12 November 2009

When do we shift from "neutrality" to "advocacy"?

Oslo album

Oslo Akershus
Maurer family grave, where (among others)
the original Johan Fredrik Maurer is buried
Pride: the polar ship Fram, which has traveled
further north and further south than any other
conventional ship
Shame: Vidkun Quisling's wartime home, now the
Holocaust museum
Two cousins named Johan Fredrik (J Fr Heyerdahl at right)
New location of Oslo Friends Meeting
Since my last visit to Norway, Oslo Friends Meeting has moved its premises to an office building near the city's main railroad and bus stations. The new location, far from the beautiful and expensive neighborhoods of its previous homes, seems to have been a good choice--at least in terms of increased attendance.

The meeting seems to have congenial neighbors. Across the courtyard is the German cultural center. Dental offices nearby. Educational programs are downstairs. And sharing the Quakers' floor: the Joint Committee for Palestine.

If I understand correctly, many Norwegian Friends have sympathy for Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. The Gaza war may have increased that sympathy and lent it urgency. However, for some Friends, sympathy is not enough--it is time for strong action in solidarity with Palestinians. Other Friends feel strongly that to abandon Friends' tradition of neutrality in conflicts would be wrong.

The question of whether it is ever right for Friends to support (or appear to support) one side over another in a conflict is not new. I'm sure it predates the American Revolution--a conflict that definitely provided Friends with a huge dilemma. Case studies and books have been written about Friends responses to these situations--none of which I have with me here in Elektrostal. But while I was in Oslo, I was asked for my own thoughts on how to decide when neutrality was no longer a sufficient position. Here are a few of my reflections:
  • First: there is a difference between conscientious neutrality, confirmed by a searching process of prayer and study, and the neutrality that is adopted from indifference or fear. If the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship (which I mentioned here) taught me anything, it is that Friends may at times be as likely as other groups to find reasons for avoiding the costly implications of our Christian faith. How often, for example, Friends put off desegregating their schools because it would upset too many parents or donors. Does ignorance, fear or apathy play a role in Friends' decisions concerning advocacy for Israel or Palestine?
  • There is an important discipline of modesty in a neutral position: we may not actually know as much about the situation as we might assume. We might not be as important in the overall picture as we're tempted to believe. Perhaps we believe we are giving a voice to the voiceless, but are underestimating the capacity of the "voiceless" to speak for themselves. Perhaps we are people-pleasers, addicted to the approval of those we're tempted to champion. Our more important task may be to understand how our own affluence or indifference feeds the conflict.
  • Conflict tends to distort truth and flatten nuances, and by joining a conflict (however nonviolently) we may compromise our commitment to truth. We are well aware that every conflict is very complex, and no side is perfectly evil or perfectly innocent, but such nuances vanish in practice. How do we respond assertively to oppression without demonizing the human beings on the oppressors' side, and without associating ourselves with the extreme rhetoric of the victims' defenders? The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a great example: I've heard incredibly blatant oversimplifications coming from both sides. To be fair, I've also heard both Israelis and Palestinians who are capable of balanced analyses.
  • In the past, our reputation for neutrality has enabled us to host private negotiations between conflicting parties. In weighing the decision to give up neutrality, we should take into account the cost to all sides of losing that credibility. The other great benefit of maintaining neutrality becomes particularly important when conflict leads to suffering and violence--when the raw demands of serving the hungry and injured may require us to work on all sides simultaneously, regardless of our sympathies for one side or another. In addition, without neutrality, how will we support the nonviolent dissidents on all sides--at just the time they are least likely to find support among "their own"?
  • However, those peacemaking and relief functions are not served by a lazy sort of neutrality--we must be well-informed and accessible to all sides. The Quaker U.N. offices in New York and Geneva have sometimes functioned this way. Are we continuing to support these offices and preparing Friends to serve in this ministry? There is also a danger of ordinary Friends and their congregations assuming that "they" (the paid professionals) will do it--but "they" need our prayers, they need to be held accountable--and they need us to continue our own traveling ministries, to continue to be willing even to live in conflict zones as students, businesspeople, caregivers, even just conscientious tourists--in other words, continue to be the body of Christ worldwide, whether we are "at home" or in a cross-cultural situation--or both.
  • We all have our own spiritual gifts, which may often help us discern what our role is in ministering to conflict. Even when we must support one side, or (for example) boycott the other side economically, we may have Friends who are especially gifted to pray for the side we perceive to be in the wrong, and even to continue to communicate with the people we disagree with. The prophets among us who might be leading our public advocacy will still need to be held accountable by others in the meeting.
  • Inevitably, sometimes individuals experience strong leadings toward advocacy that their meeting cannot confirm. This is not the end of the world--even if the congregation must make it publicly clear that the individual involved does not speak for them. A generation later, maybe the meeting will come to understand that the individual was right. But maybe he or she was wrong--or was simply being used by God in a completely different way, while the meeting needed to continue to offer a credible neutrality.
  • When we turn to God for guidance rather than relying on conventional analyses, we may find that God opens our eyes to a completely different sort of conflict. Rather than one side being right, and the other wrong, we may find that both sides are trapped in roles and myths by a larger system of powers and principalities. Our most important role may be to unmask and confront that larger system, through prayer and public witness and a ministry of interpretation. For example: in many cases, people and groups press competing claims to the same land, forgetting that all claims to specific pieces of land are strictly temporary. The land is God's, not ours--and what is dry land today may be underwater in future generations, or swallowed by earthquakes, or rendered uninhabitable by ecological sin. Flat assertions of eternal ownership by either side won't solve the problem, no matter how wonderful their claims might be from inside their own worldview.
To sum up ... I don't have a summary! What do you think? In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, both "sides" have their champions among Friends; how might we find unity, either on a fertile neutrality, or on a conscientious advocacy?

