The Group and the Senses
The United States is the land of individualism—or so we think. In truth, individuals largely take their attitudes and beliefs from the groups to which they belong or with which they identify. Thus, in this present moment, an individual who identifies as Republican is likely to hold an anti-immigrant attitude and believe there was massive fraud in the 2020 presidential election. A Christian Fundamentalist is likely to be homophobic and believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Of course, there are Republicans who aren’t anti-immigrant and Fundamentalists who are tolerant of homosexuality, but they are exceptions to the “rules” that define their groups.
I’ve been interested to learn that group membership even affects the senses. In “Group Think,” an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, we hear of an experiment in which a sweaty t-shirt was smelled by students from two rival universities. When the emblem on the shirt was from the other college, students found the odor more disgusting than when the shirt was from their own school. Their sense of smell was affected by group affiliation.
The experiment recalls George Fox’s famous declaration, “All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter.”
Maple syrup is popular in Canada. A maple leaf even appears on the national flag. When an experimental sample of Canadians simply tasted honey and maple syrup separately, they showed no marked preference for one or the other. However, if subjects were first primed by Canadian symbols, maple syrup emerged as the clear winner. Taste was affected by people’s identification with Canada.
We are told that Jewish children were once given honey cakes to eat, upon which were inscribed the words, “The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue to know.” The implication of the ceremony was that the words of Torah were sweet as honey.
Of course, in sports sight is always being distorted by group loyalty. Was the pass in an American football game successfully completed, or was the football bobbled as the player went out of bounds? Fans of different teams will often “see” the play differently. Or consider the police body camera footage from an incident of deadly force. Someone who is pro-police may very well interpret the video differently from someone who has taken a stand against police violence.
Regarding mystical vision, who can forget George Fox seeing an ocean of darkness covered by an ocean of light? And, of course, the Quaker Inner Light is a metaphor from physiological vision.
This lengthy preamble leads to a personal question. How has my membership in a Quaker group affected my personal preferences and perceptions? “What!” you say. “You just recently became a member of OCMM. You haven’t been Quaker long enough to be affected by that fact.” Of course, it’s not formal membership that’s at issue but, rather, my identification with Quakers. That identification has a long history and has been particularly intense since I started taking FGC spiritual deepening courses three years ago. Moreover, for some time I have been a participant in two Quaker worship sharing groups, one of which is right here at Old Chatham Meeting.
I’ve noticed that I no longer take pleasure in the violence of action movies like Batman Begins. While I can’t prove causality between Quakerism and a changed taste in movies, I think the connection is very likely. I also feel a deepened sympathy for the outcasts and misfits of our society. After all, Quakers themselves are misfits in the dominant American culture of consumerism. When someone arouses my irritation or antipathy, I mentally say the phrase “that of God in everyone” and usually feel the negativity subside. While I personally am no social activist, I feel an increased admiration for those who actively try to help people on the margins of our society.
Have I, then, become a Quaker saint? Well, no. I still have a marked tendency to anger. I often forget Fox’s admonition, “Be still and cool in thine own mind and spirit.”
And I can make disdainful jokes about eccentric neighbors, namely the cat lady and her alcoholic son. Even though the lady lets her cats poop in our yard, she possesses an Inward Light. And when her alcoholic son throws fast food trash into the street, allowing it to blow into our yard, he is to be pitied rather than scorned.
There’s no need to detail my many imperfections of character and spiritual failings. Still, I think Quakerism has improved me. And progress is the thing. We are on a journey, and progress toward the Goal makes me hopeful of one day, perhaps not reaching the Goal, but coming close enough to see, smell, even taste It.
~ Richard Russell
A Matter of Freedom
A Matter of Freedom
By Juanita Nelson
In March 1959, I hunted through the Sears-Roebuck sales catalogue for something to throw around my nakedness when I emerged from the bath or lounged around the house, an economical garment to double as a beach robe. I finally ordered J934: white terrycloth, full back, worn with or without a belt, three-quarter length sleeves, shipping weight 1 lb. 12 oz. Over the left breast was a green, yellow, red and blue emblem, a garish enough flower for a rebel coat of arms.
I give the preceding account in all its triviality because three months later, on June 16, the versatile robe became something more than either Sears or I had intended; it became a provocative “kimona” around which revolved considerable consternation on the part of certain public officials and a great deal of reassessment on my part.
