Tonight’s topic is conflict, and as I was preparing for this I kept thinking how many times in my life I’ve really wished not to take on a conflict. The outcome of conflict, after all, can sometimes be very injurious. And sometimes conflict can leave a relationship unresolved or even broken, and people can’t find a way back to each other.
Does that resonate with any of you? Have you had an experience with conflict that wasn’t really that great? On the other hand—you knew there would be an “other hand”—in my life I have experienced some gifts from conflict. That’s what I would like to address tonight. I invite you to examine freshly the possibility that there are gifts that might come from a conflict. If we tend to have a posture of aversion to conflict, in shifting to a posture of embracing it might be of some spiritual advantage.
Some of you know I love to tell stories. This first story is about letting go, and I put it first because one of the keynotes of Quaker spiritual practice is, after all, letting go. I don’t think it’s distinctive about Quaker spiritual practice; other spiritual practices also involve letting go. But one of the things I notice about being a Quaker is that when I go to meeting and fail to let go, I really know it. There’s no hiding behind hymn singing or something else, at least in my unprogrammed meeting. If I am still attached to something that is preventing me from being with Spirit, I know it. So letting go is a spiritual exercise.
It was a hot night at my house in West Philadelphia. The windows were open, in order to catch any random breeze that might come by. Just as I was preparing for bed, I heard a loud shout from across the street: “Get off me, get off me! Stop that! Stop that!” So I ran to the window and looked out. Our street is not full of streetlights, and I was having trouble seeing, but I heard that the voice was coming from across the street.
So I yelled to a housemate, “Call 911!” and ran down the stairs to the door and out onto the porch—without a plan. I thought, well, at least let me get to the edge of the porch so I can see what’s going on. From the edge of the porch I saw a couple across the street; the guy was beating on the woman, and she was screaming. It looks like a time for Superman. But what we’ve got is me. I’m the only one I see on a porch on my block. So I decide to be cautious because I can’t tell whether there‘s a weapon involved, and in my city there often is. So I came to the edge of the porch and opened my mouth and took a deep breath, confident that something useful would come out of it, and I said, “I’m watching you!”
I felt so foolish. The couple on the other side of the street stopped in action and looked across. There they saw this big, white guy on the porch, yelling something, and then they just got back into it. So I thought, George, that was really stupid. But on the other hand, you’re not dead yet, and they’re still at it. So get closer, get closer. So I went down the steps of my porch and went halfway to the sidewalk, heart thumping. But I thought, look, I’ve studied Gandhi, I’ve read George Fox. I know what to do, so take a deep breath. “I’M STILL WATCHING YOU!” So embarrassing! But across the street, they were really losing some of their energy because this big, white guy who had been safely on the porch was now closer to them.
Anyway, they’re looking at me, and then, somewhat slowly, they get back into it. And I’m thinking, All right George, you’re not dead yet; get closer. So I walk right to the edge of the sidewalk, another six feet closer, and I think, practice makes perfect, right? You have a few throwaways that don’t work, and then you’ll come up with something really eloquent that someday you’ll want to tell somebody about. So I broaden my stance, because I heard that helps, and I take another deep breath, and I say, “I’m still watching you!” And at this point they really don’t know what to make of this, nor do I. But I notice that I’m not dead yet. There’s no traffic at all; it’s late at night.
By now there are some neighbors out on porches because I’ve been very loud. And they’re not used to George yelling, “I’m watching you!” So they ’re wondering what George is watching. That’s good. And I think, I’m not dead yet, I’ ll take another few steps. So I walk right to the middle of the street. At that point I stop, and I see an elderly African American woman walking with enormous dignity toward this couple of color. She takes the young woman by the arm and starts leading her away from the man, tossing a comment over her shoulder to him: “We don’t treat our women that way.” And she proceeds on down the street.
That’s when I got it. I was a place marker, and then the angel appeared to actually take care of it. I tell that story because I think it has something to do with letting go. With letting go of any expectations I would have of being awesomely Gandhian or Foxian, or someone that Lucretia Mott from my meeting would be proud of. Letting go, and acting in the mystery with no certainties, no guarantees. Just doing something. Being a place marker, being part of an unfolding reality.
