Why are Quakers pacifists? We talked with George Lakey about Quakers’ call to struggle, the myth that violence works, and how that’s all changing.
- Subscribe to QuakerSpeak
- Read George Lakey’s article “On the Value of Conflict,” from Friends Journal
- Read A Review of “Why Civil Resistance Works”
- Find Quakers near you on QuakerFinder and Friends Journal’s meeting listings
- Quaker Voluntary Service has opportunities for social and personal transformation through service work and living in Quaker community
- George says that, “the paradigm that says ‘when push comes to shove, you have to use violence’ is so tough,” but that it is changing. How have you experienced the prevalence of our belief in the myth of useful violence? Have you experienced this paradigm as one that is shifting?
- “For Early Quakers, the Spirit wanted us to go out and do struggle.” George gives the example of Early Friends who would stand up and confront a preacher in a 17th century church despite the consequences. In what ways is the Spirit calling Quakers to struggle today? In what ways will we bear the consequences of our being faithful to this call?
- George describes nonviolent resistance as exciting news for “anyone who is pragmatic of mind.” Do you agree with him that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violent resistance? How so?
Fox said that we do not war with outward weapons. Our understanding of Jesus is he will not ask us to do outward weapons. We don’t understand a holy Spirit that one minute says “be peaceful” and the next minute, “Go out and kill a lot of people.” We don’t understand that kind of Spirit. The Spirit we experience is one that is consistent and wants us to not war with outward weapons.
I’m George Lakey, Philadelphia Quaker.
A Paradigm Change
We’re going through a paradigm change right now. It’s something that I didn’t know if I would ever live to see because the paradigm that says, “when push comes to shove, you have to use violence,” is so tough and it’s been around for tens of thousands of years. It seems as obvious as the paradigm once was that the Earth was flat. Everybody knows the Earth is flat, right? Well, not any longer.
But that’s how toughly in-built the paradigm is that violence is what needs to be used when we’re going to really exert power and do humanitarian interventions or anything we want to do. “When it’s tough we have to use violence.” But that’s shifting now.
Quakers and Nonviolent Struggle
(“The Lamb’s War”)
Quakers understood it 350 years ago because it was what they felt naturally you do when the spirit is in you saying, “love people and do what’s right. Set up the conditions under which it is easier to do right and stop oppressing each other.” The practical dimension of Quakers was expressed through nonviolent struggle.
Struggle, mind you. Not everyone responds in that way. Some people say “spirituality means I should avoid struggle.” But for Early Quakers, the Spirit wanted us to go out and do struggle. And so Quakers would pick fights.
Quakers would go into churches for example, and after a preacher had preached something that they felt like was really wrong, they would stand up and contradict the preacher even though that meant that it was pretty likely that they would be grabbed by the parishioners nearby and dragged out of the church and beaten up just outside the church. But they would do that, that’s an example of nonviolent struggle.
It’s because, “yes we make war with inward weapons”, and they even called themselves people who were struggling for the Lamb’s war. They were fighting the Lamb’s war. So this was a warrior outfit, these 17th century Quakers, who were fighting with nonviolent means.
The End of Violence?
There’s a new scholarly book [“Why Civil Resistance Works” by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan] that the hardboiled political scientists who wrote it are getting enormous credit for. It describes in ways that political scientists and hardboiled realists, governance people, are taking deeply seriously because the book describes over 300 struggles in which regime change has been the issue: overthrowing governments or getting out from under an empire or stopping an occupation – big stuff. In this book, they prove that the movements that chose nonviolent means were twice as effective as the movements that chose violent means.
To anyone who is pragmatic of mind, this is news. This is extremely important. So it’s not only seeing the Egyptians overthrow Mubarak, or seeing the Tunisians overthrow their dictator or the other kinds of recent experiences that we’ve seen, but it’s also the scholarship—which is important in terms of idea formation—is beginning to catch up with this idea of nonviolent struggle.
It’s just believing that the Earth was flat. You can’t really hold it against people for believing that the Earth was flat. At a certain time in history, everybody knows that the Earth was flat. And at this time in history, most people just know that violence is the only way to do things when it’s tough. However, the excitement for me is there have been sufficient breakthroughs so that now an opening may exist. And maybe some adventurous person watching this will decide to open themselves to new possibilities.