The first link between the robe and my intellectual processes was my declination to pay income taxes because most of the money goes for H -bombs and other combustibles capable of setting off conflagrations which cannot be extinguished by the average hook-and-ladder company. I balk at the notion of contributing so directly to making atomic hash of others and perhaps of my own wonderful self. The final bond was forged by the early hours kept by those who execute the orders of the United States government. They, apparently, do not require as much sleep as I do. Perhaps if I had business as important to attend to — bringing in the Body — I would not need so much sleep, either, or I would forego it for the important job I had to perform. Justice, I suppose, never slumbers, and she must demand the same insomnia of her bondmen. But I, not being affiliated in any way with justice or the Department of Justice, was sleeping soundly and in my accustomed nudity when the doorbell rang at 6:30 a.m. I slipped into the bargain bathrobe and stumbled to the door.
Two somber men stood there. As if they were in some way hooked to the hinges, they flipped open their identification wallets as soon as the door began to swing open. I did not bother to examine their credentials, accepting their word that they were U.S. marshals. I invited them in. They were all brusqueness and business as they sat on the edge of the sofa to which I waved them.
“We have an order for your arrest,” said one, and thrust toward me a blue-covered legal looking document.
I was startled. For eleven years, my husband, Wally and I had neither paid withholding taxes nor filed any forms, fully aware that we were operating on a brink of imprisonment policy. Wally managed to find work that did not come under withholding tax provisions. I was, therefore, able to claim him as my dependent and could earn up to about twenty-five dollars on any one job with no tax withheld. I usually held a couple of such jobs and so earned a taxable income. Then, several years ago, the revenuer tardily checked on two part-time jobs I had held simultaneously from 1952 to 1955 and began billing me for a sum which finally mounted to $959.83, including penalties for interest and fraud. And in March I had been served with a summons to appear at the Internal Revenue office in Philadelphia with my records. Our procedure all along had been not to cooperate with the collection of information, and we felt we would probably not cooperate with an arrest. Protest through individual income tax refusal appears to most folks about as effective as scooping out the Pacific Ocean with a spoon; it seemed even more hopeless to dump each spoonful of water into a tunnel which led back to the ocean. I had refused even to accept the summons and had heard no more from that quarter. In spite of Wally’s warnings that “you never can tell what those guys will do,” I think that way down 1 had come to disbelieve that I could ever be considered enough of a threat or an affront to the government to stir up anything more than this kind of bureaucratic feinting. But even with the best intentions in the world of going to jail, I would have been startled to be awakened at 6:30 a.m. to be told that I was under arrest.
When the marshals offered me the order I said, “I am not interested in that,” keeping my hands tightly clasped in my lap. I tried, in words which sounded hackneyed to my ears, to explain my position briefly.
“We are not interested in that,” they said. “You can tell it to the judge.”
“I would be glad to tell it to the judge,” I said, “if he will come to see me. But I do not wish to go to jail to tell him these things. I am not paying taxes because the overwhelming percentage of the budget goes for war purposes. I do not wish to participate in any phase of the collection of such taxes. I do not even want to act as if I think that anyone, including the government, has a right to punish me for an act which I consider honorable. I cannot come with you.”
There was less fuss than I thought there might be. Clearly, these men had studied my dossier and were undoubtedly informed of my friendship with Maurice McCrackin, tax-refusing minister, who had just completed a six-month sentence for the same offense. Mac had not been at all clerical — they’d had to carry him into court each time. And Wally they knew about, too — his 33 months in prison after walking out of Civilian Public Service camp during World War Ⅱ , the 108-day fast (with force-feeding by tube) which had preceded his release.
At any rate, they seemed not inclined to philosophize. After a few appeals to my common sense, the sterner of the two marshals said mildly, “Well, if you won’t come with us we’ll have to carry you in.” He left to summon a red car.
I realized that I was actually going to jail. And, at that point, I became acutely conscious of the robe. Should I quietly excuse myself, get dressed, then return to take up my recalcitrant position? It would have been simpler, of course, if they had left and made their entrance again, with me fully aware that they meant business. Debating the question, I went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, ran a comb through my hair. Those simple acts of grooming brought me back to reality sufficiently to realize that I might be spirited away. Wally was off on a sales trip, and I had no way of reaching him. I put the cap back on the toothpaste and went to the telephone, which is on a wall between the dining room and the kitchen, a considerable distance down a long, high-ceilinged hallway from the living room where I’d left the deputy. I was still on the phone when I heard the click of the door announcing reinforcements. There was a tentative, “Mrs. Nelson,” as though there was some fear I might be in too delicate a position to be barged in on. As I raced to get information to a friend, the deputies and two policemen converged on me. Other policemen trooped in. I remember saying as I hung up, “I’m surrounded.”
