Theology & Peace Witness by Chuck Fager

A Letter to the Next Director of Quaker House, Fayetteville-Fort Bragg, North Carolina

Dear Friend,

One of these days, we’ll start looking for you in earnest. Not yet, because right now everyone’s busy recovering from the Quaker House 50th anniversary. But one of these years, the Board will face another Director search, and I hope they give it plenty of time, because frankly, I think it will be a challenge. Carrying out the QH mission is a unique, complex, and grueling assignment.

And alongside the practical aspects, it’s a major theological crucible.

Here’s the job description in a nutshell: as the Director of Quaker House (QH), besides managing a small non-profit, the essence of the work a call to continue a protracted, hand-to-hand combat with the Spirit of War, operating behind the lines of one of its main strongholds, far from most Quaker bastions, and largely on your own.

As someone who spent eleven years in this position, I am haunted by a lingering question: where in Quaker circles are Friends being prepared to take on such a mission? Frankly, I don’t know, so the QH Board will be casting the net far and wide.

Let’s break down the Director’s job description a bit. Many of the routine tasks are familiar, basic to small nonprofits: designing and running the program; reporting to the board; keeping the supporters informed; supervising a small staff; and of course, raising the budget.

All necessary, but not the heart of the matter.

The central skills grow out of the unique origin and setting of Quaker House, and have a lot to do with temperament as well as capabilities.

When it started, Quaker House was one of dozens of similar projects near military bases across the country. But the turmoil of the 1960s passed, the Vietnam war ended; and of these dozens, only one was left: that’s us.

The others didn’t disappear because the bases all closed and the war machine was dismantled. Hardly. Times changed. But the need remained even in these altered circumstances. Quaker House also evolved, and soon found there was lots of peace work to do. And its setting in a military city called for special skills and abilities.

Topping the list is the ability to live for extended periods outside one’s cultural comfort zone (or CCZ).

It’s a truism that American society has become very balkanized, along cultural, political, religious and other lines; more and more we hang out with people who talk and think like ourselves, we stay in our CCZs. And among these divergent “zones,” no chasm is deeper or wider than that between Civilian America and Military America.

(This process, if you’re ticking off boxes on a theological checklist, is a rich vein of Theological Anthropology to dig into.)

Remember the 99% meme from the Occupy Movement? It’s back when we talk about this, only in a different, unsettling guise: in the U.S. today, about three million people have direct involvement with the military. Three million is a lot–but it’s only one per cent of the total. For the 99% of us, though, the connections to the military are all second- or third- hand. (We all help pay for it, but that part was long ago made mostly automatic and invisible.)

Friends, particularly liberal Quakers, are no exception to the balkanizing trend; and in this particular respect, we are almost all located deep in the heartlands of the civilian side of the gap, culturally if not geographically.

This is not said to criticize, but to underline a fact: to live at Quaker House, on the doorstep of Fort Bragg, is to leave that Quaker milieu behind. In place of a pacifist heritage and a culture of civilian quiet, you’ll step directly into the screaming maw of the war machine: it’s all around, not only outside, but rattling the windows when you’re inside. War is the main industry in Fayetteville, its company town. And this larger war machine, you’ll understand better soon, is near the heart of our larger culture, even if most of us stay oblivious to it. Goodbye, cozy Quaker CCZs. (Checklist: Missiology)

Personally, I think that the fact QH was started and mainly supported by Quakers is the main reason why it has endured. At its best, Quaker work on intractable issues is persistent; and militarism is just as much an issue in 2019 as it was when QH began in 1969; maybe more. Good Quaker work also tends to be distinctive (a more pleasant option to the traditional “peculiar”), often one of a kind.

Yet the specter of war QH confronts is more than a matter of uniforms, buildings or equipment; a new Director will also have to confront the human cost of war on a daily basis. Its victims haunt the streets here, fill the news columns, huddle in the bars and churches.

Speaking of churches, there are 300+ Christian congregations in the Fayetteville area, some quite large and visible. Among these, in my time (2001-2011) Quaker House is the only one willing to declare in public that when Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” maybe he meant it. This is said less as a point of pride than an indicator of isolation. (Checklist: Ecumenics)

To be sure, it’s just as possible to see and speak to the Inner Light in military folks as in any other children of God. Our motto here is “YES to the troops, NO to the wars,” and as Director you will have ample opportunity to practice it. Plus there is a remnant of peace-minded folks in Fayetteville who can offer support; I have found good friends here. And Fayetteville Meeting is a tiny but tenacious Quaker outpost. (Checklist: Pneumatology)

So the isolation is not total. But make no mistake: Quaker House is a mission outpost in foreign territory. So much so that you will soon find that very few Quakers from outside are prepared to venture from their CCZs to come to Fayetteville and ease your marginal status.

