Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Catching Up on Gandhi's Birthday

As Gandhi's birthday approaches (Friday, Oct 2), I feel in the mood to celebrate peace and also to catch up on my daily blog. The book about Howard and Anna Brinton is now 80% complete: the biography part is finished, but the hardest part is still to be written: assessing the theological writings of these seminal Quaker thinkers/educators.

Last week I spent two days at the library of Whittier College doing research, and spent the night at the home of Bill Miller, a retired Methodist pastor who is a dear friend. It was fun to spend time in a city where Kathleen and I spent many wonderful years. I even had time to have lunch with Lynda Ladwig and Susan, who are members of First Friends Church, which I attended when I lived in Whittier.

This past weekend I took a break from my writing to attend a workshop led by John Calvi, one of the most beloved spiritual healers in Quakerdom. John was trained as a masseuse and originally wanted to work on cruise ship, but God had other plans. He ended up working with victims of torture, rape, and other forms of trauma abuse. He is a gentle, deeply intuitive spirit who can "read" the body the way others read braille. Around 18 people took part in his workshop, which took place in a beautiful setting: the redwoods near Santa Cruz.

It was a very healing weekend, and I learned a lot. At one point, John rubbed his hand up and down my back and it was like a warm fire lighting up every muscle and nerve. As he "listened" to his hands, he said, "Hmmm. You've been doing your homework. Everything seems very clear." That was a very reassuring reading, one I could concur with. I do feel very clear, thanks be to God. Later he did another "reading" of my back and made a prediction: "You've been working for 25 years and you will have a big voice." I don't know exactly what it means to have a "big voice" but I know I am being called to travel in the ministry. I hope my voice is gentle and loving and clear.

I have received such a warm response from Australian Friends I've decided to stay an extra month in Australia so that I can attend Australia Yearly Meeting as well as the Parliament of World Religions. I plan to visit Friends in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. I am eager to learn more about Australian Friends and share what I learn with American Friends upon my return.

I am also scheduled to give two talks this week: one at ICUJP (Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace) and another at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Los Angeles.

My first talk will be at ICUJP on Gandhi's birthday (Friday, Oct 2). It's titled: “Let Peace Begin with Us”: Reflections on Gandhi, Quakerism, and My Spiritual Journey Towards Peace" and contains passages on Quaker peacemaking from the Brinton book. Here's what I plan to say to my friends in the interfaith peace community:

I feel honored to be sharing my spiritual journey and my Quaker faith with you on Gandhi’s birthday. It seems fitting for a Quaker to honor Gandhi on this special day since Quakers and Gandhi share many things in common. Quakers supported Gandhi’s efforts to bring about Indian independence through nonviolent means, and many Friends resonate with Gandhi’s experimental approach to religion, and vice versa. So I’d like to begin with a story about Gandhi and the Quakers told by William Sessions, a British Friend.

Back in the 1920s, when a British Cabinet Mission went out to India to try to settle the Indian question, they took part in several Quaker Meetings which were attended by prominent Indian leaders, both Muslim and Hindu. Mahatma Gandhi attended one of these meetings.
Afterwards Gandhi spoke highly of the calm atmosphere which prevailed at this Quaker meeting for worship. "I greatly admire the silent prayers," he said, "We must devote part of our time to such prayers. They afford peace of mind."

Gandhi also said: "In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness." He also saw a connection between prayer and activism: "Prayer is not ...idle amusement,” Gandhi said. “Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action."

Silent worship is what drew me to the Quakers back in 1984. At the time, I had completed my Ph.D. in British literature at Rutgers University and was finishing up a stint teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, but my life was in crisis. I had just gone through a painful divorce and my widowed mother was dying of emphysema. I went back to Princeton—my hometown—to help my mother and my kid sister during this difficult time.

My family situation was so complicated, so fraught with emotional turmoil, I felt helpless, so I asked God for assistance. Not long afterwards, an old friend of mine from graduate school days showed up at my house and seemed to radiate calmness. He had changed drastically from the hyper person I knew from grad school so I asked him what had caused this change in his life. He told me about Quakerism and how it had helped him to find inner peace. Since I needed some peacefulness in my life, I decided to give Quakers a try.

