As Eileen Flanagan has noticed an increase in activism, she has also noticed a need for spiritual grounding. That’s where Quakers may have something to offer.
My experience of bringing spirituality into activism is it helps us reduce our egos, to make it less about that, and actually lifts up the morality of the questions that we’re talking about. My own experience is that prayer really changes action. It grounds us in something. It changes how it feels. It increases the possibility of actually touching the hearts of the decision-makers who we are trying to pressure.
What I’ve Learned in My Journey as a Quaker Activist
My name is Eileen Flanagan. I’m a member of Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Philadelphia and I teach online classes for people who feel called to engage in social activism and aren’t sure where to begin.
Learning to Take Effective Action
When the United States started bombing Afghanistan after September 11th, 2001, I went out with other Friends and I stood on a street corner in silence to show my disagreement with that action. In hindsight, I needed to show up and be with other people who felt the same way about the bombings, but I felt also a great sense of despair that we weren’t actually stopping them.
And so part of what has changed for me is realizing that there are things that we can do that actually affect what’s happening rather than just expressing our disapproval with what’s happening. There are still times when I may feel called to show up to a vigil to say, “I disagree with this,” but it’s inherently different to try to stop it.
So if I show up to protest the bombing of Syria or any other country, instead of doing it on my street corner, I’ll encourage Friends to do it in front of the army recruiting station, or in front of the gates of the reserve unit that’s being called up for that action, or even in front of the IRS to say, “If you continue spending our money this way, we’re going to stop paying taxes.”
A Tradition of Activism
Quakerism was born in the 17th century in a time of great political tumult, and the radical spiritual idea that Quakers brought was the idea that every person could hear God’s guidance and that following that was more important than following the customs of their day. In fact, following that guidance often meant that they had to break the customs of the day which were not in alignment with God’s vision for humanity.
Over the centuries, Quakers’ willingness to challenge authority and challenge their society has meant that Quakers have been important parts of the abolition movement, of the underground railroad, of the fight for women’s suffrage, of the civil rights movement.
Spiritual Grounding in Activism
We’re living in a very exciting time of increased activism and I’ve been so heartened to see spirituality brought forward more in activism. Spirituality can really deepen activism, can bring people together to help us be grounded, especially in frightening times. Quaker have practices that are great for that. We can use silence, which we’ve found in action is something that people across faiths can join very comfortably, but it gives the sense of spiritual grounding to a group. The Quaker history of standing up to injustice is something we really can draw on right now. The Quaker understanding that issues are connected, that living simply has implications both for peace and for sustainability. We’re at a moment where other people are making those connections as well, and a Quaker perspective on them can be really useful.
Taking Risks and Seeking Support
My experience of Quakers bringing spirituality to activism is that because it’s such a rich part of our history, we have a lot to draw on. We have a tradition that teaches us that sometimes we have to sacrifice for our beliefs, as the Early Friends did. Sometimes we have to take a risk and be willing to go to jail if that is the consequence of an action we feel called to. And I think that willingness to take a risk and the willingness to have our community support us in taking those risks is a really important part of what supports Quaker activism.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
- Subscribe to QuakerSpeak so you never miss a video
- See a list of all the videos we’ve produced.
- Read Friends Journal to see how other Friends describe the substance of Quaker spirituality
- What has been your experience with activism? Have you ever participated in a social justice action that felt spiritually grounded?
- Eileen Flanagan felt despair when she realized that attending vigils wasn’t having a measurable impact. What can Friends do to be more effective in our activism?