive (still up), and we wound up our nightly vigil.

I felt more than a little guilty about moving on, as the daily discipline of focusing on Iraq’s ongoing agony had brought home in cruel detail how many thousands more men and women there were being kidnapped, held, tortured, and some killed, by factions from all sides, amid a bloody confusion of agendas.

Our nightly reviews also, bit by obscure bit, made clear that despite the continuing stream of upbeat Pentagon communiques, the Iraq occupation was turning from a morass into quicksand, and headed for stalemate or failure.

With Tom gone, and the other CPTers free, I was abandoning these legions, to return to some semblance of everyday routine. In truth, I can only hang my head and cite the Qur’an, Surra 4:110: “And whoever does evil or wrongs himself but afterward seeks Allah’s forgiveness, he will find Allah Oft-forgiving, Most merciful.”

Tom Fox’s Legacy, Let Your Life Preach

Yet Tom’s story does not stop there. In the founding saga from which his CPT team took its marching orders, death was a tragedy, but not the end of the drama. Further, Tom was a Quaker, and in this tradition, “be patterns, be examples,” and “let your life preach” are among our oldest and most venerable mandates.

In his memory, I compiled and published a small book, Tom Fox Was My Friend. Yours, Too. It was a memorial and a tribute, meant primarily for study and reflection. I believe Tom would recognize and approve such a project.

In the book’s pages, various persons reflected on passages from Tom’s writings, or their memories and impressions of him, and offered comments on the patterns and examples of this remarkable, foreshortened life.

“This was the quote today in my planner,” Tom wrote, “as I considered the tragedies both great and small, personal and global we are all dealing with. . . . The only ‘something in my life’ I can hold onto is to do what little I can to bring about the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. It is my sense that such a realm will always have natural disasters. It is the ‘man-made’ disasters that we are called upon to bring to an end.”

Tom sought to hold on to hope wherever he was. This was a difficult task in the regions where he chose to work.

The book was meant particularly for group study and reflection. But it, and Tom, are mostly forgotten now. Which is too bad.

Of one rare encouraging incident, in Palestine, Tom recalled in a blog entry, “Here was a seed that can take root. Here were people working through their anger and coming out the other side committed to peace. Here were people listening to their hearts and listening to each other. Here a tiny part of the Peaceable Realm was created. Here was the justice of God taking shape.”

Sixteen years later, can that also happen here?

Santa Went to Lunch in Durham . . .Not Making This Up

The other day I went to lunch with my buddy Micah at my favorite diner, Elmo’s. It was busy & we talked & ate for a couple hours.

At a nearby table, several
Middle-aged folks were sitting with a much older woman.

I didn’t “pay them any mind” until a shadow loomed over me unexpectedly. Looking up from my bacon, I saw it was the very old woman, who was quite tall, and of a stately bearing. I didn’t know her from Adam. Or Eve.

She leaned down toward me, and behind her I noticed the other people at their table, also strangers, watching closely, wondering what might happen.

The woman looked right into my eyes and then said, dead-serious, “I’m on your list . . . .” Continue reading Santa Went to Lunch in Durham . . .Not Making This Up

Joe Biden’s Nantucket, And Mine

So. Joe Biden loves Nantucket for Thanksgiving.

Been going there for decades. He’s staying at some billionaire’s place.

How do I know? Why, Politico tells me so.

Doesn’t surprise me. I’ve stayed there a few times. Not in the billionaires’ section, of course; or with a security detail. But I loved it too, like Joe.

When I visited, if you did your research, made a few of the right contacts, and went, as Joe does, not during the summer season, you could find a room that was not completely over the moon in price.

Nantucket is in the circle at the lower right, farther out in the Atlantic than the larger & better-known Martha’s Vineyard.