Seven law enforcement officers had stalked in. I sat on the stool beneath the telephone, my back literally to the wall, the seven hemming me about in a semicircle. All of them appeared over six feet tall, and all of them were annoyed.
“Look,” said one, “you’re gonna go anyway. You might as well come peaceful.”
There they stood, ready and able to take me at any moment. But no move was made. The reason was obvious.
“Why don’t you put your clothes on, Mrs. Nelson?” This was a soft spoken plea from the more benign deputy. “You’re not hurting anybody but yourself.” His pained expression belied the assertion.
One policeman snorted when I attempted to say that they needn’t take me at all.
The benign deputy made a last try. “Do you believe in God, Mrs. Nelson?” Irrationally, stalling for time, I asked, “Are you asking me as an individual or as an official?”
The marshal answered as if the question were not at all out of the ordinary, at least no more than the whole situation.
“I’m asking you as an individual.”
“No,” I said.
Taken aback, he did not go on to explain the connection he had evidently been going to establish between God and dressing for arrest.
When the affairs of men have reached a stalemate, there seems always some man of action to come forward. There was such a one among the seven. He was not a member of a debating society. These questions had nothing to do with him. I cannot describe his physical appearance, for he was not a face or a personality; he was a no-nonsense voice and a pair of strong arms.
“Listen, we don’t have to beg her to do anything. We’ll just take her the way she is, if that’s the way she wants it.” He snapped a pair of handcuffs around my wrists and, with another pair of brawny arms, half carried, half dragged me down the hall, the other five trooping after. In the street, the no-nonsense transporter delighted in maneuvering me into a position to expose the nakedness under the robe. One of the unencumbered tried desperately to arrange my limbs so that the robe would fall circumspectly and unrevealingly about my ankles. On my part there was a fleeting anxiety about the exhibition, but I was too engrossed in anticipating next steps to worry overmuch, especially as, at that early hour, there were few around to gawk. I thought fleetingly of Corbett Bishop, World War Ⅱ C.O. who practiced such consistent noncooperation that he suffered a roach to go down with the mush he was being tube fed. I did not shift from the spot where I was dumped on the floor of the paddy wagon as we drove down Market Street to the Federal Court Building.
When the doors opened, I continued to sit. My thoughts were like buckshot, so scattered they didn’t hit anything or, when they did, made little dent. The robe was a huge question mark placed starkly after some vexing problems.
Why am I going to jail? Why am I going to jail in a bathrobe? What does it matter in the scheme of things whether or not you put on your clothes? Are you not making, at best, a futile gesture, at worst, flinging yourself against something which does not exist? Is freedom more important than justice? Of what does freedom of the human spirit consist, that quality on which I place so much stress? How important is the exercise of that freedom if it conflicts or seems to conflict with the maintenance of the dignity of other individuals or of institutions? Was it enough, in any case, to have made the gesture of refusing to pay for weapons of destruction? What was the purpose of extending that gesture to such complete noncooperation with legally constituted authority? Was it only a gesture? How much is one demeaning himself when he kowtows either to authority or to custom, in short to myths? When one does not yield is he simply being rigid, humorless, arrogant, or is he defending that innermost place, the last sanctuary of selfness?
And all these questions turned around a basic question: Who am I? If I could know who I was, at least who I conceived myself to be, then I would be able to approach those other questions.
The same two stalwarts yanked me from the van, hardly giving me time to alight under my own power had I wished to do so. They divined my attitude correctly. I was becoming increasingly rigid as the situation became more ridiculous and I less certain of myself. They carried me by the elbows down a long corridor and up a flight of stairs to an elevator. One patiently endured while the other impatiently endured. I really did relate to the two men at one point. I realized how heavy an almost inert body can be as I saw the perspiration run down their faces. But did they have any conception of how difficult it was for me to be carried? They let me slide to the floor in the elevator, from where, fortunately, it was only a few steps to the cell. They sat me on the bench and left, vastly relieved to have finished their part in the business.
