After promoting my friend Signe Wilkinson
last blog post, she repaid the favor by sending me this challenge from New York Post
writer Ralph Peters:
Please, educate me: In over 5,000 years of more or less recorded history, how many tyrannies have been overthrown by noble sentiments? How many genocides have been averted by reasonable discussions? How many wars have been prevented by Quakers?
“Maybe your blogger fan base would like to mull on this one,” wrote Signe, who later said that most of the other Quakers she sent this to “reacted as if I'd dropped radio active waste on their toes.”
Well, I’m on a plane that was just diverted from Philadelphia to Raleigh/Durham, so I have a few spare minutes to ponder Peters’ questions. I couldn’t find the full article online, but in this quote the author seems to imply two assumptions: Quakers and other peace activists must not have prevented any wars if Peters doesn’t know about them; and if wars have not been prevented in the past, then peace work is pointless or worse. Let’s take these one at a time before acknowledging the valid challenge behind the author’s questions.
First, wars that never happened don’t make headlines, so it’s hard to count them. Still, there have been plenty of times when violent conflict was avoided by wise leaders who did not assume that violence was inevitable. I recently heard a wonderful account of an Archbishop in Sri Lanka who prevented an inter-religious massacre by sending his priests to sit quietly in front of the shops of the people who were about to be attacked. The angry mob, unwilling to attack the motionless priests, turned around and went home. (Citations for this story would be welcome.) In terms of Quaker history, William Penn comes to mind for successfully avoiding war with the Native Americans for seventy years, something no other American colony managed. Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” Pennsylvania, was also spared the witch trials that plagued Massachusetts, as well as the hanging of people of minority faiths that occurred in New England. Many of Penn’s ideas (though not his attitude toward Native Americans) later influenced the US Constitution. Had the value of religious liberty and tolerance not been established by Quakers in Pennsylvania, might our new nation have ended up more like Europe, where much blood has been shed over religion? Who is to say how many wars Penn avoided? There is no way to count what didn’t happen. We can only imagine.
Here are a few other unanswerable questions: What if Gandhi had not lived? What kind of bloodbath might the Indian War for Independence have been? Although it’s impossible to prove, it’s easy to imagine that the alternative to the Gandhi-influenced Indian National Congress would have been something more like the Irish Republican Army or the Mau Mau. For that matter, how much more violence would have occurred during the US civil rights struggle without the influence of Gandhi’s ideas via Quaker Bayard Rustin?
Speaking of the Indian National Congress leads me to its cousin, the African National Congress—an organization that used non-violent tactics from 1913 to 1960, partly influenced by Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa. The fact that the ANC eventually gave up peaceful protest might at first seem to support Ralph Peters’ implication that non-violence is futile, but I disagree. In the end, what saved South Africa from full-scale, bloody civil war was the fact that Mandela and de Klerk both recognized the futility of all the violence that had gone before and chose a different course. Although Quakers were not the major players, their involvement was significant enough to merit a book
The length of the struggle in South Africa could also be used to argue for the pointlessness of peace work, but again I disagree. Susan B. Anthony never cast a single vote. Does that make her work for suffrage pointless? Were the seventeenth century abolitionists wrong, just because they didn’t live to see slavery’s end? Perhaps future generations will admire the foresight and faithfulness of today’s peace makers the way we admire those abolitionists. Or maybe not.
Despite my belief in being faithful in the face of short-term failure, I have to admit that Ralph Peters does have a point, which may explain the radioactive reaction Signe received when she forwarded his questions. Our many vigils and letters to the editor did not stop George Bush’s reckless plunge into Iraq, and the consequences have been horrendous. So we peacemakers are left with clever bumper stickers and a troubling question: does what we are doing today matter? Or put another way, isn’t it a bad sign that I had to dust off William Penn to find a concrete example of a Quaker who prevented war?
Yes, it is a bad sign, and yes our work still matters, or at least some of it does. I would argue that some of our projects are more effective than others, and that effectiveness is important when the stakes are so high. (See a previous blog post
for more on effectiveness.) In general, I am proud of our Quaker organizations, like FCNL
, which has been involved in direct discussions with religious leaders in Iran, and AFSC, which continues to use the Eyes Wide Open
exhibit to bring home the human cost of war. I’m sure there are also many individuals and meetings doing good work, though from my perspective we average Quakers look pretty demoralized, as if we’ve given up on the hope of being effective and have instead put our hope in a new president (though neither of the major candidates are pacifists). One bumper sticker symbolizes the problem: “Wake me up on 01-20-2009
,” says the sticker in large print, with a small, faint qualifier beneath, “if there is anyone left alive.” I don’t know how many Quakers are sporting these, but it doesn’t seem that far off from how many of us feel, myself included. I recall having a button in the eighties that said “Wearing buttons is not enough.” It’s still true, though I can’t quite imagine what would be enough at this point.
Perhaps a failure of imagination is our main problem, both for peace activists and for columnists such as Peters. I often think of the resources that the US government puts into West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy, institutions devoted to training future military leaders. Imagine if the US government devoted equivalent resources to training young people in diplomacy and international conflict resolution. How many wars might such leaders prevent? We can only imagine.