How do people concerned with peace and justice operate in times of intense polarization? According to Quaker author and activist George Lakey, it’s a moment of tremendous opportunity.
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An inspiration for me about recognizing how to operate in this time is George Fox’s vision that he had at the top of Pendle Hill. He saw both an ocean of darkness—that’s easy to see now—and also he saw an ocean of light. It reminds me every time I’m tempted to focus on the ocean of darkness: “Wait a minute. I’m selling reality really short.” That’s not the world that created. Not one of darkness only. And notice, it wasn’t an ocean of darkness and a tiny spring of light. It was an ocean of darkness for George Fox and an ocean of light.
How We Win
My name is George Lakey. My membership is with Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, and my work is supporting people to stand up for themselves and make justice here in the world—justice and peace. So my most recent book is focused on how we win, when we do. People often stand up for themselves and win and sometimes don’t and I was very curious. It was a joy to write this book because I got to look back on a hundred years of American history and pull out—it felt like harvesting actually—wonderful examples of people standing up for themselves and moving the dime: moving our country sometimes grudgingly and resistingly toward peace.
The Opportunity of Our Times
I’ve been traveling a tremendous lot throughout the country the last year and a half and find people extremely anxious about the polarization that’s going on in our country, the tremendous lot of division. And what I’ve been bringing is the good news about that, even though heaven knows, there’s lots of bad news about polarization—lots of violence and lots of ugliness that comes with it. But there’s also good news, and I’ve learned that good news from seventeenth century England when Quaker arose in a very polarized world, and from other situations of polarization in which, along with the ugliness and violence, comes an opportunity for change that’s unusually large if people learn how to navigate it.
How I Learned About Social Change
I was very inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. I was a young man and got to watch that unfold, at first from a distance and then threw myself into it as soon as I could. My first time arrested was in a Civil Rights demonstration. I was very moved both by the famous people like Martin Luther King and also by some of the key organizers like Bayard Rustin, who were right in there, often developing strategies for success.
Learning From Quaker History
My mind turns towards history. I’m always very curious “where do you come from?” when I’m getting to know someone. What’s their background? And the same with Quakers. I wanted to know historically, what have Quakers experienced? And so I went back to seventeenth century writing and history to find out what was going on. I was really amazed by the immediacy of the approach that people took. It wasn’t only that God is calling us to live good lives, of course, but also God is calling us to be part of an unfolding truth-telling exercise that we are expected to be participating in.
The Lamb’s War
And so for example, I was amazed to find that Quakers in the seventeenth century were called to travel across the Atlantic Ocean and go into Puritan Massachusetts and speak the truth about the liberty of conscience and the religious liberty that Quakers were practicing, to their costs, but to say that to the Puritans, who were the Taliban of their day (they had a kind of theocratic operation that was highly repressive). And so naturally the Puritans were very unhappy about Quakers coming and called them “ravening wolves” as they threw them out of the colony. And so there was this entire nonviolent direct action campaign, as we would call it in today’s jargon. In those days they didn’t have that formulation. They did have a formulation, they called it the “Lamb’s War”. And so I was struck: pacifists waging a war, but it’s the Lamb’s War which means it’s a different style. It’s a style of reaching for truth by witnessing to it in a very consistent and escalatory way. Woah. There is something in the seventeenth century I can use today.
Directing Our Focus
Well I can understand people being very worried these days. There’s a lot of tension and anxiety and so welcome the chance to go out with a lot of other people and witness to the truth. I understand the appeal of that and I do it occasionally. But myself, very occasionally because it feels a little bit to me like an expression of opinion. And I hope that someone is paying attention to the expression of opinion, but the expression of opinion doesn’t actually yield results. What really yields results is what those early Quakers did and what the Civil Rights Movement people did: to engage in nonviolent direct action campaigns. A campaign is a whole sequence of actions that are done in regard to a specific demand. A specific objective that the opponent or target who knows how to yield that will yield it, especially as the result of your persistence and your willingness to escalate—that is to make more and more awkward for the opponent their wish to stay with whatever injustice they’re committing, or however much fossil fuels they are extracting or whatever it is they’re doing that they really need to stop doing.
Recognizing the Opportunity for Change
And that’s one reason I wrote this most recent book. It’s really a kind of navigation guide for when you are on the river and it turns into whitewater, and you want to know, “how can I navigate this whitewater and come out ahead?” That’s what this is about. What polarization is that brings about this great anxiety? It also brings about a kind of power. Just like whitewater is quite powerful, it will move things, it will move boulders, and that’s what becomes available at times like this. So the Quakers were right to be very active in polarized times then and we’re very right as well as so many other people are also motivated. I find lots of people who are in that bookstore for the first time, hungry for information on how to operate in this tense and difficult and worrying time. There is a joyful way of doing it if we see the opportunity.
- George Lakey suggests that while these are challenging times, they are also times of great opportunity. Where have you seen this dynamic play out? What do you see as the opportunities for growth toward peace and justice now?
- Had you heard the story of Quakers repeatedly confronting Puritans in Massachusetts? What’s your takeaway?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.