Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Wear it as long as thou canst

with 4 comments


There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)

Myth is usually more suitable than history at conveying ideals and values. The often-repeated story of George Fox’s advice to William Penn illustrates well the Quaker approach to the Quaker testimonies, for it shows that the testimonies to strive for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship are not approached as absolute commandments but as ideals toward which each individual Friend moves as she is led by her reflections on her own experiences. If one’s experiences have been of the unhappy consequences of violence, and if one reflects on the nature of violence, then one is likely to seek alternatives to the violent solutions to problems that present themselves. At one point in one’s life, one may seek to protect oneself by having a sword (or a pistol or an assault rifle or a strong army or a nuclear arsenal), but if one comes to see the very stockpiling of weapons as a threat to peace, one may follow the example of William Penn in the mythical story and leave one’s sword at home. One may seek to protect oneself by being the kind of person others are unlikely to attack.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Quakers are not invariably pacifists who refuse military service. The peace testimony, like all of the Quaker testimonies, has been formulated in different ways in different times and is always evolving as different communities of Friends discover what the demands of their particular circumstances are. (There is a nice blog posting about the testimonies on The Quaker Ranter). Typically, the testimony is worded in a way that draws upon the words of George Fox, who wrote in his journal that he testified to the Commonwealth Commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars…”

The occasion, or as we might now say, the causality of all wars is complex. Among the causes are such external factors as social injustices and maldistribution of the world’s resources. More fundamental causes are the internal psychological factors that give rise to social and economic injustices. Xenophobia and other fears of those who act and believe differently give rise to such behaviors are invading the homelands of others, colonizing others, converting others to one’s own religion and marginalizing those who don’t comply. The ancient Hebrews justified their genocidal campaigns in the land of Canaan by portraying the inhabitants of those lands, the Philistines and so on, as godless barbarians and uncultured savages. To this very day, the word “Philistine” is used to describe an uncouth person who has no higher interests; stereotypes die hard if they ever die at all. The reputation of the Philistines has been permanently smeared by the negative stereotyping enshrined in self-congratulatory Hebrew propaganda.

Unfortunately, there is no need to go back to the time of Joshua to find examples of brutality justified. The United States of America has become the land it currently is through several centuries of genocide, enslavement and colonization, most of it justified on the grounds that the victims of European territorial expansion were either benefiting from the largesse and advanced culture of the Europeans or so backwards that they deserved to be killed or banished to nearly uninhabitable lands. The behaviors of the Americans of European descent were rooted primarily in greed, fear of the other and ignorance.

Buddhists would use the terms greed, hatred and delusion to identify the occasion of war. These psychological traits—not other people—are the occasion of war. Since all human beings have to some extent inherited the characteristics that enabled their ancestors to survive long enough to procreate, and since those survival mechanisms of earlier generations were usually manifestations of greed and fear and benighted thinking, most human beings are genetically predisposed to those traits. The fact that those traits worked in the past, when the human population was very small, is no indication that they will continue to work in the present and the future. We may have come to the point where the very traits that promoted the survival of our ancerstors will promote out own demise, perhaps even the guaranteed extitnction of our descendants.

During the past year I have been reading the Bible every day. I have been following a lectionary that assigns passages to read every day. There are many kinds of lectionary, but the one I am following now is one that begins with the book of genesis and reads straight through to the book of revelations; by following it one can read the entire Bible in 365 days. I have to say that most of the reading has been unpleasant and disturbing. There is so much warfare, so much rationalized cruelty, so many prayers for the destruction of one’s enemies. Who can read a passage such as “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” without wincing at the cry for bloody revenge against those who have treated the Hebrews in Jerusalem as the Hebrews under Joshua treated the inhabitants of Jericho? So much of the sacred writings of the Hebrews—then the Christians who had inherited much of the mentality and many of the enemies of the Hebrews, and then the Muslims whose sacred revelations continue in the same general spirit—focuses on external enemies. The message repeated constantly is that the world would be peaceful if only other people were not evildoers bent on tormenting the lovers of God.