To me, Friends, that is often what conflict is like. In my experience, conflict is essentially unpredictable; there’s no way you can really know how it’s going to turn out. So it is like meeting for worship, but a little more dramatic, a little like an encounter with God. With the Spirit, you don’t know what’s going to happen. When we open our souls and say, “Lead me,” as some of us were singing earlier, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Letting go is one of the gifts of conflict.
Healing and Unity
Another is healing and unity. There is an experience from Bologna, Italy that I want to tell you about. The University of Bologna, some of you may know, has had quite a history of teaching diplomacy skills to diplomats and officials in southeastern Europe. After the whole set of wars in the former Yugoslavia in the early ’90s, the University of Bologna thought, “Wait a minute. It’s not only diplomats who need training. We also need to do some training for an emergent civil society. We need leadership on the grassroots level.”
So they opened their doors to young adults to come to Bologna, get out of the turmoil that was still present in former Yugoslavia, and have time set aside to develop some skills. The deal they were offering was: “Come to Bologna! We’ll pay your way, and you can develop skills to create nonprofit organizations if you commit to going back home and creating them on the ground. We’ll want you to create the kind of nonprofit organizations that can help to heal your society.”
After they decided to do this they got in touch with me and said, “George, we want you to come over and be part of the facilitation team because the more we think about this, the more we realize these are traumatized young people, and when we get them together, even though the explicit agenda is to learn skills, they’re going to want to have at each other sometimes, and we’d like you to be there.” They probably heard about how talented I was at saying, “I’m watching you!”
So I went over there, and I had two co-facilitators to work with, and we got right into it. We were coming right along in a kind of honeymoon period. You’ve probably been in groups where you knew there was tension under the surface, but on this surface, it was very polite. These young people were happy to be in Bologna and were not going to mess with each other. But they could endure that for only a day and a half or so, and then the tensions started to rise and kept rising. The other facilitators and I said, “What should we do? Is this a time when we should name this tension that’s rising?”
I said, “Well, why don’t we wait a little longer, because it’s always more empowering if people can name a dynamic themselves rather than having a facilitator name it.”
So we waited a little while longer, and sure enough a young adult said, “Teacher, can you do something about the tension in this room? It feels suffocating. It feels as if we can’t learn because there’s just so much tension.”
Of course we were hoping for that, and we said, “All right, let’s take a break, and when you come back we’ll go right into it.” So they took a break, and we had a facilitators’ huddle.
The other two facilitators said, “Okay, George, this is why you’re here. We have no idea what to do. What’s the plan?”
So I explained a plan—I actually did have a plan this time—and they said, “Oh, this is something we’ve never done, so what do you want us to do?”
I said, “First of all, it would help enormously if you appeared to be completely confident no matter what happens. Just present yourself as absolutely confident that it’s all going to work out. The other thing you can do is pray.” They said, “We can do both of these things.”
So the young people came back in, and I asked them, “Have you ever experienced a summer day when it’s very, very humid, and you just wish it would go ahead and rain? And then you could have some fresh air?”
“Yeah, we’ve been in situations like that.”
“Well, that’s what this is. We’re in a situation where we need to have a storm. Now you get to create the storm, and this is how we’ll do it. We’ll have a kind of choreography to it. You’ll all be on your feet, and somebody will get to say something that they feel, strongly; they say it as strongly as they want to. You know, full out. Now, if any of the others of you happen to identify with any part of what that person said, then your job is to go over and stand with that person.
“Chances are good that somebody is going to have a very different point of view, so somebody else gets to say something. Any of you who identify with something that that person said, go stand with that person. Maybe those two who took the leadership there get to yell and scream at each other for a while, that’s fine; but it may be that a third point of view will emerge because somebody will say, ‘Well, both of those two guys are full of it.’ So a third person will emerge and say, what about this?—da-da-da-da-da—and then whoever can identify with that goes with that person, and then maybe another. The thing to remember is that all of you need to keep moving next to whoever said something that resonates with you. It will be a kind of choreography, and we’ll just go on for a while.
