Be patterns, be examples in every country, place, or nation that you visit, so that your bearing and life might communicate with all people. Then you’ll happily walk across the earth to evoke that of God in everybody. So that you will be seen as a blessing in their eyes and you will receive a blessing from that of God within them.
— George Fox quoted on Tom Fox’s Waiting in Light blog.
I never met Tom Fox. But, his death struck me hard when I heard of it. The revelation that he may have suffered torture before his captors put bullets in his head and chest only heightened the horror. I know Tom Fox through our mutual friend John Stephens, who has carried Tom’s cause with him throughout the 100+ days of Tom’s captivity. I also know Tom Fox from the truths I learned from my conversations with John Stephens and in my own deliberations on the matter.
I have seen the struggle John has been through to keep moving forward despite the burden and pain. During the first couple of weeks of Tom’s captivity, when the initial deadline for Tom’s execution loomed, John worked around the clock, going to work and then coming home to spend the whole night working on FreetheCaptivesNow.org. He ran his health down to the point when he realized he had to slow down.
The network of people that spoke up for Tom in his hour of need was a testament to his goodness. Along with members of his family and Christian Peacemaker Teams, the Quaker community rallied for him. On a freezing cold night in December in Clarendon, Virginia, 50 people gathered for a candlelight vigil, enduring the bitter weather for over an hour to show their support. All over the world, organizations, even what we would consider terrorist ones, decried the evil of Tom’s murder.
Tom Fox was a decent man, who left the relative safety of his home and faced danger, fully knowing the potential consequences, to serve what he believed was right. For this act of bravery and generosity, he was rewarded with a brutal act of violence, snuffing him out from this world along with his faith, courage, and dignity.
What do we say about a horrible outcome such as this? I can think of at least four reactions to the situation:
- feel overcome with horror and sadness,
- shrug our shoulders in callous indifference,
- be enraged and seek vengeance, or
- make positive contributions to society, just as Tom did.
Tragedies are often met with the first three responses. They are certainly reasonable responses. The absolute wrongness of Tom’s murder is staggering. There seems to be no rational explanation for why someone would deliberately kill this man and toss his body on a trash heap. If we are human at all we should feel awful about it.
The second reaction is a way of avoiding the first— to personally absorb the pain of the terror that daily plagues the world might keep us from being able to function. So, it is better to go numb and to not feel it. From this stems rationalizations such as, “Well, he shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” It makes us feel better to know that he had a choice. But, he didn’t choose to be murdered.
The third reaction instead places the blame on his captors. And the blame rightly belongs to them. We should be angry about what they did, but should we seek vengeance? If these people can be found and brought before a court of justice, then they should be tried according to the law. Is justice the same as vengeance?
According to Justinian:
Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due.
Whereas justice assigns responsibility, vengeance seeks new hurt, new suffering, and new violence. Vengeance hurts not only its intended targets, but also the person practicing it. Rebecca Parker describes this:
Vengeance has grave dangers and holds out false hopes of closure for those aggrieved by violence and injustice. Psychologist Judith Hermann reports that “people who actually commit acts of revenge, such as combat veterans who commit atrocities, do not succeed in getting rid of their post-traumatic symptoms; rather, they seem to suffer the most severe and intractable disturbances.” And vengeance can generate a downward spiral of violence.
Parker describes the practicality of violence as a means.
But the most violence can do is stop something. It can stop a violent aggressor. But violence can never create. It can never console. It can never bring peace into being. It can never repair what has been lost.
In other words, vengeance doesn’t move us forward. Capturing and punishing the hostage takers will prevent them from harming others, and may dissuade other would-be terrorists from taking hostages, but will do nothing to bring Tom Fox back to us.
And as Tom said himself on his blog, “do not do what you hate.” If we are opposed to violence, we must see that it works both ways. There should not be one rule for Tom’s murderers and another rule for us. Tom and his fellow captives did not want violence to be used against his captors and urged us to give fair treatment to the wrongdoers.
We reject the use of violent force to save our lives should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a violent conflict situation. We also 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.
— From the CPT statement of conviction signed by Tom Fox
So, that leaves us with option 4, to make a positive contribution.
What can we learn from his example? How do we honor him?
Some will call for Tom’s sainthood, to hold him up as a hero of peace activists and Christians. That’s fine and very much warranted. We all have a strong desire to be identified as admiring such people. But, to make Tom a superstar, projecting our best intentions onto him, rather than personally taking on the burden ourselves, is to miss the point. Tom was not a superhuman character with special powers of charity-giving and fear-defying mental stamina. He was just an ordinary organic foods grocer who followed his conscience. So, don’t say, “I wish I could be as brave as Tom Fox was.” Say, “I will do my best to follow my conscience, even if it takes me into physical danger.”
We take the killing of Tom Fox and use it as an opportunity to recommit to doing good. We take a tragic ending and turn it into the hopeful beginning. Some might suggest taking up Tom’s quest for peace. But, why should Tom’s choices govern our action? What made his quest powerful is that he chose it himself. We too must choose to act, whether that action is to follow in his footsteps or to do otherwise. Sorrow, indifference, and hatred let the horror of Tom’s murder govern us, whereas the fourth requires that we choose and create.
Despairing about the horrors in Iraq, Tom wrote last August:
The only “something in my life” I can hold onto is to do what little I can to bring about the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. It is my sense that such a realm will always have natural disasters. It is the “man-made” disasters that we are called upon to bring to an end.
