The Sermon on the Mount in the Life and Death of Tom Fox

Pearl Hoover

[Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a presentation at a memorial session for Tom Fox at Baltimore yearly meeting, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, August 4, 2006.]

This paper encompasses the life of Tom Fox, from his earliest decision to give his life towards peacemaking to the fruit of his decision as expressed by those who were with him on the journey. As a full time service worker with Christian Peacemaker Teams and a long time member of the Langley Hill Meeting of the Society of Friends, he shared a rich circle friends who are faithful servants of Jesus and who have been touched by his witness as has many others around the world.

Tom Fox was born the only child of older parents in Chattanooga Tennessee. He received a Masters in Music and Education at the George Peabody School of Music. When he graduated from there the draft for the Viet Nam War was still in effect. Peggy Senger Parsons, a Quaker preacher, describes Tom’s response to this reality.

“My favorite thing about Tom was what he did during the Viet Nam War. Unable, by conscience, to fight, he did not head for Canada–he did not go to jail. Instead he joined the Marine Band, and played his clarinet for them for 20 years. If I have my time and place right, he would have been playing “Hail to the Chief’ for a president he mightily disagreed with. Some would see this as a contradiction or a compromise. I see it as witness to a thing we Quakers hold to be true. You can be present to the people you most disagree with. This is what it means to live out the Sermon on the Mount.; to walk the extra mile; to stay engaged with someone even it if means getting your other cheek slapped.”

But this was only the early hint of Tom’s commitment to keep Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He married, became the loving and excited father of a daughter and a son, retired from the Marine Band and became an assistant store team leader at a Whole Foods store. He had begun attending Quaker meetings in 1981 and joined Langley Hill Meeting in McLean, Virginia in 1992. It was the events of September 11, 2001 that began to give shape to this call from God. He describes this vision in his document “Christian Peacemaker Teams Discernment Process” this way:

As I was watching the events in New York City and in Washington, I had a strong sense of one of the, for lack of a better word, visions that the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, experienced. He wrote, “I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but also an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in the [ocean of light] I saw the infinite love of God.” It was my clear experience that day that we were being drawn deeper into the ocean of darkness and were creating more distance between ourselves and the ‘infinite love of God.”’

It was a very strong experience for Tom, but it did not lead to any immediate action. A number of months later he was doing a guided meditation and had a strong image of the scales of justice.

On the left scale were many, many people; some in military uniforms with weapons, some who seemed to be making the weapons and others who seemed to be encouraging or supporting this process. On the right scale were some people, but very few, in comparison to the other scale. It was my impression that they were committed to working for peace and justice without use of external weapons.

On the base of the scale were many more people than both scales combined. I had a sense that these were people who had not, or did not want to make a choice about which scale to take a stand on. I was in that group. There was a circular ladder going up to the top of the scale and a walk way leading towards each scale with people climbing up and going towards one scale or the other (most heading towards the scale with the weapons.) I had a sense of my climbing up to the top of the scale and starting to walk towards the scale of those working for peace and justice. That was where the meditation stopped.”(CPT Discernment Process document)

This was the point at which he began to look into various groups “who were out in the world working to bring the Peaceable Realm to come to fruition.” He found CPT on the internet. It was important to him to, “in all things, seek Jesus,” in the words of a Quaker mentor of his. Thus he looked for organizations that seemed as strongly grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus. Even though he checked into CPT he did not go any further until April of 2003.

About this same time he had just received the best evaluation ever at Whole Foods, which led to a meeting with one of the regional vice presidents. The vice president said it was time to promote him. However, he added that for this to happen, Tom would need to function more aggressively and be more directive in his leadership style.

Tom said he simply was not that type of person and would be uncomfortable being something that he wasn’t. He was given 6 weeks to step down to a non-leadership position or leave the company.

Tom responded in this way. “This was a real shock . . . . I was angry at first but as I prayed and reflected on this it came to me that maybe God was giving me a kick in the pants to get me moving in that I seemed not to be able to make this move by myself.”

He left the company, spent the summer as the kitchen manager at a Quaker camp and let all this settle in. When Tom got back that fall he started the application process for CPT and sent it in on September 11, 2003. The writings of Joe Dominguez, a successful New York stockbroker, influenced Tom’s thinking. He read Dominguez book, Your Money or Your Life; Transforming Your Relationship with Money, where he was challenged to do a critical evaluation of his life’s energy. He calculated how many hours he had left to live, based on actuarial statistics; made a list of five values important to him; calculated how much time he needed to spend on them and chose three actions he could take to simplify his life now. This opened up his life to the possibilities of not worrying what he would eat, drink, wear etc. That part he was learning to leave in God’s hands.