“The facilitators may speak up at a point when it seems that there’s something we just know needs to be said and nobody’s courageous enough to say it. We might say it, but don’t assume that it’s our point of view. It might not be at all. It’s just a way to get that voice into the room, and later you might hear us say something completely different. Now another thing to remember is this is a storm, so that means you need to be as emotional as you feel like being. If you feel rage, that’s fine; you can express your rage. Insult each other; it doesn’t matter. However, if you start hitting each other, we do have a rule about that. So if somebody starts hitting anybody else, one of the facilitators will stand between you and separate you while we continue with the storm. So don’t worry about it.”
Worry about it? They all looked like deer caught in headlights. Terrified young people, terrified facilitators. But George has a plan. This is going to work, right? So I said, “Everybody on your feet.”
Someone interrupted: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Teacher, when is it over?”
I replied, “Well, it’s a storm. How do you ever know when a storm is going to be over? But storms do end, so you’ll know. If there’s some doubt—if there’s still a drop of doubt—the facilitators will call it. But most likely you’ll know. Who will be first?”
Right away a young Croat said, “Rah and uh and uh.” You know how those veins stick out, so there he went. About a third of the group started moving over to associate with him, and it proceeded in the choreography that I described. We facilitators kept moving and moving and encouraging people to keep moving and keep moving. “Anything there yet? Okay, go on over if there’s something there that that person said,” and so on and so on, and we also kept moving to be readily available in case somebody hit somebody else. So they went the first hour, and then the second hour, because these were 25 highly traumatized young people. All of them knew people who’d been killed or very badly hurt in the conflict, and there was so much to be expressed.
For some people, it got to be too much. Every once in a while there’d be a few people crying in a corner. One of the facilitators would go over and say, “I understand this is really, really hard, but while you’re crying, could you just stand anyway? That’s okay, and maybe after a while of standing and crying, you’ll be able to come out a little bit.” So we did some nurturing of people who were feeling overwhelmed, and then we moved into the third hour and facilitators were getting tired, too. The young people still had all this energy because they’d been in a war, and they had a lot of energy to express, and suddenly, boom, it was done. And I looked around and I said, “We’re done, aren’t we?”
They said, “Yeah, we’re done.”
“Okay, grab your buddy (we had a buddy system going), sit down somewhere on the floor, and talk about what that was like for you.” So they zoomed to the comfort zone of their buddies and sat down and talked for a few minutes. Then we called them together in a closing circle and walked off with them to the restaurant, which had been holding our meal for quite a long time. I can’t tell you the joy that I felt in the restaurant as I watched these young people talking on a whole different level. I overheard comments like, “I didn’t know a Serb could be a human being. I mean, man, you know, you’re all right.”
With these kinds of comments going on, the dinner went into its second hour. Some of us facilitators were getting a little old and said, “Well, we have to prepare for tomorrow,” and we crept out. They were there ‘till two in the morning and came back in the next morning at nine, a transformed group of people. So much healing had taken place. So much unity now existed in that group.
Look at this placard: Healing and unity. The full expression, the abundant expression of the abundant hurt and anger that people had experienced enabled them to go to a whole different place, and we created a safe space for that to happen.
Over there, is one called justice. The story that still moves me so much among the many, many stories from the civil rights movement that I’ve heard was told to me by Charlie Jones, who was the student body president of Johnson C. Smith University. As an African American at an historically black university, and with the sit-in movement already starting not very far away, Charlie knew their college would have to get involved. So he started to assess: “What things am I going to have to handle as I give leadership to our part in this rapidly unfolding sit-in movement that’s going on here in the South?”
“Well, my biggest problem is going to be this guy . . .” I’ll call him Jim, a big man on campus, major football player, who was especially looked up to by the other people on campus and was into everything because the previous autumn, when the students had held a dance, some white students had come into it and had messed with the black students and tried to break up the dance. Jim had led the group of warriors who chased those white teenagers out of the place and off the campus. So people were especially delighted with Jim and his successful defense of the integrity of their dance and their community.
