Friday, January 2, 2009

Regarding Benjamin Franklin, Quakers, and Pacifism Then and Now

I have just finished reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, something I haven't done since before I began worshiping with Friends. I had not before noted how frequently he mentioned Quakers in his discussions of colonial life in Pennsylvania. In the 1740s when Franklin was working with the Philadelphia government to establish an organization of colonists dedicated to defense, he had difficulty with Friends who were, of course, opposed to this course of action as a matter of principle. The following is an excerpt from Franklin's autobiography:

The honorable and learned Mr. Logan, who had always been of that sect, was one who an address to them, declaring his approbation of defensive war, and supporting his opinion by many strong arguments. He put into my hand sixty pounds to be laid out in lottery tickets for the battery, with directions to apply what prizes might be drawn wholly to that service. He told me the following anecdote of his old master, William Penn, respecting defense. He came over from England, when a young man, with that proprietary, and as his secretary. It was war-time, and their ship was chas'd by an armed vessel, suppos'ed to be an enemy. Their captain prepar'd for defense; but told William Penn, and his company of Quakers, that he did not expect their assistance, and they might retire into the cabin, which they did, except James Logan, who chose to stay upon deck, and was quarter'd to a gun. The suppos'd enemy prov'd a friend, so there was no fighting; but when the secretary went down to communicate the intelligence, William Penn rebuk'd him severely for staying upon deck, and undertaking to assist in defending the vessel, contrary to the principles of Friends, especially as it had not been required by the captain. This reproof, being before all the company, piqu'd the secretary, who anser'd, "I being thy servant, why did thee not order me to come down? But thee was willing enough that I should stay and help to fight the ship when thee thought there was danger."

My being many years in the Assembly, the majority of which were constantly Quakers, gave me frequent opportunities of seeing the embarassment given them by their principle against war, whenever application was made to them, by order of the crown, to grant aids for military purposes. They were unwilling to offend government, on the one hand, by a direct refusal; and their friends, the body of the Quakers, on the other hand, by a compiance contrary to their principles; hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying, and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable...



Having heard today’s Friends discuss the issue of war and taxes on more than one occasion, I felt sympathy toward colonial Friends’ difficulties. While I would like to idealize these ancient Friends as somehow more radically perfect than today’s model, the truth is that collectively and as individuals they also performed a kind of dance of compromise with principle. On more than one occasion, Franklin’s autobiography describes how he assisted his Quaker associates in this dance. As a member of the Quaker dominated colonial assembly, Franklin describes how he takes some pains to assure that Friends will not be so compromised in their principles that they will feel compelled to stubbornly thwart the efforts of non-Friends.

At other times the Friends are well-aware that their own political responsibilities are stymied by their religious convictions. In such circumstances, Franklin describes how the local Quaker-dominated colonial government saves face with both the king and their coreligionists. For instance, this can include explicitly excusing Friends from military duty while requiring it of others so that Friends will not stand in the way of colonial military action for non-Quakers. It might mean collecting taxes from Friends that will be put toward the war but carefully saying such monies were “for the king’s use” without inquiring into the particulars. In these matters, Franklin claims that many, if not most, Friends were not individually opposed to defense and he gives examples of individuals doing their best to wiggle around the injunction of perfect pacifism. Contrasting the Friends unfavorably to (in Franklin's opinion) the more sensible Moravians who acknowledged the necessity of defensive violence, Franklin decries the Friends’ uncompromising dogmatism that he sees leads them into conflict and hypocrisy. In Franklin’s view, it was imprudence and a lack of forethought that put the Friends in this position.

I guess he has a point but it may not be the right one.

The point was never whether or not we followed our principles perfectly, but that we continue to make the attempt. Although I support no wars, decry all violence (including violence against animals and the body of the earth), I have been violent in thought and deed. I have been frightened and ready to strike out. I am against the death penalty and abhor the use of force against the mentally ill and those accused of crimes. Yet, I have been secretly thankful for the police force’s violent intervention against crime and abuse in my community. I reject violent overthrow of governments and violent action against one’s personal oppressors, and yet I have silently cheered the actions of oppressed peoples who have risen up against their abusers.

Was William Penn also a hypocrite when he failed to require his servant to come into the cabin rather than stand outside with a gun? Probably. But if Penn and other Friends had allowed their imperfection to thwart their attempt at loving obedience to the will of the divine, the principle of pacifism might have died among Friends. If they had become disheartened by their imperfection and had given up the principle, the world would have lost the pacifist example of such imperfect Friends as John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Amy Post. They would have lost the leadership of such people made strong enough by their devotion to peace to take on slavery, misogyny, and war. If Friends had compromised on this principle when they realized they could not achieve it, they would have surrendered the great role they had to play in humanity’s struggle for a just and loving world just when the world needed their idealism most.

These thoughts give me courage in the midst of my failures. I am a poor pacifist but my faltering and failures do not excuse me from the calling to peace. That we are human and cannot achieve perfection does not excuse us from its pursuit. And I am painfully, tenderly, bewilderingly human. I thirst. I hunger. I rage, fear, grow weary and lust. These things I cannot change. They are a part of my animal nature, but it is this same animal nature that gives me my curiosity, love, the will to survive and the ability to nurture those in need.

It was not given to me to achieve perfection. It was given to me to try. So I will try. I will try and fail, repent and try again. I will not give up. I will not give up when others mock my idealism and criticize my hypocrisy. I will not give up when the way seems uncertain and I cannot make reason and convenience match the charge that I must love all humanity. I can hear the old arguments. "Pacifism is a pretty idea but it is impractical. What if someone attacks your country, your home, your child? Don’t tell me you won’t fight! If you say this, you are delusional or you are a liar.”

My answer to such arguments can only be this: I do not know. I am not there in those terrible situations. I am here in a place in which I am charged with the task of preventing aggressions, healing hurts, and sustaining the vulnerable. I am here working toward a future in which the occasions in which violence appears to be the best choice become rarer and the non-violent tools we have to address conflict become more common.

So the Friends paid taxes “for the king’s use” but they refused to fight. Penn refused to pick up a weapon to defend himself but said nothing as his servant picked up a weapon to defend him. Yet William Penn and the colonial Friends, even in their hypocricy, were still called to pacifism during the violent years of imperialism, colonization, and rebellion. And I who have yelled, stomped about and thrown things in anger, must still seek after peace and strive for it with my voice, my vote, and my influence. My hypocrisy shames me, but it does not excuse me from standing up and standing in the way of violence. I have to keep trying. I have to keep believing.

Benjamin Franklin may have been right when he described “These embarrassments… suffered form having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of…” What he didn’t see was that such beliefs do not merely come to us from rationalism and worldly logic. They grow out of an Almighty Silence rich in love and heavy with responsibility. The principle of perfect peace must be defended by imperfect defenders. Sometimes it seems grossly unfair and improper to expect a thing so grand from creatures so frail, but God did not assign this task to angels. The assignment belongs to us.