But that was in another century, and another millennium. One of my visits was in the fall of 1976, when I watched a presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford on a B &B family’s black and white TV. Continue reading Joe Biden’s Nantucket, And Mine

Quickie Covid Update: Bad News, Good News, Bad News (Again; Sorry)

I’m not much of a data wonk, but I can read charts that go up and down. And handily, the Washington Post & New York Times put out such charts for COVID every day.

So here is our recent history with the pandemic compressed into four simple charts.

1. Summer 2021 started well, but turned bad. By the brink of autumn, it was awful: On September 13, there were almost 176000 new cases, on that one day.

2. But then the charts took a turn for the better. That steep upward slanted line turned, and new case numbers dropped.

They kept declining for about six weeks. On November 4 the daily new cases number was down to 71300 or so. That was less than half of the September number. I couldn’t help it: my hopes got higher. Maybe we were seeing the, um, light at the end of this long gloomy tunnel?

Or did I jinx it by even thinking that??

3. Because then, the numbers started increasing again. And this morning, September 18, 2021, the daily new case number is back up to 89000+. And winter isn’t even here yet.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got the two vaxx shots, plus a booster, AND a flu shot, the supposedly extra potent one for geezers. I also wear a mask when out grocery shopping (my main entertainment), or stopping by the favorite diner (my ultra-favorite treat).

But dammit, if those numbers keep rising (again), the diner may have to slide back down on the list.  I’ll hate that. And what about school for my grandson and granddaughter & pre-K for the great granddaughters? And there’s one more:

4. Beg pardon for referring to our awful political mess, but ponder this last NY Times chart:

As for me, I’m gonna shut up before my big mug of schadenfreude overflows again.

But there it is. The Big awful Truth that the even Bigger LIE is covering up.

Critical Race Theory & Me: It Could be Verse

Doggone it, the new Texas law banning the teaching of critical race theory came too late to help me.

I’m particularly sorry to miss the mandate that educators avoid anything that might end up making anyone “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

Because discomfort, anguish and other  psychological distress is sure enough what I felt after spending an hour with one of the most successful teachers I ever had, Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark.

It was December 9, 1964. Mrs. Clark was then a member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s executive staff, his inner circle. She had an office in his headquarters suite in Atlanta.

I was a brand-new recruit, called a subsistence worker, earning the grand wage of $25 per week.

Randolph Blackwell

I had told Dr. King’s chain-smoking office manager, Randolph Blackwell,  that I was a writer, who could churn out copy on demand. I had done that in college back in Colorado, for the yearbook and the campus newspaper.

Blackwell said they needed some copy churned out, to keep up with the hurly burly of news.

And news there was. That was the month when Dr. king headed to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.  And, I soon learned, he and his staff were almost ready to launch a voting rights campaign in Alabama. Continue reading Critical Race Theory & Me: It Could be Verse

Three Selma Poems — Alabama 1965

On Meeting Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark─ Atlanta, December 9, 1964

 

On Meeting Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark─ Atlanta, December 9, 1964

I sit down quietly in the chair, The older woman smiles and light

Reflects off frame glasses and gold rose earrings, the voice

Is like, is like the whisper of tires on a faroff nighttime highway Or maybe that of a Negro woman of sixty-six

Which it is.

She inhales to speak, I raise

My fine young journalistic pen, prepared to summarize Her story into ink traces,

To finish my entry blank in the Biographical Sweepstakes: “Tell us, in 150 words or less,

The substance of her life”; I am, of course, confident─

The smile fades back into equilibrium, and she says calmly: “My Father was a slave.”

I see, yes─the pen moves to the paper: M-Y-F-A-T-H-E-R-W-A-S-A-S-L-A─

Ahh, ha ha ha,

No, something isn’t quite right, She didn’t even blink.

Voice steady

My Father─

Hands quiescent in her lap My Father─

Breathing is regular My Father─

Oh no.