He took a course at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding on strategic non-violence in the spring of 2004. Early that summer summer he worked at Opequon Quaker youth camp and in July and August he did CPT’s training in Chicago. Somewhere in this time he attended Northern Virginia Mennonite Church (NVMC) occasionally to learn something of the Mennonites. He was aware they were one of the founding groups of CPT. He formed his support group from Langley Hill and NVMC, two groups whose traditions have deeply espoused the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Tom offered to go to Iraq. CPT was considering leaving Iraq but Tom felt called to go there. He believed from his experience with the Marine Band he could interact in positive ways with US soldiers stationed there as well as with the Iraqi people. So he left for Iraq, on September 11, 2004. He wrote of the struggle to chose fight or flight, to face the human experience of fear and anger:

If I am not to fight or flee in the face of armed aggression, be it the overt aggression of the army or the subversive aggression of the terrorist, then what am I to do? [Follow the] guidance of Jesus and Gandhi in order to stay connected with God. But here in Iraq I struggle with that second form of aggression. I have visual references and written models of CPTers standing firm against the overt aggression of an army, be it regular or paramilitary. But how do you stand firm against a car bomber or a kidnapper? Clearly the soldier being disconnected from God needs to have me fight just as clearly as the terrorist being disconnected from God needs to have me flee. Both are willing to kill me using different means towards the same end. It seems easier somehow to confront anger within me than it is to confront fear. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right then I am not to give in to either. I am to stand firm against the kidnapper as I am to stand firm against the solder. Does that mean I walk into a raging battle to confront the solders? Does that mean I walk the streets of Baghdad with a sign saying “American for the Taking”? No to both counts. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and if I lose it to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan. I struggle to stand firm but I’m willing to keep working at it.

In December of 2004 at a team worship time he had another image, one that speaks to Jesus words, “You are the light of the world.”:

It was of a land of shadows and of darkness. But within that land candles were burning; not many but enough to shed some light on the landscape. Some candles disappeared and it was my sense that the light was taken away for protection. Other candles burned until nothing was left and a small number of candles seemed to have their light snufied out by the shadows and darkness. What was most striking to me was that as the candles which burned until the end and the candles whose light was snuffed out ceased to burn, more candles came into being seemingly to build on their light. Jesus’ words speak again “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

As Tom contemplated the cycle of violence and hate he worked with in Iraq he wondered how the minds and hearts of people could be changed. “It all comes down to ‘agape’– the love of enemy that speaks to the divine spark that everyone has in them. As long as there are human beings there will be conflict. But the way that CPT and everyone else who has experienced a change of heart and mind can offer as alternatives to violent conflict resolution can fan the flame of that divine spark within those ware trapped in the vicious circle of violence.”[email Mar 26 2005 Seven Paths to Jesus’ Third Way

In reflecting on an exhibit he saw in O’Hare airport, Tom picked up on Jesus’ teaching about treasures and where they take the human heart.

We in the United States comprise 3% of the world’s population,” he wrote, “yet we consume 22% of the world’s natural resources. The word that jumps to my mind when thinking about that statistic is ‘greed.’ Does my president’s stated goal of ‘spreading freedom and democracy’ really mean getting other nations to borrow, spend and consume like us? That goal is fine as long as we can find a way to replicate the earth five or six times and use these replicated earths just as a source of natural resources and not try and live on them.

While I’m convinced that there is an infinite amount of spiritual resources in the universe there is clearly a finite amount of material resources. How we share those finite resources is a critical part of creating the Peaceable Realm. Unless we in the U.S. can find intentional ways of letting go of some of our “stuff’ so that others have enough “stuff’ for the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter a world of peace will continue to elude us.[blog April 4, 2005 “Stuff”]

Prayer was a source of life for Tom. He was experienced in many forms of prayer including the Sufis, meditation and contemplation. In a report to the co-directors of CPT reflecting on his second tour of Iraq he writes “‘Reduced to prayer’ is a phrase I used in writing a friend recently. My cooking experience tells me that something that is reduced actually becomes stronger and more potent.” Tom’s life of prayer was lively and vital but very quiet.

One hears the words of Jesus more richly “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one,” in considering Tom’s witness, life and death. He was not rescued as his companions were but neither has evil had the last word. Even Tom’s guards were touched by his prayers. One of the guards had injured his foot playing soccer and for the two times each day that Tom’s hands were freed he bent down and touched the guard’s foot praying that it would be healed.[Story by James Loney, Sandy Spring Memorial Service]

Jesus’ teachings have been revered by many faiths. Before Tom’s body was flown from Anaconda Military Base in Iraq to Dover Delaware, Beth Pyles, his CPT colleague, read from the Gospel of John, spoke words called out from mosques and concluded with words from the Jewish scriptures, it was a way to conceptualize what Jesus was saying in Matthew 7. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” V. 12. In this the faiths of the region were shown respect.

Tom’s last prayer at the end of his emails in the fall of 2005 speaks to the hope of those who seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.