Jim was very proud of the fact that he was so good at violence, and here’s Charlie Jones thinking, “Hmm, how’s this going to work out for our sit-in?” Well, the time came, and just before the organizing meeting, in walks Jim, who says, “Charlie, you know me, I’m really good in all kinds of situations, I’m a real leader. I want to be down there the first time we go down to the five-and-ten and sit and demand our coffee and demand our rights.”
Charlie says, “Now look, Jim, you have to understand that this is not like the things you’ve been doing. This is really different. Others have set the tone; it’s not our decision. It’s going to be a nonviolent sit-in. That’s what we have to do. We’re not going to be the first campus not to live up to that. So, we’re going to be disciplined, right? I don’t see you in that role, frankly.”
Jim says, “Look! If other people can do it, I can do it too!” The power relationships were such that Charlie couldn’t actually kick him out of that first group that went down to the five-and-ten and sat on the stools at the counter and demanded their coffee. There was harassment, because of course, throughout the South, there was a lot of excitement about all this, and there were people trying to defend a way of life. So there were some people out there trying to defend segregation, taunting and harassing the students.
The first day wasn’t too bad. They were all feeling their way, but even so, Jim noticed that while the students to the right and left of him were handling it pretty well, he was hanging onto the bottom of his stool, with tense muscles to prevent himself from turning around and clouting a couple of these people who were harassing him. So that night in the mass meeting they were having on campus about this campaign, he started to wonder, “What do my classmates have that I don’t have?” He started to pay more attention to the visiting preachers who were preaching and the people who were praying.
We’re going to fast-forward this story. There they are four weeks later at the same lunch counter did anybody think nonviolent change is instant? They’re at the lunch counter, the harassment has increased in severity, and our guy Jim is there. A white woman came in, who must’ve known about this but apparently had not actually seen the spectacle of black people being where only white people should be, and she just lost it. She just went off. She walked over to him, he being the biggest, and screamed at him using language he wouldn’t even believe she knew, and then with all her might she pushed him off the stool.
He fell to the floor and took a second to recover himself. Then he slowly got up with hands outstretched. There happened to be one of those cords that sometimes block an aisle; he unhitched it from the pole and held it aside with a courteous gesture and a smile, and said, “It’s okay for you to go.” The woman who had walked into the store with that woman took her arm and led her out of the store, sobbing. A week later, that woman had joined a kind of “white ladies’ auxiliary in support of the sit-ins.” That was the degree of personal transformation that she had undergone.
I was brought up in an Evangelical church, where we had multiple opportunities to convert and experience enormous transformation by coming up and accepting Jesus, which I also did at age 12. I believe that that has a place and I’m glad that I did it, but I want to say that any of the preachers I came to know later on that revival circuit would have been very proud to accomplish as much transformation as that young man, Jim, went through. He managed to transform himself, and his response, from that of somebody adept at violence, to someone who could respond so effectively and nonviolently to that woman’s violence. Any of those preachers would also have been very proud to claim credit for her transformation.
I’ve wondered over and over, “How is it possible for people to make such change in such short amounts of time?” I think it has to do with the conflict. I think that conflict raises the heat and makes the elements that hold us together more mobile so that they can more easily be transformed. It’s as if we’re heating atoms and making them go faster.
Do you know what I mean? When we’re “God’s frozen people,” as we were called in the ’50s, before the eruption of the civil rights movement, maybe transformation isn’t the quickest thing that happens. Conflict warms us up. It makes available things that otherwise are very hard to achieve. I think that’s one reason why Quakers in the 17th century found it so very useful to make trouble.
Theocracies are hard to overthrow, right? Here we are in the 20th century, and we still have theocracies. The Puritans had their theocracy in Massachusetts, and it didn’t take Quakers long to do it in. It was structured, like any good theocracy; it’s all about rigidity, really. Those Quakers who invaded from Rhode Island, but also from overseas— can you imagine Anne Austin and Mary Fisher coming from Northwest England on a ship? This was not your average 747, right? This was a ship in the 17th century going to Massachusetts in order to invade the Puritan theocracy and end it, which those Quakers succeeded in doing. I don’t know how you end a theocracy that fast, but I think Quakers did it because things got very hot very quickly. They engaged in conflict, and conflict made something happen. Conflict made justice happen in Puritan Massachusetts. And conflict can make things happen whenever we choose to use it.
