How is the Peace Testimony faring among Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends today, and how has it fared in the past? As someone who has been involved with Quaker peace activism for over twenty years, and has been attending Pacific Yearly Meeting since 1989, I decided to do some research at the Whittier College Quaker Archives and see how Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends responded to 9/11 and to the Vietnam War. Such a comparison is instructive and can help us understand how Friends today are living our most distinctive Testimony at a time when a perpetual war is being waged world-wide by our government, with no end in sight.
On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered a horrendous terrorist attack on our homeland that left many Friends questioning how Friends can respond to the seemingly irrational evil of terrorism. Articles began appearing in Friends Journal wrestling with the relevance of the Peace Testimony for our time (see Answering Terror: Responses to War and Peace after 9/11/01, edited by Sharon Hoover, Friends Publishing, 2006).
Organizations such as AFSC and FCNL crafted statements and waged campaigns with the message “War is not the answer.” Seasoned activist Friends such as Mary Lord and Steve Carey saw this as an opportunity to explore the spiritual basis as well as practical implication of our Peace Testimony. Mary’s essay “Can Love Overcome Violence and Hate” is a classic—combining spiritual depth with broad knowledge of political realities.
By the summer of 2002, it was becoming clear that the Bush administration was pursuing a policy of “perpetual war for perpetual peace” (to use Gore Vidal’s phrase). Our government was locking up Muslims in the United States, setting up detention camps in places like Guantanamo, and planning war in Iraq. Some monthly meetings responded with deep concern about the US policy of a preemptive global War on Terror.
Pacific Yearly Meeting’s response to this new era of perpetual warfare was muted. When it met in 2002, it did not approve any minutes questioning the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan or its bellicose response to terror. Instead, the 2002 PYM epistle contains this somewhat enigmatic statement:
The events of September 11th and its aftermath gave new significance to the question, ‘What canst thou say?’ Reports from our Monthly Meetings told of our responses and our advocacy for alternatives to war.
Non-Quakers would be puzzled by this statement, and even newcomers to the Religious Society of Friends might miss the allusion to George Fox’s question “What canst thou say?” In a fiery sermon, Fox criticized those who quote scripture but lack personal spiritual experience. “What canst thou say?” was a challenge to speak our truth from the heart. PYM’s statement about the aftermath of 9/11 gave no evidence of any heart-felt concern about the effects of war on the people of Afghanistan. In fact, Pacific Yearly Meeting did not call for the US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan until 2009, seven years later!
PYM’s initial response to 9/11 was to approve a $1000 “one-time gift” to FWCC “for the purpose of putting on a Peace Conference in January 2003” and another $1000 to send four delegates to that conference.” It also approved a Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund (HR1186) supporting war tax resisters.
Friends also approved a minute supporting the “Peace Communities of Colombia in their efforts to find a nonviolent path” and gave support to Christopher Moore-Backman and Carin Anderson “who have been led to bear witness and support the community in San Jose de Apartado.” The clerk was directed to write a letter to the President of Colombia as well as to President Bush and others to insure that the work of the Peace Communities could be carried on.
The Yearly Meeting did not feel led to write to President Bush about the ongoing war in Afghanistan or the war being planned against Iraq.
In contrast, in the summer of 2002, North Pacific YM approved a minute opposing the planned invasion of Iraq. In October, 2002, Montana Gathering of Friends approved a lengthy statement expressing deep concern about US foreign policy, some of which is included here:
In the past few months the executive branch of the US government has determined that global military dominance and preemptive use of military power will be its main weapon on the war on terrorism and, more immediately, against Iraq. The administration has stated its intent to launch a military invasion of Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, with or without cooperation from other countries, and has not made a clear commitment to seek the authorization of Congress and the approval of the American people for the prospective military invasion.
The Montana Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) share the global concerns about terrorism. However, because we see that of God in every human being, we oppose the use of war as an instrument of national policy and are convinced that violent responses to terrorism are simplistic, shortsighted and beget more violence (Friends Bulletin, Oct 2002, p. 9).
In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq despite overwhelming opposition from the American public (including Friends), and from the world community. Millions of people protested, religious leaders (including the Pope) spoke out loud and clear, but President Bush wouldn’t listen. His pretext for war—the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—proved to be a lie.
The response of Western Quakers to these events at the YM level was slow. No statement opposing the war was made in 2003 or 2004. In 2003 Paul Lacey and Mary Ellen McNish spoke at PYM’s Annual Session and discussed AFSC’s tireless work to mobilize opposition to the “unending War on Terror.” But the Yearly Meting didn’t minute its concern about war. Instead, it approved a minute supporting “the concept of universal health care” (but fell short of supporting the more controversial idea of single payer).
