There are some questions Quakers get used to answering over and over—about Friends schools, about silence, about our perceived relationship to the Amish or Mennonites. Outside those topics, which constitute the vast majority of conversations I’ve had about my faith, I’m not used to having to explain all that much. But last year, at a conference for youth in the interfaith community, I found myself challenged to clarify the deepest questions about Quakerism, especially by a girl with an impressive and inspiring record of interfaith work around the country. I had just finished the Testimony of Peace portion of my little Quakerism 101 lecture, and she broke in to remark politely, "You know, that’s interesting, because to me it seems so antithetical to what Hillel said—If I am not for myself, who will be for me? I can’t understand that, standing idly by."
Right then, in a little plastic chair in an over-air-conditioned conference room with her and six other people waiting respectfully for a response, I froze. I fumbled for words, and managed to get out something about Jesus’ turning the other cheek in Golgotha, and how peace is supposed to be radical. But said in front of a room full of people from Israel, Palestine, and Pakistan, with brothers in bombed-out yeshivas and sisters in the army, cousins who pass by soldiers with guns on their hips on their way to school—in that room, it sounded feeble even to me. It’s a lot harder to explain that pacifism doesn’t mean inaction to people for whom doing nothing means losing a way of life and life itself. Somewhere inside me this part of my faith makes sense, but when I was suddenly asked to explain it in real terms to people who genuinely wanted to understand, I just didn’t know what to say.
I guess it makes sense that to a large extent, I don’t experience my faith in words. It’s about an inimitable insight that ebbs and flows, a sense of something moving and growing in the silence, a feeling of huge presence much greater than just the 12 people sitting quietly in a circle on Sunday morning. Even when we do speak in meeting, it tends to be in parable form, in metaphor— at least in the one I’ve attended since childhood. Within the Quaker community in which I’ve grown up, there’s rarely any need to articulate matters of our faith distinctly. But I’m beginning to realize that I’m not able to talk about things like peace and truth in the way that I talk about the rest of the world, and that inability is crippling when it comes time to live out these testimonies in a way that will help heal the world and help the people around us. I didn’t know how to answer the question that day of how pacifism is different from inaction, and I am finding it harder and harder to answer the questions now of how pacifism is able to be an effective answer to violence on an individual and systemic scale.
At the time of this writing, people in Gaza have been without water for ten days; a woman was brutally gang raped outside a bar in San Francisco because she was a lesbian; Oscar Grant was shot on a subway platform in Oakland, California, by the police meant to be maintaining peace. I’m having trouble moving on from these stories; I’m turning them over and over again in my head. In their powerful poetic duet "Black Irish," Eamon Mahone and Paul Graham address the reality of English oppression and gang violence by saying "I am not committed to nonviolence. I am committed to staying alive." For millions of people all over the world, it’s overwhelmingly difficult to have both. I’m not pointing fingers, but large portions of the Quaker community—myself included—are middle-class, well educated, affluent, and white. For many of us, pacifism is an issue of registering as a conscientious objector, holding peace vigils in local churches, demonstrating against the war. For many of us, the stakes aren’t that high. I believe— and I venture to guess that others do also— that as the stakes get higher, the importance of nonviolence only gets greater. I believe that we are called as a species to make peace not just a priority, but our highest priority. I’ve never had to make the decision between an ideal of peace and my family’s safety, and so it seems pretty presumptuous of me to ask it of someone else.
It’s this, and more, that’s had me feeling helpless lately. It’s not just the comment made by my fellow conference participant, but a feeling of terrible momentum that leaves me asking what I am supposed to do with pacifism. How to explain that nonviolence is different from just standing idly by; that it is urgently necessary instead of idealistic? I am intensely grateful that I have never had to try to explain to someone like Oscar Grant’s daughter, Sean Bell’s parents, Duanna Johnson’s sister, or Lawrence King’s grandparents that peace is going to prevail, that hurting someone else or allowing the state to do it for them will only make this much, much worse. So far, the closest I’ve come is another little parable, the kind of thing that someone from my meeting at home would rise to share in the sleepy quiet of Sunday meeting for worship.
I’m told that this is the original account, or at least an alternative one, of the Hebrews’ exodus out of Egypt. The beginning part is the same: the bush, the staff, the lamb’s blood, the long walk towards the sea, with Pharaoh’s army behind them, furious and bitter with grief. Except that in this version of the story, when Moses raises his arms towards the waters of the Red Sea, nothing happens. And he tries again, and still there is nothing. And now the children are crying, and the people are shouting, and you can practically hear the hooves of Pharaoh’s horses in the distance. Moses stands with his staff in his hand, frozen on the shore, not knowing what else to do. In the middle of all the chaos, one of the Hebrews takes a deep breath and begins to wade into the sea. The waves crash over his thighs, and his waist, and soon the water is up to his shoulders. There’s no miracle in sight, and the water is freezing, but he keeps going, even though by now his toes can barely touch the bottom. Moses has lowered his staff in defeat, and terror and confusion reign on the shore. And just as the water closes over his head and he’s totally engulfed in the brine, the seas divide themselves, and he is standing on dry land.
As is the case with parables, it’s not all that instructional in terms of how exactly we, as Quakers or just as people, should approach, say, the attacks on Mumbai that left all of India in shock and grief. To be honest, I still don’t have anything concrete to tell people if they ask how being a "pacifist" is different from being a "coward," or how being a conscientious objector is different from neglecting my duties as a citizen. I still don’t have words for that. But I have this ridiculous, mulish belief that if we keep going, if we keep doing this even though it is stupid and irrational and right now just making us cold and wet, something incredible will happen. I guess I really can’t explain to myself or anyone else why this thing I believe is not absurd. All I can do is agree that yes, it is, and isn’t it amazing how the most important things are like that sometimes?
This is a reprint (with slight modifications) of an essay titled "Testifying for Peace" from Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices, ed. Angelina Conti et al. (Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2010); © 2010 Quakers Uniting in Publications; available from Quakerbooks.org.