I would love to spend the rest of the evening talking about the civil rights movement, but I won’t. Inner conflict must be acknowledged by someone who advocates conflict. But of course I have to say at least one more thing, which is that Martin Luther King, Jr., went to the White House, sat down with President Kennedy in 1963, and said, “Mr. Kennedy, you really need to come out with a civil rights bill. It’s way past time for black people to have the right of equal accommodations throughout the South. And there are still places in the North where that right is not observed. So take the leadership, Mr. Kennedy!”
Kennedy replied, “Of course you know, Dr. King, I totally agree; however, I can’t do that. Political realities are such that if I take leadership backing the civil rights bill, then I cannot get reelected in ’64 because I need the South to vote for me. So I can’t take that kind of leadership, but please understand I’m totally in your camp.” Dr. King, knowing that that would be the answer, said, “Well, how about this as a backup? Suppose you at least use the bully pulpit and make a White House address to the American people saying something simple, not too threatening, such as, ‘racism is a moral issue’?”
President Kennedy said, “You know I would love to do that, I’m totally in agreement with that. I just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
It was after that meeting that Dr. King became fully clear that he needed to go to Alabama, where Fred Shuttlesworth and others had been building a civil rights campaign in the industrial city of Birmingham. Dr. King, with the resources of his organization, joined that struggle, and it became a dislocated city through nonviolent struggle. That’s when President Kennedy began talking to Roger Blough, head of U.S. Steel, the big steelworks in Birmingham at that time, and others of the power elite in this country, and they made an agreement: We will support a civil rights act. Kennedy, go ahead. We’ll back you up. Then he was able to take that step, and in 1963 he proposed a Civil Rights Act, which Congress passed in 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination. There’s no way we would have gotten that if it hadn’t been for Dr. King’s forcing Kennedy’s hand in that way.
Let’s go on to truth. As you know, Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize. There were a lot of people who were unhappy about that, editorial writers and so on. They said, “A peace prize is for people who bring peace. In my town it was very peaceful, then you came and we had massive, massive conflict. And then you get a peace prize? Ridiculous.” So King responded. He said, “What was going on in your town before the civil rights movement developed its campaign? Higher infant mortality rates for black children than for white children? Higher injury rates of all kinds, including occupational injuries on the job in places where black people work? Shorter life expectancies for black people? More preventable deaths in terms of people showing up in the ER late because they couldn’t get medical care?”
He said, “In your town, did you read about those truths in the newspapers? Were they on your front pages? That was racism, but it was not front page news. So when we come to your town, we’re not bringing violence. The violence is already here, unfolding day by day through discrimination. What we’re doing through our nonviolent action is raising the violence to the surface because people usually defend discrimination violently. We raise it to the surface so you can look at the truth and ask yourself, ‘Do you want this in your town? Do you want this in your state?’”
King wanted people to know the truth because he believed—he’d read in his Bible that the truth shall set us free. Once we look at what climate change is doing, once we look at what the dysfunctional healthcare system in this country is doing, once we look at these truths, then we can make a choice. If we deny the reality, it is easy to understand why people prefer the comfort of not changing. What Dr. King saw himself doing was being on the side of truth. That was also the Quaker rationale, back in the 17th century, for invading Massachusetts. Quakers came a very long way to mess with another people’s lifestyle and political system. I would call that intrusive, possibly impolite. Who asked them?
The Puritans, to their credit, early in that struggle would say, “These Quakers just need escorting across the border.” So they would be escorted across the border back into Rhode Island. Or the Quakers—like Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, when they got off that boat to be part of the “expeditionary force”— were grabbed immediately, jailed, and then put on the next boat headed back to England.