Sun behind all suns
Soul behind all souls
Grant us the grace of the dawn’s glory
Grant us the strength of the sun’s ray
That we may be well in our own souls
And part of the world’s healing this day
That we may be well in our own souls
And part of the world’s healing this day.

– Celtic Morning Prayer

The story of Tom’s life is finally a story of healing for a land torn by hate and strife. Toms’ presence there did not stop the strife but it shines as bright as day on the ultimate futility of hate and shows the way to everlasting love.

In Tom’s death the Beatitudes come alive. Sheila Provencher, a CPT colleague of Tom’s wrote of his humility and meekness.

. . . I feel overwhelmed of having known you . . . . ‘Amu Tom’ as all the Iraqi and Palestinian children called you. How could we have had such a gift in you? You were gentleness, patience, compassion, forgiveness and courage . . . .” She remembers the night before she left Baghdad, two days before Tom was kidnaped. “[Tom] let the good bye prayer service. You said to me, ‘I don’t know why, I just have this feeling that I want to do a Eucharist service for you. Don’t ask me why a Quaker would lead a Eucharist, but I have a feeling this is what we’re supposed to do.’ So we broke bread and drank grape juice and all shared the communion prayer, men and women taking turns. Afterwards you joked about this being your First Communion, at age 54 . . . .Laughing in the candlelight . . . . I can hear your voice in my heart. You say things like, ‘Well, this was what was supposed to happen.’ ‘I’m just glad I could be here to help.’ ‘You keep taking care of yourself, now.’ Your one deep pain was knowing the anguish that your suffering could cause your children. “[CPTnet 15 March 2006]

Her letter to Tom ended with these words:

We met in October 2004, right after Margaret Hassan had been killed. You, Matthew, and I were the whole team in Baghdad, and we talked about kidnaping, what could happen to us, and if we should stay in Iraq. You wrote a statement of conviction that included the words, “If I am ever called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice in love of enemy, I trust that God will give me the grace to do so.” You did it, Tom. You were faithful until the very end. I imagine that even when you were about to die, you looked with forgiveness at the man who would kill you . . . .God, help us to be as faithful.” [CPTnet 15 March 2006]

Forgiveness became the theme of Tom’s death. His witness seemed to touch many in the media in a significant and for some a life-changing way. Amber Healy of The Connections newspaper of Fairfax Virginia was one of those reporters. The paper itself wrote an editorial on Tom’s life including a highlighted quote from Matt 5:44. “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, and unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also. And as you would that men should do to you, do ye also to them like likewise.”

The editorial says “It is remarkable to see fellow human beings who walk in the path of their convictions. It is heartbreaking to see the person die as a result. But his death was not futile-no more than the death 2,000 years ago of the one he followed.”

Many see the Sermon on the Mount as a textbook way to live. The danger in that is it becomes a legalistic document. The Sermon on the Mount is more like the roots to the Tree of Life. It is best hidden in the follower of Jesus’ life so that it sustains and nurtures all that the believer becomes. As such it cannot become a legalistic document but a way to come to the Source of Life. For Tom it was the way to love. Its teachings transformed his life into a spiritual adventure and journey far beyond anything he could imagine or dream. The journey was rarely easy but it was good.

A few days after Tom’s body was found, Lauri Perman, the Clerk of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends, shared a vision a friend of hers had had about Tom. She recounted it in an email: “A week or two ago when I heard Tom was not in the video with the rest of the CPT team I was so worried. I prayed asking ‘God is Tom with you?’

Then I prayed ‘Tom are you with God?’ In my heart I heard a voice say . . . in great joy . . . ‘There is so much love here . . . so much love . . . so much love.’ I knew Tom was in a different place, because I could not imagine that place here. Now I am not sad for him – only for us.”

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

At Tom’s public memorial service the truth of his life seemed to fulfill what was spoken of in the Beatitudes. Guided by them, this was the pastoral prayer offered at that service.

“We are before You in sadness, and You remind us
“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”
We see Your great love and remember
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be
Called the children of God.
We wonder about our world and are given to despair
But You said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they
Will see You.”
Thank you for the grace, the light, the forgiveness
And the love that Tom lived by in Your Spirit.
Send us Your Spirit and Your Light
So we may see Your Way and walk in it to You!
As You looked with grief on Jesus’ suffering so you also
Understand our grief and the deep on-going pain of the people of Iraq.
We are sorry for the anguish and destruction they have known.
We pray that the sacrifice of Tom’s life will bear fruit
So their land and people may be healed.
Strengthen us O God to have the faith and love
To go into the conflict because we will find
Your mercy and love if we but look for it there.
Tom is comforted and held in your arms and we are glad.
He is with You where there is so much love.
Let that love guide us and give us hope
As we all journey home to you. Amen.


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