Beginning with Witness: An Interview with Mark Johnson

by Nathan Schneider

Peacebuilding illustration courtesy

Preface: Mark Johnson was Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (2007-2013), an organization that stood in opposition to two world wars and helped foster the civil rights movement’s ethic of nonviolence, in addition to being an early advocate for interfaith dialogue. Under his leadership, the FOR learned to find a place for itself amidst the proliferation of institutions—both religious and secular, governmental and civil—that claim the mantle of making peace. The interview was conducted in December 2009. Please see the notes at the end for further information and acknowledgments. NS

Nathan Schneider: Since its founding, how has the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) been involved in promoting peace around the world?

Mark Johnson: The Fellowship of Reconciliation began in 1914, when an English Quaker and German Lutheran agreed that they wouldn’t let the emerging war separate the fellowship they had established. A year later, one of their mutual friends, John R. Mott, invited them to form an organization at a conference in Long Island, and there, in 1915, the FOR was established. The early work, which helped frame FOR’s efforts through the Vietnam War era, had to do with the right to conscientious objection.

I was a conscientious objector myself during the Vietnam War. Even today, we continue to help young people in Colombia who are trying to establish legal protection for the right of conscientious objection. Secondly, we worked in civil rights, beginning in the 1930s and 40s. We led the first Freedom Rides and sent staff—Bayard Rustin, George Houser and Glenn Smiley, in particular—to advise Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization. A third part of what we do is civilian diplomacy. Beginning with the Russian Revolution in 1917, the FOR began sending delegations of American civilians to the Soviet Union and welcoming groups coming in this direction; this continued through the Cold War. Currently, we periodically send delegations to Iran. The FOR has always tried to see where the next war is likely to emerge and to push people into conversation in advance of it.

NS: What do you do when conflict has already broken out?

MJ: In Colombia we do protective accompaniment, a strategy that is used by various organizations, including Nonviolent Peaceforce and Christian Peacemaker teams. We have three or four people in northern Colombia who live in a set of communities that have covenanted not to engage in trade or communication with military, paramilitary, or guerilla organizations. We accompany their leadership when they’re traveling outside of the village. That particular community consists of about 1,200 people, and over 150 have been assassinated in the last 10 years while traveling without such protection. Also, we’re helping to bring 800 to 1,000 people from 40 different countries together at the end of December to march into Gaza, and they will be joined by 50,000 Palestinians living in Gaza in a walk across the country, demanding that the siege be lifted.

NS: How effective has the organization been in making its message heard?

MJ: The FOR has spoken truth to power throughout its history. Among the stories I am most touched by are those in Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), where he mentions Franklin Roosevelt’s meetings with A.J. Muste and others from the FOR, who argued against entering the Second World War. I thought of that last week when I was in Washington, representing one among 20 groups that were meeting with the White House Office of Public Engagement on the issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy. I was struck by the fact that there were 20 different organizations in that room for an hour’s conversation, and dozens of others were part of that discussion in other places over the course of several weeks. We’ve gone from 3 or 4 organizations—the historic peace churches and the FOR—bringing that message to the White House in the 1940s to a much broader base today. Of course, this time we sat in the Eisenhower Building with staff, not with the president.

NS: How do you see your role within the peacebuilding community?

MJ: Let’s start right off by making a distinction between the organizations that do peacebuilding and the peacemaking work of organizations like the FOR. The peacebuilding community engages in conflict and post-conflict environments in a somewhat different way. Part of what we want to avoid is the involvement of governments in that work. The Department of Defense is coming to appreciate the work that NGOs do in peacebuilding, but its presence threatens to compromise the integrity and the safety of people in the NGO community. There then develops a tendency to grow reliant, if not dependent, on governmental funds. But we value our independence. A significant part of our work in Colombia includes an analysis of the flow of US government funds to that country’s military and government. That kind of work would be hard to do if we relied on government funding and support.

NS: So when you envision the future of conflict prevention and resolution, do you place more hope in governmental organizations like the UN and the ICC, or in independent NGOs like Nonviolent Peaceforce and the FOR?

MJ: I have more confidence in civil society. Of course there has to be an organic relationship between society and political leadership, but there is a high level of suspicion within the peacemaking community about the capacity of either global commerce or national governments to make the sacrifices that would be necessary to respect the dignity of the individuals and local communities.

NS: The FOR was founded as a Protestant Christian organization. How has it evolved since then in terms of its relationship to religion?

MJ: We originally grew out of an evangelical Protestant spirit. The turn of the 20th century was a time in which the evangelical community understood its goal to be bringing all people to Christ in their generation. The people who first built the FOR saw its work as aligned with that goal. Then, in the 1930s and 40s, the Jewish liberal and progressive community in the United States, because of the issue of civil rights, sought to join too. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others founded Jewish Peace Fellowship as a part of the FOR. Later came a Catholic Peace Fellowship, a Muslim Peace Fellowship, and a Buddhist Peace Fellowship. The FOR became an umbrella under which the pacifist wings of these traditions could gather to formulate how they were going to confront the violence that they saw as a misinterpretation of scripture and religion. Now there are 15 or 16 different peace fellowships with around 18,000 members in all. In 1917, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation was created, and there are IFOR branches in over 40 countries around the world. This flexibility, this capacity to adapt, helps explain how we have survived for so long. [IFOR’s headquarters as of 2018 is in Utrecht, Netherlands; JG]

NS: How did this unusual openness to working with other religions come about?