The Puritan officials were right to be worried. They weren’t running as tight a ship as they thought. As Ann Austin and Mary Fisher were sailing out of Boston harbor, another ship was sailing in with more Quakers. They were Friends of Truth; that’s what they really thought they were about.
I was coming out of Friends Center in Philadelphia a few months ago after a meeting, and I overheard a man saying to a woman walking beside him, “Yes, it was my great-great-great-great grandfather who hanged Mary Dyer.” This happened about four feet from Mary Dyer’s statue in front of Friends Center, and Mary was the fourth Quaker who was hanged on Boston Common by the Puritans. And I spun on my heel and said, “Who are you, and what do you mean, this was your great-great-greatgreat grandfather?”
He said “Yes, that’s right, I’m a direct descendent. He was the hangman, so he hanged crooks and this and that, and he hanged Quakers. It was just his job.” And I said, “Well what— There’s more to this story, isn’t there?” and he said, “Yes, there is. He was so moved by the way Mary Dyer met her death that he converted immediately, became a Quaker, and gave up hanging for a living.”
Earlier I mentioned the visit of Dr. King with President Kennedy, and you know, there’s a history of this kind of visitation. Quakers went to see John Kennedy too, a delegation of Quakers— David Hartsough is the source for my information about it. Some of you may have heard the story from others who were in that delegation. They visited him in regard to the nuclear arms race, specifically about the need to have an agreement to end atmospheric nuclear testing, and that if there couldn’t be an agreement with Nikita Khrushchev, then we ought to just stop poisoning our babies with Strontium-90.
I teach at Swarthmore College, and when I tell students that the United States government used to poison children with Strontium-90 and give them leukemia, they look at me as if I am out of my mind. Then I think to myself, did I make that up? It is hard to believe that a lot of people I know pay taxes to a government that does this kind of thing, and then later we find out about it. At least in this case, some Quakers found out about it early—scientists first—and then started to sound the alarm by going to Kennedy and saying: “Can you do something about this?”
And Kennedy said, “I would appreciate it if you Quakers would go out and create a movement that would force me to do that, because I would like to do it.”
That story reminds me of a delegation of social reform advocates that went to Franklin Roosevelt in the early ’30s and said to him, “You need to do this and that—” things like social security and so on, which were off the radar screen in the early part of the administration. And Roosevelt listened very carefully and then said, “I agree with nine out of ten of your points, but politically I can’t do any of them now. But I so much wish you would go out and create a movement that would be so strong and so turbulent and so forceful that I would have to deliver on those points.” When I think about that kind of relationship that it’s possible to have with a president who is an ally— I view Roosevelt and Kennedy as, in some sense, allies—and that we can work and work to get to see such a person, only to hear, “create a movement that makes it happen,” I realize that our allies are sophisticated and understand the political system very well. They understand that it’s movements, not people occupying oval offices, that change the United States. It’s movements that actually do it, and we are movement builders; we can be movement creators, we can make the change.
How many of you would like to live in a country that has not experienced social movements? That still had our children working in factories 12 hours a day? That still did not allow women to vote? It’s social movements that have delivered these things. How can we imagine turning our eyes away from conflict to such a degree that we refuse to build the movements that can achieve our goals?
I was in Canada a year and a half ago, working with the largest Canadian labor union, which uses me quite a lot as a consultant. During break, one of the leaders of the union, an aboriginal woman, comes over, takes her stance, stares me straight in the eye, and says, “George, why have your people abandoned your President?” I had nothing to say, because we had, in fact, abandoned him. We had elected Obama and then headed for the door, refusing to create movements that would “force” him to do what he wants to do. We went into dependency mode like sixyear- olds who say, “Please, Daddy, do this and that for us,” instead of being the young adults and the teenagers and the full adults who can demand things through nonviolent struggle. What a big price we pay for conflict aversion, that we will even abandon a President whom we put in office. She was right. That’s how we are looked at in some countries: as people who will put someone like Obama in office, and then run out the door, instead of kicking and screaming until he is able to do the things that he needs to do.
