May 6, 2009

My version of pacifism

A few months ago, FGC's Youth Ministries Committee asked me to write about Quakers and pacifism. The Quaker Youth blog is doing a series along the lines of a written form of Quaker Quest, and they've recently posted the short pieces by three Quakers, including yours truly.

What follows below is a cross-post of what I wrote for the Quaker Youth blog, with some links added.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If you were to look at my Quaker resumé, you'd notice a huge gap in it: No peace marches. No war-tax resistance. Not even a bumper sticker on my car. But then, one week before this short essay was due, I read about preparations for the 13th annual Day of Silence that students across the U.S. observe. It's a way to send a message that bullying, harassing, ridiculing, and assaulting fellow students based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, real or perceived, is NOT okay.

The night before the Day of Silence, I feel that familiar *tweak* that tells me I have to participate somehow out of solidarity with the students. I print a few quarter-sheet handouts to explain why I won't be talking, and I mentally prepare myself for the day to come. I worry about the inconveniences I'll encounter in the grocery store, on mass transit, in restaurants.

That morning, almost immediately, I become aware of my own hurt and shame of having been ridiculed by classmates when I was in middle school and high school. My own voice back then had been shut out and I never did anything about it.

At lunch, I buy a cup of soup and hand my small sheet of paper to the cashier, explaining why I'm not speaking. The cashier takes a dollar off my meal. I feel awkward in being given an unwarranted discount, but I choose to keep the silence. For the rest of the day, I live with not knowing what the cashier thought of me. I leave another of my handouts on the table for whoever sits there next.

At the organization where I volunteer, I smile and return the warm greetings of "Hello-how-are-you?" by handing the staff my piece of paper. Two women will later seek me out and tell me they appreciate what I am doing. One of them will tell me her son is also observing the Day of Silence at school and she wants to know more about it.

My brand of witness is a personal one. My brand of pacifism is a personal witness that starts from an inward change and grows out of a motion of love, dignity, and care for all involved. The smallest act of pacifism, even if it is carried out among kind souls and supportive friends, is important to do because I may be called on to carry out something even larger.

Even if it's inconvenient.


Heather said...

I'd never heard of this before - I don't think we have it in the UK, which is a shame. What a brilliant, simple, effective idea!

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hurray! Witness this personal is the most beautiful and moving kind. It’s wonderful that you were given a way to do this!

RichardM said...

Bravo! I hope they do this again so I can participate next time. Incidentally I've experimented with keeping silence as a spiritual exercise and found it interesting. At the end of the day I felt stronger somehow as if avoiding normal talking saved energy. You've got me thinking that I should do this more often just for that purpose.

Hystery said...


It strikes me that this witness for peace is particularly powerful in a world that is so noisy. I can imagine that your silent principled interaction with people stayed with them far longer than any speech could have. This is something I would like to try later in life. Silence of this kind is incompatible with mothering small children. :-) However, I have found that pockets of silence, such as can be found in Quaker meeting or in meditation exercises, have been a great benefit to my children.

Liz Opp said...

Heather -

Quaker Quest--as an interpersonal outreach program--in fact originated in England (the link in my post is to that program). The written adaptation of Quaker Quest is done by Friends General Conference for meetings in Canada and (primarily) the U.S.

Marshall and Richard -

Thanks for your support. And Richard, if you want to write something for this online project, I suggest you contact Emily Stewart of the FGC staff to let her know. Her email address is emilys AT fgcquaker DOT org. Tell her I sent you.

Hystery -

Have you thought about experimenting with your kids by starting with explaining that you'll be taking just a few minutes of silence--to do the dishes, read a magazine article, whatever--and that you won't speak unless someone is hurt or in danger...? Just a thought.


RichardM said...

I know Emily. She grew up in our YM and I just stayed overnight in her parents home when I visited Durham for Representative Body a couple of weeks ago. The Quaker universe is pretty small.

Liz Opp said...

Richard -

Oh, yes. I had forgotten that Emily is part of NCYM(C). She now is a staff person for the Youth Ministries work that FGC is doing and she's helping coordinate who writes what for the online Quaker Quest blurbs on the Quaker Youth website.