I did not know the time. I did not know precisely what charges had been lodged against me. I did not know when I was to be tried. I had the beginnings of a nagging headache. I had been plopped onto a wooden bench which ran along two sides of the tiny barred cell. There was a toilet and a washstand with a drinking fountain attachment. This was the first time I had been in such a cage, having been confined in ordinary rooms in previous jail experiences. A narrow corridor ran between the cell row and the outside wall. I contemplated dappled bits of sunlight scurrying through the venetian blinds covering the window opposite the cell. I could not see anyone, but I heard the murmur of voices around one end of the hall where, I supposed, were the administrative offices.
I was just soaking things in. I was feeling more sensitive about the robe, not being quite able to determine its role in the affair. I did come to one conclusion. Until I made up my mind about what I was doing and why, I would continue in the most extreme position. I would not do anything, only suffer what was done to me. Almost as if I had divined what was coming, I resolved not to leave the cell under my own power for any reason whatsoever except to go home. I remembered almost excruciatingly an experience in the Cincinnati County jail on a charge of disorderly conduct for trying to gain admission to an amusement park which barred Negroes. I did not eat during the nine days. I would not wear the prison uniform. But, thinking I was exercising what degree of freedom I had, I wandered about the floor at will and bounced downstairs to see visitors. But there was always the agony of afterwards. I could not endure being dragged upstairs each time, and returning voluntarily was degrading.
So, when the deputy interrupted my reverie to announce visitors, whom I could see in the waiting room, I told him I would leave only to be released. He shrugged his shoulders and left. Well, I thought, they’re not going to get themselves into a stew about this.
In a few minutes I heard a hearty, “Well, good morning.” Two fellow pacifists, one of them also a tax refuser, had been permitted to come to me, since I would not go to them. I asked them what was uppermost in my mind, what they’d do about getting properly dressed? They said that this was something I would have to settle for myself. I sensed that they thought it the better part of wisdom and modesty for me to be dressed for my appearance in court. They were more concerned about the public relations aspect of getting across the witness than I was. They were also genuinely concerned, I knew, about making their actions truly nonviolent, cognizant of the other person’s feelings, attitudes and readiness. I was shaken enough to concede that I would like to have my clothes at hand, in case I decided I would feel more at ease in them. The older visitor, a dignified man with white hair, agreed to go for the clothes in a taxicab.
They left, and on their heels came another visitor. She had been told that in permitting her to come up, the officials were treating me with more courtesy than I was according them. It was her assessment that the chief deputy was hopeful that someone would be able to hammer some sense into me and was willing to make concessions in that hope. But he had misjudged the reliance he might place in her — she was not as critical as the men. She did not know what she would do, but she thought she might wish to have the strength and the audacity to carry through in the vein in which I had started.
And she said. “You know, you look like a female Gandhi in that robe. You look, well, dignified.”
That was my first encouragement. Everyone else had tended to make me feel like a fool of the first water, had confirmed fears I already had on that score. My respect and admiration for Gandhi, though not uncritical, was deep. And if I in any way resembled him in appearance I was prepared to try to emulate a more becoming state of mind. I reminded myself, too, that I had on considerably more than the loincloth in which Gandhi was able to greet kings and statesmen with ease. I need not be unduly perturbed about wearing a robe into the presence of his honor.
I had, I think, been immobilized partly by a sense of my own failures as a human being. Here was I, still struggling with the meaning of my own life and standing, it seemed sometimes, on dead center. How, then, did I have the effrontery to question a whole way of life that had been evolved slowly and painfully through the ages by the accumulated wisdom of mankind? How could I presume to have so much of the truth that I would defy constituted authority? What made me so certain of myself in this regard? I was not certain. But it seemed to me that if I should see only one thing clearly, it was not necessary to see all things clearly in order to act on that one thing.
One pinpoint of clarity was that it was time for man to grow out of the short pants of barbarism, of settling things by violence, and at least to get into the knee breeches of honestly seeking and trying ways more fitted to his state as a human. To take life, especially in cold-blooded, organized fashion, seems to me to be the province of no man and of no government. In the end, no government can do it — it is only men who fire guns, drop atom bombs, pierce with bayonets: If an entity called government could slay another such entity, no great harm would be done and maybe even good would come of it -- at least the destruction of files of papers. My repudiation of violence is not based on any conventionally or conveniently religious motivation. I cannot say that it is against God’s will, since I do not know that there is a god, nor would I be able in any case to assume that I was conversant with his will. But I do not consider, either, that men are gods, that they should determine when another man should die. I do not consider that I am capable of such judgments, either of my own volition or at the command of others. Such behavior in others I abhor, but may not be able to affect. I can control my own behavior. And I do not think that my participation in stupid or immoral acts can add to my stature as an individual—I think, rather, that it might detract, take me even further afield from the discovery of myself.