In 2005, the AFSC launched a campaign called “Eyes Wide Open” that displayed publicly boots representing American soldiers who had been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This campaign galvanized and unified the many monthly meetings that took part in this effort.
The organizing efforts of the AFSC and FCNL may have been one reason that North Pacific and Intermountain YM approved strong statements calling for an end to the war in Iraq. In 2005 NPYM Friends declared:
“We believe we are called to live in that love and power that takes away the occasion of war. We are anguished by the death of over 100,000 Iraqis and by the deaths and lasting scars inflicted on another generation of soldiers and their families. We accept the moral and legal obligations of our country to help in the reconstruction of Iraq, in concert with the international community and the people of Iraq. We acknowledge our own obligation to remove the seeds of war that are embedded in the way we live our daily lives. We call for renewed effort to prevent our nation from engaging in similar conflicts in the future. We hold in our prayers the people of Iraq, the troops of the United States as well as those of other nations, the humanitarian workers in Iraq, the families of all in harm’s way, the leaders in Iraq and of the United States, and all others affected by this war” (FB, September 2005, p. 6).
NPYM’s minute also called for actions that included support for FCNL, AFSC QUNO, etc. and recommended that monthly meetings consider adoption of similar minutes to “to convey these statement to our fellow citizens through the news media, and to our Senators and Representatives in the Congress.”
As editor of Friends Bulletin, I was part of this gathering and can testify that Friends took time to reflect deeply on this minute. Many changes were suggested during Plenary and it was brought back for further seasoning. When it was finally approved, I felt as if the minute was truly Spirit-led and I am sure that Friends present felt likewise.
In contrast, Pacific Yearly Meeting approved this brief statement not in its own words, but in words borrowed from FNCL:
Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends calls on the US Congress to adopt a Sense of Congress resolution declaring: ‘It is the policy of the US to withdraw all military troops and bases from Iraq.’ We will send this minute to all members of the US Congress.
This statement was so unsatisfying to many Friends that the the following apologetic statement was included:
“While finding unity in this [minute], [Friends at PYM] regret this minute reveals so little of the moral force and divine urgency we feel in regard to war.”
What was lacking in the PYM statement was any sense of empathy or concern with human suffering. In contrast, IMYM’s epistle in 2006 expressed a deeply felt response to the ongoing horrors of the War on Terror, and our militarization of the southern border:
Our country continued to be mired in the war in Iraq, our military was accused of torture; genocide raged on in Darfur; and we mourned the loss of Quaker Peace activist Tom Fox. Thousands of people have died in the desert while crossing our militarized southern border. One truth has become clear: we have inflicted possibly irreversible damage on our earth” (FB Sept 2006).
As wars and torture continued unabated in 2007, Pacific Yearly Meeting decided to have a “year of discernment,” which was interpreted by many as meaning a withdrawal from considering social justice and peace concerns. In an epistle consisting of comments by Friends, Friends wrote:
There is a shift in monthly meetings and PYM toward the spiritual (away from the strictly social action), a move towards the more personal in ministry… I think in the year of reflection we had a ‘quietist period.’ Turning inward to discern, diminishing and response to the larger issue of Iraq and elsewhere. I find that surprising, given our peace testimony. Our look inward has been valuable, but it came at a price’ (Attachment 15, PYM, p. 60, Eighth Month 4, 2007).
No minutes relating to peace and justice were considered during 2007-2008.
In 2009, the PYM approved “a minute from Peace and Social Order Committee against the U.S. war in Afghanistan and supporting peacemaking.”
This minute was brief and lacked any sense of deep commitment or any feeling about the suffering of the Afghan people. In fact, it wasn’t even mentioned in the YM epistle, which alludes instead to a demonstration that took place commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “And how does the tragic horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago instruct us in this present time of fear and war?”
One answer to this question is that after 9/11, Friends became involved in starting a school for Afghan girls in a refugee camp in Pakistan. But no mention is made of this significant work in any PYM epistle.
In 2010, PYM approved a minute “encouraging Friends to take part in interfaith efforts to foster peace and understanding ranging from the local to the international level. Friends are encouraged to send representatives to local inter-religious councils, to teach out to those in other faith traditions in the spirit of friendship, and to engage in interfaith peace and justice efforts” (Plenary 7th Month 2010, p. 12). The clerk was also authorized the clerk to write a letter of support for Anthony Manousos’ interfaith work. This was the third time in ten years that the Yearly Meeting minuted its support for a Friend with a leading (the other two instances being Humboldt Friends and Carin Anderson and Chris Moore-Backman).
