Sunday, January 27, 2008

To send our passions upon God's errands

The state of Pennsylvania was named after its founder, William Penn (1644–1718), the son of an admiral in the Royal Navy who was knighted for his service in restoring Charles II to the throne of England. The Penn family were Anglicans, but at the age of 22 William became a Quaker and a close friend of the founder of the Quakers, George Fox (1624–1691). It is said that William Penn carried a sword during his youth but realized that carrying weapons is discouraged by Quakers. Penn once asked Fox whether he should quit wearing a sword, and Fox reportedly replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” When they next met, Penn was no longer wearing a sword, and when Fox asked why Penn was unarmed, Penn replied “I wore it as long as I could.”

In 1693, William Penn wrote

A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it…. It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God's errands, as it is to palliate them with God's name…. We are too ready to relatiate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.

It is not only individuals who send their passions upon God's errands, who somehow convince themselves that they are acting on noble motivations when in fact they are being driven by panic or by greed or by ignorance. Entire nations can be convinced that they are doing God's work when in fact they are reacting in blind fear and mindless rage. Consider what Bill Moyer's reported on The Journal on January 25:

Let's first connect some dots in the week's news. In Washington, two public interest groups — The Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism — finished a report they have been working on for months. It's an old story but with new math. They went through the record and counted every false statement made by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and even six months after we were at war. How many?

If you guessed 935, you are right on the button. That's at least the number of times the president and seven of his top officials, including Condoleeza Rice, said Saddam Hussein was a national security threat.

What is interesting about this piece is not that the Bush administration told lies or even that they told so many. What is interesting is that so many people believed those lies and blindly followed the Bush administration into a costly, destructive, illegal and unnecessary war. Although not much is said about it now, some may recall that George W. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush (and one of his spokesmen, Dick Cheney), told the nation after the first Gulf War that toppling Saddam Hussein would have been folly. The senior Bush was not at all enthusiastic about this venture in Iraq in 2003, and when his son, the president, was asked why he did not heed his father, George W. Bush replied that he listened to a higher father. He presumably meant God. He apparently believed that he was on God's errand (much as Osama bin Ladin had believed he was on God's errand on September 11, 2001), but it is much more likely that Bush (like Osama) was sending his own passions to Iraq. His fear, his anger, his lust for power, his greed for oil, his need for approval after the first nine months of a presidency in which he was repeatedly ridiculed by journalists and columnists for being an incompetent fool whose strings were being pulled behind the scenes by the ever-sinister Dick Cheney.

What, though, explains why so many senators and congressional representatives and ordinary Americans were willing to follow the pathetic president's passions into a war that was obviously immoral? (Yes, it was obvious to hundreds of thousands of Canadians, Europeans and Asians. I was living in Montreal just before the American invasion of Iraq and marched in an anti-war parade about which Canadian journalist Jacques Richard wrote:

Braving freezing temperatures of -25 Celsius, 150,000 people marched through downtown Montreal Saturday to condemn US-British plans for war on Iraq. The protest was one of the largest political demonstrations in both Montreal and Canadian history, if not the largest.

As one of those 150,000 people I saw people of every age, from elderly men and women in wheelchairs to babies in strollers, and of every political persuasion marching along Ste Catherine street. At one point I went into a bookstore to get warm and to survey the crowd. As far as I could see to the east and to the west there were people marching along, covering the wide boulevard from one side to the other. To all of them it was obvious that America and the United Kingdom were about to embark on a maddeningly pointless and unnecessary war. What took the American public so long to arrive at the same conclusions?

I do not know the answer. What I do know, or strongly suspect, is that as long as people seek the answer to this question by looking for others to blame, there will never be peace in this world. Each individual must answer this question by looking long and hard inside his or her own mentality and asking: What was I afraid of? What comforts and luxuries was I hoping to gain or afraid to lose? What needs did I believe I had that I thought would be met by bombs and mortars and assault rifles and tanks? Why did I believe that war was a means of assuring peace? Why was I willing to have my country's politicians send young men and women to die and kill? Why was I willing to have my nation's treasury depleted so that my grand-children's children will still be paying the costs of this war?

These are personal questions. The answers must be just as personal. And once the difficult answers are found, the next question must be: How am I going to change my way of living so that no one ever again has to pick up a sword to kill or die for my passions?