The discussion continues here.

Righteous links:

Christianity Today's Books & Culture reviews a fascinating set of books on East Germany. If you've read any of them yourself, what did you think?

Statsministeren: A delightful Scandinavian newspaper comic strip that reminded me of Pontius Puddle (new site!) and that has an English version.

"A portrait of a journalist [Erling Borgen] against the background of a fortunate country [Norway]."

Afghanistan may get 10,000 military trainers?? Who else sees a problem with Western countries sending trainers to a country that has consistently shown itself capable of resisting Western militaries? Shouldn't Afghanistan logically be sending trainers to us? Is the true function of "trainers" to make military intervention more palatable to a reluctant public? Or are they planning to train local forces in the use of equipment they've not needed in the past, but that we'll later regret having left there?

Today's annual presidential speech by Dmitri Medvedev to the joint plenary of the Duma--covered in this English-language report by the semi-official Russia News channel. I can predict most coverage in the West will go along this tired line: good cop, bad cop. The reality is more complex and less predictable.

Moscow's Winter Bazaar--where we hope to be on November 28. (Among other things, they'll have used books!)

Albert Collins, "Lights Are On But Nobody's Home." (1991)


chelavery said...

This essay is wonderfully insightful and *useful*! I think it has become too easy for us to think of "Quaker neutrality" as an article of our (unwritten) creed, rather than as a tradition with meaning behind it. May I copy this post for future reference -- including possible use in discussion groups?

Anonymous said...

Where Quakers neutral durring the Vietnam conflict? As I saw it they were activly lined up in oppasition to US and were shipping resupplys to North Vietnam (Betty Boardman). Neutrality would be good, but I don't think Quakers have been neutral for a long time.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Chel! Thanks for your kind words, and feel free to repost as needed.

And greetings, Anonymous. I once wrote a paper for a conference that Chel helped organize on Friends and the Vietnam war. I still have that paper around--it specifically concerned Friends United Meeting during that conflict. In writing that paper, I interviewed several Friends and read dozens of issues of Quaker Life magazine, including stories on the voyage of the Phoenix with medical supplies for the North Vietnamese. Friends were very divided on that action, which was undertaken by a new activist group rather than an older agency such as the American Friends Service Committee.

The crew of the Phoenix may have been strongly opposed to the war, but their action in bringing medicine to North Vietnam was not at all pro-North or pro-Communist. Friends were already providing medical supplies and operating a prosthetics clinic in the South. The AFSC itself also sent delegations and supplies to North Vietnam, citing its historic concern to aid all sides in a conflict. Both the AFSC and the Phoenix group, A Quaker Action Group, tried hard to get USA government licenses for their actions.

To sum up: Individual Friends in the USA were all over the map concerning which "side" was right, if any, in the Vietnam case. But the major Quaker organizations such as the AFSC were strongly concerned to provide humanitarian aid to all sides.

forrest said...

You complicate things here in what I consider a less fruitful direction, as I don't think either "neutrality" nor "advocacy" are absolute goods.

What we're called to do is:

1) to not commit violence, and not support, encourage, facilitate (so far as we have the option) violence--

2) to make peace (so far as we're given that opportunity, which usually isn't much.) Neutrality helped us facilitate making peace in northern Ireland; but neutrality between invaders & invadees (the case in our wars against Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc) is not some strict requirement. We are neither judges, nor potential belligerents.

3) to mitigate the effects of violence, so far as we're helped to do that. (This may well put us in the position of aiding the weaker side in a conflict more than the side with more resources.)

4) to look at the world truthfully, and speak of it truthfully. This implies that we cease imagining that we have power, and likewise stop imagining that we are helpless. (Or that truth is somewhere "between" any given pair of false alternatives!)

forrest said...

That is, a reputation as an honest broker is sometimes useful--but the first requirement is to be honest, which may simply make "neutrality" untenable.

To try to work by utilitarian reasoning, as if we absolutely knew what would be useful and what would not be, to devote ourselves to maintaining a reputation rather than devoting ourselves to following God more directly, that's a drift downstream from that Anchoring Point we need in order to deserve a good reputation.

Principles are a consequence of being rooted in a sacred identity, not a substitute for that.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Forrest. Part of being "honest" is stewardship of the resources we've been given by our predecessors. We wouldn't have inherited a reputation for fair dealing in conflict situations had they not been honest followers of God's leadings, at least much of the time.

Reputation is only worth having if it is a genuine reflection of our discipleship--and if we are willing to deploy it in staying faithful and saving lives today.

You're right. We don't need a reputation for theoretical "neutrality" as such, but for willingness (sometimes costly) to be grounded in God rather than in the mechanisms of conflict and partisanship. I'm using the word "neutrality" to refer, perhaps imprecisely, to a position of unwillingness to be defined and owned by one side in a conflict, regardless of whether that side is defined as popular or unpopular, right or wrong, in our secular context.