It may be that most people think it necessary, if wicked and perhaps self-defeating, to build atom bombs to drop on such races of devils as inhabit Hiroshimas. We must save our skins, protect our way of life. Let me first excise the horns from my own head, since it was made, I think, for something besides butting. Besides, I cannot accept any package labeled “way of life,” only those particular values which seem to me worth protecting, and I must protect them in a way which seems fitting to those values.
Suppose, though, that most citizens eagerly pay their money into the government’s war chest before the tax deadline, and some sacrificially give more than their share. I have decided that this is not the best depository for the fruits of my labor. But believing as I do I must, it seems, comply in order to uphold the system of law and to act in concert with my fellows. Holding that law can be an aid but never a substitute for individual integrity, responsibility, and perception, I want immediately to know: In concert for what? If it seems that the purpose of the united action is to create misery, cannot, in fact, have any other effect, then I must decline my part in the performance. In order for men to live together, it seems efficient for them to work out bodies of regulations. But efficiency can in no way supplant morality. Is the height of man’s being obedience to the common will? I think it a higher purpose to live in a creatively oriented relationship than to adopt a slavish attitude toward rules and regulations. I think it the worst part of folly to be so enamored of acting in unison that I am herded into acting inhumanly.
If those with opposing beliefs hold them so strongly, they have at least the same choice of throwing their whole weight into bringing about that state of affairs which they espouse. Not by bringing me to heel, but by giving all they have to their own visions. I cannot think that the measure of one’s belief is the extent to which he tries to coerce others into believing it or acting upon it, but the extent to which he is willing to sacrifice for it himself. If, for instance, I am, because of my well-intentioned but mistaken notions, depriving the Department of Defense of ten dollars per year for making a guided missile, why does not someone convinced of the necessity of the weapon come forward and voluntarily make up that ten dollars? Is it not mere pettiness to insist that I would stand to be “protected” by this sacrifice? (I would also stand to be annihilated by it.) The money spent trying to make me comply could be squandered, instead, on the purposes for which my tax money would be used.
But, no, this noncompliance constitutes an affront which cannot be ignored. It is no doubt the fear that even one insignificant defiance will produce a rent in the whole fabric, and that the cloth may some day be beyond repair. Perhaps we do not need the garment at all and should throw it into the rag bag before it is completely in tatters. If the idea I champion is worthless, not many will be impressed to follow suit and my intransigence can be regretted, deplored and suffered. If, on the other hand, only the law keeps most people from acting with me, then this must be the worst kind of despotism — it must be the minority who are keeping the majority in line with the whip of the law. Or perhaps everyone is being kept in line with the whip, and no one dares look the thing in the face for what it is.
Most people who take any notice of my position are appalled by my lawbreaking and not at all about the reasons for my not paying taxes. Instead of trying to make me justify my civil disobedience, why do they not question themselves and the government about a course of action which makes billions available for weapons, but cannot provide decent housing and education for a large segment of the population? Actually, many people seem envious that I have for so long been able to “get away with it,” with not paying taxes. I wonder what would happen if the income tax laws were repealed tomorrow. Let everyone be sent a statement of what his fair share would be, to be paid on a voluntary basis. How many of the people who bark at me, “Do you think you should use the highways if you won’t pay taxes?” would send in their assessments?
Anyway, because I believe that it is more important to do what is right than what is lawful or expedient, I have declined to pay the tax. All right, then, having determined this course of action for yourself, should you not be willing to accept punishment for your defiance? Why should I? I have stated that 1) I believe this particular measure to be so intolerable that I cannot abide by it; 2) I believe that I have every right, nay, every responsibility, to act according to my best judgment, not waiting for one-hundred and fifty million others to concur. This one act may not lead inevitably to a good end, but I do not see that it can lead to a bad one. Why should I expect or accept punishment for exercising my best judgment? I was not a whit more contrite when the marshals came to arrest me than when I first declined to pay the tax. Would I go peaceably in order to show my compatriots that I do not utterly despise them and their institutions? If I must go to jail in order to demonstrate my respect, then they will have to believe as they believe; if I should go to jail willingly for that, I should undoubtedly end up despising myself at least. And how can one have respect for others without self-respect?
