Peace Testimony

In these trying times, and those ahead, Quakers speak for nonviolent solutions

September 24, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

"I do not call you servants any longer. I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father, so I have called you Friends."- Jesus in John 15:12

President George W. Bush's speech to the nation last week was forceful, clear, even eloquent. He talked quietly, but he talked tough. His steely resolve against terrorism has seemed to generate unity - a uniform desire among politicians and the public to mete out violence in retribution for the attack of Sept. 11, a unity rarely seen in this country of free expression.

But the moment you meet Friends, you fall through the looking-glass.

It is late afternoon, a week after the devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and a silent peace vigil is getting under way outside the American Friends Service Committee building on York Road. It's the headquarters for AFSC's Middle Atlantic region, and in its bland modular 1960s style, looks strangely bunker-like. Here, people from all walks of life gather under the Quakers' social arm to promote the causes of pacifism, economic development and understanding among nations.

As the 4:30 traffic on York Road thickens into horn-honking cacophony, a few Quakers begin to congregate. Today's gathering, like thousands throughout Quaker history, will invite public opprobrium.

Sarah Bur has been a member of this liberal Christian denomination for 24 years. In her bright blue floral sun dress, the smiling, amber-haired Bur warmly hugs a few other early-arriving activists she hasn't seen in a while.

Quakerism has no official creed, and its Meeting Houses display few traditional Christian icons, but three fundamental tenets attracted Bur, 43, who grew up Catholic. One is that humans can have a lived experience of God; to them, life is a process of inner revelation, one without need for a clerical intermediary. Another is that there is in all humans what Quakers call "that of God," an inner embodiment of divinity that can be summoned in silent meditation. Third is the Quaker peace testimony, a formal declaration written in the 1600s that violence of any kind, for any reason, is intolerable.

"It might sound innocent to say so," says Bur a little bashfully, "but Quakers would say that Osama bin Laden has light in him, too, even though it may be very much obscured."

Bur yields her spot on the corner of York and Radnor roads to Robert Ketron, a white-bearded man with a smile as sunny as the rays warming his black-banded Panama Hat. Ketron holds up a sign for all passers-by to see: "An Eye For An Eye Leaves The Whole World Blind." Ketron, 63, a retired professor, says he has been a Quaker all his life, but he "didn't realize it till about 15 years ago," when his daughter attended Friends School and he saw that their globally pacifistic worldview was at one with his own.

"That's when I realized this was my home," he says.

There's a special poignancy about his sign; Ketron, who wears heavy dark glasses, is sight-impaired and spends much of his time working on international peace projects around the globe, focusing mostly on "eye-banking."

The shadows lengthen a bit, but the sun is still harsh on this corner, and the day, like Ketron, just seems to be heating up. Passers-by stop to gawk at the signs: "Non-Violence Now," "We Remember the Victims." A surprising number of cars that buzz past honk their horns; their drivers give a wave or a thumbs-up. There is no mistaking the public's deep interest in this issue or its hunger for a state of peace. You feel that the jovial Ketron, utterly at peace with his own beliefs, would like to talk about them all day.

"This is not a Quaker belief per se," he says, "but I think the causes of [the terrorist attacks] are very clear. I don't think there should be any doubt in anyone's mind about the idiocy of American foreign policy and the idiocy of the American government in many, many instances.

"Let's put it this way," he says, almost shouting over the growing traffic. "We lost something like 6,000 people in this horrible event last week. How many children died [during civil warfare] in Rwanda? And we did nothing. How many children have died in the last year in the Afghani refugee camps in Pakistan that we did nothing about? How many people have died in Palestine? We've played games with that. The Palestinians and the Israelis both have a right to exist. I don't think we've been fair-minded in our treatment of the Muslim community. And we're paying for it - in a big way."

Ketron, like every demonstrator here, feels that retaliation is not the answer.

"We have `that of God' in each of us; therefore, since that is so, Quakers don't have the right to kill anyone. No Quaker has ever been known to. Quakers don't kill. Anybody. For any reason. That's pretty hard to take sometimes, when you have mass murderers and serial killers and people like Osama bin Laden. But the fact is, they are human beings."

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