Monday, April 27, 2015

Words of War

Two consecutive Sundays. Two different Monthly Meetings. Two different states. One remarkably similar message reflecting on the popular Quaker query making the rounds: “How does your life help to remove the causes of war?” followed by a reference to “War is not the Answer.” 

Increasingly, I wonder how useful these ruminations serve Quakerism, especially as they seem to become an increasing part of congregational vernacular. And when these messages are also proudly displayed to the public, I wonder whether they are an admonition to others that they should be like us, and then how much does that help us live our faith.  The “causes of war” are so vast and complex, but war is really, in my mind, simply a part of the spectrum of violence that includes greed, power, fear, hunger, faith, love, education, institutionalization, nationalism, rigidity, and religion, just to name a few. A better query might be something like “What can I do today to break the cycles of violence?” 

The focus on “war” in these messages raises two thoughts for me. First, in Quaker circles, the action that often follows is a call to cut military spending. It is an over-simplification that ignores some of the realities of our society. If you visit many of the neglected parts of our country – rural areas as well as urban – you will hear many people say they want to join the military. This is not because they love war, but because the military is one of the few legal options many people have to get out of otherwise dire circumstances where employment and education are scarce and violence and drugs are rampant. As manufacturing jobs continue to disappear, there is little else currently on the horizon that is a viable option. In addition, we should recognize that the military also engages in many peace-making and emergency rescue operations. Given the small numbers of Quakers, we might want to engage in building an infrastructure to replace some of these rather than spending a lot of time, energy, faith and money on the notion that we can get the politicians running the massive bureaucracy to do the right thing. It’s a bottom-up approach, but when numbers are small, sometimes bridge-building and doing the small things can have the greatest impact.

Then there is the word “war” itself. It is a word that evokes negative imagery and energy, but in doing so allows us to gloss over all the ways that we participate in the cultural, environmental and economic injustices that perpetuate the cycles of violence. “War” is something that is easy to say others do. Focusing on war has a way of externalizing and, subsequently, absolving us from our culpability.  

Often I hear Quakers being described (at times self-described) as “against war” or, more interesting to me, “not believing in war.” As a pacifist, I have come to appreciate that we have to not only think but act deeper. I do believe in violence. I see it every day, and I abhor it. The power of Quakerism is not in our stance against war but in the oft-cited belief that “there is that of God in All”. When we can use this to steel ourselves to compassionately break down the barriers of classification that serve to divide us from our neighbors and fellow global community members, we are getting more to the root causes of violence – the real work of pacifism. Instead of the harsh messages full of words like “not”, “don’t”, and “war” that affirm little but evoke violent images, having positive words that invite positive energy and imagery would be a nice change. Words do matter.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

"It's so simple"...

As spring unfolds, at William Penn House we are in the midst of connecting with the community in a new way for us. Over the past few years, starting with gleaning and then community gardens, we have connected with the urban garden movement. As with any good movement, there needs to be a strong grassroots component that is actively engaged, not simply following the call from outsiders, but transforming things from within and the ground up.  Thanks to the leadership of some of our community partners and friends, and seeing the gaps, installing raised garden beds in yards and homes throughout DC is the focus of much of the work we are engaged in this summer, utilizing Quaker Workcamp groups, volunteers and staff.

After a winter and early spring of prep work (building a space for growing seedlings of primarily collard greens and kale, pre-cutting wood for boxes and beds), last week we started going out into the community. Saturday, April 18, as hundreds of thousands trashed the National Mall  while "honoring" Earth Day, a group of 20 people joined us less than 5 miles east to slowly scale-up this fledgling garden program. It was an invaluable experience as we were able to work out some of the kinks while getting the work and word out. As our community partner RonDell Pooler said, the vision is to create a food hub in what is now a food desert; this includes the expanding community gardens under RonDell's purview and now the garden beds going into people's yards.

"It's so simple" reflected one of the participants who joined us from a church in Altoona, PA. While the work to be done is not that simple in terms of economic justice and environmental stewardship, and this work alone won't get it done, it is this kind of work that is necessary to getting it done. This kind of work is really an expression of the Quaker testimony of Simplicity. It is about simple acts (building gardens) can help build bridges between issues (such as nutrition) while building bridges of relationships. As RonDell said, it is this kind of work that can turn food deserts to food hubs, while helping overcome barriers of separation and at the same time developing opportunities (such as green job training) for sustainability.

Outside a local Friends Meeting, there is a sign asking "How does your life help to remove the causes of War?" I personally think that the focus on "war" can create blindspots to all the causes of violence of which war is merely a part of the spectrum, but I also think that this is the kind of question seasoned pacifists should be able to readily have a list of regularly-engaged actions. For me, this garden project is on that list: it's a simple act that, while addressing hunger and environment, helps to build bridges of healing, compassion and sustainability in a severely fragmented community.  Will it end wars? Probably not. Will it help us on that track? The more we can engage folks, the more likely we can say "yes."