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Fox, Gandhi and the Besht. “No to War”.

Presented by Reuben Hersh
(Santa Fe, New Mexico, Meeting of Friends, March 2011)

At the outset, let’s remember—this month! this week!  today!  Non-violent Resistance to oppressive power and authority is shaking the world, as never before.

I hope to do two things.  First, tell how I have tried to understand George Fox.  Second, arouse you to those of his words and acts which are still illegal, dangerous, perhaps criminal.

Understanding George Fox is difficult.  His life was strange.  It is hard to understand the hatred he provoked, and the torments his fellow Englishmen put him under.  And how he always triumphed over persecution.

George Fox grew up in an ordinary English family, in the 1600’s, an extraordinary time.  He was born 1624, his father a weaver, his mother “of the stock of martyrs.”  He was apprenticed to a shoemaker.  It was the time of “the world turned upside down,” when the highest and most criminal crime—Regicide!—became a religious duty.  A time when a religious dictatorship ruled England, and demanded obedience, and demanded armed service.  Obedience and armed service, in order to defeat a false religion--the religion of the followers of the murdered King.

Starting at around the age of 19, Fox walked up and down in the land, seeking the way, seeking the truth, and proclaiming it when he found it.  Many followed him.  And many tried every possible way to shut him up.
In 1647 “I heard a voice which said ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”  That same year “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness, and I also I saw the infinite love of God…Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God.  All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what word can utter.”   

He interrupted a minister’s sermon, and was imprisoned for doing so.   Then he was imprisoned at  Derby in 1650 and 1651, for blasphemy.

King Charles I had been executed in 1649.  But then the Scots raised an army in support of the Prince of Wales (later Charles II.)  Cromwell marched south to attack the invading Scottish army, and recruits were pouring into Derby.  George Fox was due to be released soon.  The soldiers regarded Fox as a born leader, and a man who talked sense about religion.  He was brought before the Commissioners and the soldiers in the marketplace and offered an officer’s commission on the spot.  “I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”  He was then thrust into a dungeon “in a lousy, stinking low place in the ground without any bed” and kept there for about six months.  

All together, his imprisonment in Derby lasted for over a year.  Several times he was given the chance to escape, but he refused to do so.  He would accept liberty only at the ending of his sentence or as the establishment of his innocence….He infuriated his attackers by making no attempt either to resist them, to run away from them, or to seeking revenge.”  (p. 13-15, Elfrida Vipont, George Fox and the Valiant Sixty.)

Much of what Fox said has  triumphed, has become utterly commonplace.  Things that were then subversive and frightening are now acceptable, familiar, ordinary.

Refusing to address the high and mighty by their titles?  Who cares about that any more?

Keeping your hat on, when you’re expected to remove it?  What’s the big deal?  
Saying “I affirm” instead of “I swear”?  Well, what of it?

Reading Scripture yourself and seeing what it means to you personally, rather than swallowing subserviently the version spouted from some pulpit?  That’s the most ordinary thing you can imagine now, in this land of the free, this blessed, holy United States of America.

In order to feel today the power of George Fox’s revolutionary deeds, we have to recreate for ourselves his time—a time of neighbor killing neighbor, bloody civil war.  War in Ireland.  War in Scotland.  Constant fear of France and Spain, two great Papist Monarchies.

It is helpful to mention the holy man named Gandhi, who lived in my own lifetime.  He was also very strange, and much persecuted, to the point of murder, and yet was also in a sense victorious.  A great victory of independence, by the people of the huge nation called India, was led and inspired by a man also called mad, a man also greeted with derision and persecution, whom many still follow as a Saint.  I don’t know what Gandhi knew about Fox.  He certainly knew about an American named Thoreau, who grew up in a Protestant Christian tradition, and lived as part of a dedicated abolitionist movement, in which Quakers and Quakerism were central.

I also mention a great holy man in my own Jewish tradition and heritage, the man we call the Besht—the Baal Shem Tov.  I’m sure the Besht never heard of George Fox, and I’ve no idea if Gandhi ever heard of him.  I never studied his teachings, but my father’s father was a devoted follower of the Besht. My grandfather even avoided his own wife and children, to go live in the court of his Chassidic teacher, his Reb.  This Reb of my grandfather’s followed the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the Besht.

The Besht lived in the 1700’s, one of a persecuted people.  And like George Fox and Mohandas Gandhi, he scandalized the officially religious by his religious devotion.  The highest duty of Jews was memorizing their sacred Book.  But the Besht taught everyone to rejoice and delight, not in memorizing a book, but in directly communicating with the Holy One Who Shall Not Be Named.  Many thought him mad.  His followers were called “Chassidim,” and their practice was called “Chassidism.”  Many followed him, and many who followed him underwent persecution.

Why is it important for us, here in the 21st century, to dig into all this ancient, remote, forgotten stuff?  Well, there is the Divine, the THING that pursued Fox and Gandhi and the Besht, the Divine that drove them forward and upward and sometimes even drove them a little mad—certainly that Divine thing, whatever it is, can still enter into and seize some people here and now, today.

That in itself makes it important to try to understand George Fox.  Whatever took control of him is still present in the Universe. IT is still able to seize control of a man or woman, to transform him or her.

As for myself, if such moments of inspiration ever really happened, they were much weaker, and long ago.

But from the teaching of George Fox there remains one doctrine that is far from remote or out of date.  One doctrine that even today is, for some of us, close to the center of our lives.

While Hat Honor and the Divine Right of Kings no longer disturb us, WAR is here among us. 

It dominates us. 

We eat it for breakfast and smell it when we step outdoors. 

Let’s take a few minutes today, to try to look WAR in the face, while we remember and honor the deeds and words of George Fox.

We are blessed with physical safety.  No bombs explode in our streets.  But in our state, weapons laboratories and military bases provide the very lifeblood of our economy.  Money for weapons of mass destruction is being greatly increased.  Our unmanned drone airplanes freely fly over Asia, dropping bombs on command.  Our advances in medical science preserve life for our young soldiers who have suffered unimaginable bodily harm.

How do we choose peace while continuing to live here, as citizens of a WAR state, and consumers in a WAR economy? 

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