Austin Meredith: Quakers, Anarchy, Slaughter

Autogestion and omnarchy have been suggested as better names for the “anarchist” movement. For too many people, anarchy requires disorder, and this presumption gets in the way of communication. Because the goal of the true anarchist is to open up a personal space, free of external governance, so that we may be free to be ruled from within, so that the personal outcome will be that we never escape detection or correction and so that the social outcome will be that we refrain from violating one another’s lives.

I do believe there is a better label, but in preamble I must comment on a complaint that has been made against Buddhism and Quakerism:

As far as we know Buddhism (like Quakerism) has not been invoked to justify or instigate mass slaughters. But neither (again like Quakerism) has it been able to prevent them. (Ideological Commentary No. 24, p. 19)

I am not prepared to discuss the history of Buddhism, but what this says of Quakerism, that is, of the Society of Friends, is true. There have been only three circumstances in the history of Quakerism which might qualify as involvement in mass slaughters:

1. At first, before the Quaker peace testimony had a chance to develop, there seems to have been some involvement of some Friends in the New Army of Oliver Cromwell. At least, some chaplains in that army later surface in history books as concerned Friends, traveling from meeting to meeting to speak of their inspiration. (Friends decline to have a hireling clergy, preferring to do their own talking and their own thinking, so for churchly offices they have only a clerk in each meeting.)

2. General, then President, Ulysses Grant developed a concentration-camp policy for American tribes, and called on the Society of Friends to provide uncorruptable individual Quakers to run these concentration camps. President Grant’s version of “The only good injun is a dead ‘un” (stated by another US general) was that the only good injun was a reservation injun, and the others could be killed on sight. This was the historical origin of what appeared later, in Viet Nam, as the “free fire zone.” The Society of Friends attempted to make the best out of this bad situation, and wound up collaborating with an official US policy of genocide. Individual Quakers attempted to administer these “reservations” in the great American concentration-camp system, while their “charges” were disarmed, starved, and occasionally slaughtered. The situation was only slightly better in these camps than in the other camps of our system, camps run by non-Quakers, where the tribes were disarmed, starved, and occasionally slaughtered while the admin- istrators stole and lined their pockets.

3. Ex-president Richard Nixon alleges that he is and has always been a Quaker. He was in fact reared as a Friend in a suburb of Los Angeles, California, and in fact he does still hold membership in the East Whittier Friends Church. During his presidency many Friends attempted to visit him in Washington, DC, to speak to him of their concerns about, for instance, the invasion of Cambodia. He hired a special adviser to meet with these delegations of Friends, so he would not be constantly plagued by religious advice. His attitude was that one should do unto others before they have a chance to do unto oneself. There was concern that perhaps this President should be excommunicated from the religious community in which he claimed membership, as being a person who merely used the Quaker name for personal profit (Quaker Oats comes to mind), but this was such a serious step that it was never taken.

I suppose anyone would agree that, if these three circumstances are as close as Quakers have ever come to the justification or instigation of mass slaughters, over a period of more than four centuries, the strange folk have accumulated a fairly good record.

Not perfect, but close. And one notices that they are such good anarchists that, rejecting a hireling ministry, they employ only clerks, and that rather than run the risk of denying a person’s inner light by attempting to impose external governance upon him, they suffered Nixon’s claim that his vicious policies were an outgrowth of the leadings of his own inner light, and they suffered his allegation that he was affiliated with them.

Reader, you have likely put two and two together by this point. An anarchist is a Friend who has not yet recognized an affiliation with a meeting of the Society of Friends, therefore the correct label for “anarchist” is “unrecognized friend.”

Having realized this fact, we are ready to deal with this expressed concern, that anarchy as it is found among Friends and Buddhists is not an adequate defense against mass slaughter by people who are not unrecognized friends. And on that topic I must ask one question. Which do you think is more likely to induce a mass slaughter, the attitude that we must control ourselves, or the attitude that we must control others?

You see, each of us, as we grow up, has to make a fundamental decision as to life strategy. We decide, as children, whether we want to be the sort of person who is only satisfied when giving more than they are getting, and is quite unsettled whenever there is a suspicion that they might be getting more than they are giving, or whether we want to be quite the opposite sort of person. Depending on how we make this decision, we wind up as adults determined that we will never be guilty of slaughtering others, or as adults determined that we will never be the victims of the slaughterers. I suppose one might say that Jesus was the paradigm case of the individual who, given the hard choice, would rather be slaughtered. Such a person regards it as of greater impor- tance, that a group sponsor the attitude that we must control ourselves, than that a group sponsor the attitude that we must control others.

One might suggest that my dichotomy is an unreal dichotomy, and that we don’t really have to choose between controlling ourselves and controlling others, but please do understand that I am offering this as a real and inevitable dichotomy. There is a tension, in our lives, between being good and doing good, and this tension exists because we lie to ourselves so much. One of our best lies, which very often succeeds, is the lie that there is some good that needs to be done to someone, and that therefore we must reluctantly and temporarily relax our standards of being good. With that particular lie we can fool ourselves every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. It is that particular lie which creates the absolute dichotomization between, and forces us to choose between, the attitude that we must control ourselves and the attitude that we must control others. The sad fact is that, were Buddhism and Quakerism capable of preventing mass slaughters, they would also be capable of justifying or instigating mass slaughters. These two go together.

There are many who find Quakerism unacceptably weak. It does not offer the hope of eventual triumph over evil. I quite agree with those who cannot find ground for regarding Quakerism as sufficient. Only quietists can accept quietism. Activists, all who seek to bring the world historical process by desperate action to its successful quietus, cannot accept quietism. I can accept Quakerism only because I accept the fact that the poor we will always have with us. I can accept Quakerism only because I accept the fact that resisting evil only creates more evil. I am not looking for an apocalypse of evil, nor am I looking for an apocalypse of good, and therefore I do not regard it as a deficit, that Quakerism does not offer the hope of humans fixing God’s world for once and all. It is a fascinating paradox, that many anarchists and socialists have difficulty accepting Quakerism because they (the anarchists and socialists, not the Quakers) have inherited the Christian tradition and do not want to give up the quest for salvation.

The scholars who asked this question about Buddhism and Quakerism were asking for too much, and they need to choose. This is why we were told “Resist not evil.” Doing evil to evil is a way to put more evil into the world, not a way to take evil out of the world. Roses grow only out of dirt and good grows only out of evil. Not I nor anybody can reduce evil by adding some more. The only way is to get some of it to turn into a rose. The person or group that sets out to prevent mass slaughter is the person or group that, perhaps within one or two intellectual generations, will create a fine story by which to legitimate a mass slaughter.

Editorial Comment
As a response to deep conviction the analytical response can seem insensitive, but reason does not come with a guarantee that it will produce the results one would prefer; once committed to it, the argument has to be followed wherever it may lead. Austin Meredith makes two main points: First, that anarchists are Quakers who have not recognised themselves for what they are. SeCond, that any attempt to stop mass slaughters is more likely to increase than diminish them; the most promising thing any of us can do is to adopt the Quaker attitude, to concentrate upon controlling ourselves without trying to influence others except by example.

We are obliged to disagree on both. On the first: Quakers seek guidance from an inner light conceived as spiritual; repudiating set prayers and ceremonies, they value the inner reality these are held to embody. Quakerism, in short, is a religious movement in the straightforward sense that it seeks and relies upon divine guidance. It is always difficult to make any general statement about anarchism; even the apparently obvious proposition that anarchists are opposed to the state is not true universally and without qualification. (During the Spanish Civil War some members of the Spanish anarchist movement took posts in government). But one statement that comes closer than most to being true of all anarchists is that they are atheists. To give an example, the centenary issue of Freedom, the oldest-established anarchist journal, contains a vigorous piece on atheism by Barbara Smoker and other more incidental references, but nothing at all in favour of religion. The inner guidance that anarchists follow in preference to external compulsion (and often against it) is conceived as rational, not divine.

To the argument that this only means anarchists have failed to recognise that their inner guide is in fact spiritual they can reply, with equal force, that the Quakers have failed to recognise that theirs is in fact not divine but rational. If it be said that the two are at bottom identical our own response would be to agree, with the addition that it is as reason rather than as divinity that the rational / divine becomes fully aware of itself.

The issue of mass slaughters was raised in a letter from George Hay in IC24 (p. 18) which noted that Christianity and Mohammedanism had both been associated with these horrors but Buddhism had not; in reply we remarked that neither had Quakerism, adding that neither Buddhism nor Quakerism had been able to prevent them. Austin’s letter drives us back to the issue, and we find in our reply to George an unjustified implication that to say Christianity and Mohammedanism are associated with mass slaughters is a sufficient statement. It isn’t. Looking back over history it is the mass killings that took place in wars and, even more shocking, those that occurred when war was not being waged, that catch the eye. But most of the people who lived under Christianity and Mohammedanism (and the other great authoritarian religions) lived most of their lives without being engaged, on either side, in mass slaughter. The statement that Christianity and Mohammedanism have been associated with peaceful living applies to a greater part of their history and activity than the statement that they have been associated with mass slaughters. Perry Anderson (who has written as a Marxist), phrases this: ‘”Normative pacification” is a hold-all in the baggage of every major faith.’ (TLS 12 Dec 86 p.1406).

To oppose mass slaughters is to set a positive value on human life. Under the aegis of the social complex which includes the state, the military, the police, and the great authoritarian religions, human life has burgeoned to an extent that is difficult to grasp. There have been horrors one cannot bear to think about, some of the worst of them perpetrated by governments with the approval of official religion, but if this society, or any integral part of it such as authoritarian religion, is to be blamed for the failures then it must also be credited with the successes. These massively outweigh the failures.

Judged by the extent to which each of them has enabled human life to flourish Quakerism is negligible beside authoritarian society with its religions. It is, indeed, authoritarian society which has produced both Quakerism and the political movements that work to control this society’s tendency towards repeated disaster.

from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.