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Stillness, Discernment and Torture

September 14, 2006

Quakers have been at the forefront of many of historical movements for social justice in this country and around the world. From prison and penal reform, to the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, Quakers have been deeply involved in the moral progress of Anglo-Americans. It is in the context of this history that Friends from around the United States (with guests from Canada, Great Britain and Rwanda) gathered at Guilford College to consider the U.S. government’s use of torture. The Quaker Initiative to End Torture (QUIT) was born from the concern of Friend John Calvi of Putney, VT over a year ago. A small group of Friends formed a steering committee to plan the QUIT Conference which occurred June 2nd through 4th. I traveled to Greensboro with Ruth Flower to represent FCNL at this conference.

Organizers of the conference divided our time between learning from torture experts, survivors and anti-torture advocates and planning for the Quaker Initiative to End Torture. The organizers envisioned the Quaker Initiative to be “a large historic work” and that the planning would be for “long-term work, perhaps of more than one generation.” The educational portion of the weekend was phenomenal, especially Jennifer Harbury and Hector Aristizabal. I was also so glad to see a good group of young people at the conference. We had a good time talking together, and had a great dinner chat about Quakerism and activism over dinner on Saturday night, and enjoyed a great spiritual dialog with our non-Quaker friends also attending.

Now, I’m a relative neophyte when it comes to Quakerism. I’ve only been exploring the Quaker ‘world’ for about 5 years, and the more I am involved with Quakers, the more I am amazed. I’m amazed in two ways: amazed that there is such a depth of spirit, centeredness, morality and action, and also amazed that there is such a lack of those things, especially the last three. The QUIT conference threw these things into relief for me, and laid them out plain. The depth of spirit and openness durring Hector’s dramatic presentation, and the deeply human connections created in the room between all of the participants was stunning.

What stunned me more was the lack of spiritual discernment engaged in durring our action sessions. And I wasn’t the only one that noticed this. Saturday evening there was a period of break-out sessions. I attended the legislative break-out session. I arrived late, and did my best to focus down, and begin to listen. As we went around the table discussing possible legislative actions, I felt my place was to listen and to offer pointers for action on Capitol Hill. There emerged, however, very little strategy in that area. So, I’m writing this post with some distance from the event now, having been writen in July and now the beginning of September, so I don’t remember the details of what was discussed. I’m sure there are notes somewhere.

After the break-out sessions, the whole group reconviened to compile and season what had come out of those groups. This, I think, was the most frustrating experience of the whole conference. What was compiled on the over-head projector was nothing more than a list of the standard secular activist activities: writing letters, calling congress, going back to our Meetings to share what we’ve learned from the conference.

But wasn’t this supposed to be a Quaker response to torture? What was Quaker about this list? In light of the activities suggested, why have a Quaker Response to Torture instead of starting some new chapters of Amnesty International? A colleague of mine also confided that in her view, the grandiose rhetoric which was being used in regards to the task ahead (of eliminating torture) was unrealisitic, and instead of being a multi-generational endeavour, could probably be accomplished in five years with a good plan.

But the good plan never emerged. And I don’t think it should have from this conference. The plan should have been simple: lets educate ourselves, and reconvene next year to formulate a plan. If this is infact, as the convenors suggested, going to be a multi-generational effort, then there’s no need to come up with a hurried plan of action today. Let’s wait for a leading of the spirit, and see what comes.

Well, that was my experience from the QUIT Conference this past spring. It was an interesting and enlightening time. I was made fully aware of how deep the problems in Quakerism are running these days. Look around, there are plenty of other Friends who are feeling the same way. I spent many hours talking with a Friend from St. Louis, Missouri about this and her feelings were much the same coming both out of the conference and of her experience traveling among Friends. And a guy form Connecticut who was in my doorm suite expressed much the same frustration.

In Sunday’s Meeting for Worship, some of these concerns rose up through vocal ministry, and some were immediately responded to and shot down by older Friends. The irony was not lost on many. Those of us at the conference who felt something was wrong, it turns out, are not alone. There is a renewal of spirit happening around the Quaker world, and I would encourage you to explore it. There are plenty of blogs on the topic.

Yours in Peace, Jay

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