from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

What I can say about Tom Fox 

Tom was a long-time member of Langley Hill Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, where I am also a member. I was not close, as I only began regular attendance in 2002, just about 4 years ago. My wife knew him for a longer period, having worked with him in opposing the death penalty hear in Virginia. Since he was taken captive in November, our Meeting has often been the focal point for press, because we are so convenient to Washington DC. This was true last night, as two local stations began their 11 PM broadcasts with live shots from outside the Meeting House, and will be true again this morning, as we have a press conference simply so the press questions can be addressed at one time and our members can have some space and time to grieve.

What I write below is as an individual. I speak with no official voice, merely that one of one person, who knew Tom a little, and knows a little more about the context from which his work derives.

What I will do in this posting is to tell a little about Tom, how his service as a Christian Peacemakers Team member is not something to which he came hastily, and how decisions such as this are approached as a Quaker. Tom was what in the past we call a “weighty Friend” - a person whose life spoke so clearly that when he spoke others would give great attention to his words, regardless of the subject. I will try to explain things in terms of Quaker practice and understanding, even though I have not officially been a member all that long.

By now some of the details of Tom’s life have become fairly well known. He entered the US Marine Band as a means of avoiding true military service. As he once said, the only thing he ever killed in his 20+ years in the Marines was a piece of music. He was married (and divorced - something we tried not to discuss while he was in captivity, although he and his former wife were on excellent terms). He had two children. His daughter Cassie has spoken publicly about her father, most notably in an interview on Nightline some months ago, a portion of which was repeated last night.

Tom became interested in the Quakers while in the Marine Band. He began attending, felt drawn to the silence, and especially to things like the Peace Testimony. I too was a musician in the Marine Corps, although not in the prestigious band to which Tom belonged. For those of us for which sound is so important, silence can have a very profound affect. I would suspect, although I never discussed it with him, that Tom was moved by the silence the same way a pause in music, an extended rest, can often be one of the more profound moments in a piece of music. I know that I have experienced it that way.

When one asks to join the Society of Friends, one is expected to have seasoned oneself, to have attended for a while, to have participated in the life of the community - at Langley Hill we sometimes have as clerks (the equivalent of chairmen) people who are not officially members, but who have been attending for some time. What happens then is what happens with any important decision one is about to address. A committee of clearness is appointed to help you sort out and explore the issue before you. The purpose of a Clearness Committee is not to tell you what to do, but rather to listen, to reflect back to you not only the words you speak but those you do NOT speak. Its meetings will begin with silence, as in a sense it is a form of worship. We believe that there is that of God in each person, and our responsibility is to answer that. The Clearness Committee is to assist the seeker - whether for membership or considering taking on a major responsibility - in assuring that the message to which s/he is responding is from “that of God” and not merely one’s own human urges, however noble they may be.

Here I note that in my own decision to join the Friends officially, I made the request in the Fall of 2002, after attending almost every First Day (Sunday) since March, and after periodic attendance at Quaker Meetings for almost 40 years. My freshman year college roommate, who eventually chaired my welcoming committee (which is dedicated to helping you adjust to your new role, and providing support and if necessary explanations), commented to me at the time that maybe after 39 years I was ready, seasoned enough. The process was unhurried - typical of much in Quakerism. I was not officially accepted until the following March.

Tom became very familiar with the Quaker approach to things. At various times he served as Clerk of the Meeting, a role which has administrative responsibilities, but in no way makes one an executive or superior. In Meetings for Worship with a concern for Business (which is how we title our monthly business Meetings), the Clerk will not speak to an issue. His or her job is to monitor the discussions, to seek to determine if there is a consensus (actually this word is insufficient) to come to a conclusion on a point, or if the issue is too unsettled and needs to be set aside for consideration in the future. Running a Meeting or an organization on such a basis is very educational. One learns to listen, to discern, to help others understand their own leanings. While I have never clerked a Quaker organization, having been exposed to this practice as an undergraduate at Haverford College, where many organizations used Quaker business practice, I have presided over organizations such as a Parish council in an Orthodox Church, taking a similar approach. Here I note parenthetically that in that church when the priest quit in the middle of a meeting, the good will we had built up over the year by listening to one another is probably what kept that church from coming apart at the seams.

Tom was strongly opposed to the death penalty. In fact my wife got to know him before I did because of their joint work opposing the death penalty here in the Old Dominion.

Tom also cared deeply about young people, and was very effective in working with adolescents. He did a lot of volunteering at things like Quaker work camps and summer camps. I know that after his disappearance some of the young people from across the region came to one of our meetings to share their sense of Tom.

September 11, 2001 had a profound effect on many in this nation. Quakers were not exceptions, although often our response was different. In my own case, I read the words of Steve Cary, whom I had known as Vice President of Haverford College, when he explained in Friends Journal why he was still a pacifist. This article, entitled A Response to September 11, is what provoked me to begin attending Quaker meeting regularly.