One issue that did evoke some feeling from PYM Friends was torture. It approved two substantial minutes on torture, one in 2006 and one in 2011. The minute of 2006 was inspired in part by “six Humboldt Meeting Friends who had a leading to travel with a concern for the condition of all who are involved in the conflict at the Guantanamo Bay Prison” (PYM, Plenary, p. 30). The minute in 2011 reaffirmed PYM’s opposition to torture and included support for the anti-torture work of AFSC and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It also condemned solitary confinement as a form of torture. This minute was approved, with a couple of Friends objecting to “the process.”
It is not clear from the minutes what some Friends found objectionable about “the process.” My recollection is that a minute on the environment and torture were presented towards the end of the week, at the end of an hour mostly devoted to financial matters. There was insufficient time to give either minute the attention they deserved, and many of us found this deeply frustrating.
Two years later, Laura Magnani came to Pacific YM asking the clerk to sign on to a letter to the governor endorsed by over 1000 religious leaders and organizations (including the AFSC and NRCAT) supporting the hungers strikers in solitary confinement. For various reasons, this request was not brought up and no action was taken.
No minutes relating to peace and justice were considered in 2012, even though Orange Grove Friends and others expressed concern that the US was being pressured by Israel and conservative hawks in the US to bomb alleged nuclear facilities in Iran.
Finally, in 2013, Pacific Yearly Meeting received the following minute relating to drones that was approved by Orange Grove and So Cal Quarterly Meeting:
Minute of Concern regarding Drone Warfare
(approved by Southern California Quarterly Meeting on April 27, 2013)
As Friends (Quakers) who believe there is "that of God" in everyone and therefore every life is sacred, we are deeply concerned about the proliferation of lethal unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The United States is leading the way in this new form of warfare where pilots in US bases kill people, by remote control, thousands of miles away. Drones have become the preferred weapons to conduct war due to the lack of direct risk to the lives of U.S. soldiers, but these drone strikes have led to the death of hundreds of innocent civilians (including American citizens) in countries where we are not at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
We urge our government to put an end to this secretive, remote-controlled killing and instead promote foreign policies that are consistent with the values of a democratic and humane society. We call on the United Nations to ban the international use of lethal drones.
We recommend that the Clerk of our Monthly Meeting send this minute to our elected officials and encourage Friends to do likewise. A copy of this minute will be sent to Quarterly and Yearly Meeting for its consideration.
Friends are also encouraged to read Medea Benjamin book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and to engage in study on how to address this concern.
This minute met with resistance from Friends who questioned whether it was Spirit-led, and whether the Yearly Meeting had the authority to speak on behalf of Friends. After much discussion and a special called threshing session, this minute was reduced to the following statement, with no action component, and approved:
“Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends oppose weaponized drones, as they oppose all weapons of war.”
In contrast to the response of Yearly Meeting, Friends at the monthly meeting level have been quite active in peace concerns, including opposition to drone warfare. But little of that energy and commitment has been apparent at the Yearly Meeting level, where Peace Committee concerns are usually placed at the bottom of the agenda.
Given Pacific Yearly Meeting’s response to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the use of drones to terrorize people of color in places throughout the globe, how did it respond to the Vietnam War?
Let’s briefly review some of the history of this war. In August 7, 1964, in response to an alleged attack on a US vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin (later shown to be untrue), the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Johnson to send troops to Vietnam. On March 2, 1965, sustained U.S. aerial bombing campaign of North Vietnam began (Operation Rolling Thunder). On March 8, 1965, the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam. The war soon escalated.
A year and a half later, in August 1966, Pacific Yearly Meeting approved the following statement:
We are aware that there is widespread anguish over the war, and that this anguish is shared by Americans, Vietnamese, and men of other nation; by those who support the war, those who oppose it, and those who are undecided. We share that anguish with our fellow men, whatever position they may hold with regard to the war itself.
We believe that the US government is profoundly mistaken in the course of action which it is currently embarked in Asia. It has violated many of the moral values which we have cherished. It has violated the US Constitution, the UN charter, the SEATO Treaty, and its own assurances regarding the 1954 Geneva accords; violations which have flouted not only legal ordinances in themselves, but also whatever sense of security men were previously able to feel in the existence of those laws. And in so doing it has undermined the beginnings of international order.
Furthermore, men can no longer safely rely on the truth of statements issued by the US government. This impairs the basic trust essential to free democratic government. We cannot be sure of the real purpose of US policy in Southeast Asia, and are led to wonder whether it seeks long-term domination in Asia. Are the domestic implications of this action merely one step in the control of the US by an undemocratic minority? Even the right of dissent has been attacked by men in high places….
