In 1968, I was a high school student in Evanston, Ill., firm in my loyalty to the Chicago White Sox and firm in my belief that my country was on the right side in Viet Nam.
One day I walked into the public library. In the new books display I found a book with a dramatically designed cover dominated by one jagged word: "WAR." The subtitle also grabbed my attention: "The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression."
I think I was the first person to borrow the book. I was fascinated by many of the individual symposium articles in the book, but it was the cumulative effect of those articles that changed my life perspective: when viewed simply as social animals, we organize for violence and aggression (but also for cooperation!) for reasons that are biological and psychological, that can be studied and analyzed just as any other form of human or animal behavior, and that can in fact be stripped of all myth and pretense.
At first I didn't know what to do with these insights. On the one hand, they could have led to a healthy skepticism about any form of imperial arrogance. On the other hand, the result could have been passive cynicism: for one reason or another, humans have killed each other under all sorts of justifications—or none at all—from day one, and what makes us think this will change? But at least nobody could pretend that killing could ever be my sacred duty.
Our national agony—Viet Nam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the My Lai massacre scandal that dominated 1969's headlines, the secret bombing of Cambodia—became a constant heavy weight, but when my own sister was murdered in Chicago in 1970, I lost all my trust in any authority whatever. In despair, I uprooted myself and took a job in a factory in Pennsylvania. A year later, I moved to Canada, and devoted my time to my university-level Russian studies. But I also continued another pursuit that had started in high school: my sporadic and unsystematic reading of the Bible.
Johan Maurer at Canadian Yearly Meeting, 1976,
with Deborah Haight, founder of Ottawa Meeting
Back in my high school days, I kept this strictly secret from my parents, who would not have approved! In my college dorm room, I had more freedom, and it was there—in the spring of 1974—that the Holy Spirit reached me. Reading the Gospel of Matthew one evening, I reached the words “Love your enemies....” I had read them many times before, but this time they came alive in my mind, and an inner Voice told me, “These are words you can trust.” At that moment, my ability to trust, which had seemed to be lost forever, was restored.
Not that my atheist upbringing didn't continue to affect me.... For one thing, I retained a radical skepticism about the religion industry. Jesus was enough for me; I was determined never to submit to any lesser authority. Still, I needed a community around me to help me understand my conversion and work out its implications. I'll always be grateful that the Ottawa Friends Meeting was there to help me at that vulnerable time.
The American Friends Service Committee also played a role in my search for community. My first contact with the AFSC was with Laurama Pixton of the International Division, who tried to help me
Johan with Dolphus Weary in front of Voice of Calvary's
Berean Bible Church in Mississippi
connect my newfound Quaker identity with my interest in Russia. Sadly, AFSC's youth exchange program with the British Friends and the Soviet Union ended that year, so instead she referred me to a very different opportunity: to go to Mississippi under AFSC's sponsorship and become a summer school teacher at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall. There I met evangelical Christians, both black and white, who were passionate about peace and social justice; and I realized that I was at the exact crossroads of faith and practice that my heart had been longing for. I've never looked back.
For me, the Quaker peace testimony is rooted neither in pragmatism nor in ideology, however progressive. I still believe that humans will continue to maim and kill each other for as long as we are creatures of random passion, subject to our own appetites and the manipulation of others. But Jesus, the Prince of Peace who knows the agony of violent death at the hands of "authority," has taken the option of violence from me, and replaced it with trust. I want to spend the rest of my life communicating a loving message of radical skepticism toward any powers and principalities that rely on fear. There is One who can speak to that fear.