Princeton Quakers meet in an old 18th century meetinghouse located in a beautiful, peaceful wooded area near Stony Brook where I used to go fishing as a kid. I entered this ancient meetinghouse and sat down on a bench in front of a stone fireplace with forty or so others. We soon settled into deep silence. It was the most profound spiritual experience I had ever had, and it was just what I needed. I realized I didn’t need a preacher, or music, or words of any kind to have a relationship with the Divine. It was enough to sit in silence and experience the calm, peaceful Presence that lies deep within us. Quakers call this by many names: the Inner Light, the Inward Christ, the Seed. But there is really no word that can begin to describe what this experience is like. Paul perhaps said it best when he called it “the peace that passeth understanding.”

After worship, I discovered that the Quakers, or Friends as they like to be called, were extremely friendly folk who loved to talk and socialize. They were a close-knit community that practiced their faith not only on Sunday, but during the rest of the week as well. I was pleased to have such a community in Princeton, which can be a highly competitive, class-conscious place. The Quakers did not seem to care about status and prestige. They gave me the support and unconditional love I needed to help me cope with my personal issues.

I was also extremely impressed by how Quakers were committed to hands-on peace and justice work. Princeton Meeting was part of the sanctuary movement and took under its care two Salvadoran refugees whom I came to know and who practically became part of my family. I later came to know Jim Corbett, a Quaker from Arizona who helped start the sanctuary movement.
Along with Quakerism, I also practiced Buddhism at this time and lived for nine months in a Zen center in Providence, RI. To earn a living I co-edited a magazine called Fellowship in Prayer with the Friend who had introduced me to Quakerism. Fellowship in Prayer, which is now called Sacred Journey, was started in 1949 to promote peace by showing that all religions have a practice of prayer or meditation that leads to inner peace and ultimately, to peace in the world.
I was pleased to discover that Quakers are a non-exclusive branch of Christians who embrace a Universalist approach to religion. Quakers believe there is “that of God” in everyone, and there is Truth in every religious tradition. William Penn expressed our interfaith ideal beautifully over three hundred years ago:

"The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the liveries they wear here make them strangers."

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, told Friends to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.”

Quakers interpreted this to mean that there “that of God” even in one’s enemy. This is a belief that Gandhi shared and which helped him in his struggles to gain India’s independence from the Brits. Gandhi befriended General Smuts and others whose racist policies he opposed.
Similarly, Quakers don’t demonize our enemies, we try to humanize them by reaching out in friendship. Throughout the Cold War, from the McCarthy to the Reagan era, Quakers reached out to the Russians in the spirit of friendship, even though it made them suspect and unpopular with some Americans. In fact, Quaker have been reaching out to the Russians ever since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. As you may remember, Claire Gorfinkel published a book about Quaker outreach to Russians called The Constructive Spirit.

This spirit of friendship and outreach is what made it possible for me and other Quakers to work with Russians during the 1980s when Reagan was calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and threatening them with a nuclear arms buildup. At that time I became involved in a Quaker-inspired Soviet-American joint book project whose purpose was to dispel stereotypes and to promote peace. We went to the Soviet Union and found a Russian publisher willing to work with us on a collection of fiction and poetry about everyday life in our two countries. This book was to be jointly edited and published in the US and USSR. No literary project like this had ever been done before, but our Russian publisher felt confident we could do it because he trusted the Quakers. Later we gained the support of Norman Cousins and the book called The Human Experience was finally published in the Soviet Union and the United States in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was coming down. Projects such as these played a small, but significant role in building the trust needed for the Cold War to end.

One of the things I appreciate about Quakerism is that it has given me the opportunity to use my gifts and talents as a writer in the cause of peace and justice. Over the years I’ve written numerous articles and edited books that deal with various concerns, from Compassionate Listening to Spiritual Ecology. I’ve brought some of these books to share with you.

My most recent work-in-progress is a biographical study of two Quakers educators named Anna and Howard Brinton. They were two of the most influential Quakers of the 20th century. They met during an AFSC relief project in Europe after World War I and they were active in the AFSC all their lives. In 1936 they became directors of Pendle Hill, the Quaker think tank and educational center near Philadelphia. During the nearly forty years that the Brintons worked and lived at Pendle Hill, they wrote about and modeled what Quakerism is all about. The Quaker historian Thomas Hamm said that Howard and Anna Brinton were “the most remarkable Quaker couple since Goerge Fox married Margaret Fell.” (George and Margaret are considered the founders of Quakerism.)