You see, my father was a normal, middle-class guy like every- body else,

You understand that don’t you Mrs.–

My Father was

Yes, Yes, I know, but surely you can understand the difference was only superficial, just an accident of history that yours happened to be

─a slave (why in hell won’t she blink)

Well it was his own damn fault, wasn’t it─after all he must have known the Truth, because

My Father was

The Good Book, you know, says that

Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you─

─a slave.

Say that’s kind of a clever twist there Mrs.─ Ahh, ha ha ha. …

Lay down your pen and sniffle for shame, boy─ You there, the intellectual snot-nose,

Mucus running from your pen and you With the cheek to call it ink.

But then, you have been to a university

and so of course you know all about slavery

You even wrote a thousand-word paper on it (for extra credit, that is)

“… basically a part of the economic system, the indispensable

supply

Of cheap labor for the harvesting of the cotton crop.. ”

But you missed the chapter in the non-required readings about

how to face a calm old woman who can look you in your smooth white face and say

My Father

And not even blink you say could you talk just a little slower please ma’am

I didn’t get that last part your father was a what

─a slave.

Just like my father except for one or two of those little accidents of History, heh heh

My aren’t we an educated magnanimous liberal christian, boy─ Go to the rear of the class, get out the dictionary and look up

the following six words,

then write for the next three hundred years after school is

out on the new whiteboard with the black chalk the following sentence which you may have run across some where in your supplementary extracurricular living:

My father was not a slave, That’s it, only at the end,

Put a question mark.

Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987)

 

SELMA STREETS – February, 1965

by Charles Fager

Here along the Selma streets Old men like tree stumps, Young men like defaced pillars,

Whiskers and hair grease and dirty overalls, Keeping impassive hopeless vigils,

Fraying edges on society’s old, but not discarded clothes.

I spring upon them, a dangerous animal, Dressed in new overalls and enthusiasm, Hands full of transmigrated dynamite caps:

ONE MAN-ONE VOTE the caps read,

They offer no resistance when I pin the explosives on reluctant lapels, But then, of course, they never have.

“Come on down to the courthouse, come on come on… Nobody’s gonna hurt ya………………. ”

I’m right of course, nobody’s ever gonna hurt them anymore, but that’s not what I’m talking about, not even what I’m thinking….

“Yeah, OK (they don’t say Boss Man or Mr. Charlie (thank God?)), sure, “Ah’ll be downnere inna fewww minuss, sure

“Inna fewww minussa, sure “Inna feww, sure

“Suresuresuresuresu”

Heads nod, graying whiskers flicker in and out of shadow, but the eyes say Go away go away, please now just go ahead on away;

The eyes look around me, over, beside, through, but not at, because I don’t Really exist, can’t exist, mustn’t exist (I’m thinking about

socioeconomic factors, the effects of a political aristocracy,

the philosophy of dynamic nonviolence and, of course, the existential value of

the local Negro religion, yes, professor, you see, as I explained fully in the footnote on page 47 of my thesis and as we can clearly see from MacElvain’s quite valuable remarks on the subject……….. ).

The walk back up to the listonclay cafe seems longer than when I came down the street, perhaps because the ragged lines of men (Children of what God?)

The sure, yeah OK men still are standing there, New buttons still offending their lapels,

Eyes still looking, perhaps now a bit more carefully, over, under, around and through,

Then at me when I’m past, but I see them doing it (go away go away go away) Words to an unsung spiritual, prayer of the nonchurchgoers, the Movement of Those no longer able to move.

Into the cafe, darkness and dirt, filthy flannel figure bending

Across the counter, observing the half-full beer glass as if

It held the answer and maybe it does; I spring again FREEDOM NOW button poised “Come on down to the courthouse fella, come on come on,

Nobody’s gonna hurt ya, whattsa matter, are ya afraid of losing your job–

(I am of course ready with my arguments to show that one must have courage, one must not be afraid to risk everything, one must)?”

