Committing to Be a Pacifist, Committing to Be a Quaker

September 16, 2014

After I posted the piece about Going Back to Germantown Meeting, I realized there was more I wanted to say about commitment. As often as the word is used, I don’t think most of us make many genuine commitments in our lives. I found myself thinking especially about my becoming a pacifist when I was about 19.

My first year in college was 1964-65. I went to Haverford with no strong political or social viewpoints and an inclination to vote Republican when I was old enough to vote. Over the course of that first year, particularly because of my exposure to the Vietnam War but also because of continuing reflection on what I had seen of poverty in Ecuador as an exchange student in the summer of 1963, I became much more engaged in a host of political and social issues. Most importantly, I realized I had become a pacifist.

I sat quietly on my own with that realization over the next few months, and then in the fall of 1965 I told my parents I was going to apply to be recognized as a conscientious objector. My father received that decision poorly. After some good advice from the Dean (John Spielman) I put the letter I had written to my draft board into a drawer. I didn’t cease to be a pacifist as I did that, but Dean Spielman had persuaded me I didn’t have to do anything quickly because I still had a student deferment.

In the fall of 1967, with my student deferment soon to expire, I finally did send the letter (or a fresh version) to my draft board. Some months later, after graduation, they turned me down and classified me 1-A. That led within a few months to an induction order, which I refused. I was arrested and released on my own recognizance. A year or two later I was again classified 1-A, sent an induction order, and again refused. In the event, I never was tried or convicted.

Was that a commitment that I made? Yes, in a way. I’ve been a pacifist ever since. But in a more serious sense, no. The experience of those years left me thinking again and again about what I had done and why. It concerned me that my decision to declare as a conscientious objector had caused a rupture in my relationship with my dad. It concerned me that my draft board had turned me down, taking me, I gathered, to be an insincere applicant seeking CO status to dodge the draft. I had answers to those concerns (my father was wrong, my draft board was wrong) but how did I know that truly was a pacifist, that I would sustain that commitment no matter what the challenge.

I didn’t really have a good answer to that. I was a pacifist; I knew how to respond to the usual objections, and believed those responses. But I realized there wasn’t any substantial foundation to my pacifism, or at least not one that I could articulate to myself. It was in that frame of mind that I began attending Quaker meeting, encountering along the way a number of older men who had been pacifists for many years. Gradually—this took years—I came to the realization that I needed to give sustained attention to the still, small voice that held me back from participation in war. I couldn’t just listen occasionally to that ‘teacher within’ (a phrase I encountered later at Earlham), I had to listen steadily, and I had to try to understand better what that meant to listen steadily. I’m still on that path.

That was the real commitment. The turn to pacifism was an invitation. I accepted that invitation on a trial basis around age 19, but it was 15 years later that I fully accepted that invitation in becoming a member of Germantown Meeting.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Committing to Be a Pacifist, Committing to Be a Quaker

  1. Pingback: Going Back to Germantown Meeting | River View Friend

  2. Dawn Rubbert says:

    Thank you. I worry about young Friends, a concern I have had for about 15 years now, who feel no need to grapple with pacifism, their own belief in it or committment to it. About 10 or 12 years ago I was sitting in a cafe in Tucson with a transplanted St Louis Friend and we chanced to encounter some young men students from Earlham whow were volunteering in the area. At least one was from my own Illinois YM. Thde rather glibly told us they did not have to do anything about claiming they were CO’s because they were Quakers. . . Clearly they nad not done any serious personal work on the issue.

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