October 15, 2014

Recently I have become more and more aware of the level of anxiety in all our lives. Anxiety is described as a "feeling of worry, nervousness, unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain future." I suppose there is always some level of anxiety in our lives, and we do our best to cope with it. But what concerns me these days is that when significant numbers of us get overly anxious, and we reinforce this in each other in various groups, our community and social trust level sinks, and we are susceptible to becoming driven by our fears, we are all too ready to act out, and there are often those who would love to egg us on.  I think our heightened levels of anxiety are major contributors to the polarization of our communities, our nation, our world. Yes, there are very real reasons for the anxiety, and we perhaps need to be afraid: when we think about the disparity of wealth, the demise of democratic ideals at the hands of a plutocracy, global warming, fear of immigrants - the list goes on. In more settled times, differences get worked out, old systems of responsibility and trust prevail. But when the times are so uncertain, especially where money and threatened status and privilege are involved, those who are most fearful and angry can get more attention and have more power. This is true of a housing community, a county government issue, a family. 

Early Quakers - and in some respects, all socially and politically active Quakers over the centuries - have often found themselves in the midst of some sort of embittered forces and conflicts. Our efforts to try to address these conflicts actually have had enough success that they have garnered us some level of respect as peacemakers and reconcilers. I have been thinking about what makes this so. What does it mean to be a peacemaker, a holder of nonviolent principles and practice?

At base I think we are strongly inclined to respect the fact that each person is a special, even sacred entity, and has the right to be heard and respected. And if we follow this principle, it is then possible to engage in difficult dialogue using persuasion rather than the use of force. Can we listen long and deeply enough to engender a mutual commitment to meeting common needs?

My sense is that our Quaker peacemaking involves several practices. First, we are inclined to engage in a collection of facts regarding the real or perceived injustice by listening and questioning. Along the way one needs to be aware of what may be referred to as "self-purification," that is to examine whether one's motives for becoming involved in conflict come out of spite, greed, desire for attention or vengeance. Second, if a dialogue is possible, we may attempt some form of negotiation to see if a more equitable and just arrangement can be found.  Finally, if the injustice continues, eventually more assertive methods may be needed to block or creatively address a harm being done. In some cases active direct nonviolence actions may need to be taken such as non-cooperation or, in the extreme, civil disobedience. This is, of course, only a thumbnail description of the peacemaking process, and each of us will have our own capacity and style in our attempts at conflict resolution.

All this is to say that I am aware of how many of us are involved in various situations where we are trying to address conflict and injustice. And as Quakers we may not only be drawn into trying to address these conflicts, we actually are well suited to do so. We will certainly not always be successful, but engaging with respect builds trust, and trust builds toward reconciliation and peacemaking. It is not easy ministry, but it is good ministry - "blessed are the peacemakers!"