The statement goes on in this vein for three more paragraphs. What is remarkable is that the entire Yearly Meeting came to unity in approving this powerfully worded statement! It also proposed a number of recommended actions, namely, that Friends refuse to pay the 7% telephone tax and send a 1% of income each year to the United Nations. Friends at Pacific Yearly Meeting shared their deep feelings in their 1969 epistle:
Our Yearly Meeting in McMinnville, Oregon, this year is an oasis of peace and gladness in the midst of an awesome world of violent, conflicting forces. These forces impinge upon us even here, for we must struggle for understanding, to find adequate response to the violence, to find ways to demonstrate the value of peaceful solutions. We must strive to sustain each other as we search. We treasure the bonds of kinship which link us in the knowledge that Friends everywhere are engaged in the same struggle.
"We are particularly awed and shaken by the immensity of what is required of us. Confronted by the policy of violence which the United States employs towards weaker nations, we are caught in the contradiction of being anguished and yet unable to extricate ourselves from this responsibility and involvement. We are part of the fabric of our society, and the sins of our government are upon our shoulders. We fear that our mildly said ‘No!’ is equivalent to acceptance. Though we are convinced of the relevance of the peace testimony and of the truth we speak, feelings of impotence and frustration too easily make us prisoner. We continue to look for imaginative ways to break through this dilemma.
"Faced with such staggering tasks, we are lonely, because that is the nature of choice-making. We worship together and wait together on God. Yet ultimately each of us must choose his own response to the will of God as he is led to bear witness through his life."
The depth of feeling and soul-searching in this epistle is quite extraordinary, especially when contrasted with the shallow, unemotional response to the War on Terror by Pacific Yearly Meeting over the past twelve years.
A book could be written about the bold steps taken by Pacific YM Friends on behalf of the Peace Testimony in the 1960s. Among other things, Pacific YM recommended sending medical supplies to Vietnam, supported draft counseling, and gave significant support to the Phoenix, a ship of protesters that sailed into the forbidden waters near a nuclear test site in the Pacific. Orange Grove Meeting opened up its meetinghouse as a sanctuary for soldiers who no longer wanted to serve in the military.
The minutes and epistles of this period show a deep concern for the Peace Testimony, and also for Civil Rights and race relations. In its minute of concern for medical aid to Vietnam, Friends wrote:
[We] feel committed to a stand of total opposition to the war our country is waging in Vietnam. The war is a close and immediate thing in our lives, for it is from among us that the physical material upon which the war depends is drawn. It is with a feeling of impatience that we have sought ways to end this war. We feel now that the situation is so critical that strong, positive action must be taken….The restrictions that have been placed on medical aid to war victims in “enemy” controlled areas of Vietnam is absolutely intolerable to men of conscience. They must not be silently accepted” (1967 minutes, attachment #10).
During the Vietnam era Pacific Yearly Meeting did not feel a need to apologize for weakly worded statements, nor did Friends raise objections about “Quaker process” when minutes relating to peace and justice were presented. There were of course lively disagreements and much discussion, some of it no doubt contentious, both during Plenary and interest groups. But it is clear that during the Vietnam era Pacific YM strongly supported the Peace Testimony and were confident that Yearly Meeting had the authority to speak out prophetically about matters of war and justice.
As Chuck Fager has pointed out in his “Quaker Declaration of War” (2003), American imperialists have a long-range plan and are thinking fifty years ahead, with the goal of world domination and hegemony. Those of us in the peace movement, and Friends in particular, need to be prepared to wage the “Lamb’s war” over the long haul. If we are going to dismantle the war machine and build a culture of peace, we need courage, faith, and commitment to each other and to the Spirit. We need to be “innocent as doves and as wise as serpent” (Matt 10::16)—hopeful and realistic.
We also need to be self-critical, learn from our mistakes, and move forward as Spirit leads us. Si, se puede!
1. The Vietnam War was more intense, involved more bloodshed, and touched the lives of middle class Quakers more directly than the War on Terror, which has largely been conducted by low-income people of color. How can Friends be helped to see how their privileged status makes it difficult for them to empathize with the suffering caused by our government’s endless wars?
2. Creative ways need to be used to engage Friends at an emotional as well as spiritual level with the suffering and injustice in the world. How do we help enable this to happen? What is blocking such engagement?
3. There needs to be consensus around the procedure and purpose for bringing minutes to Yearly Meeting.
4. There needs to be opportunities for the Peace Committee to educate and inform Friends about a concern with sufficient time for questions and discussion at the Plenary and also in interest groups.
5. Friends who are deeply committed to a concern and are following a leading need to be given opportunities not only to present a report, but to ask for the support of Yearly Meeting. E.g. Carin Anderson, Humboldt Friends and Anthony Manousos.
6. Representatives from FCL, FCNL and AFSC also need to be able to seek the support of PYM Friends for concerns that involve their organizations.