But when he turns these eyes upon me (not over, under, around or through) and whispers, says, “Ain’t got no job,”

And turns back to the more understanding beer glass, Filthy flannel in the dark and dirt,

Only my mouth continues, throwing up a smokescreen until I can

Get away, away, get away quick, outside and past the

Dying tree stumps, defaced and crumbling pillars,

Glances at the periphery accusing me: you there, boss man,

How do you, O young white man of faith, deal with the substance of Things Hopeless, the Evidence of the Things that are Seen;

But I just walk on in my new overalls, and think of socioeconomics, And don’t say anything.

 

 

UNTITLED – SELMA, MARCH 1965

 

The trooper car is, of course, waiting when you get back to your car:

“Hey you” (flashlight beam, reflections off uniform brass, neck hairs fluorescent in headlight glare) “where you think you’re goin?”

To freedom. To heaven (to hell?) To anywhere. To–

“To the church.” (clear your throat quickly so your voice doesn’t falter) Yes, of course: to the church.

“Lessee your identification and the registration on that car… ”

Pull out the wallet and start the charade, let them examine your driver’s license etc., with extreme and exaggerated care, of course they have to get on the radio and check the car out through

Birmingham, outside agitators are an unsavory lot and it’s more than likely stolen;

But while you’re standing there, looking carefully off down the

nighttime street, notice the other trooper looking at you intently, intently:

“Where you from, Charles?” (listen to the question: something rings in it besides antagonism, there is more than one query in the words; look up at him quick, how can you answer without exposing the concealed questions?)

“Well (you want to say give me thirty seconds to think over my answer(s) at least)–“

“What,” interrupts the other trooper, “does that button mean?” and he points:

GROW--white letters on black background, Get Rid Of Wallace, what else, but you won’t say that, you don’t need to get beat up tonight, and besides you know that he asked it because he too heard some (not all) of the other questions

in his partner’s voice; so you have to answer him satisfactorily without letting it tear down the little bridge the other has extended.

“Well GROW refers to the philosophy of the whole movement

…” etc., etc., and so on, it’s hard, but the other trooper is still peering so the bridge is still there.

“MmmminmHhmmmm,” the questioner says; he of course

knows what it really means, but your straightfaced baloney throws him temporarily off balance.

Silence in heaven (and earth) for the space of about half an hour (minute). Then–

“Where’d you say you were from?” Listen again:

Reach out:

“Well, I was born” (yes I hear you) “and then we went” (can you give me your hand?) “and after that we” (just for a moment) “when I finished college–“

He nods a little and you know he heard; so did the other, and his guard is up:

–“Why don’t you get a good job back where you came from, and quit messin’ around down here?”

It was too good to last……. Just try to retreat with dignity and

without burning the bridge’s remains….

“Yeah, there’s other ways to settle this than in the street,” the other, his guard also now up, joins in. . .

There isn’t any answer for this, so just look down at the muddy street.

He hands you back your license and finishes up the charade: “Tell your boss to get some identification on this car, and we’re

Not letting anybody into the church. Only the sheriff could do that.”

Copyright © by Chuck Fager

 

Two Videos: “The Separation Generation” & My Odyssey in Brief

Two new videos are on my mind as this week opens:

The first was made last week, when three of us opened the door to what hopefully will become a much broader set of conversations about recent Quaker history, conflicts, and current issues.

We gathered for the Earlham School of Religion’s Authors discussion of our three-volume set, “The Separation Generation, “ charting a series of five recent schisms in American Quaker yearly meetings.

More than one hundred Friends and visitors joined us in person and via Zoom. They had lots of good questions, more than we could deal with in our limited time.

One of the most frequent questions, in Zoom  chat and later messages, was, “When will a video recording be available?”

I’m happy to say that the answer is, “Right now.”

The hour-long recording of the session is now on Vimeo, here.

Coauthors, from left: Stephen Angell; Jade Rockwell; and Chuck Fager

So if you missed it, or want to go over it again, now’s your chance. And you can still send in questions and comments to us, via this blog. Continue reading Two Videos: “The Separation Generation” & My Odyssey in Brief