Chapter VI Controversy in the Meeting
Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches
CONTROVERSY IN THE MEETING:
Conflict Can Be Fun
In the seventeenth century the truth about God and men and the access they should have to one another seemed fresh and new to Quakers. It seemed to be something worth fighting for. So Friends engaged in conflict with great zeal. The popular notion that Friends committed civil disobedience only when societies law attacked them is untrue: for example, Friends went several thousand miles out of their way to “attack” the happy little commonwealth of Puritans in Massachusetts, for the sake or witnessing to the truth.
In no respect have Friends changed so much as in this, for now, the Quaker responses to conflict are usually “example” and “reconciliation.” Ourselves, having cooled down, we are interested in cooling down others. Consequently, we have moved from being pilloried by society to being pillars of society.
It is not, of course, that Friends took to the sword in their zeal for the truth. Part of the truth was the insight that each man is potentially enlightened by God and is, therefore, of infinite worth. The result of the tension between the need to strive for the truth, and respect for one’s brother, was nonviolent action: the prosecution of conflict on behalf of truth by means other than physical and psychological violence. In other words, the fact that Friends could not war with outward weapons did not alleviate their responsibility to war with the spiritual weapons available to them.
But history is clear. Most Friends dropped the requirement to striving for the sake of the truth, and instead adopted a strategy of example which haunts us to this day - “If everyone were like us, all this nastiness wouldn’t happen.” (Some of our critics, take us up on it - “if everyone were like you, we wouldn’t have to drop napalm bombs.”)
Example, unfortunately, is not enough (as neighbors of the Amish could have told us), and the attempt to mediate all conflicts at whatever stage and no matter what the issue is more a compulsive meddling than it is honoring the truth.
Neither example nor reconciliation is sufficient by itself. Each, however, makes its contribution in action which speaks truth to power. It can intervene on the side of the victim of injustice, but in a way which has both an exemplary and a reconciling character. This strategy is what Gandhi called satyagraha and we call nonviolence.
(to be continued)