I think that what I was saying with my robe was that I was doing what I thought right. I was convinced enough to feel that it would be good if others were moved to do likewise. But I some time ago gave up the notion that it was my province to reform the world. But I think that if I have helped to start a fire, the first thing I must do is stop adding fuel to it. I could not very well help going to jail when seven strong men were determined I should go, but I did not wish them to think for a moment that I was on their side. You will do what you think you should, what you have been ordered to do, but I shall not help you do it, no, not even to the extent of getting dressed so that you may feel more comfortable in your mission. If a law is bad or unjust, is not every phase of its enforcement simply an extension of the law and to be as greatly resisted?
I wanted passionately, perhaps grimly, to be myself. Somewhere that self existed, independent of, though cognizant of, all other selves, a being and a striving to be in inevitable loneliness. I wanted to strip to the skeleton and clothe it with my own humanity, my own meaning. Some parts of that self could be satisfied only in the context of other selves, but that participation would have to be voluntary, whether bound to other selves in marriage, social club, or government. There is no collective conscience. I think it is too bad that anyone should suppose that holding me within their bounds, forcing me to do what they think is good, is within their prerogatives. It is no palliative that they do it impersonally, without having thought through anything, but only because actions have become automatic through codification. I saw a movie about a woman who was put to death by the state in a gas chamber. Not the man who dissolved the crystals, nor the man who pulled the switch, nor the woman who sat guard to keep the prisoner from killing herself, nor the priest who heard her last confession, nor the governor who might have commuted the sentence, not one was anxious to have any part in that degrading performance. And yet each swallowed his revulsion like vomit and, when he could not be saved by some decree, played out his part.
It is, as far as I can see, an unpleasant fact that we cannot avoid decision-making. We are not absolved by following the dictates of a mentor or of a majority. For we then have made the decision to do that — have concluded because of belief or of fear or of apathy that this is the thing which we should do or cannot avoid doing. And we then share in the consequences of any such action. Are we doing more than trying to hide our nakedness with a fig leaf when we take the view expressed by a friend who belonged to a fundamental religious sect? At the time he wore the uniform of the United States Marines. “I’m not helping to murder,” he said. “I’m carrying out the orders of my government, and the sin is not mine.”. I could never tell whether there was a bitter smile playing around his lips or if he was quite earnest. It is a rationalization commonly held and defended. It is a comforting presumption, but it still appears to me that, while the seat of government is in Washington, the seat of conscience is in me. It cannot be voted out of office by one or a million others.
I had not answered all the questions when I was wheeled into the courtroom in an office chair mounted on casters. I had not even asked all the questions.
But I had asked and answered enough to be able to leave behind me the brown paper bag holding my clothes. The commissioner received me in my robe. A friend who was in the courtroom noted that I was “brave but halting.” Even so, it was necessary for me to suppress a smile or two. The consequences for me might be grave, but it was a comical situation.
The commissioner cited the law which empowered him to imprison me for a year and fine me a thousand dollars, or both. But he did not wish, he said, to be the first to commit a person to jail for flouting the law. He gave me until the following Friday, this was Tuesday, to comply with the court order.
At 2 p.m. Friday I was at the ironing board, rather nostalgic that this might be the last time I would perform that humble task for some time. In baggy blue jeans, I was disreputably but more respectably dressed than I had been three days before. But they did not come for me. Some weeks later I learned from a news release that charges had been dropped, since it could not be proven that I owed anything. (I was not, as a matter of fact, arrested for not paying the tax, but for contempt arising from refusal to show records.) Still, in my Christmas mail there was a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $950.01
If this was the prelude to another abduction, I can only hope that those attached to the court will have achieved that degree of nonchalance which I think I have attained regarding proper court attire. Or that they will at least first send out their intelligence agents to scout for more favorable circumstances for taking me into custody.
This essay originally appeared in Liberation, September, 1960. Reprinted by Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, Greenfield, Mass. , and made available to NWTRCC with the author’s permission.