Positive Action vs. Passive Reaction
We cannot control all of the horrible things that are happening around us, but we do control what we do about them. Tom couldn’t stop the violence in Iraq, but he was able to go and provide aid to the suffering. John couldn’t physically pull Tom out from captivity, but he could speak for him here in the US. We are able to do more than wringing our hands in despair.
John Stephens wrote February 5th on FreetheCaptivesNow.org:
In a world threatened by war and terror, we are all held hostage by the power of menace, mistrust and uncertainty. Loving, serving, and healing are the practical means to unhinge the grip of these dehumanizing forces and reawaken the human being. Tom’s work in Iraq provides us with a stark example of faithfulness to this covenant of love, service, and healing.
Truth Seeking & Truth Speaking
One form of action is to simply provide the world with the best information and ideas you can give them. We try to do this here at The Free Liberal. As Henry George said, “He who sees the truth, let him proclaim it, without asking who is for it or who is against it.”
Part of Tom’s work was dedicated to describing the conditions he saw on the ground in Iraq. He describes war-torn Fallujah, speaking for Iraqis who could not do so for themselves:
There are no words. A city that has been demonized by Americans and many Iraqis, using the words “the city of terrorists.” A city that its residents call “the city of mosques.” A city that even its residents have to enter at checkpoints, often taking up to an hour to traverse. A city that is being choked to death economically by those same checkpoints.
Words are inadequate, but words are all we have. Words like “collective punishment” and “ghettoize” come to mind for the current state of life in Fallujah.
Everyday of Tom’s captivity, John Stephens and Chuck Fager updated the FreeTheCaptivesNow site to share the news from Iraq with us. Most days, there was nothing new to report about Tom’s situation, so they summarized the days events in Iraq, providing context for Tom’s imprisonment. Arguing that we should not fail to keep the message going, John wrote:
At the time of this writing, the deadline is upon us, and there is no news yet from Iraq. It is tempting at this difficult time for all of us to hold our breath.
… The deadline is here, but with so many voices, particularly in the Arab world— even militant groups have raised their voices —calling for their release, it is not impossible that this could drag on for weeks.
… It is critical for us to continue this collective witness even while the fate of Tom and the others remains unknown.
It dragged on for months. And now we know that Tom was not spared. The others’ fates are still unknown. We must continue to advocate for their release.
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
— Isaiah 42:6b-7
I pulled this biblical quote from a Quaker pamphlet entitled, “The Servant Church”, which was written by Ricardo Elford and Jim Corbett. John gave it to me the day before we heard about Tom’s death. I know John drew inspiration from it, and upon reading it, I would recommend it to those looking for inspiration about what role to play as a person of conviction.
The pamphlet emphasizes the importance of community.
Individuals can resist injustice and refuse to collaborate with violence, but only a community can do justice and practice peacemaking.(40)
An atomistic individual cannot do justice and practice peacemaking because in a vacuum he does not have any object to his actions. Justice and injustice happen between people, as do war and peace. While life in a community tests individuals’ morals, it also gives them the opportunity to act upon their highest values.
And community can be seen in a more particular sense — that being a supportive network, where people give strength to each other and help them live decently and apply their principles. We need this kind of community precisely because the tasks we take should be hard and that we all have weakness at times.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Clarence Young, back when I was living in Asheville. He remarked at how he would call me when he was down about libertarian politics and I would boost his morale. I found that that I would get the same reassurance from him when I was exhausted.
Tom had a group of people who were his support network back in the US whom he could lean on. John Stephens was part of that network. But John is lucky to have a wonderful wife and family who support him, along others who worked alongside him to raise awareness about Tom’s situation.
It is great to have those kinds of relationships. But, where they are missing or insufficient, they need to be intentionally developed.
Political and Social Change
Suppose a people were to reject the way of the nations. If guided by divine leadings rather than power politics, a people chooses to serve rather than conquer, to prevail through stillness and peace rather than contention and war, and to claim for itself an earth-encompassing task rather than a territory-grasping empire, in what sense will it still be a nation or people? Could this other way of being a people constitute the difference between church and state?
Our era of nation-states makes glib divisions between church and state, between private, spiritual realm and the public, secular realm, and between what one believes one owes to one’s god and what we owe to Caesar. Isaiah insistently denounces every split or segregation of this kind. You can’t serve two masters…
— Elford and Corbett, The Servant Church (20)
Political and social change are both important to furthering peace and justice. Political change alters institutions which cause big-picture differences in how the world operates. The magnitude of this power leads activists to seek it, so they can wield the power to better the world. But, it is not a surefire way to fix the problems we face. Anyone who has studied public choice theory recognizes the large number of difficulties inherent in any attempt to sway the government. Moreover, governments are instruments of force, compelling individuals rather than having them freely choose. It is dangerous to give governments too much power over too much of what we consider good. We do need political action, but we should not see it as a golden ticket to the society of our dreams. Social change or the “church” as Corbett and Elford describe the private sphere of action is a better vehicle for carrying our message.
We can make structural changes to our government to facilitate better outcomes for people generally, but it is up to each of individually to implement our values in the way we live. This choice is better for us morally than to do the right thing only because we are made to do so by some government. We are free to do good immediately, in a direct and personal manner, rather than through a haze of regulations, dictates, and bureaucracy.
Tom Fox did not die in vain, if we truly take his work to heart. We shouldn’t succumb to terror, indifference, or anger. We cannot merely mark his name and say he was a great guy. We must choose ourselves to serve our highest values, and commit to seeking the truth, building community, and making those political and social changes which are necessary for a free, harmonious, and moral world we wish to live in.