Indeed, there is a grim joke here about how the distance from any of the region’s established Meetings to Fayetteville must be much, much farther than that from Fayetteville to them. Nevertheless, Quaker identity and connections are critical to the Quaker House and its mission. So if few Friends will come to you, then you will plan to go to them. Expect to spend much time, especially in summer, on the road, visiting yearly meetings, monthly meetings and other gatherings. (Checklist: Evangelism)

More than spiritual support depends on these connections. They are also crucial to one of the Director’s make-or-break practical capabilities, namely fundraising.

Apart from visits, our fundraising is mainly done on paper, via newsletters and appeals; so an effective Director will be a good writer. The internet is encroaching on print, so some web facility is also appropriate; but ink on paper will still be central to the fiscal health of QH for a long time to come. (Checklist: Hermeneutics, high-stakes version. See also, Divine Providence)

Now, as to program: for as small an operation as we are, QH has fingers in many pies. This should be no surprise; militarism has seeped into every corner of our culture. No matter how much we do here, we can’t keep up.

So as Director you’ll be learning about some of the hundreds of regulations and policies involved in our GI Hotline counseling. Then there’s the military recruiting apparatus to monitor. It’s formidable and ubiquitous. It is abundantly financed and deploys top-flight marketing talent with great flexibility.

Recruiters also work hard – many of them too hard, in ways that put their families and even their lives at risk. Witness the four suicides in one unit in 2007-2009.

And this data points up another piece of the QH workload, one we did not seek but could not escape: what we now call Violence Within the Military.

It first came to my notice as an epidemic of domestic violence, especially shocking spousal murders. More recently, their numbers were matched by a continuing surge of soldier suicides, which in years since 2009 often exceeded the number killed in actual combat. These and associated phenomena are military-wide, with the heaviest toll in the Army. (Checklist: Soteriology)

In addition, there is another, even more ominous side of the military around Ft. Bragg: what could be called the Torture Industrial Complex. Many of the known “rendition” flights that carried victims to secret prisons and Guantanamo took off from near here. The brutal and illegal “enhanced interrogation techniques” were taught here to the masters of Guantanamo and “migrated” from there to Abu Ghraib, Bagram and elsewhere. Further, several of the military’s most secret and lethal units – Delta Force and the Joint Special Operations Command – are based and trained here. (Checklist: Moral Theology; Ethics)

As if all this isn’t enough, there’s one more important unit at Ft. Bragg, less colorful perhaps but very important nonetheless: the 4th Psychological Operations Group, a centerpiece of the Army’s far-flung campaigns of “psychological warfare.”

This unit’s motto, “Words Conquer,” (Though Wikipedia now says it has been translated into Latin, doubtless for camouflage: “Verbum Vincet” (The Word Will Conquer). This points to a lot more than simply dropping leaflets on a battlefield urging enemy soldiers to surrender. It applies as much or more to the “homeland” as to any foreign adversary, and its principal, abiding “target” for conquest  is us: the US citizenry, thee and me.

After all, Americans do not automatically start each new year resolved to spend more than half their tax money, and the lives of thousands here and abroad, in support of a vast war machine: we need to be persuaded of that “necessity” and nobility, again and again each year.

Furthermore, when “Words Conquer” at home, the conquest depends as much on which words can be prevented from becoming part of public discourse as it does on inserting particular terms into it.

Many examples of such domestic psychological warfare could be listed here. Some of the most intensive skirmishes, however, involve issues that are close to our work: the tide of violence within the military (it must be downplayed at all times), the programs of torture (which must never be admitted as such); and the blighted lives of so many of its protagonists (sanitized into words like “resilience,”  glorified by periodic parades, wreaths and formal salutes, mostly ignored the rest of the time).

In my years here, this concentrated, relentless propaganda effort had a major wearing effect. As much a course of self- deception as one of misleading others, it at once conceals, justifies and promotes the organized destruction and self- destruction that is our “military industrial complex.” (Checklist: Eschatology)

And here we have named our principal theological subject and antagonist, and a formidable one it is: this “complex,” combines reinforcing elements of massive destruction, secrecy, torture, propaganda, deception and greed into a machinery so vast and entrenched that it seems almost to run by itself. Indeed, the most useful image or metaphor for it to me is that of the biblical “principalities and powers.” That is, forces that operate within and yet behind the visible components and institutions, moving the parts and the people within them. (Checklist: Biblical theology)

This observation is hardly original. Almost sixty years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower, in his 1961 Farewell Address, named this complex, and warned us of its character and growth:

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

(Checklist: Prophecy)
All of this is still worth pondering. But one phrase, overlooked in most discussions of Eisenhower’s MIC concept, leaped from the page as I re-read it:

The total influence [of the MIC] – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the federal government.
The total influence . . . even spiritual . . . .

