Civility Can Be Dangerous

Henry Cadbury in 1932. Photo courtesy of AFSC Archives.

A Quaker perspective on Henry Cadbury’s 1934 remarks on resisting fascism

This June, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, because she works for President Trump. In the ensuing debate about “civility,” historian Angus Johnston drew attention in a tweet and follow-up op-ed to a June 14, 1934, New York Times article about a talk by Henry Cadbury, a Quaker founder of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). In the article, Cadbury called on a conference of rabbis to be civil in the face of fascism.

As a Quaker who works for AFSC, I was struck when I saw Cadbury’s words resurface, and I feel the need to reckon with them.

“By hating Hitler and trying to fight back,” Cadbury said, “Jews are only increasing the severity of his policies against them.” He went on: “If Jews throughout the world try to instill into the minds of Hitler and his supporters recognition of the ideals for which the race stands, and if Jews appeal to the German sense of justice and the German national conscience, I am sure the problem will be solved more effectively and earlier than otherwise.” Cadbury added, “Boycotts are simply war without bloodshed, and war in any form is not the way to right the wrongs being inflicted on the Jewish people.”

The rabbis published a response the next day condemning Cadbury’s remarks. Rabbi Samuel Shuelman, one signee, said, “If we do not resist evil, we go along with it.”

Cadbury had influence, and his words set a standard for many who would, despite the objection of the rabbis, follow his lead in what they considered effective resistance. Of course, the rise of fascism and the Jewish Holocaust demonstrated the limitations of Cadbury’s stance.

Cadbury was a smart man, and he did many things worthy of admiration. In 1947 on behalf of Quakers worldwide, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for refugee relief work and support of the kindertransport during World War II, as well as for resistance to Japanese internment. Despite these important initiatives, his interpretation of pacifism and his call for civility was harmful, and his position did not actively support those most impacted by fascism’s rise.

All of our resistance work should be led and informed by those most impacted by injustice. If Cadbury had been guided by this principle in 1934, he would never have offered such remarks, as they countered the will of the Jewish audience to whom he spoke and intended (albeit patronizingly) to give support.

Standing up for peace means standing on the side of the oppressed…

When one’s very existence is questioned by an oppressive state, and survival depends on resistance, actions are not constrained by public perception and conceptions of civil discourse. Moral courage becomes a necessity of daily life.

Civility is no substitute for morality. Belief in peace doesn’t mean naively expecting everyone to get along. Being quiet and polite is often all that’s needed to perpetuate white supremacy.

Standing up for peace means standing on the side of the oppressed, not throwing them into the lion’s mouth in the name of civility. And interrupting racist violence takes more than civil discourse: active disruption is needed in order for racism to be revealed and dismantled. What good is ineffective pacifism? My commitment to nonviolence is about saving lives.

So, when the owner of the Red Hen restaurant asked Sanders to leave because of the actions she has taken on behalf of the president, this action interrupted what had been normalized. When people videotape and call out white folks who call the police on African Americans who are barbecuing or selling water, that action interrupts the normal pattern of prejudiced behavior.


Author Lucy Duncan leading bystander intervention training session in New York. Photo: Lori Fernald Khamala / AFSC.

I teach bystander intervention through AFSC, so that more and more people know how to stand up for those harassed or targeted by state violence. Sometimes the interventions are simple, but often real disruption is needed in order to stand in the way of oppression.

Confusing nonviolence with passivity is a huge mistake. Nonviolent communication should stop violence, not quietly reinforce it. Confronting oppression isn’t violence; letting oppression progress is.

Boycotts, too, are an active form of nonviolence. AFSC has taken stands to support economic resistance against oppression, from apartheid in South Africa and occupied Palestine to the profiting of private prison and detention companies that feed mass incarceration and immigrant detention. Refusing to support systems of oppression economically is not warfare but active resistance to it.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to see how inadequate and offensive Cadbury’s words were to the millions who lost their lives in the Holocaust. We have the benefit of history to teach us about the depth of intervention needed today. As a Quaker who lives life from the understanding that all are equal and have inherent dignity, I am committed to disrupting oppression; it is a central spiritual commitment. I hope many more will find the moral courage to actively disrupt state violence and white supremacy, rather than quietly reinforce it.

I don’t want to politely object, as Cadbury proposed. I choose to actively stand in the way of human rights abuses. I envision a world in which all people of conscience understand themselves as co-creators of justice and are willing to do what’s needed to make it a reality.

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