Pendle Hill is where I met my wife, and where I had planned to spend a year writing a book about the Brintons. Even though we had to make other plans because of Kathleen’s illness, this book is almost complete, thanks be to God. So I’d like to conclude by sharing with you some of Howard Brinton’s ideas about peacemaking and showing how they are similar to Gandhi’s.
As World War II broke out in Europe, Howard began writing essays on pacifism which were collected into a Pendle Hill booklet called Critique by Eternity (1943). In this booklet, which was widely used in Quaker First Day Schools, Howard lays out what have become the seminal ideas of Quaker peacemaking.

First, Howard argues that isolationism and pacifism are polar opposites. The true pacifist is engaged with the world, and seeks to bring about a peaceful society by eliminating injustice. A pacifist is someone who has experienced inner peace, usually within the context of a supportive religious community, and then seeks to bring out peace in the world through the elimination of selfishness. The root cause of war is a sense of isolation that leads to barriers between people—borders, tariffs, armies, etc.

In “Why Are Quakers Pacifists?” Howard uses an historical approach. He discusses the faith and practice of early Friends and observes that they did not write a lot about pacifism or the Peace Testimony because they were primarily concerned not with “right action in itself but a right inward state out of which right action will arise.”[1]

In “Blitzkrieg and Pacifism” Howard takes an approach rooted in biology (Howard was trained as a scientist and frequently described Quaker process as “organic” as opposed to the “mechanical” approach to religion).[2] According to Howard, violence depends on quickness because its very nature is mechanical and self-destructive. Pacifism, on the other hand, works slowly because it is an organic process.

“The pacifist therefore cannot depend on blitzkrieg methods,” concludes Howard. “He must abide the slowness of the organic. An inanimate bomb reaches its goal swiftly, annihilating whatever is in its way. A living object is soft and pliant, slowly adjusting its environment to itself. It must always depend on small beginnings, germ cells which are perhaps invisible. The pacifist is not afraid of minute beginnings, aimed at the distant future. Violence works quickly, but in the realm of life results are never swift.”[3]

These observations seemed especially relevant during the Bush years when proponents of American imperialism used blitzkrieg methods, otherwise known as “shock and awe,” to try to enforce their agenda upon the world. We know now that such methods don’t work in the long run. In Howard’s view, curing the unhealthy tendencies in a violence-addicted society like ours will not be accomplished quickly through some kind of pacifist “wonder drug,” but will require a slow, organic healing process.

Howard was convinced that pacifism cannot succeed if it is based merely on facts, theories and intellectual concepts. Many professed pacifists (like Reinhold Nieburh) adopted a pro-war stance (sometimes called “Christian realism”) because their pacifism was an intellectual construct.
True pacifism must be grounded in spiritual experience, and in a community where peace and reconciliation are practiced as a way of life.

Howard’s ideas about peacemaking have permeated Quaker thinking and still have relevance today. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Friends General Conference reprinted a pamphlet based on Howard’s writing about the Peace Testimony. Gandhi would agree with many of Brinton’s ideas. For Gandhi believed, like the Quakers, that peace begins within us, and that we cannot achieve peace in the world unless we have attained some measure of peace within ourselves. Gandhi also believed that peace is a way of life, a spiritual discipline.For Howard Brinton, the examplary approach to peacemaking is best summed up in a rejoinder by Joseph Hoag, a nineteenth century peace advocate. When Hoag advocated the Quaker peace testimony in 1812, a member of the audience said, “Well, stranger, if all the world was of your mind I would turn and follow after.”Hoag replied, “So then thou hast a mind to be the last man to be good. I have a mind to be one of the first and set the rest an example.”[4]

Gandhi expressed the same idea in a memorable phrase, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.”

This is my hope and prayer for us at ICUJP on this day celebrating the birth of Gandhi. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us.

[1] Critique by Eternity, Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1943, p. 21.
[2] Brinton’s ideas here may also have been influenced by Taoism and by the mystical works of Jacob Boehme, who was the subject of Brinton’s doctoral dissertation.
[3] Op. cit., p. 19.
[4] Ibid,pp. 196-7.

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