Which American religious group has been under surveillance for 350 years? It's the Quakers. So last week, when Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy revealed that the Department of Defense has been spying on Burlington Quakers , it didn't come as a surprise. We're used to it.
Leahy's revelation came on the heels of the December 14th news that the National Security Agency spied on a Florida Quaker Meeting - labeled it a threat.
If you just heard about these outrages, you might ask why the White House cares about Quakers? Why expend public funds spying on a group that many Americans primarily associate with breakfast cereal?
The answer is that Quakers are liberal Christians who believe that Jesus taught his followers to work for peace on earth. We're against war and for justice. As a result, we disagree with the policies of the Bush Administration, as we do with the policies of most Administrations.
This got us in trouble early on. First, under Oliver Cromwell, in 1652, and then with King Charles II, we wouldn't join the English army. So we were spied upon, thrown in prison, and our Meeting Houses burned down. The persecution didn't end until 1689, when Quaker leader, William Penn, convinced King James II to sign the act of religious toleration. (Which, by the way, guaranteed freedom of religion for all faiths.)
In the meantime, many Quakers came to the American colonies hoping to find acceptance. While we did take sanctuary in New Jersey and Pennsylvania - founded by the same William Penn, we were persecuted in other states. This initiated an American tradition of spying on Quakers. We were under surveillance during the Civil War, the first and second World Wars, the Wars in Korea and in Vietnam. Why should the War on Terror be any different?
There are several Quaker practices that seem to drive politicians crazy, cause them to spy on us. But, it's not just American politicians. We were active in other countries like Germany, when the Nazis were in power, and Iraq, under the despicable Saddam Hussein. They, too, kept us under surveillance and, occasionally, imprisoned our representatives, or worse.
We hold three beliefs that incense politicians of all stripes. The first is that we don't agree that violence and war are the best way to get things done. Many Americans respond: Duh, no wonder you get hassled; violence is the American way and war is good for business.
We don't agree. More than that, we feel that it is our responsibility to let elected officials know that we don't accept their militaristic policies. We may sit silently in our Sunday Meetings, but we are vocal in the public arena. Quakers have the temerity to suggest that there may be a better way to bring about world peace than by threatening, or killing, those who disagree with us.
We have a second value that pushes the buttons of many politicians - we believe in equality. We hold that everyone should have a voice: young and old, black and white, gay and straight, men and women. Many of our leaders are women. (A grandmother was the organizer of the Florida anti-war meeting taped by the NSA.)
Finally, we hold a third belief that drives the powers that be completely bonkers - we believe in openness. Quakers take very seriously the teaching of Jesus that we should tell the truth all the time. We extend this to mean that we should open all of our meetings to everyone and that we should strive to be direct. While this tradition of openness gives us a certain cachet in the progressive community, it has often met with scorn in the political world. Many elected officials scoff: How can one do the public's business by being open and direct?
Despite criticism, we persist in our quaint practice of telling the truth. In Quaker-speak we call this, speaking truth to power. This means that if we are going to stage an anti-war protest - a frequent occurrence these days - we tell the authorities about it ahead of time. It also implies that if we are going to participate in acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking the entrance to the torture school - the Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning - we give prior warning. Quakers believe that directness is the key to building trust between adversaries: we should say what we mean and then doing what we say.
Sadly, the Bush Administration finds these Quaker beliefs to be threatening. They have joined a long list of Presidencies that find it necessary to keep us under surveillance. We're sorry that they feel this way and have a suggestion that may make their job easier.
Rather than tap our phones, videotape our gatherings with hidden cameras, or plant informers among us, why don't you do the obvious? Come into our meetings and ask us what we plan to do. We'll tell you the truth. We're Quakers.