There are alternatives to the war whoops found in so much of the sacred literature of the world. There have always been people who have realized that our greatest enemies are not the evildoers from other lands but rather our own minds and the habits we have acquired through the indoctrination of mainstream society provided by war-mongering governments. Most of the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic world realized that. With only a few scattered exceptions, almost all the literature of Buddhism and Vedānta and Daoism is an invitation to find the true enemies that disturb the peace, namely, the acquisitiveness, the fear and suspicion of others, the anger that arises when things don’t go as one had hoped, and the hasty conclusions that are formed through lazy and self-centered thinking.

Although Quakerism was originally a form of Christianity based on a deep familiarity with the sacred texts of the Jews and the Christians, many modern Quakers find more inspiration in the inner-enemy theme of Asian religious literature than in the outer-enemy preoccupations of so much of the literature of the Abrahamic religions. The writings and sayings of Hindus, Buddhist and Daoists often require less hermeneutical manipulation to bring them in line with the inward leadings to peace and simplicity of life and thought that seems obviously called for as we emerge from one of the most destructive and soul-destroying centuries in human history.

Is the story of William Penn and George Fox historically accurate? Probably not, but that is not the best question to ask anyway. The better question might be “Is that the right story to tell in our times?” By my lights, it is.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 12:29

Posted in Faith and practice

4 Responses

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  1. Earlier generations of Quakers tended to interpret the “outer-enemy preoccupations” of scripture with an “inward-enemy” theme as well. The same type of “spiritual” interpretation was accepted in the Catholic tradition also — if it did not claim that other “senses” of scripture were false. An interesting glimpse of that can be seen in the BBC film “The Monastery” (available on YouTube) in which a more literal-minded guest in a Benedictine monastery becomes angry when the monks’ manner of applying scripture in the “spiritual sense,” as describing an inner struggle, is presented.

    George Amoss Jr.

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 17:39

  2. Thank you for this, and thank you also George. From what little I understand (I’m neither a Muslim nor especially well-versed in Islam), references to “jihad” in the Qu’ran may have both “outer enemy” and “inner enemy” interpretations. Later generations of Muslims outside the Wahhabist tradition have reportedly used the Qu’ranic term “jihad” to denote a struggle with an “inner enemy” rather than an injunction to literally subjugate non-believers by force. Much of the right wing commentary on Islam that is being used to justify the “War on Terror” fails to mention this. More literalist and “fundamentalist” Muslims (if it is correct to use that term) like the Saudi clerics or the Taliban seem to embrace more of an “outer enemy” interpretation.

    Michael Radigan

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 07:32

  3. Thanks, George and Michael, for your comments. I also am hardly an expert in Islam, but I have read a certain amount on it. My impression is like Michael’s. I have heard from historians of Islam that it was largely the Sufis who first interpreted “jihad” as an intense struggle against one’s own sinfulness and that many Muslims have followed them in this “inner enemy” focus of the term. Actually, on the first anniversary of the attacks on September 11 I attended an interfaith conference in Montreal. During that conference an imam delivered the most thundering denunciation I have ever heard of al-Qa’eda. He said the leaders of that movement know very little about Islamic law and have been using Islam to advance their own political agendas. After he spoke, a Nigerian Muslim in the audience stood up and offered a denunciation of the imam. Soon the event turned into a spectacle of Muslims denouncing one another, from which I concluded that there is considerable controversy within Islam over whether jihad refers primarily to “inner enemies” or “outer enemies.” From what I have read about 19th-century Quakerism, similar debates prevailed among American Friends. Perhaps to some extent they still do; I don’t know.

    Richard Hayes

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 08:43

  4. […] This morning I listened to Phil Waite’s sermon from Acts 18 with a focus on Cornelius, a gentile soldier who was attracted to Judaism. He gave alms to the poor and prayed at the Judaism’s hour for prayer. It is safe to assume that after Cornelius met Peter he turned from Judaism to Jesus.  Perhaps Peter advised Cornelius in keeping with an apocryphal story: John Fox to William Penn on his conversion that he should wear his sword “as long as thou canst.” […]


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