The Balm of The Other

Author(s): 
Department: 

For if you love only those who love you, what reward have you earned?

I grew up in a very liberal Quaker meeting in the very liberal city of Berkeley California. Most of the adults in my life were peace activists of one kind or another, folks more likely to spend an afternoon at a demonstration than watching a football game. These people shaped how I came to see the world, and long before I really knew what I was talking about, I was getting into arguments with schoolmates about the viability of pacifism, battling the endless hypothetical challenges that started “What would you do if ...?” I loved a good argument.

Looking back on my life, I can appreciate the steps along the way. I got involved with the San Francisco branch of the American Civil Liberties Union when I was in high school. I spent the summer before college knocking on doors for the Public Interest Research Group, with a bunch of young, devoted readers of Saul Alinsky. After graduating college, my first fulltime job was working for the politically radical Franciscans I had admired as a child. In each of these chapters, I found new insights through my labor.

But in each of these efforts, I was haunted by the persistent disconnect with persons who believed differently than we do. Their morality was immoral. Their ideas and beliefs were idiotic, if not evil. Even among peace-loving, religious folks, we were still locked into the antagonisms of argumentation at the expense of living up to the challenge of loving our enemies.

The original title for this issue of Western Friend was “Friends and the Military,” and that is an example of what I discovered in my way of thinking. We are Friends, and they are the Military. Too often forgotten are the veterans in our Meetings. And perhaps more troubling is Friends’ regular avoidance of the ambiguity of being American citizens, beneficiaries of American privileges, taxpayers and hapless funders of the very political policies so many of us work to resist.

I received a moment of clarity during a cross-country trip in the summer of 2005, when I stopped for some days in Crawford, Texas. Cindy Sheehan and a growing number of anti-war activists were gathered near the then-President’s ranch. Some weeks into their vigil, a small gathering of anti-anti-war demonstrators made their own pilgrimage to the same piece of hot-as-hell Texas prairie. Day after day, the two groups picketed each other, standing in their respective drainage-ditches bordering an unmarked country road, mirror images of futile hostility.

The absurdity of the spectacle was liberating for me, and I spent my time there crisscrossing back and forth, talking with folks in both groups. I found out that both camps had nearly identical messages: we support the troops, and those folks over there represent everything that is wrong in this country. I was embarrassed by how obviously unwilling we were to do the real work. I had spent my whole life trying to get smart enough to win the argument, convinced that my vision and approach were right and that my adversaries were misled, misinformed, and unknowingly awaiting my clarifying and redemptive arrival in their lives. My heart broke under the weight of my hubris, and I realized I needed to begin listening more to the very folks I was sure were wrong. These people whom I had turned into “The Other” were the teachers whose lesson I had too long refused. I have come to believe they are the healers whose balm can mend my broken heart.

Venturing out of the village of my own comfort and security took me to some unexpected places and into relationship with some unexpected people. I went to seminary to study theology with folks who talk and think and worship differently than me. There I learned how differences of belief and experience are not necessarily an end or barrier to relationship, but can be a beginning and opening to deep understanding and revelation.

There is so much in Quaker theology and practice that is vital, but we don’t have it all figured out, and some of the stuff that we have figured out we avoid putting into action or don’t embody fully enough. When we are talking only with other Quakers who share the same blind spots that we do, our eyes perceive only so much. Recognizing this about my own tradition positioned me to have great conversations with others, because I could listen with curiosity. From this approach differences offer contrasts that test my way of believing and living, allowing iron to sharpen iron. Difference provokes serious discernment, opened by questions about what is really important to me and what am I willing to do because of my commitments. Difference becomes the gift of continuing revelation through another’s experience and imagination, allowing me to journey to places I haven’t yet dared to travel. The only question remaining is will I accept these gifts of difference, or will discomfort and fear preclude our very meeting.

During seminary, in the relative safety of books and classroom conversations, I had a chance to expand my perspective to some extent. However, I still had to develop the muscle memory to accept encounters with “the other” in my everyday life. The hardest place for me to witness the face of God was in a military context, where all my peace activist intuitions would be triggered. That’s where I had to go. So I found myself working for two years as a chaplain in a Veterans Administration hospital. There my job was to listen and respond to veterans of every living generation of military conflict this nation has been involved in. My way of seeing the world was a minority position to say the least, but that mattered less than my willingness to meet those persons where they were.

Little by little my desire to prove the superiority of my ideas was replaced, first by the discomfort that comes with being in relationship with those who think and live differently, and then with the humbling understanding that I have less figured out than I thought. I am not a moral relativist, but I now believe that my own positions hold as much weakness as strength, and as much paradox and confusion as clarity. Along the journey of this reorienting, I began to see how the differences between us were teaching me a new story about God, and community, and justice, and about who I am and what I can do.

Today I am a commissioned chaplain in the Navy, serving with a Reserve battalion of the Marine Corps. I took this step when it became clear to me that I could not participate in this restorative ministry while standing on the sidelines, keeping my jersey clean. To meet these folks where they are means not waiting for them to come find me on my terms. I must be ready to enter into the condition of their lives, defined by stress and sacrifice in the name of service.

Ministry in this institutional context remains a challenge for me, and I may always feel out of place within military culture. I also now feel out of place sometimes in the pacifist communities that raised me, knowing that in the eyes of some, I have betrayed the cause and perhaps them too. I grieve this loss because these folks have made my life possible. Other pacifist friends have expressed the hope that I am promoting a covert agenda to bring the military complex down from the inside, some version of evangelizing conscientious objection and winning souls for the cause of peace. Some have shared deeply and plainly their concerns for me and for this work. Just as this surprising turn in my life has impacted me, so too has it impacted the communities I am a part of and how we relate. And this path has led me to new communities who now accompany me in this ministry.

This journey continues to shed light into places of my soul I would otherwise have left in the shadows. Along the way I have come to understand my spirituality as a viable and reliable source of mercy and healing, as much for me as for the world. I have come to read the biblical narratives of loving enemy and stranger as not only mysterious paradoxes understood by folks holier than me, but as the substance of enacting love in the midst of ambiguous and uncertain existence. I have come to recognize the complicated and contradictory nature of war-making, because with each person I encounter, a new narrative of experience is woven into my understanding. I will never comprehend our compulsion for violence, but I can respond to the human experience of it and seek to be a bearer of God’s presence in the midst of the breach caused by suffering, despair, and disconnection. And in doing so, I demonstrate my belief that God is real, an ever present force in this world, and I find myself becoming a little more human.

I remain deeply inspired by the sacrificial acts of conscientious objectors from past generations, but I have come to believe that our tradition of pacifism has some limitations. I believe our goals for peace and justice have too narrowly defined our means. Our critique may be sound, but our actions too often take place on the margins of the human experience of war. We must be willing to risk the discomfort of real relationship with people we disagree with, because only through relationship can the full power of love be unleashed in our broken world. It is worth asking: What am I willing to risk so that relationship is possible?  ♦

Zachary Moon is a life-long Friend whose current ministry as a military chaplain is under the care of Camas Friends Church, Northwest Yearly Meeting. Zachary lives in Denver with his wife and two small children.