In Tom’s case, he began to wrestle with the nature of his own response. He felt called to do more. He explored the idea with a Committee of Clearness, and moved almost inexorably towards the Christian Peacemakers. He got trained at a Mennonite University. He developed a support committee whose role was to function almost as an ongoing Clearness Committee. The committee included three members of Langley Hill Monthly meeting, and two from the local Church of the Brethren, including its pastor. Tom had to raise the funds to support his work. Our Meeting made a commitment of some ongoing support. And he began to travel overseas to do peace work, both in the West Bank and in Iraq.

Tom wrote periodic emails back. He kept a blog. On his visits back to the States, when he would rebuild his moral and physical strength, he would also address people about the work he and the others were doing. And that work was important. Sy Hersch has said that it was Christian Peacemakers Team members that first alerted him to the possible abuses of those held by Americans in places like Abu Ghraib. Tom and the others lived outside the Green Zone. They traveled with no armed escorts, only with translators. They worked with Palestinians in the West Bank, Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere. There were a number of Palestinians living in Baghdad whose position became quite untenable after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Tom and the other CPT members helped transport them to the border with Jordan, helped them establish camps until they could be gotten across the border to relative safety.

The most commonly published picture of Tom is with Palestinian children. Tom came to be loved with those he helped. B ut he would not have described what he was doing as helping others so much as living as he was called to live.

I will not quote from Tom’s extensive writings from Iraq, nor from this request that should something happen to him that no force be used to free him, no ransom paid to release him, no vengeance be wrought on his behalf.

My guess is that Tom would not think that what he did was all that extraordinary. He knew his Quaker history, 300+ years of people who have attempted to live to a a testimony of peace in all circumstances, of seeing every person as fully human. He might well point at George Fox refusing an offer of a captaincy in Cromwell’s army, and thereby being subjected to further imprisonment. He might have mentioned the trail of William Penn for his refusal to give “hat honor” (a trial, by the way, which introduced the idea of jury nullification into English jurisprudence). He certain would mention the American Quaker saint John Woolman, who played a major influence in convincing the Society of Friends that it was wrong for Friends to own slaves. He might well mention the work of people like Levi Coffin and Lucretia Mott, the relief work organized by Rufus Jones and led by people like Steve Cary.

While I was not a personal friend with Tom the way many in our Meeting were, and while I write this from no official capacity, I know the sources from which Tom drew. These included the wider peace witness that includes things like Mennonite and Brethren. He read spiritual and poetic writings from a variety of traditions, including Islamic (Sufi).

I do not know what purpose my writing this diary will serve, other than for myself. For me it is a reminder of what I learn from how others lead their lives, the sacrifices to which they willingly submit themselves. Tom may not see his children marry, have children of their own. But he helped other children have a better life, other parents survive. He spoke truth to whomever he encountered, and sought to speak truth to himself, to live that truth. Perhaps in my sharing this others will come to understand why even as we are saddened by Tom’s death, those who knew him still continue to hold out hope for the other 3, and insist that we honor their request that no violence be exerted on their behalf, either in rescue or in retribution. People often say that pacifists are unrealistic. Perhaps. I am not truly a Christian at this point, but I might not that living a life like that Jesus illustrates in the Gospels is also quite unrealistic, and yet it would seem that one who would identify themselves after his example, as a Christian, is called to nothing less.

Tom felt that call. Remember, the name of the group is CHRISTIAN Peacemakers. The greatest honor we can give him in death is to honor that by which he lived, and for which he was willing to die.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”

UPDATED at 9:07 -- a press release from the Clerk of Langley Hill Monthly Meetingt:
(McLean, VA, 3/11/06) Langley Hill Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends(Quakers) mourns the passing of our beloved member Tom Fox. In the months since the kidnapping of the four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, we have held Tom, his fellow captives, and their captors in our prayers. We express our deepest wish that the kidnappers will release Norman, Jim, and Harmeet unharmed so that they may return safely to their families, and continue the work of peace and understanding that CPT was undertaking in Iraq.

Tom was a member of our faith community for over 15 years. He was a former Clerk (lay leader) of the Meeting, and loved working with children and young people. When he last returned from Baghdad in the summer of 2005, he spent time serving as head cook at a Quaker camp near Winchester. His death is especially hard on the children who knew and loved him. We express our love and concern for them, and particularly for Tom's own children who grew up in our Meeting.

In a statement of conviction Tom wrote in October 2004, he said "We reject violence to punish anyone who harms us. We ask for equal justice in the arrest and trial of anyone, soldier or civilian, who commits an act of violence, and we ask that there be no retaliation on their relatives or property. We forgive those who consider us their enemies. Therefore, any penalty should be in the spirit of restorative justice, rather than in the form of violent retribution."

It was an act of courage for Tom to travel to Iraq, to live in an ordinary Baghdad neighborhood, and to try to give voice to the concerns of ordinary people with friends and family members held in prison, out of sight, and with no avenue for communication.

The loss of Tom is personal to those of us at Langley Hill who knew and loved him.We need to remember that personal loss has also happened to thousands of Iraqis - indeed to tens of thousands of families around the world - who have lost loved ones in acts of violence just in the past year. Tom's story is being shared widely; the stories of these other losses have not been. We at Langley Hill will honor Tom's courage by ensuring that the work to which he was dedicated continues, and that all the stories of loss - not just Langley Hill's - are told.

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