Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

My name is [VW]. I'm Argentinian. I teach English and I'm reading this book with my students called The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, which is set in Connecticut in 1687. One of the characters is a Quaker who is disliked by the Puritan community. I'm trying to understand why Puritans disliked her so much. I've been reading a lot about Quakers, but I still don't fully understand why they didn't get along.

Quite simply, Connecticut considered Quakers heretics, and heretics were considered dangerous. Such people should be committed to prison or sent out of the country. Having a Quaker book was illegal. Anyone who would "unnecessarily fall into discourse with any such heretic" could be fined twenty shillings, a significant amount of money at that time. The fact that the Quaker character in this book, Hannah Tupper, was allowed to live in Connecticut would have been highly unusual. The persecution of Quakers was not as bad in New England as it had been in the 1650s. The description of Hannah Tupper and her husband as having been "branded, tied to a cart's tail, and flogged across the boundary" is an accurate description of what happened to some Quakers in Massachusetts. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston before the British government stepped in to lessen the severity of Massachusetts' anti-Quaker laws.

Why were Quakers considered heritics? The book gives some clues. Hannah Tupper doesn't believe in the outward sacraments-- Quakers considered the sacraments as a spiritual act [not an outward ritual], and did not take communion. Hannah also does not attend the established church at a time when it was illegal for any citizen of Connecticut not to do so. She was therefore fined for her non-attendance.

The Puritan founders of Massachusetts and Connecticut were certain that they were founding a Christian colony and had no qualms about outlawing "heretics" who would not conform to the established church. Those who did not comply were not only wrong about religion, but were considered subversive to the government. Quakers themselves could be disruptive, as early Quakers were quite willing to go into the established churches to debate with the local minister, though by the time of this book, Quakers had quieted down considerably from their early enthusiasm of the 1650s and 1660s.

The idea of religious toleration made little sense to the early Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They were, in their own minds, convinced that they were correct. That toleration eventually came to the British American colonies owes something to dissenters such as the Quakers who were willing to suffer fines, imprisonment, flogging, banishment and sometimes death rather than give up or conceal their beliefs.

Christopher Densmore

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Kind of Commitment Does It Take To Be a Pacifist?

This question was forwarded to QIC from the American Friends Service Committee. The original letter is lost, but the gist of it was:
I am drawn to be a pacifist, but when I imagine someone threatening my life or the life of someone I love, and if I could protect them with violence, I believe I would do that. How do Friends manage to be pacifists? Do you have stories about pacifists in such situations?

Dear [Friend],

The American Friends Service Committee has forwarded your question to me at the Quaker Information Center for a response. I believe they hoped I might have a pamphlet perfectly suited to your questions that I could pop into an envelope and send you. But the question you ask is one of the hardest ones that any pacifist has to wrestle with. And the truth is, unless we get tested by the kind of situation you describe, none of us knows for sure what we will really do.

Many Friends and other pacifists know that the ideal we profess is one we may or may not be able to live up to in an extreme situation, and we can only do our best in the situations that life presents, taking them one at a time.

Many Quakers would also say that they can only achieve their pacifist principles with some kind of Divine assistance. George Fox (a founding Friend) wrote that when he was offered early prison release if he would accept a military commission, he “told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. . . .” We interpret that to mean that through his deep and receptive relationship with God, he had been transformed into a peaceful person – a state he might not have been able to achieve through his own mind and will.

Many committed pacifists feel that it is a distraction to get into discussions about extreme hypothetical possibilities, such as “what would you do if a Nazi were about to roll a tank over your grandmother.” Life presents us with plenty of day-to-day challenges to deal with, and perhaps by learning to respond well to the mundane ones, we will make ourselves ready for the really hard ones, should they come to pass.

However, now that I have tried to respond philosophically, I will say a few practical things. We are most likely to respond violently in a situation when two conditions exist: (a) we feel threatened – a danger makes us afraid for ourselves or someone else; and (b) we don’t have any other ideas for an effective response to the situation. Our culture does not do much to help us learn effective nonviolent responses to a threat, or even to put such thoughts into our imaginations. But through practice and through nonviolent-response training that different peace organizations sometimes offer, we can expand our options and also our confidence. And being confident helps reduce the feeling of being threatened.

One of the areas where the rubber meets the road is in street safety. I have read some material, much of it written for women, helping a person think about what she might do if attacked. Different individuals have different “standards” of pacifism: some may say that if they were in real danger, they might hurt their attacker, but not kill; some may decide that if killing were the only way to survive, it would be their last resort, but they would do it; some may decide it is OK to carry and use Mace, since it wears off; others may be unwilling even to cause physical pain or to forcefully overpower another at any level. We cannot really know in advance what we may do, but it makes a real difference to have given it enough thought to have an intention. In addition to violent response, there are techniques of communication, of distraction, of escape, and if you have thought about and practiced these methods, you will be less likely to feel that violence is your only option.

Back in the 1970s, some New York Quakers started a program called the Alternatives to Violence project for teaching nonviolence skills to prisoners in institutions. AVP is now an independent program with no official Quaker ties (although many Friends are involved), and it is used worldwide in prisons, in schools, and in communities. AVP’s language for nonviolence is “transforming power.” I am enclosing a page from their website that gives an idea of what they help people practice.

You asked for stories, and I went to our library to select some from books about nonviolent responses to oppression or danger – some written for children some for adults. A couple classic stories that you may have heard before are the Pearl Buck (true) account of the missionary’s wife in China whose home was sieged by raiders who were killing the foreigners. She met them at the door, invited them in for tea, and treated them as honored guests. They played with her children and left. Another classic has to do with Quaker settlers in the colonial frontier in the period leading up to the French and Indian wars. Unlike the other settlers, the Quakers left their latchstrings out and their muskets propped outside their houses. Indian raiders sometimes came into their homes and ate their food, but the Quakers were not harmed, unlike the other settlers who barricaded and defended themselves.

However, I am reluctant to offer up such stories as a defense of pacifism. They are wonderful for stimulating the imagination and suggesting a new way to think about certain situations. But there is something triumphant about them – the story survives because the pacifist response magically “works.” And while we would of course always hope for an outcome in which no one is harmed, pacifism is not magic. When a positive outcome happens, it “works” partly because the pacifists have made up their minds that they are prepared for it not to work, and they are taking the risk of being vulnerable to others and to engage with those others as fellow human beings – something it is very difficult to do with a weapon in your hand (or so I imagine).

I hope this response is helpful to you.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery