Friday, March 13, 2009

Remembering Agnes: A Lesson in Nonviolence

Recently, Jack Hoeffer, who I met at my recent Quaker retreat, sent me a pamplet about Margaret Hope Bacon, a Quaker and a conscientious objector during World War II. The pamphlet is a reprint of a portion of her book, "Love is the Hardest Lesson."

Margaret, her husband, Allen, and several other Quakers were sent to Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, Maryland in 1944 to work in the tuberculosis ward and with what were then called mental patients. The work was difficult, but made more so by the hostility of coworkers who saw the conscientious objectors as cowards.

Agnes started in the tubercular ward but was transferred to work with the mentally ill and assigned one of the worst patients, Agnes. Agnes was violent and spent most of her time locked naked in a cell because she would rip her clothes off. Margaret would bathe her, dress her and care for her. Although she could not communicate with Agnes, who was in her own world, Margaret found working with Agnes the highlight of her day.

After a time, Margaret grew discouraged and questioned the power of love and her belief in "that of God" in every human when she met with relentless anger and hostility in the workplace, as well as manipulative behavior and cruelty in the wards. It was difficult for Margaret and the other COs to participate in subduing mental patients who resisted electric shock therapy. Some COs, hearing about the German concentration camps, joined the army, which also caused Margaret to question her moral stand as a CO.

As she puts it, "I knew I could not go on with this life I had chosen, a life based on the premise that human could learn to live with one another in peace, until I began to have a little faith in the good inherent in the human race, and in myself as well. I kept seeing only the worst in myself and others ... I needed to believe, I thought; and though I was not very adept at praying in those days, I prayed for a sign."

Yet Margaret found several occurences redemptive. First, the mental patients responded well to the lack of fear and friendly interest of the COs. Where it had once taken five men to run a ward, soon three or four--and sometimes two-- COs could be left in charge. Further, when Agnes had a lobotomy and afterwards was able to speak coherently for the first time in 22 years, she talked about Margaret as her only friend. Bacon writes the following:

"... wave after wave of reaction swept over me. The love I felt for Agnes because she had helped me overcome my fear. Perfect love had cast out fear instead of the reverse. I hadn't known before that, imperfect as I was, I could be the channel of such love."

I'm interested in stories about conscientious objectors during World War II, because unlike the Viet Nam conflict, that war had the almost full support of every American. As a result, their stories tend to be quite moving. More importantly, I believe that nonviolence is at the heart of what Jesus modeled and that violence is what he overcame. Of course, I'm a Quaker, so I would think that, and I know this blog is likely to be read by other Quakers. But I wonder what people think? What do you think of people who refused to fight in that war? Is the "inherent goodness in people" the right reason not to go to war?


D said...

Great reflection. Instead of speaking of the "inherent goodness in people," which is often difficult to see in any quantitative way, we might speak of the imago Dei (image of God) in people, which is there whether we experience it or not. In other words, sometimes it might require faith to even see goodness in others. But taking that first step in faith by refusing violence and serving as a CO, especially in WWII as you mentioned, seems to be one of the best ways of reflecting the imago Dei in your own life.

Diane said...

Yes, I plan (I hope) to blog about this, but I have a problem with the notion of the inherent goodness in people--except as you mention as imago Dei or, as Scot would say, Eikons of God. It's subtle, but I think ultimately we embrace nonviolence as Christ followers not because people are inherently good but because it's what we're called to do whether or not people are good.