Last fall at William Penn House, we were called to respond to why we were hosting Navy Midshipman for an evening conversation and allowing them to call what they do “service”. Among the sentiments that challenged us included: 1) being in the military is less about “service” and more about “murder”, and 2) that these young men and their peers were nothing more than pawns in the military industrial complex. During the evening, while people were civil (for the most part), what became clear was this: these young men were articulate and thoughtful. They could talk about their vision for the world and how they see what they do as serving that vision. They could articulate some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of serving. They talked about how the military community has, over the last decade, recognized that humanitarian work is vital to preventing unnecessary violence and casualties, citing the examples of the shift in strategy in Iraq and the creation of floating Navy hospitals that respond to such things as earthquakes and tsunamis.
What also happened that night was this: while these young men were calm and easily answered any and all questions, the questions from the people in the room were not up to the task. There were certainly some questions about specific acts of war and what these young men do when they don’t agree with the orders that come to them, but there was a lack of articulate questions grounded in the philosophy and practice of pacifism. There were passions and emotions, and there was a desire to ask good questions, but the ability to clearly state these questions was not there. What I saw was that the reactivity drowned out the peaceful messages that we seek to bring forth. So what can we do?
This brings me to Radical Hospitality. As we at William Penn House have adapted it and strive to practice (notice "strive"), it means “welcoming everyone as if he/she were Christ”, or in Quaker-speak, “seeing that of God in all”, or for the more secular among us, recognizing the goodness in people. To live this way takes a leap of faith – a leap that can take us right out of our comfort zone about what we have been taught to believe about good and bad in the world. But it does not at all mean being soft or wishy-washy. In fact it is quite the opposite: To me it means that if I really believe there is that of God in all, I want to see it in others and while I share mine with them. In order to do this, I have to do what I can to create a safe and respectful place. My experience is that this actually works in making the world a better place. One of the basic tenets is this, I’ve learned: we have to be fully willing to be wrong. It’s hard in our polarized work, but take gay rights, for example: if you ask people how they feel about laws supporting gay marriage, you’ll often get a “yes” or a “no”. But if you can hold a real conversation beyond the legislation, you often find a much more enriching conversation about the rights and responsibilities of legal couples. As a bonus, I’ve often found, people become more gay-affirming. They may not be where I am on the spectrum, but the gap between us has decreased when we see that, really, we want much of the same thing in the world. Just yesterday, in an almost "comedy of errors" way, when I was stopped by CIA security in Langley Hill VA, the ability to consciously practice this rather than get fearful or angry led to a positive experience where I saw a good person doing his job and, hopefully, a CIA policeman has another example of Quakers being good people, not just reactionary "peaceniks".
What are the keys to living this kind of spiritual and disciplined life? First, I readily acknowledge that I more often fail than succeed in accomplishing this, but I am doing better. I recently read a book called “In Praise of Doubt: How to hold convictions without being a fanatic”. It’s a great read, and really reassured me that there is a great need in our multicultural, multi-religious society for people to commit to the spiritual discipline of bridge-building for peace-making. It’s a calling that I think easily fits with Friends testimony when we can really push ourselves to put ego and self to the side, and consider that we are part of a much bigger societal fabric. It is a life practice that calls for curiosity (“seeking”), and realizing that there really is no “other”, there is just “us” in this world. Even for the military, it is not the alternative to peace. It’s there for those times when pacifism is just not up to the trick. When we can share in this, it’s a wonderful feeling.
Now the hard part for Friends: to learn to really do this often means that we be experts in listening – “bearing silent witness”. Just like running a marathon, however, we actually have to practice, not just think about it. So how well-trained are we at the art of listening? What can we do? Just as “there is no way to peace; peace is the way”, I would say “there is no way to listening; listening is the way.” Let’s get out there and practice it. Let’s step up our commitment to congregate with people of other faiths – and do the real hard work, congregate with those who not only have a different faith tradition but more importantly with those of the same faith but different interpretations and who may disagree with us on some of the issues of our times. When we feel the need to respond, let’s try and sit in appreciative silence. If we really believe in our faith, let’s put it into practice.