Forwarded by Don Lathrop
George Fox believed that Christians could “…come to Adam’s perfection, —into that image of God, that righteousness and holiness, that Adam was in before he fell; to be clean and pure, without sin, as he was.” While I personally reject the idea that humankind is inherently sinful and depraved, I haven’t seen anybody in this life who is sinless. In fact, a person claiming to be spiritually perfect in the twenty first century is possibly suffering from a psychological disorder.
It is true that Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In context, however, Jesus was saying that we should even love enemies and tax collectors. He was really saying, “Be compassionate.”
Consider these words from the Apostle Paul, probably referring to the epileptic attacks he may have suffered:
Therefore, in order to keep me from being conceited, I was given
a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three
times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said
to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect
Here Paul has Jesus connect human weakness with divine grace. As a Friend recently commented to a group of us, “Good enough is where God’s grace happens.”
“Good enough” is a maxim that can counteract perfectionism, not only in spiritual matters, but in all areas of life. A brilliant doctoral student whose punctuation is not perfect deserves compassion. A conscientious host whose zoom meeting lacks internet stability at least deserves “good enough.” And although I’ve taken fifty years to follow a leading to Quakerism, I know that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.
~ Richard Russell
Memory and Forgiveness
My father was a psychopath, or at least somewhere on the psycho-sociopath spectrum. Outwardly charming and a successful businessman, he made our home life a hellish mixture of verbal and physical abuse. Although he’s long deceased, my brother and sister still have not forgiven him. I have.
But in my 20’s and 30’s, I not infrequently felt a deep anger, even rage, when I remembered what he had done, the details of which I’ll omit here. How did I overcome these feelings? How does anyone get rid of anger stemming from childhood trauma? I believe the current treatments for PTSD are a solution to this problem.
PTSD, post-traumatic stress syndrome, originates with a brain structure called the amygdala. Suppose, while walking in the peaceful countryside around Old Chatham, you suddenly come upon a black bear with its cub. The bear, in protective mother mode, turns, growls, looks at you, and seems ready to charge.
Your eyes and ears send signals to the thalamus, the brain’s “switchboard,” tasked with routing those signals to the appropriate brain regions. The thalamus then sends the bear information to both the neo-cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala decides that the situation is too threatening to wait for the sluggish processing of the neo-cortex. So, the amygdala initiates the so-called “flight or fight response.”
In response, adrenaline is pumped into your bloodstream, causing the heart to push blood to your muscles. You breathe more rapidly, taking in more oxygen for energy metabolism, which is also fueled by the emergency release of blood sugar (glucose). You’re ready either to run from the bear or fight it.
But wait! The bear charges, fortunately stopping short of you. Your stress response continues with the release of cortisol. Hopefully, your neo-cortex kicks in and tells you not to run as that would encourage the bear to chase after you. Luckily, the bear decides against charging again, and, shepherding its cub away from you, puts distance between itself and you, a perceived danger to its progeny.
Physical abuse in the home also activates the fight or flight response of the children who experience it. In later years, even the memory of the abuse can cause these children, now perhaps adults, to react with sudden fear or anger as their amygdalae react inappropriately. I’m guessing that my anger at my father was the result of this process. In other words, I suffered from a mild PTSD and was completely incapable of forgiving paternal misdeeds.
What treatments are available for such PTSD? One consists of medication; another is psychotherapy, in which the patient is tasked with repeatedly recalling the traumatic event or events, perhaps while meditating and doing breathing exercises to reduce the pain of remembering. With time, the patient is desensitized to the disturbing memory and the PTSD symptoms disappear. Another option is to use a flashing light or hand movements to distract the patient during recall of the trauma. The distraction may allow the patient to think positive thoughts that color the negative memory and eventually sanitize it.
Which method did I use? Well, “None of them,” I admit. Sometimes PTSD sufferers completely suppress bad memories and avoid any thought of past traumatic events. That’s what I did. It’s not a recommended therapeutic technique, however. “The return of the repressed” may produce other psychological symptoms. In my case, I’ve completely forgotten, not only traumatic incidents, but most of my childhood and adolescent memories. Memories are inextricably linked, and my memory repression has affected, not only bad memories, but also good and neutral memories.
Nevertheless, this forgetting of memories has also enabled me to look more kindly upon my father and even to forgive him for his abuse. Forgiveness, however it comes about, is a good thing. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus calls upon us to forgive others just as God forgives us. Surely, we must heed his call.
~ Richard Russell
Where Was God in 1946?
I want to briefly look at the material and spiritual condition of Europe in 1946, my birth year. The destruction of homes and buildings was wide-spread, particularly in Germany and—to a lesser extent—in England. I do remember my parents remarking on the ruined buildings we saw in London on our way to Scotland in 1953. (My father was an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force.) Luftwaffe bombers, supplemented by V-1 and V-2 rockets, had taken their toll. Germany, of course, had been devastated by Allied bombing. During our 1954 European vacation, my parents must have seen bombed-out portions of Munich, but they remembered only the enchanting beauty of the Bavarian Alps around Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Garmisch, a ski resort, was largely untouched by Allied attacks, but the major cities of Germany were “flattened” by bombs, as recorded in Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Allied attack on Dresden. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time but writes from the perspective of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim.
He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed.
There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-
explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. …Dresden was one big flame.
The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. (The) stones
(of the buildings) had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until
they locked at last in low and graceful curves. “It was like the moon,” said Billy
Other German cities were also in ruins. Free-standing walls jutted up from the rubble, and people took refuge in roofless buildings that had three or four walls intact. Berlin had lost up to 50 per cent of its habitable space, and an astounding 70 per cent of residential Cologne was no longer livable.
While statistical studies can always be disputed, the death toll in Europe was enormous, perhaps thirty-five to forty million people. Great Britain lost about 300,000 people while over a half-million French citizens were killed. Some six million Germans died, equaling or surpassing the number of Jews who perished in Hitler’s Holocaust. Six million was also the probable number of Polish deaths; and in the Soviet Union an incredible twenty-seven million died violently.
Numbers are, of course, abstract. Keith Lowe in Savage Continent suggests another way to comprehend the death toll of World War II:
Perhaps the only way to come close to understanding what happened is
to stop trying to imagine Europe as a place populated by the dead, and
to think of it instead as a place characterized by absence. Almost everyone
alive when the war ended had lost friends or relatives to it. Whole villages,
whole towns and even whole cities had been effectively erased, and with
them their populations. Large areas of Europe that had once been home
to thriving, bustling communities were now almost entirely empty of people.
It was not the presence of death that defined the atmosphere of postwar
Europe, but rather the absence of those who had once occupied Europe’s
sitting rooms, its shops, its streets, its markets.
Absence was most acutely experienced by those Jews who had managed to survive Hitler’s “final solution.” After all, two out of every three European Jews had been killed. As an experiment, I added the common Jewish name “David” to the surname “Hirsch” and searched for “David Hirsch” in an online data bank of Jews persecuted by the Nazis.
I found eleven instances of “David Hirsch.” All eleven were, of course, Jew (presumably) murdered by the Nazis. Based on my interpretation of the data, three had been sent to Auschwitz, two had died at Theresienstadt, two had been executed in the killing fields near Minsk, Belarus; and one was shot in the Rumbula forest of Latvia with some 26,000 other Jews. A David Hirsch also died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin; and another Hirsch was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto where he apparently died shortly after German troops crushed a Jewish revolt in the ghetto. A final individual died earlier in 1939 when the Nazis herded thousands of Polish-German Jews across the border with Poland in a mass deportation. The Polish government sent them back to Germany!
So, where was God in 1946? Apparently, he wasn’t in Europe! Traditionally, of course, God is a loving God who is omni-present, omniscient, and all-powerful. Mere human beings can only speculate about God; but, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is Love. In that same tradition, he is thought of as all-powerful. But then the question arises, “How could a loving, all-powerful God have permitted the events that led up to the human and material destruction of 1946? Aren’t those two divine attributes contradictory?
“Yes, of course,” is my answer. We must throw out “all-powerful” if we want to preserve God’s loving nature. And the excision of omnipotence makes sense. Again, remembering that we can only speculate, we can think of God as the Ground of Being, “Being Itself.” Being Itself must struggle against non-being, Satan or the Devil in mythological terms. Being Itself (we hope) will eventually triumph but only with the passing of time. While that time passes, human beings have the responsibility to cooperate with God, to work for the coming of The Kingdom of God. Exactly how this will happen and what the result will look like, we cannot know; but faith in God implies faith in the establishment of the Kingdom. May we have the courage to wait and work for this natural and supernatural culmination!
~ Richard Russell
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