MJ: The influence of Gandhi, a Hindu advancing the practices of nonviolence, was decisive. FOR members like Richard Gregg and Muriel Lester spent years working with Gandhi and learning from him. Through the FOR’s connection to him, an inter-religious sentiment developed. Then, in the 1970s, Paul Deats of Boston College, a theologian who was part of the FOR’s national committee, as well as Daniel and Philip Berrigan, began to pay attention to Thich Nhat Hahn and the Buddhist worldview coming out of Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hahn did a tour of the United States, even then speaking about the environmental impact of war.

NS: How is the FOR’s religious identity evolving today?

MJ: We’re forced to ask ourselves what it means to do peacemaking in an inter-religious—or even a secular—world. There’s quite a bit of anxiety among many people, who are asking: if the community consciously opens itself more broadly to humanists and avowed atheists, what confidence do we have that we will share basic values in common? But you can argue, I think, that atheism or agnosticism or humanism are as much religions as any denomination or sect in terms of having an identifiable set of values and, eventually, sets of rituals that shape how people think about and act in the world. A lot of what we struggle with is simply a matter of words. I love Charles Taylor’s arguments about the emergence of the secular age. We’re also reading Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld’s fine book, In Praise of Doubt (New York: HarperOne, 2009). Doubt lies at the heart of the practice of pacifism. You can never know, ultimately, how you’re going to respond when confronted by violence. Absent a total conviction or confidence that you’ll act nonviolently, can you characterize yourself as a pacifist? Part of the conversation that we’re having, also, is about how doubt can create the space for being more accepting of more people.

NS: Are there other organizations that you think are handling these challenges in instructive ways?

MJ: I think one of the most exciting developments now is Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core. It doesn’t start with religion; it starts with service, and then asks how different religious backgrounds compel us to serve. I’m also charmed by the Charter for Compassion that Karen Armstrong has launched [] and its capacity to reach beyond religious identity to a value that speaks to young people in a new and powerful way.

NS: Some contend that the international efforts to bring about peace and resolve conflict take inadequate account of religion. Do you think there needs to be a deeper understanding of how religion plays a role in conflicts?

MJ: Yes, and doing so, by the way, does not require one to make a concession to the truth claims of any religion. At a purely cultural level, the role of religion is not given enough credence. It is true that people everywhere have very material concerns; they still have to eat every day. But an awful lot of what happens within families and community life depends on religious traditions. Over the last decade, there has been a growing realization that policy makers in this country don’t pay enough attention to religion and spirituality, or even to secularism. Secularism isn’t a homogenous entity either, and there’s a need to understand what it represents more clearly.

NS: How does the FOR’s radical pacifist stance affect how you work with other organizations?

MJ: The burgeoning of non-profits in recent years has caused us all to become more collaborative in nature, and it does test the radical pacifism of the FOR. We were recently part of a group looking at the human rights criteria for U.S. foreign aid, and we had to ask ourselves whether it compromises our beliefs too much to even affirm the legitimacy of U.S. foreign aid. It’s a challenge, and at this point it is relatively ad hoc. We depend more and more on those collaborations, since our membership is both aging and rather constant, while the population of the world continues to expand. But I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. Ibn Khaldun and others have told us that you can only grow so big before you’re ineffective. I think there are real dangers to measuring importance or impact by growth.

NS: Do you think the slowing of the FOR’s growth is reason to be concerned about the future of peacemaking?

MJ: No, I don’t. A few weeks ago we gave our annual Martin Luther King and Pfeffer Peace awards. The Pfeffer, for international work, went to La’Onf [The word means “no violence” in Arabic. The organization is also referred to as Iraqi Nonviolence Group. JG], which is a community of nonviolence in Iraq, present in every province across the country. They’re committed to nonviolence and are involved in addressing issues like corruption and violence, both within the family and the government. The Martin Luther King award went to Cynthia Brown on behalf of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first example of the truth and reconciliation model in the U.S.. It is evidence that we can learn to follow paths that are active and nonviolent in response to historic indignities and evils. The work is alive, and it’s out there. But will it happen, in the end, quickly enough to save the planet or to save the species? That’s one of the questions that I ask myself every day when I wake up. “Do I believe that we can make a difference? And is the world even worth saving?”

NS: How do you answer those questions?

MJ: There is always value in being present as a voice on behalf of the dignity of human beings. It’s about being a prophetic voice, it’s witnessing. I’ve been thinking that bearing witness is the first step in peacemaking—the act of solidarity and of presence, of simply being there to see what is happening and reporting back.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark C. Johnson is currently Executive Director, Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice, Stony Point, New York. He was national executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA 2007 -2013. Prior to that he had a 37-year career with the YMCA, concluding with service on the National Staff of the YMCA, which included a liaison role between the national organization and its archives at the Anderson Library of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Nathan Schneider has been a regular contributor to this site. For biographical information and links to his websites please click on his byline or go to our Author Archives page.  The article is courtesy, and the interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Religion and International Affairs.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi