Openings to the Way of Nonviolence

I am finishing a book about the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey.  For months, while seeking to know how Friends in our time have experienced these elements, there have been stacks of books piled around my computer, on my bookcases, even across the back of my dresser.  In addition to talking with people, I’ve been reading autobiographies of contemporary Quakers, plus articles, pamphlets, blogs, and anthologies.  Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices and Walk Worthy of Your Calling have been especially helpful in my search for the experiences of Quakers from other parts of the world.

In the past two weeks I’ve been revising my sections about Openings and the Refiner’s Fire.  My search has revealed that a number of contemporary Friends have had life-transforming openings when they were confronted with the choice to enter the military or not.  In this time of anguish about the terrible conflict and bloodshed in Palestine and Israel, I feel moved to share how two Quakers received openings when they wrestled with the peace testimony.

People receive revelations of God’s truth and love in many different ways. Like many openings, the ones that follow did not come as quick revelations. Two men who engaged in an intense period of heart-felt listening for God’s truth and facing their fears finally experienced within themselves the truth of Christ’s call to a life of non-violence. The Peace Testimony was no longer just a Quaker belief. They received clarity about how God would have us live, which differs from our current ways.

After becoming a Quaker, educator Paul Lacey struggled with making a commitment to nonviolence:

The issue came to focus when I was trying to determine whether I could call myself a conscientious objector, recognizing that such a step would mean foreswearing violence for the rest of my life.  For weeks I felt haunted by the question, torn by my unfaithfulness if I did not accept the peace testimony and terrified at its irrationality and danger, if I did.  This long period of constant worry culminated in one sleepless night which I spent arguing with myself, going over the arguments of others, praying for guidance and being afraid that I might have my prayers answered.  Finally, early in the morning, I knew I had crossed the line.  No new arguments fell into place, nothing became more rational, but somewhere I had changed and I knew that I would have to declare myself a conscientious objector and give up reliance on force to accomplish things–for the rest of my life.

The decision put him at odds with some members of his family.  He was frightened both at the prospect that he might have to go to prison for his pacifism, and even more frightened about how this would impact his safety in the world: “I also knew that I had been led inevitably to this choice, but I felt frightened at what had happened to me.  Suddenly I was utterly defenseless in a violent world, and for a long time I went through my days fearful of what it meant to have disarmed myself.”  Later in his life, he faced a number of dangerous situations in which he might have defended himself violently, but his inward preparation and commitment helped him to choose nonviolence.  (Leading and Being Led)

Stephen Cary was raised in a Quaker family.  His father left a lucrative job rather than help create military weapons.  Nonetheless, in the face of the horrors of Nazi Germany, Cary struggled about whether to become a soldier.  He studied the scriptures for guidance and talked with others who were also searching. Finally he sensed that it was “the whole sweep of Jesus’ life and, above all, his death, that mattered.  Together they were an uncompromising, matchless witness to the heart of his message: that love alone overcomes evil.” (The Intrepid Quaker )  By the time Cary was called up by the Selective Service to enter the military, he felt clear that he could not kill.  He was classified as a Conscientious Objector and went into Civilian Public Service.

Only after acting upon his inward conviction that Christ calls us to nonviolent love, not to war, did Cary have the kind of opening that might be called a moment of vision.  Most COs were assigned hard work at menial tasks for up to four years of unpaid compulsory service.  They came from quite diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and both the labor and the living situations were difficult.  Some COs worked hard, and others resisted.  Cary was sent to clear trees on Skyline Drive in Virginia, to fight fires alongside prisoners in California, and then to build water holes and divert streams in the muddy spring woods of Massachusetts. One day during a break, while drinking sap from a tin cup, Cary watched as the three New England farm boys and the brother from Philadelphia labored diligently to load their wheelbarrows.  Others worked slowly.  Two men from different denominations leaned on their shovels and debated scripture, while two artists took one of their frequent rest breaks.  Some men with PhDs discussed 18th-century literature while prying up a boulder stuck in the middle of the mud hole.  As he watched them all, Cary received an opening that committed him to peace work for the rest of his life:

The entire company was mud-caked.  Looking at this scene, I felt a belonging beyond words.  These men, so difficult, so diverse, of so many faiths and abilities and backgrounds, were my family, my brothers.  There was no place in the world that I would rather have been than right there, leaning against my maple tree, sipping sap in a Massachusetts forest.  Tears came to my eyes.  I felt a Presence in the mud, almost real enough to be loading His wheelbarrow.  It was only a moment, but it made a difference.  I’d been spared from the death and dying and the agony of war, but that day in that water hole was the first time I became aware of my obligation, later reinforced by my searing experiences in postwar Europe, to work through all my life for peace. (The Intrepid Quaker )

Later, while working for the American Friends Service Committee, Cary labored in difficult circumstances to help rebuild European villages, towns, and cities that had been shattered by the war, slowly helping to restore relationship and communication among those who had been enemies.

Openings to the Way of Nonviolence: What has been revealed to you about the path of nonviolence? Have openings come to you after a long period of intentional spiritual seeking and wrestling? Have openings come in other ways?

* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.

A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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6 Responses to Openings to the Way of Nonviolence

  1. elizaga says:

    I really like the image at the end of this. Is it front on glass, looking out at trees?

    • I believe the photo shows a muddy stream in a forest in the rain, with water splashing on the lens of the camera. Perhaps I should make it larger, so we can see it better. Thanks for asking!

  2. terry hauger says:

    I wish to say what a fine writer you are. Thanks for bringing these stories back to life.

  3. Homer Wood says:

    Coming from a Mennonite background, I am interested in the inward struggles of those choosing to become CO.s rather than join the military. I had two cousins who could have applied for CO status, but I believe they felt if others went into the military, they would also go. Both saw much action in the war but survived unhurt.
    I also joined the military in peacetime, but the Korean War caught up with me.
    One of my favorite movies is Sgt. York. He also struggled with the question of whether or not to join the military.
    Thanks, Marcelle, for your writings.

  4. Pingback: Entering into Transformation | A Whole Heart

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