Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Andre Trocme, a French Protestant pastor and pacifist, is known as a man who led an effective response to the Vichy and Nazi genocide against the Jews. He had a heart for servanthood and God, and an ethic that moved beyond the preaching of pacifism from the pulpit to guiding an entire community to sacrifice on behalf of those who had even less. He wanted to do more than he had, and to this end, he sought ought the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee. He spoke to the clerk of the AFSC’s French refugee assistance program about getting him into the refugee camps to serve the sick and mentally ill. As it turns out, the AFSC and Trocme arrived at other plans (his town became a harbor for refugee children), though in the very end, Trocme himself found a way into the camps – at the hands of an armed Vichy escort.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting point of history that is remembered by the biographer of Trocme’s parish of Le Chabron and that town’s commitment to rescuing Jewish refugees from deportation to Nazi death camps. Phillip Hallie notes that, whether it was in occupied France or Vichy France, the Quakers were allowed considerable access to the refugee camps of France, and in fact, were treated with respect by German and French soldiers who ran the camps.
These were, for the most part, not French Quakers, but American Friends. And, they won the respect of the Nazi guards, not because they were doing good works, but because of the history AFSC had in Germany during the period of that nation’s national humiliation. It was Quakers who were committed to serving the conquered Germans and decimated French after World War I ended. Above all, the American Friends are said to have been viewed by the enemy as both faithful and neutral.
There are similar stories of American Friends being trusted by all combatants during the American Revolution (it must be stated, there were also Quaker spies). There are numerous times that Friends from Britain and the Americas were welcome by the heads of state of foreign governments perceived as enemies of the US or Britain. A decade or so ago, American Friends asked for and received an audience with the then President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver a message of peace. It seems that, even though Friends of past eras were enemies of injustice, enslavement, and military aggression, they never let that prevent them from going into war zones and serving both the oppressed, and the oppressors. Friends were very often seen as a people of faith, and not as a threat, even if they were citizens of an enemy nation.
This has changed, perhaps right after World War II, perhaps during the war in Viet Nam, or perhaps, with the culture wars that began in the 70’s and continue today. Perhaps, the biggest change in the way the western world views Friends today is that, indeed, pacifist Quakers are combatants. The Quakers have taken sides, both in the so-called culture wars, and in the minds of many who are not Friends, in the “hot” wars around the world where service by Friends has been burdened with the notions that political policy outcomes are every bit as important as feeding, clothing, and ministering to the oppressed. It may even be said that Quakers are hardly concerned with ministering to oppressors at this point in history, focusing more on testimonies of peace and political power than a “leveling” equality, simplicity, and I might add, integrity.
Yet this is not a primarily Quaker problem. Even more than Friends, American Christians both liberal and conservative have turned entirely away from the gospel in hopes of legislating a political outcome that reflect, neither a biblical or messianic moral vision, but one that lacks in any real commitment to sacrifice, voluntary suffering, or a just peace that reflects a divine will revealed in the life of the Christ, and not the will of political parties. I pray we can remedy this as a people of God, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew.
Just as Lutheran churches began flying American flags in front of their churches to show neighbors which side German-Americans were taking in WW I, flags now stand proudly at the front of more than a majority of American churches. Muslims are asked to show proof of their patriotism as American’s for no other reason than they are Muslim, as though that status begs the question. In fact, religion is often viewed as a threat if it does not give thanks to the nation state for defending “freedom of worship.” This reality is entirely anathema to the gospel, for Christ knows no citizenship outside of the Kingdom of God.
Those who claim Christ, and the cross that represents the Christian ethic, are required to do no more than be good citizens of the nation state as they would be good neighbors. Some times, as in La Chambon, one must be a citizen of the world as much as a citizen of heaven, and this may present a challenge to the nation state. But Christ, and the apostles, and even the Hebrew midwives make it clear, we are to love enemies just as we love neighbors, and are, like God, to serve both the just and the unjust, as God’s rains favor down upon both the good and the evil. As Paul will tell you, you had better think twice before you count yourself, or your nation, amongst the good.
That the church now argues with itself vehemently over issues such as the torture of enemies, the welcoming of refugees, the priorities of politicians running for office, and lording over the relationships of people who are not even claiming a Christian ethic, we not only fail to bridge a gap between combatants in the culture war through being an example of what reconciliation and true equality look like, we fail to be peacemakers. In fact, every time a Christian publically supports a political response to an issue of sin or violence, or even of political change, we enhance the animosity that exists between two sides of the same coin. By engaging in the politics of winning over the faithfulness of serving, we create enemies by creating potential losers. As a people, Quakers, and Christians, are now officially more American than they are a people of God. And the world suffers for lack of a sufficient witness to the gospel of God that refused the advantage of divine power to respond to evil.
Once an enemy trusts the motives of the faithful as based on a faith in God and not democratic or otherwise coercive means, we can again begin to make neighbors out of enemies. However, as we try to win political victories without bothering to sacrifice our own privilege by living in a truly just manner; one that invites others, and the other, into relationship with us no matter where they are, we lose our integrity. So where do we begin to win this back?
The Bible has clear prohibitions against honoring political leaders, taking oaths, using violence, and marginalizing opponents through means of power and control. The very presence of a national flag in a place of worship violates a very basic biblical tenet of refusing idolatry. No one should receive honor, no entity receives honor, outside of the manner in which the church collectively honors the will of the divine. We can re-establish our commitment to our neighbors and our God by refusing to honor the nation state outside of an ethical citizenship. Removing national flags from places of worship, refusing anthems and oaths, refusing to swear in law courts or to stand for judges, politicians, kings or queens, or oppressors alike, is the first step in expressing a new faithfulness to God as an arbiter of history who does not need our participation in electoral politics any more than this God needs or wants our participation in war. We can honor no man or woman, but rather, we invite every man and woman into our community of faith as equals.
To do this, we must overcome our lack of faith. We, as a people, have more faith in the political process than we do in our own ability to create faithful alternatives. Democracy is coercive, because it is enforced at the barrel of a gun just like military objectives are. In fact, there is no guarantee that our own democracy or republic can continuously withstand the weight of the so-called culture or political battles we are currently engaged in. Civil war, just as international wars, may be inevitable. As such, by participating on one side or the other of political strife, we inevitably build insurmountable obstacles to our ability as a people of God, Quaker or otherwise, to be peacemakers when all breaks down. Our own neighbors will consider us enemies, and above and beyond that, enemies that cannot be trusted as people of faith. This, and not the loss of control over political outcomes, will be the undoing of the gospel. God is faithful, but we as a church are no longer a people of faith. We are a people faithful to electoral politics that stress both a means and an end that stand over and against the politics of Jesus.