With Malice toward None, Charity toward All

For a while after Jack Powelson’s article entitled "Why I am Leaving Quakers" (FJ April 2002) came out, a number of us gathered together in the Light to examine whether or not our meeting is hospitable to conservatives. Though the questions raised were good ones, the effort fell apart, as many good intentions do, under the combined weight of a largely disinterested meeting and theoretical constructions. Recently, I tried another strategy. After many months of listening to messages about how we must contact our president and speak to the issue of war and violence, I gave a message about the need to offer our president forgiveness. I pointed out that he has very much been acting according to his own light in trying to kill as few people as possible, including Arabs, and in seeking to show respect for Arab culture. It may not seem like much, but compare this to the attitude displayed toward the Vietnamese 40 years ago. Progress often comes in small steps.

I was nervous to begin with, giving what seemed like such a radical and potentially explosive message. The room seemed to be twice as silent as I’d ever noticed it before, a silence given dramatic significance by the woman sitting directly across from me. She was shaking her head violently and writhing in her seat as if in dire pain. I was half expecting her to shout me down at any moment and found myself getting very hot and floundering over the last few words of my message.

Afterward I went over to apologize for having caused her discomfort. She also apologized, and said that she shouldn’t have allowed her feelings such free rein. She went on to explain that she doesn’t believe in violence and comes to meeting because this is the only place where she can consistently hear messages opposed to it. I tried to explain that I too am opposed to violence, but she cut me off. She said that though she disagreed with me, she respected my right to hold my opinion. She gave me a quick hug before she walked away.

This is an expression that over many years I have grown to dislike. What is really being asserted, under the appearance of virtuous open-mindedness, is precisely the opposing quality. It is a closed-minded unwillingness to listen, to learn from, or to try to understand another person’s point of view. A true relationship, which might come out of weighing evidence and the discovery of what is held in common, has been transformed into an empty ritual, a hug meant to convey that we’re both still Friends.

Over the past few years I have heard a great number of messages regarding the need to share our Testimony of nonviolence. At one meeting, somebody even stood up to suggest our own cable television show. Yet it should come as no surprise that we, as Quakers, can be just as unwilling to listen to those whose opinions differ from ours as they are to us. We are part of a culture that places tremendous value on the right to speak one’s opinion and not enough on listening. Our meetings can easily become a reflection of this, with the added danger of justifying our narrowly held opinions by laying sole claim to the Light.

Yet there is a deeper, and I believe more pressing, issue that I was trying to express with my message. It is not true that we consistently give messages opposed to violence. I hear messages in my meeting regarding prisoners and death row inmates fairly frequently. I hear about what wonderful people they are when you get to know them, how moving their letters are, and how important it is for us to offer them forgiveness. But I have yet to hear a single word spoken in opposition to the violent acts that many of them have committed.

In a somewhat similar vein, after 9/11 there was shock expressed at the violence that had been committed, but the major thrust of the messages was the need to offer forgiveness and understanding. Since George W. Bush attacked Iraq, I have not heard a single message about forgiveness toward him or toward our country. While our violence has been roundly condemned, not one word of outrage has been expressed regarding Saddam Hussein’s mistreatment of his own people. What is it that we fear?

I am not suggesting that I approved of our war on Iraq; I didn’t. I am merely pointing out what I perceive to be an assymetry in how we as Quakers treat the differing sides of a conflict. Quakers have traditionally maintained neutrality. That neutrality, in order to be effective, must be one not only of form but also of spirit. We must study our deepest feelings to ask if in our hearts we truly hold love equally for all people and all sides of a conflict. Our love must extend not only to the weak but also to the powerful. Mohandas Gandhi, in his struggle to free India, wrote letters to Lord Irwin, the British viceroy to India, addressing him as "my friend" and even expressing his fear of hurting the viceroy’s feelings. At issue is whether we who call ourselves Friends can make this same leap to friendship with those who oppose us.

Some time ago I got to talking after worship with a visitor from another meeting. It turned out that he wanted to talk about how stupid he believed our president to be. He had conveniently brought with him a long list of grammatical blunders that have been made during speeches and openly laughed at George W. Bush. While I haven’t been under the impression that the president is terribly bright, I’ve never heard anyone point out that an inmate of death row is stupid or that his or her grammar is poor. It has often been pretty bad in the letters I’ve seen, but I’d be shocked at an accusation of stupidity. We talk about native intelligence, lack of good influences, or different ways of thinking. We say everything and anything except stupid. I was just as shocked to hear the president, a fellow human being despite all of his faults, spoken of in such a rude and disrespectful way, especially at a Quaker meeting. The visitor, who was otherwise a very kind person, obviously felt safe to assume my sympathy with his position without asking about my politics. I am not a true conservative, but I have no doubt that one, if present, would have been outraged.

I believe that President George W. Bush deserves compassion and forgiveness, precisely the same forgiveness that we offer so readily to death row inmates. If we truly believe in our Testimony of Equality, then it is not only that the inmate is an equal to the president; it is also that the president is an equal to the inmate. He is also a victim of circumstances that he did not choose: he comes from wealth, as they come from poverty. His base of support is a state that derives its income from oil. Perhaps he was even beaten up by the class bully when he was a child. He is not a Quaker. He believes that the use of force is legitimate, and sometimes the only way to resolve conflict. He is the leader of a country in which a large number of people agree with him. It may pay us to consider that a practicing Quaker would never be elected as president and that such a presidency would most likely be a lamentable if noble failure. Ethical choices tend to become murky in real-life situations when one doesn’t have absolutes to fall back on.

A popular but apocryphal Quaker story holds that when William Penn asked George Fox for how long it was permissible to continue wearing his sword, he was told to wear it until he could wear it no longer. If we are to be true to Quaker teachings, we cannot ask the president or anyone else to take on the practice of nonviolence merely because we say that it is right. This would be an empty form. We might offer hints or make suggestions, but then we must wait patiently for others to follow their own Inner Light and their own experience. I suspect that it will take a very long time before nonviolence is a universally held approach. As far back as Ecclesiastes (9:13-18) a wise man succeeded with his words of wisdom in stopping a king from going to war, but we also learn of the great futility of wisdom. The man was promptly forgotten. Wars continued. Even Jesus with his supreme example failed in his lifetime to free the world from the cycle of violence. We Quakers fondly remember the Sermon on the Mount and forget that Jesus also tells us that he has come not to bring peace but to bring conflict and a sword (Matt. 10:34-36). He will set parent against child and sibling against sibling.

When I look at the world honestly, I often find myself wondering what the point is of loving other human beings at all. Then I grow tired of looking at the world; it’s too discouraging. Instead, I look more deeply into my own heart to find love there, and to deepen my faith in God’s plan that we as Quakers were placed here for a reason that will someday be revealed. Perhaps this is God’s very wisdom at work, which we as humans don’t want to concede. The violence of the world forces us, in our search for love, to turn inward.

In the meantime, I am not confident that the practice of nonviolence will make us or the world any safer. We are not promised that it will be easy or that anyone else will follow suit. Nor are we promised that our children won’t be conscripted or jailed in 25 years should the draft be reinstated. We are asked to carry our own cross and to willingly make sacrifices—even the ultimate sacrifice, should we be called—for what we believe to be true and right. Our inspiration must continue to be that first generation of Quakers, many of whom died in jail for their belief that there is that of the Light, that of love, in all people, including presidents.

Anna Poplawska

Anna Poplawska is a member of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill., and currently attends Oak Park (Ill.) Meeting. She teaches yoga and is a writer and an artist. Her work may be viewed at http://www.poppyseedart.com.