On Balance

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In the “capstone talk” of the American Friends Service Committee’s Centennial Summit last month, former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias framed his remarks with reference to an episode described by Henry Cadbury in his Nobel Lecture of 1947. In that lecture, Cadbury recounts, “In 1665, some English Quaker carpenters were building wooden ships on the Thames. They thought they were pacifists and had renounced war, and when there was danger of invasion by a Dutch fleet, these carpenters were required to carry arms. Naturally, they refused to do so, but it never occurred to them that what they were building were warships. It comes slowly, this discovery.”

Such discoveries come slowly, in part, because the human mind can be hard to focus and even harder to refocus. And as social animals, a further complication confronts us. We often need to focus or refocus all the minds in a group together, which can often seem impossible. Countless points of interest and concern constantly tug at our attentions. Our minds are stretched from local to global, practical to mystical, strategic to inspired, vanilla to chocolate.

Although we generally can’t hold our attentions firmly and constantly on any single thought – especially not thoughts of ourselves as instruments of oppression, as sources of environmental disaster, as holders of “possessions that nourish the seeds of war” – we do manage to focus long enough at times to see something. We do catch glimpses of truths. And we can hold those truths in our memories even while we are no longer able to focus on them clearly.

The U.S. budget proposed last month by the White House for 2018 would add $54 billion to the military while slashing programs for the poor and the environment. It proposes to cut the Environmental Protection Agency by 31%, the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 13%, the State Department by 28%, the Department of Agriculture by 21%, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by 100%, the Institute of Museum and Library Services by 100%, and the National Endowment for the Arts by 100%.

From a wide-angel view, we can see this budget as immoral because it is based on the premise that “might makes right.” If we scan this budget close up, we can see it as fundamentally cruel because of the thousands of individual cruelties it would inflict. Even though we can’t wrap our minds around the whole thing and all its implications, something in there prods us to respond. And we have each other to help us see what that response should be.

We are the inheritors of a faith and practice that, if only we will use them, can help us focus individually and collectively. Our faith leaves us no doubt that we must love our neighbors, all creatures, no exceptions. Our practice supports us in cherishing our deliberate, painstaking methods of working together. Both of these, our faith and practice, help us focus our minds together on a path that is better than the path of greed and war.

President Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his peace work in Central America, told the centennial celebrants of AFSC that Costa Rican pacifists and Quakers today “. . . have much in common with . . . those carpenters [in 1665] because we, like them, are the lucky ones. Even if warships are being launched all around us, we can imagine something different. We see more than one option when we look at the wooden boards stacked in front of us. We understand that, with nails in our pockets and tools in our belts, we can build anything we choose . . . [Wars] are built one nail at a time. And they are prevented in just the same way. All we have to do is turn that hammer around . . . [and use] the end that pulls nails out of wood rather than driving them in. All we have to do is stop pounding down and start lifting up. If we can do that, then nail by nail, life by life, we can slowly, surely take apart the structures of war and build the peace that needs our best minds, the peace we have so long imagined.”   ~~~

Look here for a record of the AFSC centennial, including videos of key presentations.