We know some of the things he wants to do; he’s on public record as saying he knows that single-payer healthcare is the system that would take care of us, the kind of system they have in Scandinavia and Canada. He knows that’s what we need and deserve, and he said, “But we can’t do that.” “Can’t” in quotes, right? He knows what the Swedes did when they had a financial crisis, like the one we had a couple of years ago, and he spoke about that. He said the Swedes did the right thing. They seized the major banks that were the culprits—seized them—fired the senior management, made sure the shareholders didn’t get a dime, and turned their economy around so that that can never happen again. In Sweden they knew who did it, and they took care of it. Obama knew that was the correct way, and he said so publicly, but then he said, we won’t do that. The coded phrase he used to explain that was “they have a different political culture.” They have a grown-up political culture.
The truth telling that some of us are doing right now is called the Earth Quaker Action Team. We formed this new group because with the death of activists George and Lillian Willoughby and other people in the last fifteen years who were the architects of Quaker nonviolent direct action campaigns—civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, too—we realized that the legacy of nonviolent direct action that was essential and integral to early Friends was what Jesus was about. Talk about troublemakers —early Christians were in trouble all the time. So were early Friends—the heroes that we teach about in First Day School, Lucretia Mott and the rest. That embracing of conflict theme has run through this Religious Society of Friends.
But that legacy, we realized, was dying out among us. We weren’t finding people with that skill set and that orientation to conflict. We thought, before it’s too late we need to recover that legacy. This country can’t manage many more decades without grownups, without people willing to do what is necessary in order to establish justice, tell the truth, and accomplish healing. So we’ve started a little group—there will need to be many, many such groups—of Quakers and others, faith groups of all kinds, and non-faith groups, to recapture the mode of nonviolent struggle.
The truth we’re telling is PNC, which used to be a Quaker bank. A lot of you remember Provident National Bank. I was told when I first started working for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, “George, you need to open a new bank account. Just go over to Provident, and they’ll take care of you; it’s a Quaker bank.” And if you look at PNC Bank’s website, they proudly acknowledge that they’re descended from a Quaker bank. Not only that, but they will tell you that they are the greenest bank you ever want to see, amazingly green. It is true that they have vegetated roofs on a number of their new branches. But it is also true that, while claiming to be the greenest bank, they are up to their ears in mountaintop removal— about the dirtiest, most violent assault on nature that is possible, and enormously hurtful for the people of Appalachia. They even have on their website, “If you can think of additional ways for us to be green, let us know.”
So of course some of the leaders— Carolyn McCoy, who’s here, and Ingrid Lakey, whom I happen to know—and others, went to see the regional president of PNC. We sat down with him and said, “We want you to clean up your act with regard to being green. Be consistently green, and get rid of mountaintop removal. Stop supporting that practice. While you’re at it, you ought to get out of the coal business because coal is hurting the planet and hurting the people. Fossil fuels also have to go; we’ve done our research, and we happen to know that you’re hip deep in fossil fuels as well.”
The president was not immediately convinced. So it will take a little time— like that sit-in in North Carolina. That took a few weeks; we may take even longer, but there we are. We’ve taken a first step. Letting go is part of it, part of taking a first step in developing a nonviolent campaign that enables us to be loyal to the truth, to turn to God in every way and say, “We don’t really know where all this is going; help us out.”
Yes, we can be strategic. George Fox appears to have been strategic about a number of things, including the original Quaker leaders, the Valiant Sixty. There is a lot of strategy that can be involved in this, but there is so much more that’s really mysterious, and we need to lean on you, God. We need to be willing to let go and let you guide us, and, at the same time, be willing to let go of our fear of conflict so that we can be steadfast. We can be a Valiant Sixty in the 21st century so we can rejoin that legacy. We can be the Lucretia Motts of our day. God help us to do that.
George Lakey, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, is a nonviolent activist, author, and the founder of Training for Change. This article is drawn from an address to the Friends General Conference Gathering held in Bowling Green, Ohio, on July 5, 2010, and is printed by permission from Friends General Conference. ©2010 FGC. To acquire an MP3, CD, or DVD of George’s full talk, go to www.quakerbooks.org. George Lakey’s newest book, published this fall, is Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners.