Toward the end of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, coauthors Mark and Paul Engler argue that Quakers have often acted powerfully as a “prophetic minority” in U.S. history—sometimes to great practical effect. According to the Englers, “Quakers served as the backbone of the movement against slavery in both the United States and Great Britain.” They also note that, “Later on, Quakers would play important roles in the women’s suffrage, civil rights, antiwar, and antinuclear movements.”
I love this about Quakers, but it is also true that a majority of Friends have never been very active in social movements—and those who have are often ineffective. I remember once walking behind a Quaker woman and her young daughter on the way to the dining hall at a Friends General Conference Gathering. I was thrilled to overhear that they were talking seriously about peace activism. The young girl, probably ten or eleven years old, finally said, “Mom, I don’t think our weekly peace vigil does much good. We aren’t on a busy street and our signs are hard to read. Why do we do it?” The mother’s answer was the frequent but unfortunate pacifist excuse cited by the Englers: “Jesus never told us to be successful, only to be faithful.”
I personally side with the young girl in this exchange. She echoes the Englers’ central claim that effectiveness matters. In their first chapter, the authors make this case by examining the “strategic turn” in the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. (the iconic nonviolent social movement organizer) and Gene Sharp (the lesser known but influential nonviolent social movement theorist). Both of these men drew heavily on the thinking of Gandhi, and through their experience and study, ultimately concluded that there are ways to engage in nonviolent activism that increase—or decrease—our chances of success. This is not a trivial insight. It has the potential to make a huge difference in the quality of life for the world’s people and the more-than-human world all around us.
This is exactly where This Is an Uprising comes in handy. It is a detailed, nuanced, comprehensive, well-written, and wise strategy book that focuses on the work of some of the most thoughtful organizers and theorists of nonviolent civil resistance. It also relays many telling case studies from around the world in both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, the authors are great and insightful storytellers.
In their book, the Englers illuminate the ins and outs of how people can start from small-scale nonviolent protest, noncooperation, and intervention actions to foster “moments of the whirlwind” when nonviolent struggle erupts into mass nonviolent uprisings. The book also outlines how they can radically change the political possibilities of a society. When such uprisings are characterized by massive social disruption, personal sacrifice, tactical escalation, productive polarization, and nonviolent discipline, they can catalyze permanent change. This is especially true when the hoped-for changes are then institutionalized further by more conventional means such as electoral work, lobbying, advocacy, community organizing, and building alternative institutions.
Social science evidence now shows overwhelmingly that this path is one of the most powerful ways of changing our cultures and reorganizing our political and economic lives in positive ways. Given that our faith tradition calls us to help build a Beloved Community, it is telling that many Quakers are still hesitant even to imagine becoming organizers of nonviolent civil resistance. Such activity would allow Quakers to follow in the footsteps of such nonviolent direct action leaders as Gandhi, King, Cesar Chavez, and Earth First’s Judi Bari.
Too often, we behave like the eight white clergymen who wrote an open letter to King during the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Ala. These timid liberals wrote that they supported King’s civil rights goals, but could not support his militant nonviolent direct action campaign tactics. History has shown, however, that King had a far better understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent social change and spiritual faithfulness than any of these white clergy. If you don’t agree, just read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to see if it changes your perception.
For those Quakers ready and willing to open their minds further, I urge them to grapple with the historical and strategic insights in This Is an Uprising. Frankly, this is the best book I have read in decades that explores the strengths and limits of nonviolent rebellion, and how it can be productively integrated with other organizing traditions in effective ways. This is an important contribution to activist literature.