The military industrial complex (or MIC) is a spiritual (aka theological) influence?
In my experience at Quaker House, absolutely. Let me try to explain why.

During the half-century since this historic speech, presidents have come and gone; political parties waxed and waned; Secretaries of Defense have taken office and given it up; and there have been times of open war, punctuated by intervals of peace, and covert conflicts; the economy has seen boom and bust.

Yet through it all, the size and reach of this MIC has steadily grown. The MIC is, among other things, the top consumer of oil, and a major source of mostly unregulated toxic pollution. Today the MIC’s reach is more pervasive than ever, to the point where it has become so familiar that Americans hardly notice it, except in concentrated locations like Fort Bragg and other large military bases.

Yet today it would be more accurate to call it the Military- Industrial-Cyberspace-Political-Academic-Scientific- ThinkTank-Mass-Media-Entertainment-Religious Propaganda Complex. (The MICPASTTMMERPC? We’ll stick with MIC.)

There’s more. Alongside the visible economic and political aspects of the MIC, there has been constructed a secret, extra- legal set of structures that have wreaked havoc across the world, and laid the foundation for a police state here. Like the visible parts, the secret structures have grown over time as well. We have learned many horrifying details about their activities in the past few years. Unfortunately, most Americans seem hell-bent on forgetting all that as quickly as possible.  (Checklist: Discernment)

One of the most penetrating Quaker writers of the mid- twentieth century, Milton Mayer, described the process of public accommodation to government by secrecy and creeping delusion in the understated but compelling pages of his classic study, They Thought They Were Free. Mayer showed in calm, harrowing detail how ordinary, reasonably virtuous 1930s German civilians were seamlessly reduced from citizens to subjects, cogs in a totalitarian state. (Checklist: Sin)

One of the most telling features of this malevolent transformation was that for most, all it entailed was doing nothing. As Mayer put it: “the rest of the seventy million Germans, apart from the million or so who operated the whole machinery of Nazism, had nothing to do except not to interfere.”(Emphasis added.)
Or as one of his German friends confessed afterward, in abject shame:

“What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . . .

To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it– please try to believe me–unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, regretted . . . .

Suddenly, it all comes down at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing).”

Doing nothing does not mean cowering in a corner, but rather, focusing fixedly on the quotidian, “ordinary” of daily life: family, job, religion, entertainment, even quiet political hand- wringing. All while being careful not to interfere. (Checklist: Public Theology)

This accommodation – doing nothing and forgetting the unpleasant disclosures, is facilitated when the MIC, as it does, sprinkles jobs and money across every state and most counties. It is further reinforced when it is, literally, blessed by God. Or at least by God’s self-identified representatives.

Yes, the MIC’s reach definitely includes the religious, the spiritual, and theological.

Let’s look closer at the theological connection. It has several important aspects; we will mention three. (Checklist: Heresiology)

First is a very direct, and deeply embedded link. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation ( has exposed deep involvement by a kind of crusading Christian fundamentalism at high levels of the military services, an involvement that has many ominous implications, both for freedom of religion among service-members, and especially for conflicts involving Muslim populations.

Second and more broadly, much of American religion, especially evangelical Christianity, has adopted the theological conviction that the United States is God’s chosen instrument to exercise the role of the planetary sword-bearing magistrate, charged to rid the world of evil-doers, as the president declared in 2001. Thus these churches, some of the largest in the country, not only support but actively advocate for the projection of American military might around the world, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure, to Americans, but especially to foreigners. This is, they are sure, God’s work. (Checklist: Idolatry)

Third, as individuals, the millions directly caught in this web can be as personally virtuous, or not, as anyone else. Yet this power encompasses all their individual wills (and in large measure ours too), and bends the whole ineluctably in the direction of war and death.

This “Spirit (or Power) of War” is a metaphor, surely, and one drawn from a two-millennium old myth. And yet, at Quaker House this “myth” feels as tangible as the huge oak tree at the foot of the lawn. For if its mechanisms have worldwide reach, many of the key cogs mesh and grind right here in eastern North Carolina. They can be heard rumbling through the woods; their priests and acolytes carry on their rituals in the open; its sacrificial victims stare out from the pages of our local paper.

At Ft. Bragg, for instance, more than three hundred soldiers had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of 2009, and several thousand more gravely wounded. In addition, dozens more had killed themselves or their spouses, and untold numbers bear the psychic wounds of what they had done in combat. And how many Iraqis and Afghans have been killed, maimed or made homeless as these troops carried out their orders? Hundreds of thousands at least. In the Cultural Comfort Zones, CCZs, this appalling toll of death can be kept at a safe, abstract distance. In Fayetteville, their faces appear in the news pages of the daily Observer, while the windows rattle with the booms of practicing artillery, and one foregoes that luxury.

Now we can begin to see more clearly what has been the most challenging part of the Director’s mission, which brings together all the elements previously mentioned: namely, the call to see, name, and challenge this “spirit of war.” The “challenge” is more often quiet and incognito rather than noisy and public. Here is theology gone practical, beyond the cozy seminary classrooms or the quiet pastoral study. And this practice is day in and day out, week in and year out. Thus the job demands both tactical skill and stamina.

Stamina: one of the most glaring defects of recent US wars is the near-total ignorance of our forces, from top to bottom, of the nations and cultures they are fighting. It takes time and commitment to develop the cultural competence for effective operations in a different society.

The same goes for peace work and Quaker House: it takes time for a Director to learn the “language” of a military town; it takes time to become established as a credible actor on the local scene. In my view, this means a new Director needs to stay for at least five years, and preferably longer. This is not a position for job-hoppers, or the unseasoned.

Nor, for that matter, for the faint of heart. Taking on this Spirit of War is what the same biblical texts which speak of such powers call “spiritual warfare” against them. And while this is another old metaphor, it too evokes an all-too-real combat. If this struggle is less “shock and awe” and more like the grinding trench standoffs of World War one, it is still wearing, and has its own PTSD. (Checklist: Pastoral Care)

In much popular religious writing, such “spiritual warfare” is typically reduced to calls for lots of prayer, and/or donations to some melodramatic preacher’s ministry. Without disparaging either prayer or donations, facing the “spirit of war” at Quaker House is a much more concrete contest. In taking it up, you will have far more to learn from Sun Tzu than Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham. (Checklist: Spiritual Warfare)

I’ve written elsewhere of the value of studying classical military strategy for developing long-term planning and tactical agility in Quaker peace work; all this is intensified in Fayetteville. If the language, and still more the grim reality of such concepts and the struggles they signify are difficult for you, it will be advisable to look elsewhere for opportunities.

One other aspect of this strategic task is to regularly re-assess and recalibrate Quaker House’s relationship to what is called the “peace movement.”

In 2002-3, for instance, we were happily a mere dot in a vast tide of antiwar protest. A couple of years later, QH and Fayetteville briefly became movement focal points. Such occasions put dealing with police and press as additional items on the Director’s agenda.

Since then we have watched this movement tide recede out of sight. This despite the fact that in recent years we’ve seen enormous gatherings of women, and scientists, marching in defense of their progress and potential; more are coming to urge action on gun violence and climate change.

All these are welcome; but I note that while the war budget has continued to drain the resources from increasingly urgent constructive public efforts, yet the last national peace rally gathered in Washington in 2007. Some peace-oriented think tanks continue to grub for grants; Quaker House has been left flashing its stubborn beacon like a lonely lighthouse across a deserted beach. (Checklist: Abandonment)

Yet if there’s a lull elsewhere, QH remains plenty busy. And a broader antiwar surge may someday rise again. How will Quaker House relate usefully to it? The answer will be up to you, the next Director, and the QH board.

In September 2019, Quaker House celebrated its 50th anniversary of service. The search for a Director is not active right now. But it will come again. (Checklist: Perseverance of the Saints; and others)

When it does, ideally the Board hopes to pick you from among a number of highly qualified Friends. And this is where the work of finding you could get tough.

There are many places to pick up the basics of non-profit management and fundraising. But when it comes to learning to live outside the CCZs, up-close-and-personal with the war machine for extended periods, I don’t know where in Quaker circles such training is available. Volunteer service projects once provided a path toward it, but this function was tragically abandoned two generations ago, and only a few now remain.

And I have yet to read a liberal theological treatise that is of much use for the “spiritual warfare.” (Checklist: Theologians, get it Together!) The matter of when and how Quaker institutions will begin to prepare Friends seriously for such concrete service and theological confrontation remains a discouraging conundrum.

Nevertheless, there is much about the work of the Spirit among the Society that is beyond our ken. So during the many months of seeking that lie ahead, we can hope not only that you are in fact out there getting prepared, but that our paths will someday cross, and the unique ministry of Quaker House can continue, in a manner that upholds “the Reputation of Truth.”

In Friendship, Chuck Fager

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