Nonviolent action

The repudiation of violence as a means to an end has led many Quakers to espouse various forms of nonviolent action.

Nonviolence is distinct from a passive acceptance of superior force.  It implies:
-  a willingness to take action without giving in to or resorting to violence
-  a respect for everyone involved in a conflict
-  a refusal to do harm to people or living things, and

-  a willingness to take suffering on oneself without inflicting it on others.

Many early Quakers faced violent opposition to their ministry. When Elizabeth Williams and Mary Fisher were condemned to be whipped in 1653, contemporary accounts tell how they endured the punishment “without any change of countenance… and sang and rejoiced.”

Patient dignity in the face of abuse also characterised Quaker involvement in the American Women’s movement.  When the first female students of the pioneering women doctor, Ann Preston, were met with angry demonstrations in 1869, their quiet composure helped to sway public opinion in their favour.  Alice Paul’s “Silent Sentinels” demonstration outside the White House in 1917 helped to bring about President Woodrow Wilson’s support for women’s suffrage.

In 1934, Quaker lawyer Richard Gregg wrote The Power of Non-Violence, one of the first books to introduce Gandhi’s ideas to a Western audience.  He described nonviolence as “moral jiu-jitsu” – the opponent expects resistance and when there is none, he loses his “moral balance.”

Among those influenced by Gregg’s writings was Bayard Rustin, a Quaker and a key advisor to Martin Luther King.  Imprisoned for his conscientious objection during WWII, he wrote,

There are three ways in which one can deal with an injustice. (a) One can accept it without protest. (b) On can seek to avoid it. (c) One can resist the injustice nonviolently. To accept it is to perpetuate it.

After the War, Rustin took part in the Journey of Reconciliation across four southern States, to protest against illegal segregation on inter-state transport.  He was arrested several times in the course of the journey and in North Carolina was sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang.  The protest became a model for future ‘Freedom Rides’.

In Germany in the 1930s, a small group of Quakers took a stand against Nazi policies. Simply by continuing to use the greeting ‘Grüss Gott’ instead of ‘Heil Hitler,’ they risked imprisonment. When the Nazis initiated the boycott of Jewish shops in 1933, Quakers made a point of visiting Jewish friends and Jewish shopkeepers, declaring:

We must now put aside our fears... There can be no gap between our religious conviction and our actions... The path of non-violence is not one of weakness; it demands courage, direction and the utmost personal sacrifice.

Quaker convert, Ham Sok-Han, known as the Gandhi of Korea, repeatedly suffered imprisonment and carried out hunger strikes, first under the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s, then under the communists in North Korea and finally under a series of corrupt dictatorships in South Korea.  His book, Queen of Suffering: a spiritual history of Korea rejected the path of violence. It closed with the line, “Put your sword down and think hard.

In the 1980s, Quakers took part in the Sanctuary Movement, a network of people who smuggled those fleeing violence in Central America across the border into the US and gave them sanctuary at a time when the US government was refusing to recognise their status as refugees. 150 years previously, the Underground Railroad helped excaping slaves in a similar way.

Quakers have been involved in teaching the principles of nonviolence in a variety of contexts. From 1963 to 1976, Canadian Friends Service Committee operated a Peace Education Centre on Grindstone Island which attempted to address the question:

How can we, who advocate nonviolence, actually practise it in hostile, threatening situations?

The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) began in 1975, when a group of Quakers were asked by long-term prisoners in a New York prison to provide a workshop for youth coming into conflict with the law.  AVP has now spread to 50 countries around the world and has been used in situations from refugee camps to women’s refuges.

In the UK, Quaker Peace and Social Witness runs the Turning the Tide programme, which provides workshops, consultations and publications on nonviolence. In the US he Friends Council for National Legislation and the American Friends Service Council regularly suggest ways in which Quakers and others can express their views nonviolently. Friends in Kenya are using Turning the Tide workshops to develop ideas for direct action which they have implemented with considerable success. Rwandan Friends are following this example.

Further Reading and Credits