It was 1984. It was August, and I was one of about three hundred camped near the Pantex nuclear bomb assembly plant in the hot, desolate, endless prairie outside Amarillo, Texas. Pantex was the site of final assembly of all U.S. nuclear weapons. From this plant these nuclear warheads were then transported by train and truck, at the rate of about three per day, to points east and west for deployment and perhaps eventual use.
A giant Native American drum was set up on its side. Every thirty seconds or so, around the clock, someone hit that drum with a giant mallet, swung full force with both arms. Like thunder the deep drumbeat would roll out and reverberate for miles across the flat prairie, including within the walls of the factory of death in the distance where the weapons of mass destruction were being assembled. The drum was carrying out a Native American ritual expressing the Great Spirit’s displeasure. We prayed for the seemingly impossible: the day to come when this factory would forever end its deadly business of assembling nuclear weapons.
An outside observer might say (and plenty did) that it was one hundred percent futile. What possible difference could three hundred Americans and a drum make in the face of an abyss of that scale, involving powers of money and might extending worldwide that could scarcely be grasped in magnitude? I wondered would the time ever come when not 300 but 3 million Americans might blockade such sites, and the same in other lands. For a factory producing weapons of mass destruction has no more business existing than Auschwitz. But that wasn’t the case. We were only a tiny three hundred. I wrote in my journal:
“August 5, 1984. My thirtieth birthday. As I watch the shimmering complex in the distance while staying up most of the night, it looks awesome, frightening, yet strangely entrancing at the same time. The cool night air is a welcome relief from nearly 100 degree temperatures by day with no cloud or tree for shade. Heat lightning strikes the flat prairie all around for hours during the night, creating a dazzling light and sound show as backdrop to the sprawling castle in the distance. The castle is separated from the roadside of our encampment by a fence, then a huge expanse of plowed dirt field on all sides of multiple square miles surface area which like some giant moat is rumored to be planted with mines as deterrent to invasion of the complex by land, then a patrolling armed truck circling the plant without letup, twenty-four hours a day, then the inner fence, barbed wire, guard towers and searchlights. These all protect the deadly wares inside from the sight and knowledge and interference of the humans outside. It is a time for much reflection.”
As I stared into the face of this source from which I imagined might issue forth the destruction of earthly creation, this preparation of man for hell, this basis for our nation’s economy, this evidence of our spiritual desolation … I longed for another world, another time, another land of clear skies, lakes and mountains and oceans, peaceful people … where there was no knowledge of war. As the paradise I knew at Big Sandy had been lost, so the paradise which was the dream of America seemed to me also lost. And the solemn drumbeat continued the wordless, timeless sighing of the Great Spirit.*
[*There is a rather stunning postscript to that prayer of 1984 in which I participated on my 30th birthday, despite believing the possibility of such happening on any realistic grounds was flat-line zero. In 1991 Pantex of Amarillo ceased assembling nuclear weapons. Since 1991 Pantex has disassembled and disarmed an estimated ca. 11,000 nuclear warheads.]
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That experience provided a stark contrast to my visit just days later to the quiet, pastoral setting of the yearly meeting of Conservative Friends (Quakers) in Barnesville, Ohio. There, among these simple Friends of plain dress, on the grounds of the Friends Boarding School where my grandfather had met my grandmother, I felt rest. I had seen, in a night show down in Texas, an ocean of darkness, vast and overwhelming. But now, to quote a Quaker metaphor, I saw an even vaster ocean of light shining over that darkness. From my journal again, a meditation from that experience.
“August 20, 1984. As Quaker action and business are practical application of the Quaker mysticism within, so mysticism is not apart from practical life, nor action from contemplation. Resurrection comes not from death, but from the void. The void is not death, any more than the silence and stillness of a gathered Quaker meeting is nothing. The void is living. It must produce forms, just as the gathered Quaker silence will produce words of God without advance knowledge of when, where, or through whom.”
As I brushed the hair off my forehead on a bright summer day in rural Ohio, I reflected that it had been a long journey from former days. Yet I saw that seeds of this return had been present all along. I reflected that Herbert Armstrong had been raised a Quaker. But, like another famous American whom he believed to be both a relative of his and America’s greatest President, Richard Nixon, Herbert Armstrong fell away from the Quaker foundation of his youth. These two distant cousins each made their mark on the world. Both in their adult lives betrayed their Quaker heritage and behaved, in the view of Quakers, in ways that lead to perdition.
One became a prophet, an acclaimed head of a religious following with designs on ruling the earth. He “taught for the fleece and made a prey of the people” as the early Quakers characterized those who took tithes. He urged the world to give homage to the other apostate Quaker (his distant cousin), who had become the most powerful military commander in the world’s history. This American President’s defining theory of military policy was what he called “the Madman Theory”–the attempt to make those who would make war with him fear that he was mad–like a wild animal or beast out of control.*
(*”I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed with Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry–and he has his hand on the nuclear button’–and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”–Richard M. Nixon, quoted in H.R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power.)
I thought of the irony that the person who first greeted my father, my brother, and me at our first Worldwide Church of God Sabbath services in Akron, Ohio in 1968, Walter Warrington (1920-2005), was from these very Conservative Friends. He was the door-greeter that day. In his youth he had graduated from the Friends boarding school on whose grounds I was then standing. Walter Warrington and my father compared times past that first Sabbath in Akron, even remembering each other from long ago, as he welcomed us across the threshold into a new world.
I looked across the Ohio fields and pastures. I thought on the role Quakers played in America’s First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. I thought of Pennsylvania and the “peaceable kingdom” built by William Penn and the Quaker settlers with him. I thought of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. I thought of Quaker schools and colleges, teachers and nurses and librarians, from frontier days to now, building a peaceable culture one child, one brick, one book at a time.
I thought of Quaker lobbying activities working to build a world in which disputes are settled in court instead of by war. I thought of refusal of Quakers to pay “war taxes.” I thought of the stories of Quaker men and women of old coming before kings and sultans. These Quakers did not come bearing expensive gifts and arriving in limousines. They came in plain dress speaking plain words. They addressed kings directly by name, without title, as was the Quaker manner. They came speaking truth to power, calling on rulers to release prisoners wrongly held and cease oppression of the defenseless.
I thought how Quakers from the beginning practiced equality of men and women in speech and decision-making (for Quakers believed that male dominion over women entered as a result of sin).
I thought of the way Quakers speak the language of holding persons “in the light.” I thought how that expression warmed me–so simple, so sincere, so beautiful.
I thought how easy it is to be drawn to systems with answers taught authoritatively. But Quakers chose a different path. Quaker ways were built on probing questions for examination from listening to the Teacher within (“the Light of Christ that shines to every person”). Quakers read the Bible and quoted its words but did not believe it was sufficient or inerrant. They would say to their interlocutors: “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?”
I looked at the cemetery next to the old meeting house with the gravestones of John and Sarah Doudna, “ancestor of all the Doudnas,” side by side, at rest forever. It had been a long journey, this return to my roots. But, I reflected, sometimes it takes a long journey to discover truths which were always close at hand, all along.
[The above is excerpted from pp. 483-487 of Greg Doudna, Showdown at Big Sandy at Big Sandy (2006) [that is the amazon link but there is no need to pay the high prices of third-party sellers on amazon; the book is available at a more reasonable price at www.lulu.com]. My article, “Returning to Quaker Roots,” published in the May 15, 1985 issue of Friends Journal, further describes the visit described above to the Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative).]